Who’s Afraid of a PAF?
Dead End for the Red Bogeyman
by Thomas Adcock
Copyright © 2014 – Thomas Adcock
NEW YORK, near America
Among the first card-carrying communists of my acquaintance was Arvo Kustaa Halberg—better known as Gus Hall, a name he was obliged to invent after being blacklisted from gainful employment due to his role in a bloody general strike by workers in Minneapolis during the spring and summer of 1934, a struggle that forced the city’s corporate establishment and its brutal police force to recognize labor unions.
Among the first alleged communists I knew, eventually as a dear friend and mentor, was the late Robert Cenedella Sr., a writer blacklisted from radio and television employment in the 1950s for the sin of being opposed to the blacklist itself, centerpiece of red-baiting hysteria fomented by Joseph McCarthy—a liar, drunkard, and pious member of the United States Senate.
And the person who instructed me on the immorality of bludgeoning lives with loaded words—including the ironic locution “premature anti-fascist”—was the late Edith Tiger, likewise a personal friend. Ms. Tiger fought against McCarthyism and other outrages as longtime director of the National Emergency Civil Rights Committee—a legal advocacy organization founded in 1951 by the distingué I.F. Stone as an alternative to the better-known American Civil Liberties Union, which in the hysterical years insisted that its members produce non-communist bona fides.
For decades, the likes of Ms. Tiger and Messrs. Hall and Cenedella terrified a nation. But now comes the New Year of 2014—and with it a long-needed political maturation, never mind the sideshows of certain politicos who undoubtedly suffer hemorrhoids. The pity is that these three terrors are not with us to see how no one fears them anymore.
They were people of kindness, intelligence, dignity, and humility, these three—traits not shared by their detractors, who insisted they and their comrades were players in a grand conspiracy to overthrow the government and apple pie America.
Later, I shall have more to say about them. It is important to tell their stories, old as they are. We owe it to future’s promise to consider the past.
First, though, let us consider the current rendition of American red baiting: how the old slander spews from a new swamp of venality, populated by the spawn of Joe McCarthy. Contemporary opprobrium is aimed at a president, a pontiff, and a prophet: namely Barack Obama, Pope Francis, and the recently departed Nelson Mandela. To wit:
• Two days prior to Mr. Mandela’s being lowered to a grave in his ancestral village of Qunu last month, right-wing American television yawper Bill O’Reilly—a shoddy little man with the courage of his limitations; a broadcaster paid by the vile Rupert Murdoch to squawk in capital letters—felt an urgent need to disrespect a hero, and father of post-apartheid South Africa. During a particularly excitable broadcast, Mr. Murdoch’s mouthpiece set to roaring about the prophet of racial reconciliation. “But he was a COMM-unist!” bleated little Bill. “He was a COMM-unist!”
• Among the living acolytes of the late Senator McCarthy, who dropped dead of acute alcoholism in 1957, is Mychal S. Massie, a one-time religious racketeer now hustling disinformation to stupid white racists happy to purchase kluxer tracts peddled by a black huckster. Typical of Mr. Massie’s bile for sale was an evidence-free screed published last August by the website World News Daily. Mr. Massie said of America’s black president, “Obama is a neo-Leninist communist…His intentions [are to] usher in communism. This is precisely the reason he has gone to such transpicuous lengths to foment racial discord.”
• On hearing of November’s evangelii gaudium issued from the Vatican— reminding the world that Jesus Christ was an exponent of unhesitant charity for the impoverished and powerless, and who held suspicions about money-changers—the porcine radio propagandist Rush Limbaugh took to his microphone. “This is pure Marxism coming out of the mouth of the pope,” he declared. In an interview with the Italian newspaper La Stampa, Pope Francis replied, “I have met many Marxists in my life who are good people, so I don’t feel offended.”
Pope Francis, named 2013’s “person of the year” by Time Magazine, turned 77 years old just before Christmas. He celebrated his birthday in Rome, in the company of the city’s poor. In a Florida broadcast studio, meanwhile, Mr. Limbaugh dedicated a portion of his daily rant to a fevered fantasy: the pontiff means to smash capitalism and force the onset of Marxism in America. Sadly for Mr. Limbaugh, Americans were more interested in what the pope was doing with poor folks than what a propagandist was selling.
I believe the pope’s birthday coincided with a turning point in American political sensibilities: neo-McCarthyite louts may huff and puff, but they can no longer blow the house down. The big red bogeyman is dead.
The candidate for president of the United States wore a rumpled brown suit, a white shirt with frayed cuffs, a maroon necktie, scuffed black shoes with zigzag crepe soles, and a balding head. He limped into the coffee shop off the lobby of the old Detroit Free Press building on Lafayette Avenue and headed toward the booth where a young journalist was motioning to him, pen and notepad readied for an interview.
It was the early autumn of 1972. Gus Hall (1910-2000) was in the first of his four campaigns to storm the White House. The journalist—me, only with black hair—was assembling material for a magazine article on minor party candidates of the Left and Right with zero chance of occupying 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C.
The no-chance lefty across the table from me, chairman of the Communist Party USA, was the lunch-pail type. His face was gray and grandfatherly, his hands thick-fingered. He had a slow and patient way of speaking, reflective of an upbringing among immigrant Finnish iron miners on the Mesabi Range of northern Minnesota.
Chairman Hall began our half-hour together by telling me how he’d just returned from a tour of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, which was still in business in ‘72. For a man devoted to Kremlin doctrine and diktats, he surprised me with a negative comparison of Moscow assembly line workers to their counterparts in the automobile factories of the Motor City; factories and Detroit were likewise still in business then. Of the inefficient and frequently bumbling Russian toilers, Mr. Hall said, “They wouldn’t stand a chance in Detroit.”
He then ticked off the Communist Party agenda, which at the time seemed wild-haired and dangerous: closure of nuclear power plants; a thirty-hour work week at the same old forty-hours’ pay (a labor standard won in hard-fought struggles by socialist-backed trade unions); federal affirmative action programs to ensure racial integration of industry and educational institutions; national health care; an eighty percent reduction of the Pentagon budget; limits on corporate profits; a socialist economy built on American democratic tradition and rooted in the Bill of Rights; détente with the Soviet Union.
Above all, “People before profits,” said Mr. Hall, who grew up in near starvation when his own communist father was blacklisted from mining work. Young Kustaa—Finnish for Gustav—would know the sting of a blacklist himself. That and a string of minor arrests based on his political activity, plus five years’ hard labor at Leavenworth Penitentiary for the dread crime of teaching a class in Marxism, deemed by the courts as tantamount to declaring violent revolution.
In 1972, we Americans were supposed to be afraid of Gus Hall, whose vote total in the presidential election of that year was 25,597—out of well more than a hundred million ballots cast. Sitting in a coffee shop with a grandfatherly communist, I was unafraid. Especially when he told me that in the absence of any other interview requests that day, “I’d like to visit the Detroit Zoo. I hear it’s a good one. I like zoos. Which bus should I catch?”
About ten years later, a letter from a reader arrived at my home here in New York. It had come forwarded from a fiction magazine, in which I had published a series of tales about a character I named Big Red Fred, a blacklisted newspaperman in 1950s Detroit married to an embarrassed society lady he called Old Sexy. The only paper that would finally hire poor Fred was the Daily Worker, organ of Gus Hall’s unpopular outfit. So long as he wrote about the poor and downtrodden, as he’d been doing all along for the conservative Detroit Times newspaper, he could have a job at the Daily Worker—at half his old wages. Fred took what he had to take.
“I’ve seen your picture,” said the letter writer. “You’re sort of a young guy. So how do you know what it’s like to get blacklisted?”
Thus began my friendship with Bob Cenedella, blacklisted for eight destructive years after engineering his union’s anti-blacklist resolution of 1948. This was done on a Friday evening, when Joe McCarthy was likely settled in for the night at some Capitol Hill saloon getting liquored up on whiskey and lathered up about commies. Mr. Cenedella, who I am reasonably certain voted for Harry Truman in ‘48, lost eight critical years at the height of his career for simply insisting that McCarthyite thugs and know-nothings should understand that the Radio Writers Guild objected to smears, innuendo, and intimidation.
While idled, Mr. Cenedella’s marriage died, as well as his first-born, a daughter. He wrote a novel about the period—“A Little to the East,” published in 1963. In fact, Bob Cenedella wrote every day, no matter the fee, or lack thereof; no matter the personal crisis at hand. He counseled me the same as his son Peter, who recollected the advice in a blog post: “Seat of the pants to seat of the chair. Writing for money and doing it well, that’s the point. If you make literature in the bargain, more the better.”
My old friend Bob Cenedella eventually left New York for retirement in Arizona. He died at home in Tucson in 2001, at age 90. On the day of his death, he spent the morning as he always did—reporting for duty at his Selectric typewriter. When Pete flew down to Arizona to sort through his father’s things, he found a fresh sheet of paper in the Selectric’s roller bar: page number 27 of a new novel.
Seat of the pants to seat of the chair.
Edith Tiger passed in the following year, in October. Born in Poland in the chaos of 1919, she never knew her real name, her Yiddish name. Her mother emigrated to Brooklyn, New York, for an arranged marriage. Mother’s little girl became Edith Zwick at age 3. At age 15, Edith Zwick dropped out of school for a doomed marriage to a man named David Tiger. She never returned to school, instead educating herself by purchasing everything from primers to college texts—by the pound—from used bookshops that once lined Fourth Avenue in Manhattan.
“McCarthyism was classic fascism that’s still quietly with us, I’m afraid to say.” That’s as best I remember Ms. Tiger telling me when we first met, in the mid-1990s. “McCarthy was more anti-union than anti-communist, actually; more about controlling people through lies and fear than bringing down communism.”
And with reference to the several hundred American veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade—volunteers sympathetic to the Soviet Union who fought the fascist army of Francisco Franco in the Spanish American War of the late 1930s, a failed proxy war of resistance to the rise of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini—she said, “McCarthy and his boys wanted to punish what they called PAFs—premature anti-fascists. How in hell can hating fascists be premature?”
Of personal import to Ms. Tiger was the anti-Semitism that blossomed during the McCarthy “red scare,” as it became known. She told me two tales: that of a man I shall call Sid Berman for the purpose of this essay, and that of a man whose name I regret to say is gone with the wind.
An observant Jew, Berman worked as a travel writer in the mid-1950s for the New York Times. An agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation showed up at the Times one day to present Mr. Berman with a subpoena that commanded his appearance before a U.S. government inquisition known as the House Un-American Activities Committee, or HUAC.
Upon questioning the travel maven, it became apparent to the red baiters that they had summoned the wrong Sid Berman. “But so long as you’re here, Berman,” smirked one of the inquisitors, “tell us about any Jews at the Times who might have communist sympathies.”
Mr. Berman demurred, principally because he hadn’t the slightest idea of anyone’s political proclivities, in or out of the workplace. Besides which, politics bored him, he told the politicians. On his return to New York, the Times, like many employers of the era fearful of having a controversial man on staff, fired Sid Berman.
More tragic was the case of an elderly immigrant tailor, a bachelor Jew from a tiny place in Russia where his forebears died in anti-Semitic pogroms of Czarist times. The old wickedness was sufficiently alive in the Soviet Union of the 1950s to inspire the tailor’s flight to a new land—never mind his advanced age and frailty, or that he spoke only Yiddish and had seldom traveled beyond the shtetl.
He wound up in New York, living and working in a closet-sized room at the street level of a tenement on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The front of the room served as the world’s smallest tailor shop; separated by a curtain, the windowless back part contained a bed, some clothing hooks on the wall, and a basin. (Like others in the largely Jewish neighborhood, he attended to daily ablutions at a city-run public bathhouse.)
One day, three men from the Federal Bureau of Investigation walked into the shop, apparently to question the tailor about a customer for whom he’d once made a coat and trousers. They were big, beefy, clean-cut Americans in blue suits (off the rack), snap-brim hats, and FBI shields. One of them opened his suitcoat, just enough to reveal a holstered pistol.
The customer in question—a question the tailor had no way of comprehending—was a New York actor friend of screenwriter Samuel Ornitz (1890-1957), born to a New York Jewish family. Mr. Ornitz was one of the movie industry’s so-called “Hollywood Ten” who publicly denounced HUAC in 1947, and refused to coöperate by naming members of organizations outlawed under the Communist Control Act of 1954. The ten were imprisoned, heavily fined, and blacklisted from film work. (Courtesy of Ms. Tiger’s organization, the Communist Control Act was found unconstitutional, in 1971.)
The elderly tailor knew nothing of the Hollywood Ten. He never went to the movies; English dialogue confused him. He had all he could do sewing coats and trousers with his arthritic fingers. What he did know was the presence of three big Americans in the front part of his room, one of them with a gun. And how they seemed determined that the tailor close his shop and go somewhere with them.
Perhaps in the frail man’s panicked mind the Cossacks had come for him, as they had for his family in a far away place and time. Maybe he thought about firing squads. He held up his hand, signaling a need to fetch some things from back in the sleeping quarters. The FBI agent with the gun grunted permission for the tailor to part the curtain.
The old tailor was absent for several long minutes, giving rise to FBI concern. The agents poked through the curtain and discovered the tailor suspended on a clothing hook, asphyxiated by a string of cloth he’d wound around his slender neck.
Edith Tiger spent her life fighting against fear; fighting to encourage the courts, the Congress, and ordinary Americans to resist McCarthyesque bullying. She accomplished much, and was called a communist, of course. I have no idea if she was a communist; the lady chose not to say. I do know that she thought of herself, proudly, as a PAF.
A left-wing activist and musician from San Francisco by the name of Eliot Kenin was among the courageous few entertainers to confront Joe McCarthy and his boys with laughter and song in the 1950s. The refrain to one of Mr. Kenin’s songs, which became a standard in civil rights and antiwar demonstrations of the 1960s, remains in my head to this day:
Well, you ain’t done nothin’ if you ain’t been called a red;
If you’ve marched or agitated, you’re bound to hear it said.
So you might as well ignore it, or love the word instead—
‘Cause you ain’t been doin’ nothin’ if you ain’t been called a red.
Thomas Adcock is America correspondent for CulturMag