“I am a member of a party of one, and I live in an age of fear.”
That’s how the writer E.B. White began a still-celebrated letter to the New York Herald Tribune on November 29, 1947. Ten men from the world of filmmaking — screenwriters, directors and/or producers — had just been convicted of contempt of Congress, and given jail terms, for supposedly sneaking Communist propaganda into their work. In levying the charges, the House Unamerican Activities Committee had given no supporting evidence.
White was worried, much as many of us are worried today.
We see a presidential candidate draw hot crowds and big media, in large part by scapegoating people. We see Americans muscled out of his rallies for protesting — even just (if they’re Muslim) for being who they are. In this situation, it helps me, at least, to go back and read the plain clarity of White’s words, and to recall what happened then.
“It is not a crime to believe anything at all in America … Yet ten men have been convicted not of wrong doing but of wrong believing,” declared White’s letter to the Herald Tribune, which had supported the Hollywood Ten’s conviction. “That is news in this country, and if I have not misread history, it is bad news.”
The Trib responded by calling White’s viewpoint, as a party of one, “destructive” and “dangerous.” (This really happened.) White replied that fear of war with Russia had produced “the natural feeling that we should clear our decks of dangerous characters. Well, I happen to believe that we can achieve reasonably clear decks if we continue to apply our civil rights and duties equally to all citizens, even to citizens of opposite belief.”
The Supreme Court upheld the convictions of the Hollywood Ten. Several hundred more Hollywood figures were soon blacklisted, their careers often destroyed, for supposed far-left leanings. White protested again. “The nation steams like a cup of hot coffee,” he wrote in The New Yorker in April 1948, “and the patriot’s spectacles become fogged, so that he sees nothing except through the mind’s eye.”
By 1950, Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy had become the public face of the Red Scare. He accused a number of government employees of being Communist sympathizers; he called for more persecution of homosexuals in government; and he got the State Department to remove “controversial” books from overseas American libraries. Some libraries burned the books.
White kept trying to clarify what people were letting happen. “Because of fear,” he wrote in The New Yorker at the end of 1950, “Americans have lately compromised their essential position — have published blacklists, have permitted legislative committees to presuppose what is ‘American,’ have watched them hang innocent men and women on the gallows of the newspaper headline … have made the natural loyalty of the citizen ever so much more difficult by removing loyalty from the realm of free choice.”
By March 1954, the Army-McCarthy hearings in Congress were about to come to a head. The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which McCarthy had chaired, now accused him of improperly pressuring the Army to give favorable treatment to a soldier who had been McCarthy’s aide. The charge seems small, but McCarthy was finally vulnerable: the hearings would last 36 days, mesmerizing the nation.
Before they began, White wrote a New Yorker comment that retold a story from a letter he’d received. In the basement of Bloomingdale’s, a woman had been holding up a lunch-hour line with a complex transaction at the store’s little post office. When a man behind her complained, the woman wheeled and said, “You aren’t even an American, are you?”
“The man was quite shaken by this, but others in the line weren’t, and they came to his aid instantly,” White wrote. “‘We’re all Americans,’ shouted one of them, ‘and we’re all on our lunch hour!’ … People hold together and will continue to hold together, even in the face of abrupt and unfounded charges calculated to destroy.”
The hearings would destroy McCarthy’s career. In their most telling moment, Army counsel Joseph Nye Welch confronted the senator with these still-famous words: “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”
Many today would like to confront our present fanner of hatred, and caster of silly yet deeply dangerous accusations. “Have you no decency, sir?” This question may yet get asked in a way that hits home once again.
I hope so. We’re still all Americans, and sometimes it becomes important for us to declare that. That time seems, once again, to be coming up fast.