© 2024 WKNO FM
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Book: 'A Good American Family: The Red Scare and My Father'


They are words that came to define an era.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Are you a member of the Communist Party, or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?

GONYEA: The Red Scare of the 1950s, when the search was on for communist infiltration into American life. You have heard about Hollywood actors and writers who were blacklisted during that time, but McCarthyism, as it was known, wasn't limited to high-profile cases. It spread across the country, touching everyday lives, including the life of journalist Elliott Maraniss. His story is the subject of a new book, "A Good American Family: The Red Scare And My Father." It's written by Washington Post editor and award-winning biographer David Maraniss. The book is a detailed account of his father's appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee and his family's history leading up to that moment.

DAVID MARANISS: The central question of the book is, what does it mean to be an American, and who decides? The House Un-American Activities Committee of Congress would have regional hearings, and they came to Detroit to hold hearings on communism in the Detroit area. The committee was actually going after the United Auto Workers, based in Detroit, which had some communist influence. But my father was actually identified. His name was named by an FBI informant who'd been hired nine years earlier to infiltrate the Communist Party.

At that hearing in 1952, the chairman of the committee was John Stephens Wood, a Georgian racist who had once been a member of the Klan and had voted against every civil rights bill for decades. This is the same man who is calling my father, who had been a commander of an all-black unit in World War II, un-American. So that raises the question - who decides and why? And what is un-American?

GONYEA: So we'll get into a lot of detail as we talk here. But can I get you to start with just a very brief description of your dad, Elliott Maraniss? He's the central figure in the book. And it's important to note that he was indeed active in the local Communist Party in the U.S., starting with when he was a student at the University of Michigan.

MARANISS: At the - he was radicalized at Michigan in the late 1930s by the Great Depression and by the rise of fascism and Naziism in Europe and by the racial injustice in this country. He was a member of the Young Communist League, wrote editorials at the Michigan Daily that I shake my head at sometimes about, what were you thinking, dad, and was associated with the local Communist Party until 1952.

GONYEA: So let's go to your father's appearance before the committee. He pleads the fifth, invoking his right not to incriminate himself, refusing to name names. So that part of his story is much like anybody else's that we've seen throughout the years.

MARANISS: Yes. But he wanted to issue a statement.

GONYEA: And that statement you found as part of your research. Did you not know it existed? Or...

MARANISS: In the transcript of the hearing, which is a matter of public record, which I had read years earlier, my father says, I have a statement I'd like to read about what I believe it means to be an American. And John Stephens Wood, the chairman, denies him that privilege - or that right. If my father had sort of sought absolution for his sins and confessed and named names, he would have been able to give the statement, but he didn't. He took the Fifth Amendment. And so the statement was buried until 63 years later.

In May of 2015, I went to the National Archives, went through the boxes of records about those hearings. There was a file that said Elliott Maraniss, and there was this statement. And to see that statement, it finally washed over me. You know, I had never really put myself back in the shoes of what it must have been like for him in the crucible of that very traumatic event until I saw the statement.

GONYEA: I'd love you to read just a portion of the statement now, if you would. And I'll let you choose what part.

MARANISS: Let me say, first of all, that when he wrote out statement of Elliott Maraniss, the S in statement jumped up a half space. He was an old hunt-and-peck typist, and it was seeing that that really made me feel that I was there.

(Reading) Statement of Elliott Maraniss - in the 34 years of my life, in war and peace, I've been a loyal, law-abiding citizen of the United States. I view this committee's attempt to muzzle me and drive me off my job as a direct attack on freedom of the press and the right of newspaper men to participate freely in the political life of the country without fear of reprisal. The U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights are not simply musty documents in a library. They have meaning only if they are used. To betray and subvert the Bill of Rights is the most un-American act any man or committee can do, for that document was brought into being and maintained throughout our history by men who gave their lives and their blood. Every newspaper man knows that history is not a printed page. It is the passion and striving, the struggling and endurance of men and women. These qualities that went into the making of our nation can be discarded only at great peril to ourselves and our children.

GONYEA: And it goes on from there. But ultimately, what's the point he makes?

MARANISS: He's making two strong points about freedom of speech and freedom of the press and that in America, we've never acquiesced to the concept that you can be punished for your beliefs. And it was a very powerful statement that I think should be on the walls of the Supreme Court and every newspaper in America. I was blown away by the power of this statement.

GONYEA: And how old were you at this point when your father was called before the committee?

MARANISS: When my father was called before the committee, I was not yet 3 years old, and I have no memory of that event. I had two older siblings who were 6 and 4, and they have some memories of it. But, you know, after my father was fired from the Detroit Times the day that he was subpoenaed to testify before the committee, we bounced around from eight different places over the next five years as he was blacklisted until we finally found salvation in 1957 in Madison, Wis. McCarthy had just died, the Milwaukee Braves were on their way to winning the World Series and our family was saved.

GONYEA: David Maraniss is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. His book "A Good American Family: The Red Scare And My Father" is out now. Thank you for coming in.

MARANISS: Thank you, Don. It was a pleasure to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.