But the truth, the first truth, probably, is that we are all connected, watching on another. Even the trees.
— Arthur Miller, “Timebends”
So reads the opening quote in a new book, “A Good American Family: The Red Scare and My Father.” The book recounts the life of Elliott Maraniss, a good American by all accounts — he was a rewrite man for The Detroit Times, a family man, and a World War II veteran, who led an all-black unit in the Pacific.
But Maraniss and his young wife also held communist beliefs, galvanized during the Depression era, when capitalism seemed to be failing and fascism and Nazism were on the rise. A grandmother spy hired by the FBI supplied Maraniss’s name to the Subversive Activities Control Board in 1952. He lost his job and was blacklisted for five years, causing no end of economic pain to his wife and three children. David Maraniss was only 3 years old when his dad testified before the Un-American Activities Committee. Like his dad, Maraniss grew up to be a newspaperman — he won a Pulitzer Prize and was nominated for three, worked (and still works) for The Washington Post, and is one of our country’s most talented biographers and historians.
David will appear as a National Writers Series guest on Sept. 5 at the City Opera House to talk about his new book, which he feels holds lessons for today.
“The truth is the Communist Party in the 1950s was a very minor organization with no real clout,” he said. “The fear that was drummed up was exaggerated, although there were people in the federal government who were agents of the Soviet Union. There is always a danger of the government misusing its power to destroy lives, but I think that the Constitution protects freedom of speech and freedom of thought, but it was endangered during that period, and let’s hope it’s not endangered again.”
Maraniss said aspects of the Red Scare era still echo today, specifically with leaders “defining who is American and who is not from a very narrow perspective and are using fear as a political weapon.”
The book begins with Elliott at a witness table in the Federal Building in Detroit, where he had been subpoenaed to testify before the HCUA. He refused to answer questions about his political activities, invoking the Fifth Amendment, but asked to read a statement as the hearing closed. He was refused by the chairman, a southern Democrat and former Ku Klux Klan member. David unearthed the letter from the National Archives.
“It was only reading the statement that for the first time in my life, I could feel what my dad was going through, in that moment, in the crucible,” he said.
His dad rarely talked about those troubled times, even when David, attempting to write a novel about those troubled times, tried to get answers in the early 1990s.
“My questions weren’t blunt enough, and his answers were evasive. He had survived the experience with his optimism intact and reinvented himself and moved on. There was no embarrassment, but he didn’t want to be defined by that period in his life.”
So back to Arthur Miller’s quote that begins the book and this column. I asked David why he chose it.
“Because it has at least a double meaning for the book, one for the better, one for the worse,” he said. “The better is we are all connected on this planet. The worse is the invasion of privacy and of dignity that the Red Scare induced.”