Friday, October 31, 2008

A personal McCarthy era experience during my high school years

Reading Dr. Greenberg’s column on the McCarthy era, described in my most recent posting, brought to mind a personal McCarthy era experience as a high school student - when I was surreptitiously interrogated by my teachers about possible Communist leanings in my family. Here is what I wrote to Dr. Greenberg.

I will share a personal McCarthy-era story about which I only gained insight a few years later.  An equally precocious colleague and I - he later became Director of Bell Research Labs - discovered that we could purchase books incredibly cheaply from a bookstore in Greenwich Village that specialized in distributing Communist tomes (presuumably subsidized by the Russian government).  Soon our bookshelves were filled not only with classics such Capital, and The Communist Manifesto but also less classical propaganda pieces such as Principles of Leninism, by Joseph Stalin.

For my senior history paper, I produced a 100-plus page exposition entitled Democracy vs. Communism (even then my writings tended to be in the long side).  The section on Communism quoted extensively from the works noted above and many more. Happily for myself and possibly for my parents, I concluded Communism had not lived up to its promises and that democracy was, indeed, the preferable system  I received an "A" for the paper.  

Soon afterwards, I was invited to meet with a panel of three teachers, one my History teacher and two others whom I did not know well - perhaps the principal was present also, I can't remember.  They were interested, particularly, in my family's library the kinds of discussions we had at home and the degree to which I discussed my work with my parents.  Proud of my accomplishments and thinking I had been singled out for special praise, I happily shared how my friend and I had a accumulated such a treasure trove of communist books, at ridiculously low prices.  My parents, incidentally, were conservative republicans. They did, however, tolerate independent thought and reading on the part of their eldest child.

The story had a happy ending of sorts.  I not only won the graduation prize for outstanding work in history, but also the medal awarded by the Veterans for Foreign Wars for "character and leadership." Apparently I emerged from the interrogation as a duly certified 'loyal American.'

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