ANDREA PLATE WRITES – Donald Trump may have cheapened the phrase “witch hunt,” but American history is rich and notorious with sad sagas of domestic persecution: the Salem Witch Trials of colonial Massachusetts, immortalized by playwright Arthur Miller in 1953’s “The Crucible;” the pursuit, persecution and internment of “enemy” Japanese Americans following the bombing of Pearl Harbor; and the Red Scare of the 1950’s, when a Republican Wisconsin Senator, Joseph McCarthy, smeared anti-communist rhetoric over the celebrity celluloid faces of the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Shirley Temple (at age 10!) and Lucille Ball.
Yet less is known about an equally ignominious witch hunt: the now infamous Rapp-Coudert Committee of the 1940’s, an absurd but quite harmful anti-Communist ‘purge’ of New York City’s public education system, which actually greenlighted Senator McCarthy’s reckless trek through Hollywood a decade later. This is the worthy subject of Bad Faith: Teachers, Liberalism and the Origins of McCarthyism (Fordham University Press), by Andrew Feffer, Union College Professor of History and Co-Director of Film Studies. Published three years ago, about horrific happenings some seventy years ago, this valuable and easy-reading history rings all too true today – which is one reason it is receiving renewed attention.
Never forget — the author’s over-arching message. Never forget that this committee snuffed out the careers of some 40-50 academic faculty and staff, while interrogating hundreds of others, including students. Never forget their alleged “crimes”: belonging to the Communist Party; being a communist sympathizer; failing to disavow communism; and, by a huge stretch of the lurid anti-communist imagination, molding the soft, supposedly malleable student body, like inert clay, into some kind of potential Red Guard.
Formally known as the New York State Legislature’s Joint Legislative Committee to Investigate the Educational System of the State of New York, scared Americans dubbed it the Rapp-Coudert Committee, after the two men in the House of Representatives who led the charge: Herbert A. Rapp and Federic J. Coudert, Jr. The two witch-hunters unleashed a dark cloud on the crown jewels of New York’s public education system-above all, CCNY (City College of New York)-where some 40-50 teachers and staff were forced out, and underground, for “conduct unbecoming” those in the service of the crown.
My father- Samuel Margolis, a CCNY library assistant-was one of those condemned. He was convicted on three counts: 1) participating in, and helping circulate, a publication known as “The Teacher Worker;” 2) refusing to cooperate with the Rapp-Coudert Committee; and 3) giving false and evasive testimony before that same committee (as he and his peers felt compelled to do, since any admission of membership in the party, or of participation in activities labeled communist, would result in conviction. Besides, wouldn’t the press and public take their side?).
In the end, Sam Margolis was acquitted on the charge of membership in the Communist Party. Notes Professor Feffer: “He [Margolis] was finally fired on the flimsy and inconsistent testimony” given by two anti-communist hard-chargers: a secretary-clerk in the history department of CCNY’s evening school (herself a repentant former member of the Communist party!); and a teacher-turned-talker in the history department.
So it was that years after his conviction, this man-with a master’s degree in Library Science from Columbia University and a two-year stint in the World War II Army – had to clean birdcages and walk monkeys, the only employment he could find, and thanks only to the loyalty and largesse of a pet-owner friend/employer. Before long, he made his way to California, where the sun didn’t shine on the blacklist. Many others suffered similar fates – and made similar escapes.
Bad Faith puts an invaluable new spin on the sad saga of the American witch hunt. For example:
- It turns out that the seeds of anti-Communism were sown by liberal elites, not just anti-Communist Conservatives. Then as now, centrist liberals clashed with those on the Far Left.
- FDR, of all people, helped grease the wheels of the Rapp-Coudert committee. Back in 1931, as governor, he pushed through the state legislature a bill that would enable this future committee to force waivers of immunity on public officials.
- 1940’s America was ripe for anti-Communism. Public opinion had begun to turn against FDR’s New Deal, big government and federal regulations. Both liberals and conservatives rallied for private enterprise and economic gain.
- The accused were denied both First and Fifth Amendment rights. Said the committee chair: “There is no civil liberty to commit a breach of trust.” Not until the 1960’s did the Supreme Court uphold stronger Constitutional guidelines.
- As a legislative body rather than a court of law, the committee skirted virtually all constitutional protections. Hearings were held in secret (no cameras; no internet, of course). The accused were forbidden to publicly comment, but legislators fed a greedy and undiscriminating press, which then served up the findings as headline facts. Police forces and boards of education compiled lists of those targeted. The witch hunt hit high gear.
It wasn’t until 1981 – nearly four decades after the committee’s launch – that the City University Board of Trustees passed a resolution detailing its profound “regret” at the injustices done to former colleagues.
Almost miraculously, Sam Margolis, like many others, eventually found more dignified work-first as a legal researcher at Universal Studios; then as a longtime cherished staffer at UCLA’s hallowed research library.
But they could not forget. I learned this from my dad. Don’t park the car close, he would plead, each time I drove off to a 1960’s antiwar protest (“They take down license plates!”). Don’t say you’re Russian, he advised, if asked about the ethnic origins of my dark looks at the start of my TV child acting career (Better to say “Slavic descent”). “I don’t know what you’re talking about…Who is this?” I remember him shouting into the wall telephone receiver, to some anonymous Red-baiter on the other end-in 1960 (I was eight)-nearly two decades after the Committee’s launch.
The best thing about Bad Faith is its relevance today. Liberals, the author writes, must be held to account, for they, as well as conservatives “augmented a process of excluding valuable perspectives from American politics,” adding that “much of the motivation for censuring outspoken academics [was] coming from the university itself.” Couldn’t the same be said today, with college campuses censuring controversial speakers and ideologies? Is a new group of ghostbusters haunting the groves of academe?
“You know what a treacherous thing memory is,” said a history teacher who eventually named names at the pleasure of the Committee. Surely. But wouldn’t it be equally treacherous to forget?
As a child actress, Asia Media International Senior Editor Andrea Plate, who teaches in LMU’s Sociology Department, was known as Andrea Darvi, and earlier on as Andrea Margolis.