By GEORGE F. WILL
“Time has upset many fighting faiths.”
— Oliver Wendell Holmes, dissenting, Abrams v. United States (1919)
In this moment of dueling political hysterias (“The fascists are at the gates!” “The socialists are within the gates!”), it is reassuring to remember that America has quickly recovered from some previous plunges into overheated anxiety. David Maraniss understands this.
He is a Washington Post editor, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, a best-selling biographer (of Vince Lombardi, Roberto Clemente, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama) and author of books on the 1960 Summer Olympics, late-1960s turmoil (“They Marched into Sunlight: War and Peace, Vietnam and America, October 1967”) and contemporary Detroit. Now, in “A Good American Family,” he has tackled his most difficult subject: his parents. They were communists.
Being a communist was never not foolish, and was always reprehensible, especially after the broad outlines of Stalin’s terror (including the engineered famine in Ukraine) in the 1930s were known, or knowable. And after American communists proved themselves to be plastic people, following Moscow’s zigzagging line before and after the German-Soviet “nonaggression” pact of Aug. 23, 1939, and then the Soviet invasion of Finland. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, however, Elliott and Mary Maraniss paid more dearly than they should have for affiliating, from a safe distance, with the most murderous of all the 20th century’s fighting faiths.
In the postwar years, some congressmen became crusaders, wielding the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). There are such activities, but it is not Congress’ job to ferret them out. And some crusaders were conspicuously unqualified to judge others’ fidelity to American ideals. They included vociferous racists, one chairman who would go to prison for embezzlement, and one who had been present at the 1915 Georgia lynching of Leo Frank, a Jew who had moved to Atlanta from Brooklyn and who almost certainly was innocent of the murder for which he was convicted.
Elliott had been a “red diaper baby”: His father was a “Wobbly” (a member of the radical Industrial Workers of the World). Elliott grew up in Brooklyn, where he was a Boy Scout and where socialists were run-of-the-mill moderates. Then he (like another Brooklyn boy from Abraham Lincoln High School, the future playwright Arthur Miller) went to the University of Michigan. There he met David’s mother, 17 and already a communist, at an event welcoming two Michigan graduates home from fighting fascists in the Spanish Civil War, including Mary’s older brother.
David writes that his father, a fledgling journalist writing for the campus newspaper, had to have seen stories about the Moscow show trials. Decades later, Elliott would say he had been “stubborn in my ignorance and aggressive in my prejudices.” Yet he enlisted one week after Pearl Harbor, and volunteered to command an African American unit in the segregated Army. “He was,” his son writes, “a patriot in his own way.”
A few stealthy Americans — Alger Hiss, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and others — gave important aid and comfort to communism. The Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) did not. It first ran a presidential candidate in 1924, when he won 36,386 votes, 0.1% of the popular vote. It last ran a candidate in 1984, when he received 161 fewer votes than the 1924 candidate.
But when in 1952 HUAC came to Detroit, which then was the epicenter of the labor movement, to expose and shame communists, its star witness was a gray-haired, 49-year-old grandmother and FBI informant who named Elliott as member of the CPUSA. Elliott, then with the Detroit Times, was immediately fired and launched into years of wandering with his family, seeking work. He caught on with the Cleveland Plain Dealer, but was fired in 1954 when the paper learned of his HUAC appearance. David writes, “The FBI made it clear that its agents would follow him wherever he went and whenever he applied for a job.”
Soon, however, the national fever broke, he found employment with the Madison, Wisc., Capital Times, and he died at 86 in 2004 “a permanent Midwesterner.” Elliott’s son writes of him, “I can appreciate his motivations, but I am confounded by his reasoning.”
This was, David Maraniss says, “a book I had to write.” His professional ethic is to “follow the truth wherever it takes you and I knew this would take me to places that were uncomfortable.” His readers will admire his emotional equilibrium, and can take comfort from this story of national equilibrium lost and restored.