Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Maraniss comes to NWS
By Clark Miller | Aug. 24, 2019
What makes someone a “good” American and another person “un-American”? Who gets to decide? And on what basis?
David Maraniss, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, New York Times bestselling author and associate editor at The Washington Post visits the National Writers Series stage on Thursday, Sept. 5 to discuss his latest book, "A Good American Family: The Red Scare and My Father," in which he shows how his own family was caught in the crosshairs of that debate. His father, Elliott Maraniss, a University of Michigan graduate, decorated Army officer during WWII, and by 1952 an up-and-coming editor at the Detroit Times newspaper, was blacklisted for his communist beliefs.
The judge (and jury) in Elliott’s case was the House Un-American Activities Committee, HUAC, the dreamchild of dedicated commie-hunter, Sen. Joe McCarthy, a Wisconsin Republican. The underlying premise was that no communist could be a “good” American.
Maraniss notes the irony in the name House Un-American Activities Committee since, in his opinion, its members blatantly ignored due process and freedom of speech rights. Maraniss also sees the trial as an assault on freedom of the press since his father was fired summarily from his post at the Times. Although Elliott had, in fact, been a communist, there was never any indication that he promoted violence or the overthrow of the U.S. government.
After the verdict, Elliott found other newspaper jobs, but they never lasted. FBI agents always showed up to make sure he got sacked again. For years, Maraniss and his family moved back and forth across the upper Midwest and struggled financially. Finally, after years of wandering, Elliott found a lasting position at the Madison, Wisconsin, Capital Times, a progressive paper that had long been critical of McCarthyism.
"A Good American Family" is a heartfelt, personal story, but it rises above a simple homage to an embattled father because Maraniss discusses the historical currents that helped create HUAC’s power — the growing strength of the U.S. labor movement, the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) in which Maraniss’s mother’s brother Bob Cummins and other University of Michigan students fought against fascism, and, especially, the abrupt shift from Russia being an ally in WWII to an official enemy once the Cold War began. All of those factors set the stage for the Red Scare of the 1950s.
The Northern Express talked to David Maraniss about his book, parallels to current politics, and what it was like to write about his father.
Express: It’s clear that you admired and loved your father. But to write this book, you also had to assume some objective distance.
Maraniss: You’re right. I approached it as any non-fiction researcher would. I got every letter that was available, conducted interviews and found as many helpful documents as possible. But obviously the story touched me very directly.
Express: And what conclusions did you draw about your father?
Marannis: There were times when I understood what drew my dad to communism. The party supported racial equality and organized labor. That attracted people like my dad, who was an idealist and an egalitarian. I don’t think Elliott was ever a true ideologue. Instead, he was more a true newspaper guy. I think he was already turning away [from communism] when he was called before the HUAC in 1952. But in writing the book, there were a few times when I shook my head, and asked, ‘Dad, what were you thinking?’ Even in those moments, I tried to keep my authorial distance.
Express: The committee got away with a lot that day in Detroit.
Maraniss: Unfortunately, history is so often forgotten, never known or ignored. I wanted to put my family’s experiences in a larger context to illuminate a dark point in human history. The question of what it means to be an American has been defined many ways. It begins with the genocide of Native Americans, but also goes on to include African Americans forced into slavery and women who couldn’t vote until the 20th century. So, there have always been efforts by the dominant parts of society to term some groups un-American.
Express: Do you see parallels between the hunt for Reds in the 1950s and current politics?
Maraniss: Absolutely there are parallels between then and now. Today the target is Muslims and immigrants. There’s always been a baiting of the ‘other’ mainly through a manipulation of facts and use of fear as a political tactic. Demagogues have used fear of the ‘other’ as their main tactic. By the way, I started the book before Trump was elected, but unfortunately, history repeats itself in different ways.
Express: Does the word ‘socialism’ still stoke fear?
Maraniss: Less among today’s millennials than it does in the baby boomer generation. Since the post-WWII era, the Republican Party has consistently used their definition of what it means to be a ‘good American’ and a patriot. As a scare tactic, they call Democratic Party ideas socialism.
Express: It seems the term could cover any number of popular government programs, including Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the Veterans Administration, public education, unemployment insurance, infrastructure improvements.
Maraniss: If socialism is the use of government money — our money — to redistribute wealth, consider that our government also helps the oil industry and agri-business. And we’ve given tax cuts to the wealthy. So, in many ways, the word ‘socialism’ is misused.
Express: Even before the Cold War and McCarthyism, the 1939 Non-Aggression Pact between Germany and the Soviet Union shocked many leftists into changing their minds about communism, or at least the Soviet form of communism.
Maraniss: The pact split the left very sharply. Any accommodation of Hitler was viewed by leftists as a dramatic turn away from what had been happening in terms of fighting Nazism. Some 3,000-4,000 Americans fought against (the fascist Francisco) Franco in the Spanish Civil War. Then they saw that turned around when Stalin essentially colluded, for a time, with Hitler.
Express: In many ways, your book is a Michigan story. Detroit and Ann Arbor, in particular, are more than just as passive backdrops.
Maraniss: Elliot’s experiences at the University of Michigan were crucial to the story. He was editor of the campus newspaper, the Michigan Daily. I can’t tell you how much fun it was to read copies of the Michigan Daily from that era. In many ways, it was a better paper than many of the commercial papers of the day. And Detroit was important because of the labor movement.
Express: In what ways was your family a ‘good’ American family?
Maraniss: Our parents taught us the Golden Rule and encouraged us to be open to the world and other people. They believed in freedom of speech and freedom of the press. My family worked hard, never hurt anyone, had a loving bond and stayed together. So, certain notions about what constitutes a ‘good’ American family can sometimes be limiting and wrong.
Express: One last question about the use of the term ‘socialism.’ Do you think Jesus was a proto-socialist? He cared for the struggles of poor. Obviously, it was one of his main tenets.
Maraniss: (pauses) That’s a very good question. I would say that many iconic figures are later interpreted in ways that don’t reflect their lives.
The event starts at 7pm. Doors open at 6pm. For tickets, go to www.cityoperahouse.org; call (231) 941-8082, ext. 201, Monday-Friday; or visit the City Opera House box office at 106 E. Front St.