Charley Rosen: Better red than ignorant

tv VRTI was all set to do a column on Phil Jackson’s taking over the Knicks and why Derek Fisher is a better hire than Steve Kerr. But last Saturday night I saw a remarkable play, A Day in Court, at SUNY Ulster — and so many memories were awakened that my game plan radically changed.

Written by the late Ron Marquette and brilliantly acted by Sean Marrinan and Robert Figueroa, the play concerns the appearance of actor Larry Parks before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951. Parks, who was then a bigtime movie star, was the first Hollywood celebrity to be subpoenaed and questioned by the committee. Naively, he confessed to having been a member of the Communist Party from 1941 to 1945, when he was still an idealistic young man. All that his so-called cell did was to meet irregularly to discuss politics, have a few drinks, and share some industry gossip.

Disregarding this rather innocent agenda, HUAC’s counsel insisted that Parks, like all American Communist Party members, must have been involved in various (and unspecified) activities designed to “overthrow the US government.” He insisted that Parks name all of the Hollywood-based Communists he knew. Parks held out until, after being harangued, needled, humiliated, and finally threatened with jail, he yielded. As a result of his testimony, Parks was blacklisted in America and had to completely change his profession in order to earn a living.


I was stirred by the play because I was viscerally reminded of my childhood, when both of my parents were card-carrying CP members. My mother was a bookkeeper for a neighborhood community house, while my father worked as a tailor in a Manhattan sweatshop like so many other Eastern European immigrants. What their “subversive activities” actually consisted of was to stand around for hours at local subway and bus stations handing out leaflets that supported various causes: better working conditions for low-wage laborers, women’s rights, racial equality. They also tried to educate the public about the takeover of the democratic process by the super-rich, as well as the witch-hunt that was currently being conducted by HUAC and Senator Joe McCarthy. Indeed, according to the mainstream, right-leaning media, there was a Commie under every bed, and all of them were Jews and/or homosexuals.

The meetings of my parents’ “cell” usually took place at our East Bronx apartment. Although I was supposed to be in bed and asleep, I’d open my bedroom door a crack to hear what was going on amid the sound of laughter and the clink of wineglasses: I heard them berating President Eisenhower as a coward for not silencing McCarthy and ridiculing the jingoistic absurdities spouted by the Dixiecrat segregationists, the American Legion, and other misguided fools. In my sleepy state, I also got to hear what they and their friends did respect: the likes of Ralph Bunche, the NAACP, Fiorello LaGuardia, and most of the courageous union leaders of the day. And indeed, they were still mourning the death of FDR.

Weren’t these ideals of liberty, fraternity, and equality all supposed to be our core American values? At least that’s what my school textbooks taught. What my parents and their friends believed in, and what they did, had nothing whatsoever to do with the grandiose edicts, secret treasons, and routine cruelties practiced by Josef Stalin in Russia and most of the CP overlords in America.

My parents and their entire circle were good people — as were the vast majority of CP members shortly before (and during) World War II. It should be remembered that Russia was a valuable ally in fighting the Nazis, and their painful and costly repulsion of Germany’s invasion of the Motherland spelled the turning point of the war.

This was my world, and it made sense to me. Especially when we watched our tiny black-and-white TV and I’d overhear my father calling every backward-looking politician a “son of a bitch.”

There are 3 comments

  1. robert ruggeri

    Interesting personal story, but ignores a few crucial facts.

    The Venona Cables established byeond any doubt that the leadership of the Communist Party USA was actively working with the Soviets to carry our espoinage in this country. The Venona files – released to the public thanks to Senator Moynihan – clearly show how the CPUSA recruited and vetted spies such as the Rosenbergs, Alger Hiss, Harry Dexter White and hundreds of others. Along with the evils of McCarthyism (a term coined by the CPUSA itself), a balanced and historically accurate version of the CPUSA’s role in espionage should also be taught in schools.

    For the real facts, read “Venona – Decoding Soviet Espionage in America” by HAYNES and KLEHR (Yale Univ Press) and Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev’s “The Haunted Wood” as well as “The Venona Secrets, Exposing Soviet Espionage and America’s Traitors” by Romerstein and Breindel.

  2. Raanan Geberer

    It’s not that simple. Indeed, the Communists worked for organized labor and tenants’ rights and against racial discrimination, but they also actively championed a dictatorial regime, the Soviet Union, that was responsible for the deaths of 50 million people and, at its height, kept millions in prison camps. The idea that the Communists were the only people fighting for progressive causes in those years is basically a lie, perpetrated by the descendants of the Communists to make themselves feel better. There was an entire non-Communist left (people like Paul Goodman, Irving Howe or Norman Thomas) who fought for the very same things. As bad as McCarthyism was, that doesn’t mean automatically that the Communists were right.

  3. David Peterzell

    Thanks for this! Having read your articles and books for years, I perhaps should’ve known that you came from such origins. (I hate the smell of tuna, I might add). Well I grew up in LA and knew a few educators and former actors and other Hollywood folks who were blacklisted and persecuted — mostly friends of my parents or parents of other kids I knew. People didn’t really talk much about what they went through (at least to this kid), but there was no missing the passion for underdog causes. I may have gotten my own belated dose of some of the nonsense in 1971 when I was 10. My elderly sixth grade teacher, “Miss S,” was a staunch Nixon supporter and would occasionally tell us how great he was (when she wasn’t singing the praises of Sam Yorty). Her speeches often occurred after the Pledge of Allegiance, which was frequently reviewed by Miss S in punitive detail. I knew that her take on things was drastically different than my Dad’s emphatic views. A few skeptical questions and a complaint about the Viet Nam war (and hair down to my shoulders) got me stuck in a corner of the classroom during a couple recess and lunch breaks. My parents were none too thrilled by this and they confronted the teacher… which got me in thicker soup for much of the remaining school year. My teacher lectured me on how I shouldn’t talk to my parents about what happened in our classroom. I didn’t buy it, and told her so as politely as I could. I’m pretty glad I had the stones to challenge her at that young age, though it took a few years to master the art of telling certain people to F off. At some point not long after my friction with Miss S, my Dad began to talk to me about how he was a reporter in the early 1950s, and about the McCarthy era…

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