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Gerda Lerner writes about the Communist Party and the Hollywood 10

Some time late that year [1946] I joined the Communist Party. It was not, at the time, a major step or a difficult decision. Later, red-baiting and witch-hunting would make of the act of “joining” or “leaving” the CP a momentous decision with not inconsiderable consequences. The fact is that I can neither remember exactly when I joined nor where and when I first attended a branch meeting. All it meant at the time was an added number of meetings each week and the obligation to read.

What was important to me then about joining the Communist Party was that I believed I was joining a strong international movement for progress and social justice. I had no particular love for the Soviet Union, although the heroism of its people during the war had impressed me as a sign that there was indeed a vibrant experiment in social reconstruction going on in that country. After Hiroshima and Churchill’s “iron curtain” speech it seemed inevitable that sooner or later the capitalist nations would unite against the Soviet Union, as they had in the period just after the Bolshevik revolution. As it had been essential to defend democracy in Spain, so it seemed essential to defend and maintain the existence of the socialist experiment in the Soviet Union.

At present, we have all but forgotten the radical origins of democratic society in the United States. After fifty years of the cold war and internal red-baiting witch hunts, one is expected to explain why reasonable persons of good will, social conscience and patriotism could ever have worked for radical alternatives to the capitalist system. All I can say is that fifty years ago it seemed a reasonable choice to make…

The story of the Hollywood Ten has been told many times since and they have become the symbol of the blacklist. While they certainly deserve their place in history and while their defense of First Amendment rights should be celebrated, they were not typical of those victimized by the blacklist. Most of them were highly successful writers, with long Hollywood careers and some wealth and savings. On the other hand, most of the people who would fall victim to the blacklist were “little people.” The blacklisted writers could attempt to sell scripts under pseudonyms; they could write for other media, but blacklisted actors, teachers and civil servants were thrown out of their professions for good….

Fear became our daily companion. A strange car pulling up near our house, a man emerging from it, made the heart race and the knees grow weak. The subpoena servers liked to come around at mealtimes, or quite early in the morning. Each morning, you peeked out from behind window screens to see if they were there. Friends told stories, all of them bad. The FBI followed the wives of those subpoenaed; two men in regular cars would be parked near the school entrance as the wife picked up the children. They would knock at your door: two men in business suits, flashing their badges. “We’d just like to talk to you for a few minutes, ma’am,” they would say in their clipped, rehearsed voices.

“I have nothing to talk to you about” was the only answer that worked, but it would make them follow you for days, questioning your neighbors, your employer, your friends. Neighbors would avoid you; others, friendly, would warn you what was up. “You’re wanted by the FBI.”

Those were stories. The chilling effect truly worked, like slow corrosive poison. We lived in fear, we ate it; we slept in fear, with nightmares of violence and useless resistance… We had committed no crime, violated no law. We worked and paid our taxes; we cut our lawn and put the garbage out on time. We were good neighbors and by all normal standards we were good citizens. We voted regularly and in all off-year elections.

You began to wonder about yourself. Maybe you were avoiding the FBI interview because of your cowardice, your secret knowledge that, pressed hard enough, you would answer with whatever they wanted to hear: the names of friends, their version of your political life, your redefinition of yourself as having been naïve, duped, or coerced or betrayed, just so you could save your own skin, your job, your children. You hunkered down, trying to stay calm and do the daily work that needed to be done, waiting for the next blow.

Details
Gerda Lerner, Fireweed: A Political Autobiography (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002), 254-255, 287-288.
Description
In an excerpt from her autobiography, Fireweed, Gerda Lerner describes her motivations for joining the Communist Party and the emotional effects that government investigation had on her and her colleagues.
Extent number
4
Extent type
(pages)
Author(s)
Lerner, Gerda
Publisher
Temple University Press
Pages
254-255
287-288
Publication
Fireweed: A Political Autobiography
Date published
2002

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Gerda Lerner writes about the Communist Party and the Hollywood 10." (Viewed on July 23, 2014) <http://jwa.org/media/gerda-lerner-writes-about-communist-party-and-hollywood-10>.

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