Naming Names
Victor Navasky
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Naming Names

Victor Navasky
Hill & Wang
528 pages
April 2003
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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It would be rather easy to pass off the events of the 1950's - HUAC's mad witch hunts, the hunted and their sundry ways of reacting - as a mere historical wrinkle but for one reason. History has a way of recreating itself, and there are those who fear that the furor of 9-11 may spawn another McCarthyist search for villains among us.

Naming Names is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand how the rights of man can be tampered with, how in the name of a sacred principle -- our American love of freedom -- that same freedom can be trampled and obliterated. Yet the story also contains within it the very simplest construction of the case: those who consort with an enemy will have to pay the price.

When Navasky began his work, which is prodigious and nearly without bias, almost everyone insisted that you had to understand the times and the context, which informer Roy Huggins characterized as "a period of absolute terror on the part of the whole country. Terror and paranoia. We were convinced that war was just around the corner." McCarthy and his minions were determined to root out Commies, whom they viewed as spies and Soviet agents rather than as members of a dissenting political party, and they were fierce on finding them in Hollywood. People were blacklisted, lost their work, their careers, the bread from their tables. Many found that to name names that had already been named would buy back their livelihood. As one informer, David Raskin, stated, "The whole thing was some kind of insane ritual. None of this could have happened if society was not mad. I said to myself, 'This is like the Spanish Inquisition, so maybe the best I can do is to come out of it alive." Leo Townsend: "The Committee had all those names....I didn't mention anyone who hadn't been named."

Yet not all the "friendly witnesses" spoke out of fear. Budd Schulberg, a notable exception, told Navasky, "There were some who spoke out of conscience. These people had experienced Communism and had a healthy distaste for it." Schulberg himself had left the Party when his writing was brought under question - "I remember being told that my entire attitude was wrong; that I was wrong about writing; wrong about this book." He realized that within the confines of the Party he would paradoxically have to relinquish his freedom as an artist. "The Communist Party is a totalitarian society. You're under strict discipline. You're in a cell. You have special assignments every evening to work in a group. You have to request time off the write a novel." Many informers took the view that Communism circumscribed their ability to express themselves by limiting what could be expressed to what best promulgated the Party line.

Other cited the anti-Semitism of Soviet Russia as a motivator for leaving the Party and testifying for the Committee. Leo Townsend: "I had researched this and I made sure I was right....Many Jews were killed (in Russia) but secretly....oh and the Communists in the room just gasped - they didn't believe that, because a lot of them were Jewish, you know...they read only their own papers."

In his "A Note on Vocabulary," Navasky holds that an informer is "someone who betrays a comrade, i.e., a fellow member of a movement, a colleague, or a friend, to the authorities." This is the fine point of bias which this reviewer perceives in his otherwise admirable work. Someone else might express the definition of informing as a patriotic duty, something that one does to confound and destroy enemies of one's homeland. Yet even this bias has to be seen in the light of the subject matter at hand: the Cold War era and the bizarre personalities behind the HUAC hunts. It was simply not enough to confess to one's own youthful political follies. "Cooperating" meant naming names. The people who wound up as informers had been hounded and spied on themselves by HUACs creatures. They were in a net that was tightening by the day and it seemed for most that there was only one way to get out.

The human cost of the HUAC era is incalculable. Not only were artists deprived of work and the world of their creations, but "revenge and vindictiveness were found on both sides of the street." Those who informed, those who did not, those who did and later recanted, each has experienced his own private hell, and the sting of former friends' dislike and scorn. According to Navasky, David Raskin "has yet to forgive himself." HUAC's witnesses were later tagged to inform for the FBI in other matters including Immigration and Naturalization deportation hearings, making their original stand seem as shabby and unsavory as many considered it to be.

Navasky eloquently points out that "the informer travels through life with a social convoy, people whose opinion he values, whose judgment he trusts, whose norms he has internalized. Since in most cases the decision to inform was a wrenching one, self-esteem was often vulnerable to the disesteem of loved ones. Ultimately the only sanction that was experienced by virtually all informers and that persists to this day is the social penalty - the snub, the cut, the missing handshake, the silent treatment." Small things? Possibly. But they underscore the deep wounding on both sides, and provide recurrent reminders.

Sad, sad. But worth examining, this anomalous chapter in our country's history. If only to understand how it could be written again, in a newly fomenting context of hatred for an ideology that hates back. In the course of the HUAC investigations, there was no moral high ground - it was all a marsh land of fear, guilt, betrayal, and perceived but flawed heroism. No winners.

© 2003 by Barbara Bamberger Scott for Curled Up With a Good Book.

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