Why I Said No to Joe

Why I Said No to Joe

This essay, from the September 26, 1953, issue of The Nation, is a special selection from The Nation Digital Archive. If you want to read everything The Nation has ever published, click here for information on how to acquire individual access to the Archive–an electronic database of every Nation article since 1865.


IT IS annoying, at the best, to be hauled up before the McCarthy committee, even if you have the satisfaction of telling Joe to go peddle his papers. It is somewhat sobering, later, to receive letters from fine people commending you for doing what, after all, is only a simple and rudimentary act of citizenship. Their appreciation shows how far, in recent years, we havoc slipped down freedom’s hill.

In olden times–at least as far back as 1910, say–it was a cardinal point of Americanism that a man’s politics were his own business. Now they seem to be the business of any McCarthy, Jenner, or Velde who cares to stick his nose in. If a man’s home is his castle, a man’s mind is his own. Many Americans seem to have forgotten this. All the more honor to a new American, Albert Einstein, for reminding us that we have a duty not to cooperate with the book-burners.

One fine summer day a person who said he was Roy Cohn of the Senate Investigating (McCarthy) Committee, telephoned me to announce that I was summoned to appear. My crime: I had written books which, this voice said, had appeared in overseas libraries of the State Department Later I received telegrams from a person teletyped as “Joe McCarthy” which “confirmed telephonic directions.” (I hope I will be pardoned for referring to the gentleman as plain, simple “Joe.” That is the way he signs himself.)

I was summoned to appear in Washington on “Tuesday, July 9.” As this was an improbable date for 1953, I decided to pass it up. After Tuesday had come and gone, Joe was reported to have said that I was already “in contempt.” Later he apparently revised his offhand opinion and issued the kind of subpoena which all other Congressional committees regard as the normal means for summoning witnesses.

As I was determined not to enter into a political discussion with Joe, my appearance before his committee was short and to the point. I said, in effect, “None of your business.” My political affiliations, or lack of them, could be of no legitimate concern to him or his committee–that is, if our elected officials are in reality our servants and not our masters.

It is appalling that such an answer seems to be novel nowadays. Back in the 1600’s In England, Catholic kings, and queens, hacked off Protestant heads, and Protestant kings, and queens, hacked off Catholic heads, because, some stiff-necked people regarded their religion as their own business. Finally the English got around to agreeing that a man’s religion is no business of the state. In the 1700’s the agreement was extended to apply to a man’s politics. This was accepted as good doctrine in the United States until a few years ago. Now it appears that we must fight to get back liberties conceded. more than two centuries ago.

Of course the witch-hunters have been lurking around the corner from the earliest days. Usually the citizens had more guts than the witch-hunters At times, however, the balance shifted, and the Joes got the upper hand. After World War I the Industrial Workers of the World put it this way: “Free speech–say anything you want to, but keep your mouth shut.” Fortunately, for the wobblies this was mere irony; their free-speech fights are part of the great American tradition.

One has only to glance at labor history to see how far we have slipped. Workingmen back in the 1880’s and 1890’s expressed themselves with a freedom and vehemence that today, under the Smith act, would land them behind the stockades for twenty years. Gene Debs’s frank speech is now astounding to a generation brought up on the desiccated pap of denatured opinion. The principles of the Declaration of Independence and of the Bill of Rights, which seemed fresh only a scant thirty years ago, today are suspect as being if not outright subversive at least soft-headed. Jefferson is accused of being a sentimentalist.

IF THIS IS the Age of Cringe and Scatter, let us so pronounce it. Let us time-life-fortune the Bill of Rights into the sickly wisdom of 1953; let “free enterprise” be boldly proclaimed as the ultimate in Americanism; let the Nevinses rewrite our history so that John D. Rockefeller may be exalted.

I for one refuse to believe that freedom must vanish. To paraphrase Lincoln, it is possible to scare some of the people all the time and all the people some of the time; but the current hysteria will pass, and people will marvel that so many hapless wretches could have been burned for so little reason.

Take, for example, a current case. The State Department obtains the books of an author for its overseas libraries. The assumption is that royalties on these volumes are paid to the author. The further assumption, by McCarthy, is that a portion of these royalties is paid by the author to the “Communist conspiracy.” Ergo.

It can be, as in my case, that no royalties whatever were received as a result of the State Department’s acquisition of the author’s books. It can be, as in my case, that no none of the non-existent royalties were paid to the “Communist conspiracy.” Nevertheless, one can be haled before the McCarthy committee to answer an idiotic line of questioning based on these assumptions and winding up with the clincher: When you wrote these books bought by “the old Acheson State Department” were you a member of the “Communist conspiracy”?–whatever that may be, as defined by McCarthy.

In other times it might have been a matter of pride to a writer that his books were selected by his country for overseas libraries, as an exhibit of the American way of life. But today, if Joe sees fit, this choice may be the author’s open sesame to the federal penitentiary.

The excuse for this outrage is that Joe’s committee is empowered to inspect the economy and efficiency with which the government’s money is expended: With the budget running around eighty billion dollars a year, there may well be quite a bit of legitimate business awaiting a committee on government expenditures. Instead, Joe concerns himself with non-existent royalties on books and the non-existent percentage of these non-existent royalties paid to the “Communist conspiracy.”

The medieval schoolmen are said to have indulged in similar feats of logic-chopping, one such debate on a pinhead involved the standing room of angels. Joe’s involves human beings, and happy is Joe if the writer on his pinhead loses his contracts, loses his publisher, starves a while, and also spends some time in the hoosegow. That will teach him to write books and to assert his simple rights as a citizen.

McCARTHY, of course, is not too much concerned about writers, preachers, and other purveyors of opinion. He is busy fighting the future. If he can keep us occupied fighting for freedoms imbedded in the Constitution 160 years ago, he can keep us from examining the cause and cure of the crisis of our own times. Thus he can keep us from inspecting the rotting foundations of a system which acts as if it sees its perpetuation only through war–and the destruction of the human species.

McCarthy is busy at the moment befouling one of the finest periods of our history–the Roosevelt thirties, when people awoke with hope that they could do something to better their lot. The people’s faith in their own capacity and in their own leaders must be rooted out. Then only the McCarthys will be left as leaders.

That is the real meaning of this calculated campaign of confounded and confounding idiocy. The people must stand bemused and paralyzed.

McCarthy will fade, as other demagogues have faded, if enough of us refuse to be bemused and paralyzed. If a wretched governmental bureaucrat of the McCarthy type presumes to ask us our politics, it is fitting and proper to tell him to mind his own business. If the penalty for contempt of such demagogues and loyalty to the Bill of Rights is one to twelve months in the penitentiary, then when was the chance to fight for freedom ever offered so cheaply?

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