Thursday, July 16, 2015

Harry recounts McCarthy-era case in our Greenbelt (Maryland) hometown

In 1952, Harry and his family had settled into the young city of Greenbelt, MD. The next year, he found himself immersed in a political drama involving both his community and his workplace.

Do you know anyone who was accused as a communist sympathizer during the McCarthy era in the early 1950s? “McCarthyism” hit close to home when I discovered the following informal story that Harry wrote for someone (unknown) in February 2010, when he was 88. It was part of a larger historical piece about his Pentagon office, from 1950 to1987. I'm sure Harry's extended family will be awed by yet another experience of his life.

In 1953, I came forcefully to the attention of the Secretary [of the Air Force]. Here’s what happened. This has nothing to do with my Air Force [civilian] career. You may recall that this was the era of Senator Joe McCarthy, who accused the State Dept. and the Defense Dept. of harboring a bunch of communists. Security considerations took precedence over everything else in DOD. Early in 1953, the Navy Dept. fired five people as security risks.

Now, at the time, I was working part-time as editor of a weekly newspaper in Greenbelt, MD, where I was living. I did that from 1950 to 1961, and Greenbelt was a predominantly democratic community of politically aware and activist democrats. It also had a hard core minority of conservatives, mainly centered in the local American Legion Post.

Eleanor Roosevelt, a supporter of Greenbelt, 
visited the new Center School in 1938. I was 
excited to find this original photo in Harry's files.

Greenbelt was a government town, built by the WPA [Work Projects Administration in the New Deal Agency] under FDR mainly for government employees, and managed and administered by government employees. Working on the community newspaper was a volunteer thing. All of the businesses in Greenbelt were cooperatives and, in the eyes of the conservatives, cooperatives and communists were closely related, although the most successful in the country in those days were the big farm cooperatives, organized and run by conservative republicans. The huge agribusinesses of today grew out of those farm cooperatives.

In 1953, the government decided to get out of the housing business. There were three towns in the country built by the government; one in [Greenhills] Ohio, one in Greenbelt just outside of Washington, DC, and the third in [Greendale] Wisconsin. The government offered to sell these towns to the residents if they could organize themselves and put up the money – otherwise, they would be sold to developers. The other two towns were sold to developers.

But in Greenbelt, we were successful in organizing a cooperative housing company and putting up the money, but there was stiff conservative opposition and some of those hardline conservatives accused the organizers of being communists. We were all renters, you see, and many of them did not have the money to put up to buy their homes, and they wanted the town sold to a developer so they could continue paying cheap rent.
Harry with Jeanette and his associate editor friend, 1953

Well, any rumor that someone’s a communist was dangerous in those days. The Navy fired five men as security risks, all of whom lived in Greenbelt and all of whom were among the organizers of the housing cooperative that was planning to buy the town. One of them was my associate editor on the newspaper and all of them were friends of mine. Three of them decided not to fight it. They just left town and moved to other parts of the country and started new lives. Two stayed and fought. One of them went public and became famous, in a way. They made a movie about his case called “Three Brave Men.”

The reporter from The Washington Post who covered the story won the Pulitzer Prize and went to work for The New York Times. The three brave men were: the guy who was fired, his lawyer, and the Assistant Secretary of the Navy who made the final decision to reinstate him, and defy Senator McCarthy. The actor who played the part of the main character was an Academy Award winner. He won the Oscar for “Marty”.

My associate editor fought it, too, but he didn’t go public. The problem for me was two-fold. First, I was associated with him and there was a lot of talk at that time about “guilt by association,” and second, the newspaper itself was accused of being a communist paper and I was the editor. All of which placed me under suspicion. And I had a Top Secret clearance from the Air Force, etc.

The Navy had scheduled a hearing for my associate editor and I offered to testify as Editor of the paper on his behalf along with the Minister of the Community Church and the local Chief of Police. But, before I did, I told my boss, the AA to Secretary of the Air Force, that I was going to do that and if it would embarrass the Air Force I offered to resign. He said let’s talk to the Secretary who, at that time, was Harold Talbott, which we did. Talbott said to me that if there is anything in your background that could lead anyone to believe that you’re a communist or are sympathetic to communism, tell me now, because we will put a special investigation on you and it’s bound to come out. I said I’ve already been investigated and cleared and my life is an open book. But, I said, I plan on being harshly critical of the Navy, and since I work for you, it might hurt you or the Air Force. And he said, if you’re clean I’ll back you all the way, and f--- the Navy.

Well, it took almost a year before a hearing was scheduled and I was called to testify. A guy named Adam Yarmolinsky wrote up a report on several of those security cases, including this one. At the hearing was the Navy’s Assistant Secretary, the Navy Vice Admiral who was the Navy JAG officer, and the Navy’s General Counsel, and a couple other Navy folks whose jobs I didn’t catch, and one person who operated the tape recorder. It was a formal hearing in a formal setting and I was sworn in.

They asked me a few questions about my background, my education, and my service in the army during the war. Then they asked me about my associate editor and about the newspaper, what my job as editor entailed, etc. The first half hour was just chatter, so to speak, when the tape ran out, and then the Assistant Secretary said to me, if you’d like to say anything off-the-record, while the tape machine is not working, feel free. So … this may not be exactly verbatim, but this is pretty much what I said to them – and I have told this to very few people before. …

To be continued next week ...


  1. WOW! I can't wait to hear the conclusion to this wonderful story.

  2. Harry's friend, Les Evjen, wrote:

    Sneaky, Elaine. You have the instincts of a mystery writer. Same time, same station?

    1. Les, I couldn't very well cut Dad's story to make it shorter -- not this one! And he just happened to have the perfect stopping point right in the middle! So, same time, same station -- next week.

  3. Harry's cousin wrote:

    I was pretty young at the time and am far from certain of the facts. But it seemed to me that the story went something like this: Some people (Harry's sister, who had just come back from Israel?) were sitting around their house singing some Israeli songs and someone heard them and reported them for "suspicious behavior". Apparently all went well and this went no further, but if this is an accurate memory of mine,it does speak to the fear and rampant paranoia of the times.

    Am enjoying the blog. Keep up the great work.

  4. One of Harry's nephews wrote:

    It does not surprise me that my dear uncle stood up for his associate while also taking care of his work relationships at the Air Force. He always had high standards and impeccable ethics. The amazing thing to me is that he could quickly assess a complex and growing problem, that dramatically affected his life, and then determine exactly the correct course of action. I love that MAN! He “walked the walk” and taught many others to do the same.