Memories of Dark Days

No one in America misses the days in which its congressional witch hunt petered out under the weight of its own paranoia and turned toward its own.

I grew up in Washington, D.C., at the height of the Cold War. Fear of Soviet aggression and nuclear war was pervasive. Unprincipled politicians built careers on people's fears.

I was 10 when my mother was summoned to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities - the twin of Joseph McCarthy's Senate committee. My mother refused to answer whether she or her brother had been members of the Communist Party more than 20 years earlier, around 1930. She cited her constitutional rights.

In the days that followed, my mother was fired from her job as a teacher at a private elementary school. Her brother, my uncle - who was the real target of the investigation that so casually incriminated my mother - was fired from his senior position at the United Nations, due to American pressure on the secretary-general. My mother was idle for two years until another school dared to employ her. My uncle tried unsuccessfully for six years to make a living in America until despair forced him abroad, where he found work as a thoroughly capitalistic economist and got rich.

Were there communist spies back then in America? Yes, indeed. The man who fired my mother, a senior U.S. government official who chaired the board of directors of the school where she taught, turned out to be a spy, it was revealed years later, after his death. The congressional investigatory committees did not find him and his fellow spies. Even the FBI missed some of them.

The congressional committees were nourished solely by fear of "Reds"; they sowed panic, destroyed the careers of creative, law-abiding and moral patriots, and hurt their families.

What does a 10-year-old do in such circumstances? In those days, parents didn't reveal very much to their kids. I drew mainly on subtle hints. At one point, I understood that my mother, who had immigrated to the U.S. around 1920, feared being deported. As for the unemployment forced upon her, I blamed myself: For years, I believed that my idle mother spent two years at home because I demanded it - I didn't want to be a latchkey child - and that she only returned to work because I realized she was bored.

In time, I and some other children of the persecuted reacted in an extreme manner. As a university student, I searched for a more suitable identity: After much intellectual turmoil I settled on "Jewish national" and immigrated to Israel - a rare act in those pre-1967 days. In an incredibly ironic move, my mother recruited her brother to persuade me not to go. He revealed that after his dismissal from the UN, the Israeli Finance Ministry had offered him a senior position if only he would come, but he turned them down. Then there was the cousin who joined the Weathermen, a terrorist movement, planted bombs and lived for years in the underground in America.

The congressional witch hunt eventually petered out under the weight of its own paranoia: It began to search for communists in the U.S. Army and other official institutions until even its supporters became fed up. No one in America misses those dark days.

At the height of the persecution, the movie "High Noon," the best Western ever made, appeared. Its screenwriter, Carl Foreman, also fled abroad when the same HCUA that questioned my mother fingered him and denied him the capacity to make a living in the United States.

Foreman sought to deliver a message through the movie to the American public. The film's hero, the sheriff, is unable to recruit deputies from among the townspeople to help him confront a gang of brutal outlaws, who threaten to take over the place. Everyone is afraid. Everyone invents clumsy excuses. In despair, the sheriff turns to his predecessor, an old man whose rheumatism has gnarled his gun hand, and asks him, "What should I do?"

"It figures," the old man says. "It all's happened too fast. People need time. They gotta talk themselves into it ... Maybe because down deep they don't care."

Sixty years have passed. I went halfway across the world. And now it begins again, right here in Israel.

Yossi Alpher is the Israeli editor of He served in the Mossad and was director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies.