Toward the end of World War II, when he was on his way to Okinawa, Japan, in command of an all-black unit, Elliott Maraniss penned a long, heartfelt letter to his newborn son explaining why he would be away for so long. "For more than 200 years now, the American people have been fighting for liberty every time it was threatened,” he wrote. “They have been ever-hopeful and ever-striving for a free land of free citizens in a free world, in which every man could live in peace with his family and friends & neighbors. They have sought to make this a land of equal opportunity where men of all faiths and all creeds and all colors could live in security and friendship, and by their individual and collective efforts fulfill the great promise of this nation.”
The ardent patriotism evident in this young army captain’s letter home is remarkable; it also coexisted with an embrace of communism during a time of anticommunist fervor. Elliott Maraniss, who had enlisted in the military shortly after Pearl Harbor, was honorably discharged in 1946, returning to his wife and baby in Detroit and to his newspaper job at the Detroit Times. Six years later, by then the father of three, he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee after an FBI informant accused him of being a member of the Communist Party. Upon being served with the subpoena at work, he was immediately fired. In “A Good American Family: The Red Scare and My Father,” Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post associate editor David Maraniss movingly explores this period, tracing his father’s political radicalism, his appearance before HUAC, and its considerable effect on his father's career and on the family.
With both his parents dead, Maraniss can only speculate as to what combination of idealism and naiveté led his father and his mother, Mary, also a communist in the late 1930s and through the 1940s, to place their faith in the Soviet Union despite mounting evidence of the oppression and brutality of Stalin’s regime. He is certain, though, that his father, who became active in leftist politics as a student at the University of Michigan, “was driven by a quest for racial and economic equality, for the betterment of humankind, and believed that capitalism had benefited the rich at the expense of working people.”
When his father testified in March 1952, at the height of the Red Scare, he invoked his Fifth Amendment protections in answer to questions about his political activities and beliefs. His request to read a statement was denied, but the statement was filed among the committee’s documents in the National Archives, where the author unearthed it decades later. Of the House Un-American Activities Committee, Elliott Maraniss had warned, “Ostensibly designed to protect the government against overthrow by force and violence, it proceeds by force, terror, and threats to overthrow the rights of the American people.” Under FBI surveillance and blacklisted from journalism for five years following his testimony, he moved his family eight times in five cities as he and Mary struggled to get by.
In this searching book, Maraniss, who’s written biographies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, among others, earnestly weighs the impact of his father’s communist activities (which did not include advocating the overthrow of the government) in relation to what they cost him. “He had broken no laws,” he writes. “He had served his country at a time of war. He had paid his taxes. … [W]hat was the gravity of his evil and its likelihood to cause harm?”
Maraniss also powerfully contrasts his father’s story with that of HUAC chairman John Stephens Wood, a Georgia Democrat who was a onetime member of the Ku Klux Klan and, as a congressman, a committed segregationist. Maraniss unearths evidence of Wood’s malevolent role in the 1915 lynching of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory superintendent in Atlanta who was convicted, likely wrongfully, of the murder of a 13-year-old girl. Which man, Maraniss reflects, should we consider un-American?
His father had already abandoned communism by the time he was called to testify, but he remained a lifelong liberal. “In politics and journalism, he taught me to be skeptical but not cynical, to root for underdogs, think for myself, be wary of rigid ideologies, and search for the messy truth wherever it took me,” Maraniss writes of the man he deeply admired. In this case, the messy truth has inspired a bighearted, beautifully rendered book that will compel readers to consider how “American” was defined during a dark period of our history and, perhaps, how we ought to define it going forward.