The compelling story of a teenage girl caught up in the throes of the McCarthy era.
Margaret Fuchs was thirteen in June 1955 when she learned that her parents had been Communists while working for the U.S. government in the 1930s and '40s. This book chronicles the years during which her parents were exposed and her father was subpoenaed before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Eventually he named names, and subsequently lost his job as a law professor at American University, and was blacklisted from teaching ever again. Legacy of a False Promise also details the author's quest as an adult to learn whether or not her parents ever spied for the Soviet Union.
Based on eight years of research using family records, FBI files, American University archives, personal interviews, and the recently declassified Venona cables, Legacy of a False Promise offers unique insights into the McCarthy Era. Most "red-diaper babies" who have written on the subject had parents who refused to give in to HUAC's demands. Singer's work instead recounts the shame and series of betrayals that her father's decision to name names brought to her family. Furthermore, it explores the campaign of the liberal anti-Communist movement to publicize its political position while defending a fired ex-Communist professor, the nature and activities of secret Communist underground cells, and the motivation of New Deal government workers who spied for the Soviets.
This is a poignant meditation on family secrets, father-daughter relationships in times of crisis, teenage loneliness in the midst of trauma, and the effects of parents' actions on the lives of their children. It also serves as a timely reminder of the dangers of sacrificing civil liberties in the name of national security.
|Publisher:||University of Alabama Press|
|Product dimensions:||6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Margaret Fuchs Singer is retired from a 35-year career in special education, and she lives with her husband, Michael Singer, in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Read an Excerpt
The Family Secret
Early June 1955; Washington, D.C.
I'm not sure when I first heard the pacing overhead that evening. Did my mother call my attention to it — the insistent, even rhythm of my father's footsteps back and forth, back and forth across the length of their bedroom floor?
"Your father needs to speak to you and Peter during dinner," my mother told me as she darted down the hall to the kitchen, two full grocery bags heavy in her arms. A familiar, dull anxiety ran through me; Dad's pacing meant trouble.
My father, a fifty-year-old, slightly built man with a prominent nose and thinning brown hair, was brilliant, intense, and gentle, a man familiar with anxiety himself. And depression. Not infrequently, he would withdraw from us, perhaps to mull over his lectures at the American University Washington College of Law; or maybe, for all I knew, he withdrew because of something we had done to cause him displeasure. My constant uncertainty about the reason for his unhappiness and my fear that I might be the cause often disturbed my sense of well-being and promoted in me an extreme sensitivity to other people's moods.
The house was silent that evening but for the sounds of my father's pacing and the commonplace bang of cabinet doors opening and closing in the kitchen as my mother emptied the grocery bags and prepared dinner. From where I sat doing homework, I could see her face, tight and drawn.
Peter, my sixteen-year-old brother, burst through the front door at 5:55, flung his taut, athletic body toward the dining room table, and verbally assaulted our mother before the meal began with a question sure to annoy. "What's for dessert?" he demanded, the door slamming behind him. Mom responded with impatience. "If I've told you once, I've told you a thousand times," she scolded. "If you're going to live in this house you'll learn to come in quietly." Without a word Peter turned, bolted from the room, and took off up the stairs, leaving a trail of clothes and books behind him.
At 6:05, the four of us sat down at the old pine dining table, handmade by Dad when he and Mom were first married and money was tight. Drawn to the aroma of lamb chops and spinach soufflé, we began our meal as my father started to speak.
"I have something I need to tell you," my father began. He looked away for a minute, tapping his fingers lightly on the table as if trying to gather his thoughts. Then he faced us again, his eyes intense with pain. "I don't really know where to start," he said. "In the late '30s and early '40s, your mother and I were members of the Communist Party. In a few days I expect to be served with a subpoena to appear before HUAC, the House Un-American Activities Committee; there may be publicity. I don't know what will happen, and I must ask you not to discuss this with anyone." For a few moments no one said a word; I could feel my heart racing, perspiration dampening my shirt.
I cannot speak for my brother, but my father might as well have told us that he and my mother were convicted felons. Or terminally ill. I knew little, then, about Communism, or Communism's troubled place in our nation's history, past or present. My parents, usually open to sharing ideas and analyzing important issues with us, were afraid to discuss it; my teachers did not teach it; and I, at thirteen, was not a reader. What I had learned about Communism I had learned from the media, which reflected our government's conviction that Communists were the ultimate enemy of the American people, an evil threat to the free world, a force determined to infiltrate our cities and take over the minds and the lives of innocent Americans, just like me.
One night several months earlier, while watching a TV newscast, I heard the anchorman announce that some "Communists presently held in American jails have offered to leave the United States if freed." In a moment of daring, I imagined, What would happen if I pretended, for just ten minutes, to be a Communist myself? No one would ever know my secret. That had been make-believe, a flight of imagination into a forbidden world; this was real. What would happen to us? I wondered. Would my parents go to jail? Who would take care of my brother and me?
"Why, Dad? Why did you do it?" I asked, my words filling the awkward silence. My father took a drink of water from the tall glass before him and started again. Slowly, patiently, he explained his motives for joining the Communist Party. He spoke about his desire to be part of a movement that promised positive changes in society, his need to be active in the fight against unfair labor practices and social injustice. "We never thought we were doing anything wrong," he said. "We certainly had no thoughts of overthrowing the government. We were idealistic then. And we were also naive."
As I listened my stomach tightened, queasiness taking over where hunger had been. I put down my fork and pushed my plate away.
At first, my father explained, idealism had sustained them along with the stimulating discussions and political action. But after a while it had become clear that the Party required close ties to the Soviet government, which was no longer our ally. In his government job at the National Labor Relations Board, my father found that being a Party member meant more and more secrecy and dishonesty, and the goals of the Party leadership became progressively more distant from his own.
My parents now felt they had made a mistake by following that path, that hidden life, my father said. They left the Party in 1946 and, gradually, severed all ties to people and organizations associated with it. This had been difficult; it had isolated them. It had meant ending relationships with many special people, some of whom I remembered, including my father's youngest brother, my Uncle Vernon.
I searched my mother's face for comfort. All of her attention was focused on my father's words, as if to emphasize their gravity. I looked at Pete. Next to me and across from Dad, he sat transfixed.
"When I go before the House committee," my father said, "I'm going to face the most difficult decision of my life. Because I feel I made a mistake, I have the need to acknowledge my error publicly. I want to speak about myself and everything I did. But I'm unwilling to implicate others, my friends and associates in the Party." Dad paused to let his words sink in.
We listened intently as my father began again. He shared with us his fear that the House committee might not let him speak exclusively about himself. If that were to happen, he explained, he would risk contempt of Congress, risk being sent to prison. His options in that situation would be either to invoke the Fifth Amendment and exercise his right to say nothing on the grounds that it might incriminate him or to talk about it all, everything and everybody. There would be no middle ground. Many people, some who never even joined the Party, were losing their jobs, he told us; some were in jail.
I felt myself drawn into my father's anguish as he went on describing this torturous dilemma and his wish to go on with his life and teaching with a clear conscience. He let us know that, in his view, "taking the Fifth" implied one had something to hide and meant not taking responsibility for one's decisions and actions. Furthermore, he told us, he was not technically at risk of incriminating himself, since the statute of limitations had run out. For him, "taking the Fifth" was not an acceptable course of action. There appeared to be no way out.
Finally my father ran out of explanations. My mother rose to clear the table. "Listen," my father said, as he handed her his plate, "I know this is hard for both of you. I'm sorry. I can only hope you'll try to understand."
Peter and I left the table and walked together through the living room and up the stairs to the second floor. Stopping as we reached the landing, he turned toward me. "Things seem clearer to me now," he said. "Remember when we were in Maine two summers ago? Remember when Mom and Dad, for no reason at all, canceled our plans to see a play in Blue Hill? It was so unlike them not to tell us why. Now I see there had to have been old friends at that show, people from the past, people they did not want to see."
Without waiting for a response, Peter turned, entered his bedroom, and closed the door. How I wished he would stay and talk just a little longer — keep me company in my confusion and despair. He didn't. Frightened and alone, I went into my room and shut the door.
There were my drawings, my favorite dolls, my photo albums. They seemed unfamiliar to me now, as if I had walked into the room of a stranger. I could hear the muffled voices from Peter's radio next door and, outside my window, I could see the muted blue light of dusk.
It would be forty years before my brother and I would again broach the subject of our parents' troubles.
"I don't know what will happen, and I must ask you not to discuss this with anyone."
My father's words of caution had the impact and finality of a judge's gavel cementing a verdict — topic of discussion closed, off-limits outside this house. At first I was puzzled by the gravity of my parents' warnings, but I soon learned that, in anticipation of testimony that could lead to contempt of Congress, my parents feared for our future. Whatever we knew and revealed to someone outside our home could later be used against us in the passionately American, conservative, and often anti-Semitic environment in which we lived. I never did feel at home in this community where my parents' liberal views stood out as strange, where houses a block from ours were closed to Jews, and where jeering boys called me "Jew girl" as I walked home from school. I always knew I was different. My family was different; we were outsiders.
My father often told a story that perfectly highlighted this difference for me. My family had lived in Denver, Colorado, during World War II. When we returned to D.C. in late 1945, my parents put a down payment on a house that would be their home for the next forty years. The house, located on an unpretentious block in the lovely northwest section of Washington called Palisades, was just off MacArthur Boulevard and within walking distance of the historic Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and the lush green, rocky-cliffed banks of the Potomac River. One Sunday morning, Dad took Peter to see the new house. Pete was excited, but his anticipation turned to apprehension when he got out of the car and saw our neighbor-to-be, Charles Lippert, a middle-aged post office worker, storm out of his house and call out to them.
"What religion are you?" Mr. Lippert demanded.
"That's none of your Goddamn business," my father said. Mr. Lippert retreated into his house.
Directing Peter to get back into the car and wait, Dad marched across the street and up the walkway to Mr. Lippert's front door; he knocked impatiently. Mr. Lippert opened the door. His wife, Georgia, stood by his side.
"I want you to invite me inside," my father insisted. "I have something to say to you."
"Well, all right, come in."
"I see you're wearing a Masonic pin on your lapel," my father said. "I thought the Masons believed in the brotherhood of man. That was no way to greet a new neighbor. I think you owe me an apology."
"You're probably right," Mr. Lippert acknowledged, halfheartedly. "It's just that I've invested a lot of money in this property, you see, and Jews throw chicken bones out their windows!"
Many evenings early in the spring of '55, my parents had walked together up our street, 49th Street, past the large, stately homes to Battery Kemble, the Civil War fort, now a park, a mile away. I learned later that on those troubled walks, my parents discussed plans for our care and safekeeping in the event of his — or their — imprisonment. With no extended family and few close friends to count on, my parents were forced to face this crisis alone.
In the days that followed my father's revelation, I drifted through my everyday life in a gloom-filled cloud, attending school as usual, pretending all was well. Within me, fear, shame, and isolation drained my energies. Avoiding my friends after school, I walked alone to the bus stop at 35th Street and Reservoir Road, determined to reach home as soon as possible, where I could be by myself. Many nights I cried myself to sleep while my mother stood by, concerned but unable to help. I wanted my mother to calm me: to sit at the side of my bed, put her arms around me, and stroke my hair as I tried to get to sleep. I wanted her to tell me that she loved me and that everything would be all right. But though I knew she cared, my mother could not offer me the reassurance I so desperately needed.
There was one exception to the strict injunction against speaking to others about our threatening circumstances and uncertain fate. One friend, Frances Lichtenberg, my mother's best friend and a liberal former Socialist herself, could be trusted with our confidences. My mother, recognizing my extreme isolation, gave me permission to talk with Fran if I chose to do so.
Frances and Henry Lichtenberg were my parents' closest friends, the people they trusted with our care during family emergencies, a couple that understood and sympathized with their political past. Henry, a serious, distinguished-looking, gray-haired man in his early fifties, was the youngest of twelve children born to Orthodox Jewish immigrants who had come to New York from Russia and settled on the Lower East Side. A well-established pediatrician and founder of the groundbreaking Group Health Association, an early model of organized socialized medicine in Washington, Henry had a charismatic personality and a reputation for being a great doctor. Years later, anticipating his imminent death from cancer, Henry would memorialize this greatness by posing for a sculpted portrait bust which he bequeathed to his family, lest they ever forget him.
Frances, his wife, was several years his junior. After a few years at home with her children, Jimmy and Louise, who were near me in age and more like cousins than friends, Fran established herself as a tutor of hearing-impaired children in a nearby public school system. Tall and elegant, she wore her short, natural, yet smartly coiffed gray hair pulled behind her ears, framing her handsome face. Fran was a passionate, energetic, and intelligent woman who could be warm and exuberant, a charming hostess. It was Henry, however, who dominated the Lichtenberg household, and Fran deeply resented his controlling nature and having to live in the shadow of his success. Frequently her frustration and anger poured out in uncontrolled rage, usually aimed at one of her own children, but sometimes spilling over to one of the many kids who gathered regularly to play at the Lichtenberg home. Any one of us who inadvertently said or did the wrong thing or who was in the wrong place at the wrong time could experience Fran's rage. We were all afraid of Fran; her outbursts were venomous and unpredictable.
One late afternoon, when I was alone at home gossiping on my parents' bedroom telephone with my school friend Louise Casgrain, I heard a knock on the front door.
"Hang on a second," I told Louise. "I'll be right back."
Eager to return to my call as quickly as possible, I ran downstairs and pulled open the door. Fran Lichtenberg stood before me, smiling. She greeted me warmly. She had come to drop off a book for my mother. Seeing her standing there, I completely forgot about my friend Louise, our conversation, and the phone left off the hook. I forgot also, in this time of intense isolation and fear, about my usual caution when in Fran's company. Only my urgent need to confide in someone, to share my fears with a person who might understand and comfort me, mattered to me now.
"Please come in," I said. She stepped inside and I closed the door behind her. She held the book out to me and I looked at it for a moment before taking it from her. I hesitated, searching for the words I wanted to say.
"Peggy?" she asked. "What is it? What's wrong?"
"Fran, do you have a few minutes to talk to me?"
Sitting beside me on the long, walnut-framed sofa, the soft, beige cushions propped up behind us, Fran, no longer the punitive authority figure I had come to know, became a sympathetic, consoling supporter. She spoke with me for more than an hour. Patiently, she described the political climate of the 1930s in New York when thousands of young people — many of them Jews with a family history of oppression and persecution — were drawn to groups and organizations dedicated to the cause of working people around the world. These young people saw the experiment in socialism and communism as a symbol of hope for the future, she told me. The way she spoke, from personal experience and with a touch of nostalgia, made me believe that what she said was true. Her eyes were kind and her simple explanations soothing.
Excerpted from "Legacy of a False Promise"
Copyright © 2009 Margaret Fuchs Singer.
Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
List of Illustrations,
PART I. Moral Dilemma,
1. The Family Secret,
3. The Subpoena,
4. The Word Is Out,
5. The Demand for a Public Accounting,
PART II. Betrayals,
8. Awaiting the Board's Decision,
9. Public Hearing, Private Coping,
10. Cause Célèbre: Fighting the Blacklist,
PART III. Discovery,
11. Breaking Away,
12. Red Diaper Babies,
13. "Fancy Naming a Baby 'Herbert'",
14. Secret Cells,
15. "But What about Your Mother?",
16. Too Close for Comfort,
17. Harry Magdoff: Larger than Life,
18. The FBI,
PART IV. Reckoning,
19. Naming Names,
20. Remembering Them,
21. Healing: Old Friends/New Family,
22. Legacy of a False Promise,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Margaret Fuchs Singer was thirteen years old when her college law professor father was asked to testify before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee regarding Communists working in the federal government. She did not know that both her parents used to be members of the Communist party.Legacy of a False Promise: A Daughter's Reckoning is her recounting of that period of her life. Sometimes books such as this tend to be not so well written, and a bit dry, but Fuchs writes a powerful, interesting story of her search for the truth about her parents.Fuchs' parents worked in the federal government in the 1930s and 1940s while members of the Communist party. While they believed in their cause, they still kept their politics hidden from their employers, something that I found intriguing. Singer writesMy father did not see in his Party membership a conflict of loyalties or a threat to the United States, but, instead, a way to participate in the nation's economic and social recovery.(p. 117)That seems to me like a rationalization. If you believe you are truly doing good, you wouldn't have to hide your beliefs.The Fuchs attended meetings, recruited other Communist Party members as federal employees, and reported back to a man higher up in the Party. When they became discouraged by events in Russia, they left the party. While they thought they had left it behind, when the government held hearings before Congress in the 1950s, Herbert Fuchs was called as a witness.The government wanted Fuchs to name other Communists who worked in the federal government, but he did not want to betray his former friends. His employer, American University, promised him that he could keep his job if he cooperated. He was told that his wife would be called to testify if he did not cooperate.With the memory of the execution of accused Russian spies Ethel and Julius Rosenberg fresh in his mind, Fuchs reluctantly appeared before the Committee and gave them the information they asked for, to protect his wife, his children and his job. He agonized over the decision, but felt he had no choice.The dean of American University reneged on his promise and forced Fuchs out of his job. Many people felt that Fuchs was a traitor to his country, and others felt that he betrayed his friends by naming names. It was a no-win situation for Fuchs.Singer vividly brings to life that time period in our history through her family's story. Her description of what it felt like as teenage girl, so confused by what was going on, her relationships with her family, and the fallout from her father's decision are heartfelt.As an adult, Singer works to find out the truth about her parents, seeking out documents and people who can help her. She is conflicted about this, even fearful about what she may find, but can't come to terms with what happened to her family until the truth is known. Legacy of a Promise will appeal to many different readers; fans of history and politics, as well as those who like personal stories about family and a search for identity.
Margaret Fuchs Singer was thirteen years old when her college law professor father was asked to testify before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee regarding Communists working in the federal government. She did not know that both her parents used to be members of the Communist party. Legacy of a False Promise: A Daughter's Reckoning is her recounting of that period of her life. Sometimes books such as this tend to be not so well written, and a bit dry, but Fuchs writes a powerful, interesting story of her search for the truth about her parents. Fuchs' parents worked in the federal government in the 1930s and 1940s while members of the Communist party. While they believed in their cause, they still kept their politics hidden from their employers, something that I found intriguing. Singer writes My father did not see in his Party membership a conflict of loyalties or a threat to the United States, but, instead, a way to participate in the nation's economic and social recovery.(p. 117) That seems to me like a rationalization. If you believe you are truly doing good, you wouldn't have to hide your beliefs. The Fuchs attended meetings, recruited other Communist Party members as federal employees, and reported back to a man higher up in the Party. When they became discouraged by events in Russia, they left the party. While they thought they had left it behind, when the government held hearings before Congress in the 1950s, Herbert Fuchs was called as a witness. The government wanted Fuchs to name other Communists who worked in the federal government, but he did not want to betray his former friends. His employer, American University, promised him that he could keep his job if he cooperated. He was told that his wife would be called to testify if he did not cooperate. With the memory of the execution of accused Russian spies Ethel and Julius Rosenberg fresh in his mind, Fuchs reluctantly appeared before the Committee and gave them the information they asked for, to protect his wife, his children and his job. He agonized over the decision, but felt he had no choice. The dean of American University reneged on his promise and forced Fuchs out of his job. Many people felt that Fuchs was a traitor to his country, and others felt that he betrayed his friends by naming names. It was a no-win situation for Fuchs. Singer vividly brings to life that time period in our history through her family's story. Her description of what it felt like as teenage girl, so confused by what was going on, her relationships with her family, and the fallout from her father's decision are heartfelt. As an adult, Singer works to find out the truth about her parents, seeking out documents and people who can help her. She is conflicted about this, even fearful about what she may find, but can't come to terms with what happened to her family until the truth is known. Legacy of a Promise will appeal to many different readers; fans of history and politics, as well as those who like personal stories about family and a search for identity.