What the FBI Had on GrandpaBreaking News
tags: Red Scare, Cold War, McCarthyism, FBI, Spanish Civil War, surveillance, anticommunism, HUAC, antifascism, Howard Fast
I never considered my grandfather to be a danger to the republic, but J. Edgar Hoover disagreed. When I knew my grandfather, he was in his late sixties, lived on Fifth Avenue, and did not seem very interested in world revolution or overthrowing the US government. But Hoover never ordered the tap removed from my grandfather’s phone, because, as his biographer summarized the FBI view, Grandpa never stopped being “a dangerous radical out to destabilize race relations in the United States.”
To me, Howard Fast simply looked like a million other cranky old Jewish guys from the tristate area. He could have been an aging allergist from Westchester or a retired bus driver from Queens. He wore a shearling coat in the winter months and a wool cap on his bald head. He enjoyed taking the Madison Avenue bus and eating in diners. He did the crossword. Sometimes, he took me to his club, which occupied an old McKim, Mead, & White Renaissance revival building on West 43rd. It was filled with other elderly men.
My grandpa didn’t seem like much of a radical to me. Sure, he had opinions. Enormous opinions about almost everything. He hated Kirk Douglas, for instance, really hated him—even though Douglas had starred in the movie adaptation of Grandpa’s novel that made him famous, Spartacus. But to be outshone by a mere actor…that was unforgivable.
The only clue to my grandfather’s former affiliation as a Communist was that he was convinced that The New York Times was somehow against him because it was dominated by Trotskyists (it wasn’t). So what was Grandpa’s dangerous subversive activity? As he later told the Times—notwithstanding his suspicion of its infiltration by Trotskyists—in 2000:
I was in federal prison in West Virginia for three months [in 1950] for contempt of Congress for refusing to comply with a request of a congressional committee of Congress, the House Un-American Activities Committee. After the Spanish Civil War against Franco, a group of us got together a [second] group of well-to-do people who were sympathetic to the lost cause of a Republican state. We bought a convent in Toulouse and converted it into a hospital run by the Unitarians. It took care of the Spanish refugees who fled to Toulouse. There were many thousands of them and their families. We were asked to give the donors’ names and refused. All twelve of us were sent to jail.
His crime was silence, an unwillingness to play ball with the House allies of Joseph McCarthy, the anti-Communist, witch-hunting senator. Grandfather plead the Fifth, vehemently, and was held in contempt of Congress. But Grandpa hadn’t always been an enemy of the state. In fact, just a few years before he was jailed by the US government, he had been loyally working for it, writing propaganda for the Office of War Information at the American news service the Voice of America—in effect, selling World War II to the American people. Of course, for someone like my grandfather, a Jew of that generation, World War II was very different from any war before or since—serving in this one, against the Nazis, they very much considered their patriotic duty.