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Masses & Mainstream
March, 1950, p 62-68

The Big Finger

by Howard Fast


THE mills of the gods, in the course of their ironic and thorough grinding, came finally to Mrs. Esther Caulkin Brunauer, who was second to none in her sublime hatred of Communists. Mrs. Brunauer, an official of the State Department, must have felt reasonably secure in the new grace attained by heartfelt and articulate Red-baiting. Thereby, in today's America, does one enter those orthodox Gardens of Eden which have been landscaped, furbished and marked off for all the faithful by the Truman-Acheson-J. Edgar Hoover combine for the destiny-of-mankind. And therein, Mrs. Brunauer, bulwarked by her prejudice against Communists and anyone who did anything with Communists, must have planned to spend her remaining years in healthy comfort, sunning herself in the beneficent glow of the brave men who rule America.
But someone was not playing the game, and Senator McCarthy, who defines a Communist by his own peculiar lights, inelegantly put the finger on Mrs. Brunauer, and painted her one shade or another of the color red. (Here, I fear, a footnote for future historians who may ponder over this magazine is necessary; for they will quite obviously ask how a society continues to function when there is no limit to who can put the finger on whom. What, they may speculate, would have happened had Mrs. Brunauer put the finger on McCarthy first? I will go into this matter somewhat - but I am afraid that to understand wholly the historians pondering over this will have to study the workings of democracy in this land where freedom from fear is so highly esteemed that, in order to achieve it, fear of freedom is being instilled into all citizens.)
But to continue with the one who had been fingered, Mrs. Esther Caulkin Brunauer found that her troubles had only begun. Her husband, an officer at the Naval Bureau of Ordnance, discovered that his simple way of life had been inordinately complicated, not only by having to operate in one of those sacred places where husbands of even alleged Reds are not wholly welcome, but by a new and amazing attitude expressed by certain neighbors who preferred to be nameless. As his wife put it, the phone rang and a hoarse voice said, "Get out of this neighborhood, you Communists, or you will be carried out in a box."
I don't know what kind of neighborhood the Brunauers live in, but their neighbors are somewhat hasty and certainly impetuous in judgment. My own guess is that Mrs. Brunauer is about as much of a Communist as Mr. Jessup, which is just about as much of a Communist as Mr. Acheson is; but Mr. Acheson's own inept and screaming hatred of all things Communist has not saved either him or his department from the charge by Senator Bridges, Republican of New Hampshire, that Russia has planted a "Master Spy" in the United States government, and that this M.S. is using the State Department "as he wills."
Now it seems a little insane to take such a statement even half seriously, and one wonders what intelligent adult, even a Republican from New Hampshire, could for a moment dream that our State Department or the men who lead it would breathe a good word about Russia, even alone and in the privacy of their intimate chambers, as it goes. And if any move by our State Department is directed by a Russian M.S., my own humble advice to the Russians would be to throw the boob out - or at least let Standard Oil pay his wages.
But this particular horror of finger and counter-finger, informer and counter-informer, charge and counter-charge, this new grace of pimp, tout and renegade cannot be dismissed by any appeal to sanity. Something awful, indescribably awful, is happening in this nation of ours. It is a horror beyond the inanities of a Styles Bridges or a McCarthy; those are only reflections of something bigger, something that has so weakened our moral backbone that the virtues of a whole nation appear to be dissolving into an unspeakable slime. But not an unrecognizable slime, for we have seen both the slime and the horror in that particular degradation German capitalism created with the fine, guiding hand of Adolf Hitler.
A full picture is not a pleasant task, nor is there room for it here, but anyone who has been reading the newspapers even cursorily, will recognize this item, culled from the press on Tuesday, March 28, 1950.
It is one of a thousand similar items, and I choose it simply because it is at hand in today's paper. Datelined Borger, Texas, released by Associated Press, it tells that "reports of a non-virgin club which requires its teen-age members to have sexual relations are expected to come before the grand jury tomorrow. The Borger Herald, in a series of stories, said the non-virgin club operates in this way. Twenty to twenty-five high-school boys and girls belong. The members take an oath to have sexual intercourse at least once a week. The girls, some as young as 14, recruit all members, who pair off at club meetings by drawing numbers."
I quote this as a frame. Every day, in our press, there are a hundred such stories. And one cannot understand a Senator McCarthy separated from the general sickness of the society he helps to rule. If one should doubt the connection between a dissolution of morality in one place and a dissolution in another, let me quote from a man who, some years ago, wrote vigorously and boldly in defense of the land which nurtured him and gave him honor and fame:
"President Windrip, in his hotel bedroom, was awakened late at night by the voice of a guard in the outer room: 'Yuh, sure, let him pass - he's Secretary of State.' Nervously the president clicked on his bedside lamp . . . He had needed it lately to read himself to sleep.
"In that limited glow he saw Lee Sarason, Dewey Haik and Dr. Hector Macgoblin march to the side of his bed. Lee's thin sharp face was like flour. His deep-buried eyes were those of a sleepwalker. His skinny right hand held a bowie knife which, as his hand deliberately rose, was lost in the dimness. Windrip swiftly thought: Sure would be hard to know where to buy a dagger in Washington; and Windrip thought: All this is the doggonedest foolishness just like a movie or one of those old history books when you were a kid; and Windrip thought, all in that same flash: Good God, I'm going to be killed!"
Let me hasten to add, lest anyone should accuse me of insidious promotion of force and violence, that I quote from Sinclair Lewis' It Can't Happen Here. You will, if you remember that fine, imaginative book, recall the scenes where the whole rotten fabric of American fascism begins to crumble, where the fingering is done with knives and guns instead of klieg lights and Congressional Committees, where the thousand years of Adolf Hitler become less than a thousand days for the Chamber of Commerce gauleiters. I recommend it for re-reading and it would make fine bed-table company for the Truman-Acheson lads. There was insight in that book, for all that an older Sinclair Lewis would rather forget that he had written it as he suns himself in the Italian ivory tower he now occupies, muttering to a New York Times interviewer that nothing here at home is really troublesome.
I would say, Lewis, come home! By all that is holy, you cannot turn your eyes from the handwriting on the wall. Surely you love this big, beautiful land enough to cry out against the hell that is making. What does it portend, when day in and day our in our press we read that thirteen-year-olds kill brother and sister with guns, when veterans run amuck, when sex becomes not the rich and beautiful thing life meant it to be put a perverted sickness, a sour disease, when murder becomes so commonplace that it passes un-noticed, and when a sickly overlay of vulgarized religion is used to mask these pathetic obscenities?
Has all this no relation to the bold words of Raymond P. Whearty? Let me recall him to you, an Assistant U.S. Attorney who came before a Congressional sub-committee on appropriations this January past to ask for a round lump of money so that the detailed plans of the Justice Department might be pursued. And what were these plans?
"With respect to many of these persons engaged in subversive activities," said Mr. Whearty, "in line with our appearance before the committee last year, there is a program of extensive suits to prosecute members of the Communist Party who can be shown to be sympathetic and appreciative of its views. We prosecute them as individuals under the Smith Act." And then Mr. Whearty went on to point out that if the conviction of the eleven Communist leaders were upheld by the Supreme Court, this great workload of prosecution was "possible and indeed very probable."
Then Mr. Rooney, one of the Congressmen on the committee, asked Mr. Whearty, "Of the 21,105 cases now pending, how many of them would you say depend upon the outcome of the Communist trial in New York?"
And Mr. Whearty replied, "Roughly, 12,000."
So there it was. Twelve thousand cases of individuals to be prosecuted under the Smith Act on the charge of evil thoughts - with five years in jail as the reward for each conviction. Twelve thousand cases just like the case of the eleven Communist leaders, not to be prosecuted for action, crime or conspiracy - but for thinking thoughts re Marxism-Leninism!
You will note that where Mr. Rooney questions Mr. Whearty, it is in terms of 21,105 cases which the Justice Department has prepared for trial under the Smith Act. These cases depend upon the Supreme Court upholding the conviction of the eleven Communists, but Mr. Whearty seems not at all worried on that score. After all, the Supreme Court has upheld the conviction of Eugene Dennis for contempt of a Congressional Committee headed by the criminal J. Parnell Thomas, and has also upheld the conviction of Carl Marzani for no discernible crime whatsoever. Yet, in answer to Mr. Rooney's question, Mr. Whearty refers to only 12,000 cases. Where are the other 9,105? Well, here is Mr. Whearty's cool explanation:
"The others are cases in which action may or may not be possible. I would like to elaborate a little there. There are a number of cases in the department which are perfectly good trial cases, but can't be proven for reason that the sole witnesses to the cases are confidential informants and cannot be used as witnesses and those cases have to be canceled out."

THE finger is active, isn't it? Here are 21,105 cases ready to go. Are you included? Is Jessup among them - or Mrs. Brunauer - or Max Lerner - or Ed Sullivan - or Dean Acheson - or Truman himself? Is that fantastic? The boys and girls who so gleefully edit the New York Post keep lisping that no one could possibly, possibly accuse them of being Communists, for they will yield to no one in their slanders of Communists. They learn hard - hard indeed when you consider that only the other day their own beloved Dorothy Kenyon was fingered in no inconsequential way. And here is their hero, Dean Acheson, squirming under the finger of a Republican Senator from New Harnpshire. And that is no small finger and no petty stool purchased by the Justice Department for thirty a week.
To Westbrook Pegler, David Dubinsky, that enthroned and ennobled prince of Red-baiters, is more or less of a Communist, as Pegler has not hesitated to state, and to George Sokolsky, Arthur Garfield Hays is practically enfrocked with red flags. Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon discovered that a copious file on him was a part of Mr. J. Edgar Hoover's confidential records, and when he indignantly called the Justice Department to demand an explanation, he was told that the procedure was normal. Gossip around Washington had it that the Un-American Committee, to mend their own fences, had prepared dossiers on Justice Department and Administration people. There is no proof of this, but what fascinating speculations it gives rise to in terms of the action taken by the Justice Department against J. Parnell Thomas for his cheap crockery and petty fraud.
There has always been talk in newspaper circles that full dossiers on the Roosevelt family are in J. Edgar Hoover's filing cabinets, and while he would probably deny this, the rumor is remarkably persistent. The New York Post itself ran the story of one Mr. Daniel and the nightmare, Nazi-like persecution he experienced in Central Intelligence where not all his fervent Red-baiting prevented his being tossed out on his ear as a security risk - which can be translated into one or another shade of pink, red or crimson.
So if Frank Kingdon of the New York Post or Walter Lippmann of the Herald Tribune or Freda Kirchwey of the Nation or even Norman Cousins of the Saturday Review of Literature turns up on that list of 21,105 names, I should not be at all surprised. I should not, however, be pleased, for it seems to me full time for people like them - and indeed for any person of any good will in this land - to realize that these days call for a higher patriotism than any needed in the past. Once again, we will hang separately if we do not hang together - and if we hang together, then how easy, how amazingly easy it will be to make Mr. Hoover and his lads eat every one of those 21,105 indictments.
The other day I called one of the people mentioned in this piece. I am convinced he is a man of some courage. I pleaded with him to join in a small united-front action. He said that one cannot work with Communists. But underneath was the monstrous fear, not of Communists, but of the Communist will to oppose these dreadful things happening in our land. He could not have been unaware thee murderers have been freed because they charged their victims with Communism - in America, not elsewhere - that children have been taken from their parents on similar charges, that the vilest crimes have been condoned on the same nightmare basis. But the unkindest irony is that no retreat from the position of the Communists can save such as he. If the Communists go, not only he, but no good person in all this land will know peace or security or the simple virtues we once called American.
I say this price is too high. Here is the Mundt Bill, which makes even the Smith Act, by comparison, almost an innocuous thing - and it will become law unless every force of decency in America combines to oppose it. We can combine. We must. There has been enough of slander. We have the lesson of Germany staring us in the face. Redbaiting is not a diversion, it is a disease which has wrecked nations and destroyed millions of human lives.
We have a good land. It must be remembered as something else than the home of the big finger.


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