Amy Goodman: Today on Democracy Now we're going to talk to a life-long fighter against state oppression, who was jailed for his political beliefs during the witchhunts of the McCarthy era. Howard Fast is 83 years old, he's the author of more than 86 books, many you may have read when you were a student in school, or continue to read. Well, a few weeks ago, Democracy Now had the opportunity to go to Howard Fast's home in Old Greenwich, Connecticut, to talk to him about his life, and about his experiences during the McCarthy era.
You are listening to Pacifica Radio's Democracy Now, the Exception to the Rulers. I'm Amy Goodman, here with Jeremy Scahill, and we're sitting in the living room of Howard Fast, renowned author of historic fiction, and the most prolific radical writer of the twentieth century. His books range from Spartacus about the slave revolts against the Roman Empire to The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti, the celebrated case of the two executed anarchists. He's written more than 50 books including his memoir, which is called Being Red. Howard Fast was a war correspondent, jailed for his beliefs during the McCarthy era, and was also a dear friend of Paul Robeson.
Can you tell us about the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee?
Howard Fast: Well, you know, the first defense against fascism was in Spain, when Franco took his army, his Moroccan army, across the Straits of Gibraltar, and invaded Spain, actually invaded Spain to overthrow the Republic, the newly founded Republic of Spain. When that happened, the Spaniards, who were unprepared for a major war, fought against Franco, and Franco was very quickly joined by both Hitler and Mussolini, particularly by Hitler testing his stupid dive-bombers and his other weapons there in Spain. And ultimately Spain was defeated and a tremendous amount of Republican soldiers and their families fled north over the mountains, over the Pyrenees, to Toulouse.
Now a group of us, headed by Dr. Barsky, an incredible man, who really created the MASH units that we used in Korea, by taking a truck and turning it into an operating room, and driving it up to the front lines, and operating on the soldiers almost within minutes after they were hit. Barsky got a group of people together, raised money, and we had a very wide support, I always say everyone from Eleanor Roosevelt to Mrs. Lehman contributed to this, and we bought an old convent in Toulouse, and turned it into a hospital. And the hospital was maintained by the Unitarians, and we supported the hospital. So the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee was chiefly a money-raising group in support of this hospital in Toulouse. But we had a large list of contributors. And the House Committee on Un-American Activities, Mr. Rankin's committee, subpoenaed our books, which meant that everyone who had given a dollar to the... to our committee -- and this was at the worst moment of what we call McCarthyism today -- that everyone who had given us money would be subpoenaed by the House Committee and would suffer through their subpoena. We couldn't do it. So we refused to surrender the books, and we were all sent to jail. We went... we fought it all the way up to the Supreme Court, which refused to take our case, and finally we went to jail in 1950.
What is very interesting is that in the record of my hearing, they expunged the following material. In the course of their questioning, as they did with everyone, they asked me whether I was in the service of a foreign agent, or was I a foreign agent. And I said "Yes, I'm in the service of an authority." And they said "Is this authority outside of the United States?" I said "Yes." They said then, "Do you obey orders from them?" I said "Yes." And at that point they got so excited I thought they would pop their skins because they had finally found... and they said "Are you ready Mr. Fast, to name the authority?" And I said "Yes, I'll name the authority." They said "Very well, name it." And I said "God." They said "Get that bastard out of here!"
I'll give them a shred of the doubt, that they were referring to me and not to God. So that was my high moment. And they expunged it from the record, which I felt very bad about. But these were Star Chamber proceedings, no lawyer was allowed to be with you, you were there all alone, and it was difficult. The question was, they wanted to entrap me, I had nothing to hide or to be entrapped with... but they were quite a group of men.
Amy Goodman: Legendary author Howard Fast. We'll be back with him in just a moment, here on Pacifica Radio's Democracy Now.
You are listening to Pacifica Radio's Democracy Now. I'm Amy Goodman, with Democracy Now's Jeremy Scahill as we continue our conversation with author Howard Fast, at his home in Old Greenwich, Connecticut.
Jeremy Scahill: Many of your books are semi-autobiographical, and you portray in a number of books the experience of people who were jailed during the McCarthy era. Could you talk about some of the hardships that people jailed during the McCarthy era faced while in prison?
Howard Fast: Well, this is somewhat different. See, the Commissioner of Federal Prisons then... In the first place, I believe there were only 17,000 people in Federal prisons then. Today, we have imprisoned, or going to prison, or on parole, over 2 million people, the largest amount of prisoners of any country in the world. As a matter of fact, every prisoner costs the American tax-payer $35 a day. So multiply the days of the year by $35 and multiply that by 2 million and you get a notion of what our lunatic drug policy, our demented prison policy is costing us.
But when I went to prison, the Federal prisons had a wonderful man as the top Director of the Federal Prison System. His name was James Bennett, and Bennett called a group of psychologists together, of penal psychologists, and criminal psychologists, and asked them to design a modern prison. And the first thing they did was to say you had to do away with the wall. If you had no wall, no prisoner could escape. And they set up this prison at Mill Point in West Virginia. It covered about, oh I would say 10 acres, and there were army bunkhouses there, no door was ever locked, no wall, just a circle of signs, and each sign said "Stay inside."
Now the prisoners sent there -- no prisoner had more than two years left to serve when he was sent there -- and the penalty for escaping was five years. So in the 18 or 20 years that this prison existed, only about a dozen men had tried to escape, and when they escaped, they had just walked out, gone home to whatever town or village they came from, and the warden would phone the local sheriff and he'd pick them up and send them back.
Everyone worked at the prison, and while I hate prison, I hate the whole concept of prison, I must say this was the most intelligent and humane prison, probably that existed in America. And the warden, a man by the name of Thieman, was a very decent man, a very decent man. And so, I hate to say that I enjoyed the experience, but I'd always had a feeling that a writer should be in prison for some time at least, just so you write about, so you could write about what it means to be in prison. I think a writer should see a little bit of prison and a little bit of war. Neither of these things can be properly invented. So that was my prison.
Now the book you refer to is called The Pledge, and I tell the story of a man who is sent to this prison, because he refuses to name names before the House Un-American Committee. He was not raped, but he was -- I selected the one prisoner in our prison to use as a model for this, who was a kind of an insane thug. He worked in the garage, prison garage, so I set out a confrontation between him and this man. But aside from this, I have no... I have serious complaints about being -- my being sent to prison, because I had done nothing to be sent to prison -- I committed no crime -- but I have no complaints against the prison itself.
Amy Goodman: We're talking to Howard Fast, who was written many books throughout the 20th century, that really chronicle this country, not to mention events throughout the world and over the centuries. We'll be back with him in just a minute, here on Pacifica Radio's Democracy Now. You're listening to Pacifica Radio's Democracy Now. I'm Amy Goodman, with Jeremy Scahill, and our guest is author Howard Fast, or I should say we're his guests, because we're sitting in his living room in front of an open fire, and I won't let the listeners know, Howard, that you smoke. We'll move on from there.
Howard Fast: But only cigars.
Amy Goodman: We'll forgive you anyway. I wanted to ask quickly about some of your earlier works, for example, The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti. For young listeners today, Sacco and Vanzetti, I bet, does not ring a bell. Why were they, these two anarchists, significant in your life, and in the history of the United States?
Howard Fast: Well, they were significant because their case -- and they were both put to death -- their case was one of a great many innocent men who were put to death or sent to jail for long periods of time on the basis that they opposed the government.
Now an anarchist is not a bomb-thrower. Anarcho-syndicalism is a way of thinking, it's a movement, and what it means, in the crudest, briefest way, is ownership of factories by the men who work in these factories. So the anarchist movement is not essentially -- has nothing to do with this vision of anarchists as destroyers or bomb-throwers.
Sacco and Vanzetti were two Italian working men, who preached, to some extent or another, the anarchist philosophy. For this they were framed for a murder that they did not commit, and the evidence against them was so small, so poor, and so manipulated, that it really roused the conscience of America. And thousands of men and women, in the 1920s, late 1920s, were drawn in this movement to save Sacco and Vanzetti. And it was futile, and they were put to death.
I wrote the book because this was the kind of a drama that had meaning far beyond the contents of the story. It might have been a story about John Brown, who was also put to death, for his attack on the slave holders. It could have been the story of Joe Hill, who was shot to death by a firing squad in Utah, because he was a leader of the mine workers there. The story was repeated over and over throughout our history, but I felt that by telling the story of Sacco and Vanzetti, it could be highlighted.
Jeremy Scahill: Could you talk about the impact that the execution of the Rosenbergs had on you?
Howard Fast: Well that, that is something that stays with me. I don't know how much of it is known now, but certainly every listener remembers that what's-his-name the CIA -- who betrayed the CIA for Soviet money, and who sent a number of CIA workers to their deaths, did not get the death sentence. And the Department of Justice G-man who went into being a spy for the Soviet Union and was finally caught, did not get the death sentence.
The death sentence was reserved for the Rosenbergs. And there's much I could say about the Rosenberg case. The movement to save the Rosenbergs was begun by a man called Julian Trupin, T-R-U-P-I-N, a wonderful, wonderful man, who was one of my dearest friends, and myself. We began that movement, and it grew from there, and we did it because we felt that under the circumstances, they were not guilty. There's a long involved story to this, and I don't want to take up the rest of this interview with it, but I must tell you this, that...
I went to my dentist during -- I can't give, I can't give the exact date -- but it was just before Judge Kaufman pronounced the death sentence on the Rosenbergs. As I sat in the waiting room of the dentist, a man came out wiping his eyes, and walked through, and left. The dentist came out, he said "Howard, you know who that was?" I said "No, who was it?" "That was Judge Kaufman." Then the dentist tells me that on the dentist's chair, in the dental chair, he told the dentist that he was called to Washington by President Truman, and that Truman showed him a folder which contained enough evidence against Kaufman's brother to send him to jail for the rest of his life for tax fraud. And he said "Make your choice. Either you send the Rosenbergs to their deaths, deliver a verdict of death in the electric chair, or your brother spends the rest of his life in jail."
Now my denist... Kaufman said to my dentist, "I'm going out of my mind," he said, "I pleaded with Truman that if I do this I will be an outcast among the Jews for the rest of my life. Don't lay this on me!" Truman showed him no mercy. "Either your brother goes to jail, or you'll sentence the Rosenbergs to death."
My dentist said to Kaufman, "You can't ask me about what you should do. For God's sake, go to your rabbi." He said "I went to my rabbi and the rabbi said I must follow my own conscience." Which was the very neat way of getting out of it.
Anyway, that was the incident that happened in my dentist's waiting room. I don't believe many people know about this story.
Amy Goodman: That's what I call "filling in history."
Howard Fast: Yes, it fills in a bit of history. And Kaufman sentenced them to death, and they died.
Jeremy Scahill: In 1953 you were awarded the Stalin International Peace Prize, and Paul Robeson actually presented it to you. Now I know that you had trouble with the non-agression pact signed between Stalin and Hitler, and you also were influential in cancelling the visit of a Russian musician who was going to participate in a concert with a Nazi supporter. Could you talk about how you ended up breaking with the Communist Party?
Howard Fast: Well, I would say that less than "breaking with the Communist Party," the Communist Party broke -- it ended, it came to an end -- the Communist Party as I knew it, that small party in America, came to an end with the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party. This was the Congress in Moscow where Khrushchev spoke for several hours. He delivered a speech of 20,000 words. There was a Hungarian Communist present, and this Hungarian sold his copy of the speech -- the speech was only given to those who were there, at this Congress. He sold his copy to the CIA, and they gave it to the State Department, and the State Department gave it to the New York Times. The editor of the New York Times called Johnny uh, well he called the editor of the Daily Worker, and he said "We have the Khrushchev speech, do you want it?" He said "We're going to publish it in tomorrow's paper in full, 20,000 words." And Johnny said "Yes, we want it." And he called a meeting of the whole staff, and we sat there, and this was read to us. And we heard this speech, and many of us wept. Because we did not know, and would not believe, the truth about the Soviet Union.
We had erected a Socialist state to our beliefs and to our dreams, and this for us was the Soviet Union. And we heard this speech read there, and a wonderful man, a good friend, had been the Daily Worker correspondent for Moscow for two years, and he said to Johnny Gates, "Do you believe now that if I were caught with a copy of the New York Times in Moscow I would be sent to prison?"
Then Joe told us this story he had heard in Moscow, that Stalin always kept a revolver by his desk, and when a woman's committee for relief in the Ukraine, where there was a famine, begged Stalin's wife to go to him and beg him to send food to the Ukraine, she went to him, she dropped to her knees and wept and pleaded with him, and he took his revolver and shot her through the head. When we told this story to the New York Times, they refused to publish it -- they said "It's unbelievable, and we can't publish something that's absolutely unbelievable." It was unbelievable to us too, but we knew it was the truth, because Joe Clark, our correspondent in Moscow, got it from sources that knew it was the truth.
With that meeting of the staff of the Daily Worker, I think the Communist Party of America came to an end. The next day, the Daily Worker was the only paper in the world that published the full 20,000 words of Khrushchev's text, and once that was published, there was no more Communist Party. But we had to publish it -- there was no way we could not publish it.
Amy Goodman: Howard Fast, acclaimed novelist and author of more than 86 books. Speaking to him in his home in Old Greenwich, Connecticut. If you'd like a copy of today's show you can call 1-800-735-0230 for a cassette copy, that's 1-800-735-0230. We'll be back with Howard Fast, in just a minute, here on Pacifica Radio's Democracy Now.
This is Pacifica Radio's Democracy Now. I'm Amy Goodman with Jeremy Scahill as we continue our conversation with Howard Fast, activist, novelist, author of more than 86 books. Having been a member of the Communist Party for more than a decade, how did this paradigm shift affect your world view and affect your writing?
Howard Fast: Well, I had already felt what it meant to be blacklisted with Spartacus. No publishing company would publish Spartacus. I published it myself, and it became a bestseller.
Amy Goodman: And Spartacus was about the slave revolt.
Howard Fast: The slave revolt in ancient times, against Rome. After I left the party, it made front page news in the New York Times, and the blacklist for me ended. But what really ended the blacklist, smashed it to shreds, was the making of the movie Spartacus. Because Dalton Trumbo, who wrote the screenplay along with me -- he wrote part of it -- I wrote about a third of it -- Trumbo was also known as a member of the Communist Party and had been imprisoned, and his name was on the screenplay and... The picture broke through, and when Kennedy played an early version of the picture at the White House, then that was the end of the blacklist.
Of course the real end of the tyranny of that time, J. Edgar Hoover and Senator McCarthy came when Eisenhower was elected president. And while people don't give him the credit he should have a lot of the credit, of making short shrift of McCarthy and the Army hearings. Actually, although it's little understood, what we call the McCarthy time, was really the Truman time. Truman issued an executive order, for every non-elected official, to take a loyalty oath in which you swore that you were never a member of the Communist Party or an associate of anyone who was a member of the party, and this spread like wildfire -- state after state picked it up. And literally hundreds and hundreds of teachers lost their jobs and became unemployable. It wreaked havoc in Hollywood, as most people know, and for years some of the best people in Hollywood could not find work. It was picked up by a supermarket magnate who published a book called Red Channels which had the names of everyone who had been accused of being a Communist. Also included was the name of the then Secretary of State and a number of other people in the government who was as far from being Communists as Truman was. But I think that the bomb that finally exploded this was the film Spartacus.
Jeremy Scahill: Now there were some people that came out of the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings strengthened by their experience, and you talked about your jail experience, but there were others whose lives were absolutely devastated. Could you talk about some of those lives, of people who were devastated by the House Un-American Activities Committee, whether it was by their careers being ruined or by the fact that they had talked to the committee and perhaps named names?
Howard Fast: It worked both ways. One of those who named names, Elia Kazan, suffered for years, and...
Amy Goodman: Why did he do it?
Howard Fast: I think any of those, all of those who did it, were afraid. You know, it's great to be a hero when your country is behind you, and the flags are waving, and the media is trumpeting your glories and so forth, but to be a hero when you're alone in the House hearing room, and to know that if you don't name names you will never work again in your profession, that you will be ruined financially, that your friends will shun you, this is something else.
At least three people I know of at the time, killed themselves after this. One of the men who killed himself had named names, two others didn't name names, but they were so thoroughly ruined in their craft that they saw no way out. If you were a teacher you would never teach again at any high school, college, university. And fear is a funny thing. You never know how afraid you can be until you confront a situation which threatens you, and it threatens in a variety of ways. So people did not name names and suffered, people named names and suffered again. It was a strange time that's almost impossible to recreate today.
Amy Goodman: Again our guest, renowned author Howard Fast. Another chapter of history is one that continues through today and it's how we ended up talking just a little while ago on Democracy Now, and it is the story and life of Paul Robeson, who was a dear friend of yours. Paul Robeson who you knew through these very difficult times. And I was wondering as we move into the hundredth anniversary of the birth of the great activist, scholar, actor, singer, athlete, Renaissance man, who was Paul Robeson, if you could talk a little about your friendship with him?
Howard Fast: Paul was an extraordinary man. I'll repeat some of the facts that should be well-known now, and I hope will be better known. He was the first black man to play on a football team of Ward College. He was a brilliant athlete, and a brilliant scholar. He was second or third in his class, and he delivered the validictorian speech. He then went to law school and got his law degree and passed his bar. When he sang at various opportunites that he had then, as a young man, he realized that he had a unique voice. I don't think there was ever a voice like it.
He dedicated himself to the struggle against racism. He wrote his validictorian address on the question of racism. He never veered from that struggle. He supported in the worst Senator McCarthy days -- he supported the handful of people who refused to be silenced. For this he was called before the Un-American Committee, which -- whose questions he refused to answer. Internationally he was too gigantic a figure to be put in jail. It wasn't practical, so they did not proceed against him. But this was a man who before he went before the House Un-American Committee, a day or two before, had dinner at my house, and he said "What am I going to tell them when they ask me whether I'm a Communist?" And I said "You tell them you're not a Communist, you never were a Communist." He said "But then, I've sung before the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in Spain, I've sung for the Spanish Republicans, I've sung for the Soviet Army that liberated Germany, I've sung everywhere, and all of those people think I'm a Communist. And if I go down there and say I'm not a Communist, how will I ever face them again?" The result was that he simply refused to answer their questions. Again, I could go on and on talking about Paul Robeson.
Amy Goodman: But just to clarify on that point, it wasn't that he wanted to deceive people into thinking he was a Communist, right? But rather that to say he wasn't was to say that there was something wrong with them?
Howard Fast: He didn't want to face the fact that he had never joined the Communist Party. "How could I explain it," he asked. Now that's an odd thing to think today. The way history unfolds via the media. But history is one thing, and the media is something else, and the two of them rarely connect.
Amy Goodman: Would you include Paul Robeson among those who were broken by the McCarthy period?
Howard Fast: Yes, he was. Utterly broken. After the Committee called him, he could not sing in any concert hall, could not play in any film, could not act on any stage. The only place he could sing was before left-wing audiences or in black churches. He was terribly disheartened, terribly broken by it. He could sing in Europe. And he did, to overwhelming crowds. But that is different. During the blacklist, my books were published everywhere in the world but in America. But that meant nothing to me. If the Czechs published my books I couldn't read Czech, if someone else published my books I couldn't read the reviews. I wanted them published here, in America. And that couldn't be done.
Amy Goodman: Kind of like hearing an echo of your own voice.
Howard Fast: Yes, only an echo. I was more fortunate than most, because my books could be published, and I could get royalties from abroad -- most of them couldn't.
Amy Goodman: I heard you recently speak at Long Island University, which had an all-day retrospective or series of speeches about Paul Robeson, and you talked about the Peekskill concert, when he was able to sing before thousands of people. But the price that everyone paid for that concert...
Howard Fast: Yes, that was a terrible incident. A great crowd gathered to hear him speak in these picnic grounds, and we had a wall around the place, a wall of human beings, and a dozen men around Paul, because they had threatened to kill him.
Amy Goodman: Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade? Fighting Spanish Franco?
Howard Fast: Most of them were veterans of the Lincoln Brigade, most of the men around Paul. They did root out of the woods, form the hillside above the valley, two men with rifles, who were there to kill Paul. The police would not arrest them, and nothing happened to them. The concert went peacefully, and Paul sang his heart out. But meanwhile the hoodlums, protected by the police and state troopers, had gathered piles of rocks at every overpass leading out of the place, and as the people left, their cars were hammered by rocks and smashed, and dozens of people had to be hospitalized, and it was a terrible scene. This was an enormous incident, which is totally forgotten. Not even a footnote in the history books of the times.
Jeremy Scahill: Howard Fast, how do you want to be remembered by generations to come?
Howard Fast: To remember me will not accomplish a great deal, but I think to read the books that I have written... These books have a power of their own, an existence of their own, so the blacklist is just wearing off. I know that in a number of colleges they're beginning to teach courses in my work. That's something new. When I'm dead, and if the books are around, that's more than I could have ever dreamed of.
Amy Goodman: Well I'm happy to note, that despite your smoking of that cigar, you're not dead, and you grace us with your presence -- you continue to grace us with your presence. And I want to thank you very much for spending this time with us.
Howard Fast: I only smoke cigars when I work, and being interviewed is very hard work. But thank you, thank you so much for letting me get some of this off my mind. Do you think you have enough?
Amy Goodman: Well, Howard Fast, we will never have enough of you or your work, and again, we thank you.
Well folks, that does it for this edition of Democracy Now. If you'd like to order a cassette copy of this interview with Howard Fast, you can call the Pacifica archives at 1-800-735-0230 -- that's 1-800-735-0230. Howard Fast, the author of more than 80 books, including such classics as Freedom Road, The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti, and Spartacus, which was made into a famous film with Kirk Douglas. In fact the music you've heard throughout today's show is from that film. Spartacus, the original sound-track.
Democracy Now is produced by Dan Coughlin, with Jeremey Scahill, Errol Maitlin engineered, Michelle Garcia is our Webmeister, Julie Drissen is our Executive Producer. If you'd like to write to us you can write to our e-mail address, it's email@example.com, and we are broadcast on the Internet -- just go to www.pacifica.org. Thanks for listening to another edition of Pacifica Radio's Democracy Now, from the studios of WBAI in New York, I'm Amy Goodman with Jeremy Scahill.