The Bad Old Days

September 07, 2009

The Bad Old Days

Having just seen the film Julie and Julia, based on a book by Julie Powell and a screen play by Nora Ephron, I”€™ve certain unanswered questions about some of the historical details that went into the plot. Of the two main characters, the more interesting by far is the longtime interpreter of French cuisine for Americans, Julia Child. A sympathetic maternal figure, who, alas, could have no children of her own, Julia, seen in her rise to culinary fame and in relation to her doting husband, Paul, is played by Meryl Streep with superb, emotive skill. The pampered, self-absorbed blogger and Julia-wannabe Julie Powell, played by Amy Adams, pales in dramatic insignificance next to the nurturing Julia, who despite her ungainly gait is made to appear thoroughly feminine. The more of the film I watched, the more I admired Julia, and the more I despised her graceless imitator. Unlike Julia, Julie is depicted as a tiresome egotist, who is too fixated on her blogging and Julia-imitations to want children or to care much about her schlemiel of a husband.

There was, however, one aspect of the movie that kept intruding on the main plot and which contradicts the promo material about the film being “€œbased on two true stories.”€ At least half an hour of the narrative was devoted to the Red Scare of the 1950s. Moreover, the treatment of this subject had the feel of something manufactured by a Communist front organization”€”or even worse, by the anti-anti-Communist, PC Left. I have been checking through works on Julia Child, including Laura Shapiro’s popular biography, which came out two years ago, but so far I can find no evidence that her husband, a career diplomat and American intelligence officer during World War II, was an embittered victim of McCarthyism.

The movie, however, is interspersed with broad hints to the contrary, and these include Paul’s wringing his hands continually about the evils of anti-Communism. We are also presented with an ugly caricature of Julia’s father from Pasadena, California, a yahoo Republican from the hinterlands from whom Paul keeps a hygienic distance. Pop is dumb enough to think that there may be a point somewhere in McCarthy’s accusations. After a stint in China, doing intelligence before the Communist takeover there, and after ambassadorial posts in Paris and Bonn, Paul is called back to Washington and made to answer security questions. In the movie, the resulting interrogation is shown to be a painful indignity, one that shakes the sensitive Paul to his very depths. At the end of the questioning, before he is sent back, as someone in good standing, the chagrined Paul is asked whether he is a “€œhomosexual.”€ Paul denies that he is, but in such a way that we are made to believe that he is offended by the appalling homophobia of his interrogator.

Curiously, none of this enters Shapiro’s references to Paul in her biography of Julia; and not even that paradigmatic PC publication, the New York Times, brought up McCarthy and his White Terror in its extended obituary for Paul, who died in May 1994 at the age of 92. All that one can possibly glean from these sources is that Paul worked for a thread of years in the ambassadorial corps and then retired from government service and went to live in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We are also told that he had been in government intelligence before being sent to Paris and Bonn.

Moreover, even if those things that befell Paul Child after the U.S. government had decided to go after Communist agents in the state department really occurred, these measures would not have been an overreaction. Yes, Nora and Julie, there were Soviet agents in the government! Documents such as the Venona Papers and such books as the one by Harvey Klehr and Earle Haynes and more recently, M. Stanton Evans’s massively documented examination of Joe McCarthy and those whom he accused of being security risks, would suggest that we were snookered by Stalin and by those who served them. Not only did anti-FDR Republicans, like Julia’s dad, run to deal with security risks in the postwar years, Democratic president Harry Truman also tried to address the same problem, particularly since our misrepresented Soviet allies became our enemies after the war. And for all his boozy habits and off-the-cuff crudities, McCarthy, according to Evans, was often correct when he pointed to government employees with Communist backgrounds and affiliations. 

In any case the kind of security checks that Julie and Julia protest against had been commonplace during the Second World War, when government interrogators had been at least as rigorous in trying to smoke out fascist sympathizers as they would later become in looking for Communists. There also had been a House for Un-American Activities Committee then, but inasmuch as that congressional committee originally had gone after people whom our media and entertainment industry wouldn”€™t care to be around, we don”€™t hear much from Hollywood about “€œoutings”€ and “€œscoundrel times”€ until the Communists and their advocates became inconvenienced.

Further, the question about whether Paul was a homosexual was directly related to the operation of Soviet espionage. Soviet agents often recruited homosexuals, such as the Cambridge Five in England, who were not exposed until 1963, and said agents not only found lovers for those gays whom they recruited but also blackmailed them, if they seemed ready to defect, by threatening to expose their sexual practices. Needless to say, the Soviets did not have the sort of maudlin feeling toward homosexuality that was and is characteristic of their sympathizers in the West.

In August 1948 when former Communist and Times Senior Editor Whittaker Chambers accused the State Department official Alger Hiss of having lied under oath about his Communist connections, the entirely expected occurred. The pro-Soviet and more generically leftist press throughout the West went into high gear over one particularly embarrassing fact in Chambers’s past. In his youth Chambers had engaged in homosexual activity, and this supposedly discredited what he had to say about Hiss’s perjury. Indeed, this indiscretion continued to come up against Chambers, until a later but no less anti-anti-Communist Left decided to enshrine gay lifestyles in the 1970s. In light of what was learned about Soviet espionage in the 1950s and 1960s, the question directed at Paul Child was spot on.

I would finally note a point that Alan J. Levine develops exhaustively in Bad Old Times: The Myth of the 1950s (Transaction Publishers, 2008), a brilliant revisionist work on a supposedly repressive decade that its author was not able to have published by a major commercial press, for obvious reasons. Levine shows that in comparison to earlier decades in the twentieth century, the 1950s were a period of enormous upward mobility and major economic and social breakthroughs for ethnic minorities, including blacks. But even more significantly, it was a decade of academic and intellectual freedom relative to what we would later see in the U.S., once the social Left had begun to take over our universities, politics and media.

During the height of the McCarthy era, left-liberals continued to run our elite academic institutions, and they were free to browbeat and even ostracize rightwing dissenters, as happened to Willmoore Kendall, who allowed his contract at Yale to be bought out in 1963 after years of social isolation. In comparison to the PC control that has taken over our increasingly government-run educational system since the 1950s, the McCarthy era coincided with a brief moment of relative intellectual freedom. Moreover, as Levine demonstrates, there was screaming and publicized dissent against McCarthy’s methods throughout the period of his influence in the early 1950s, and by 1954, when McCarthy had gone after the army and the Eisenhower administration, many conservatives turned against him openly and decisively. But what should not be forgotten, Levine cautions, are the grave security problems and Communist infiltration that had given rise to McCarthy’s accusations. Down to the present, the liberal establishment has either denied or obscured the validity of these concerns, while invoking “€œMcCarthyism,”€ as a catch-all description for all security checks in the postwar period.

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Levine also stresses that Eisenhower did not run a rightwing administration but governed steadily from the center. Eisenhower was not even identified with the Republican Party until he was drafted by Republican centrists to run for the GOP presidential nomination, partly to block the candidacy of the anti-New Deal candidate Robert Taft. One would be hard-pressed to find anything specifically rightwing about political opinions that Eisenhower had expressed before becoming the GOP nominee, and his relation to hard-core Republicans remained problematic even after he was elected president.

Throughout his presidency, Americans voted in larger and larger numbers for pro-welfare state Democrats but they also endorsed Eisenhower, with overwhelming majorities, in two presidential races as a “€œmoderate,”€ prudential chief executive. Levine properly ridicules the misrepresentation of Eisenhower as a rightwing president guiding a ferociously anti-Communist country. He shows this misrepresentation to be as much of a fiction as the charge that McCarthy caused the 1950s to become the “€œbad old days.”€ It would not be over the top to point out that much of the hysteria now directed against the “€œMcCarthy decade”€ is an attempt to justify the Red Inquisition that both preceded and followed this period, namely the vice of repression that afterwards gripped American educational and cultural institutions”€”and which even now does not seem to be letting up. 

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