By Anthony Cody.
This week a Trump surrogate, Carl Higbie, cited the unconstitutional internment of Japanese Americans during World War Two as “precedent” for how potentially disloyal Muslims might be dealt with. Last summer, Newt Gingrich, now in Trump’s inner circle of advisors, and a possible choice for Secretary of State, proposed reactivating the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).
Teachers are being told that they must not exhibit “anti-Trump bias,” in an effort to normalize the aberration that has occurred.
This sort of discussion is activating the fears of many Americans, including myself. We have been through this before.
My parents, Pat and Fred Cody, were forced to flee the country, to move to Mexico City, back around 1950, in order to avoid being forced to testify before HUAC.
My father was born in 1916 in West Virginia, and struggled to get an education in the years before the war. After Pearl Harbor, my father enlisted in the Army, and was stationed in England, where he worked near London at Bletchley Park, preparing soldiers who were being airdropped behind enemy lines in occupied France. My mother, born in 1923, had gone to Teachers College in Connecticut, but she found herself contributing to the war effort by working as an electrician’s assistant building submarines at the Electric Boat Company. Following the war, they both ended up in New York City, where my mother worked for the United Electrical Workers union, which was controlled by left/communist activists. My father was active in the campaign to fight the lynching of Blacks. My mother enrolled in Columbia University, and earned a master’s degree in economics.
Beginning in the late 1940s, a wave of anti-Communist hysteria swept the country, incited by a Wisconsin senator named Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy warned that government had been infiltrated by those disloyal to the nation, and – with the Cold War rivalry raging, there was an urgent need to expose and root out enemies within.
The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) kicked into gear in the late 1940s, holding regular hearings where people of all walks of life were summoned and interrogated. The committee would demand to know if “you are now or have ever been a member of the Communist Party.” The ticket out of that inquisition was to “name names” of your associates. If you did not actively cooperate and rat out your comrades, then you were blacklisted. Many people knuckled under and named names.
My father used his GI Bill education grant to return to London, to study for an advanced degree. After they had been there a year or two, the US government notified them that they had two weeks to return to the US or their passports would be revoked and they would be in big trouble. This was before transatlantic air travel was widely available, so they boarded the next oceanliner for the two week voyage, and made the crossing with not a day to spare. On landing, they were interrogated for several hours, and realized that someone must have named them.
At that point, they had a very difficult set of options to choose from. They could stay and go before HUAC and name names. They could go and refuse to cooperate, which would put them on the blacklist. Or they could flee the country. They loaded a few belongings into an old Plymouth sedan, and drove across the country and across the border. They lived for two years in Mexico City. My mother spoke not a word of Spanish. My father managed to use his GI Bill education benefits to attend the University of Mexico, and that was their lifeline. They found a lively community of radicals and expatriotes there, and met artists like Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and Pablo Neruda. Now, sixty-plus years after the events, it sounds romantic. But it was not an easy time.
In about 1954, as things calmed down a bit, they moved back to the US, and my father got a job with a small book club headquartered in Palo Alto, California. Although he had earned his PhD in history, he was unable to pursue an academic career because of the loyalty oaths that professors were required to sign – declaring they had never been active in the Communist Party. A few years later, after doing some market research, they moved to Berkeley, and opened a small bookstore on the north side of the UC campus. In the early 1960s, they moved the store to the south side of campus, on Telegraph Avenue, and in 1967, Cody’s Books moved into a new building built for their store.
Growing up, we heard stories about their time in Mexico, but it was not until I was in my twenties that I realized the real reason they had moved. My parents were very political aware, but not the sort of radicals you might imagine. They were very involved in the community, and Berkeley in the 1960s presented many avenues for activism. My mother, Pat Cody, helped start a group called Women for Peace, which advocated against nuclear weapons and the Vietnam War. My first protests were in the mid-60s, when my mother brought me to march against the war in front of Berkeley City Hall. (My father died in 1984. My mother in 2010 — see this post here reflecting on her life.).
My father, Fred, was active in the Telegraph Avenue business community, in trying to respond to the tremendous surge of young people coming to Berkeley. In 1968, the Summer of Love put thousands of young people on the move. Everybody wanted to be where things were happening, and Telegraph Avenue was one of the nation’s epicenters for change. But many of these people came with little money or means of supporting themselves. So my parents helped create something called the Berkeley Free Clinic, which offered free advice, medical and dental services. In 1968, my father convinced the Berkeley schools to allow a defunct continuation school just around the corner from the bookstore to be used for a “free university.” Anyone could offer a class, and this gave people a way to channel their energies in creative directions. My father later helped mediate a lasting resolution to the conflict over Peoples Park. (If you are interested in more on this, you might want to read the book my mother published in 1992, entitled Cody’s Books, the Life and Times of a Berkeley Bookstore,)
The 1960s were, in many ways, a reaction to the repression of the 1950s. The McCarthy era was fueled by xenophobia and racist nostalgia in much the same way Trump has been. Substitute ISIS for the Communist Party and you see the same reactions being activated. My parents survived that terrible time the best way they could. They found ways to be loyal to their principles and their friends. And they emerged on the other side to see a new generation embrace social change once again.
When Donald Trump was coming of age as a wealthy real estate developer in the 1970s and 1980s, one of his closest advisors and mentors was Roy Cohn. Cohn was Joseph McCarthy’s right hand man through the 1950s. So we have a direct line of thinking from the 1950s now guiding the most powerful people in Washington.
These are bullies. George Takei, who experienced the Japanese internment camps as a child, reminds us that fear is the biggest tool the bullies have to work with.
…we must remind ourselves that fear is the favored weapon of bullies and thugs. Fear can make us turn away from our hopes and give in to mistrust and cynicism. Let us instead take each moment of fear as a challenge to stand up ever taller. When my community was faced with some of the harshest of treatment during the internment, there was a word we often repeated: gaman. It means to endure, with dignity and fortitude.
He goes on to remind us to stand tall for one another – to link arms to defend the vulnerable as best we can. I will continue to work with the Network for Public Education, to resist the efforts to privatize public education. I will join with the many who are planning to march in Washington, DC, on Jan. 21. We will get through this. And just as the repressive 1950s gave way to the revolutionary 1960s, we will see that repression cannot hold sway for long.
(By the way, if you are curious about how the repressive 1950s led to social change in the following decade, Mark Kitchell’s documentary “Berkeley in the 60s” is worth watching. See the trailer below.)
What do you think? How will we best respond to the circumstances unfolding?