Loyalties (Magill's Literary Annual 1990)
Loyalties: A Son’s Memoir began to be formulated specifically in its writer’s mind as early as 1977. Indeed, Carl Bernstein’s father, Alfred, who saved the files of the more than five hundred government employees accused of disloyalty whom he, as a lawyer, defended in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, had talked of writing such a book. The elder Bernstein even suggested that he and his son might collaborate on a study that focused on President Harry S. Truman’s Executive Order Number 9835, under which more than twelve thousand government employees were eventually accused of generalized disloyalties to their government; more than eight thousand of them, many of whom were innocent, were driven from federal employment in the aftermath of Truman’s order.
These federal employees were not permitted to face their accusers; they were judged by loyalty boards rather than by the impartial juries of their peers that should have been available tb them as United States citizens. Bernstein’s father himself was ultimately investigated for his defense of hundreds of these people and for his activities during the 1940’s. His legal career destroyed, he was forced to support his family by opening a laundromat on Georgia Avenue in the southwest Washington neighborhood where he had lived most of his life and which had become a black ghetto.
Carl Bernstein, noted for his Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporting of the Watergate debacle (in collaboration with Bob Woodward), was born in Washington, D.C., in 1944, two years after his parents had worked briefly in San Francisco, where they became members of the Communist Party and where Alfred Bernstein was a senior investigator for the Office of Price Administration, which also employed Richard Nixon; Sylvia, who had held various clerical jobs with the government, was employed by the longshoreman’s union as well as by a law firm that the FBI branded Communist.
The Bernsteins returned to the Washington area before their son’s birth, but they continued apparently to have ties to the Communist Party after their relocation from San Francisco, attending perhaps twenty meetings of the Party between the time they joined and 1947, when they dropped their party membership. In the super-patriotic, often hysterical years that preceded Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Communist witch-hunts in the early 1950’s, the Bernsteins allied themselves with liberal causes, including Alfred’s defense of many who were charged under Truman’s executive order.
Sylvia Bernstein, long an activist for leftist causes, engaged in sit-ins for blacks who sought food service in various public facilities in the Washington area. Sylvia and her cohorts attempted to force authorities to honor the post-Civil War desegregation laws that had been largely ignored in the nation’s capital, which in its social outlook was essentially a southern city. By the age of seven Carl was accompanying his mother to these sit-ins; at the age of nine he was stuffing envelopes for the committee trying to prevent the execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, convicted of breaching the national security. The eventual execution of the Rosenbergs in 1953 was particularly traumatic for the young Carl Bernstein, a bright, sensitive child who feared that a government that could put the Rosenbergs to death might turn on his parents and deprive him of them.
By this time, his father had been called before a Senate committee that was investigating subversion; the next year, his mother was an uncooperative witness before the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities, a fact recorded on the front page of The Washington Post, along with Sylvia’s picture. This sudden celebrity changed ten-year-old Carl’s life substantially. It resulted immediately in his getting into fisticuffs with an elementary school classmate who taunted him about his mother’s being a Communist. More important, it cut Carl and his family off from their friends and even from members of their family, who now avoided the Bernsteins as suspect. Their friends feared the danger of guilt by association, which was one of the chief intimidating ploys of the Senate and House committees formed to ferret out subversives. Suddenly, Carl found himself with no playmates; his former friends and schoolmates were forbidden by their parents to associate with him.
The confusion and mixed loyalties that confronted Carl at this point were intense. He loved his parents and feared losing them. On the other hand, he felt compelled to demonstrate his own loyalty and patriotism. He...
(The entire section is 1867 words.)
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Analysis (Magill Book Reviews)
Democratic President Truman issued his Loyalty Order on March 21, 1947 in response to pressure put on him by a largely Republican Congress, and their popular platform of the previous year’s fall election campaign: “Communism or Republicanism.” The Order called for the Attorney General to create “a list of subversive organizations, membership in which (or association with, or even proximity to) was used by the loyalty boards to pass on an individual’s loyalty to the country--and thus an individual’s fitness to serve in the government.” Employees would be branded disloyal and dismissed solely on the basis of unsworn reports in the secret files of the FBI. They were never formally charged, were denied a trial by jury, and were not allowed to confront their accusers. “There were 12,859 of these cases filed between 1947 and 1953,” mostly against employees sympathetic to progressive causes.
Alfred Bernstein, the author’s father, defended more than five hundred of these cases in his capacity as director of negotiation for the United Federal Workers of America. As a result of actions taken by the loyalty boards, the union was decimated and Bernstein could find work only in the laundry business. His wife Sylvia, the author’s mother, was called to testify before the House Committee on Un-American activities. All this had a traumatic effect on the entire family, as the Bernsteins became social pariahs to anyone who had not suffered the same fate.
Bernstein chronicles those frightening times clearly and thoroughly. His book shows how easily our government can deny its citizens the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution. In our era of Supreme Court reversals on civil and reproductive rights, LOYALTIES offers a sobering moral.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist. LXXXV, February 15, 1989, p.962.Chicago Tribune. March 19, 1989, XIV, p.1.
Loyalties I BERNSTEIN 547
Los Angeles Times Book Review. April 9, 1989, p.2.
The Nation. CCXLVIII, April 10, 1989, p.489.
National Review. XLI, April 7, 1989, p.48.
The New Republic. CC, March 27, 1989, p.28.
The New York Times Book Review. XCIV, March 5, 1989, p.9.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXXV, February 10, 1989, p.59.
Time. CXXXIII, March 20, 1989, p.80.
The Washington Post. March 2, 1989, p. D2.