Loyalties

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

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.)