JANUARY 15, 1962
WASHINGTON, D. C —Last night I met two young men, Michael and Philip Burton, who had invited me to see a short film called "Wasn't That A Time?", which they had financed and produced entirely by themselves. It is a documentary on the subject of what happened to the lives of individual human beings, or members of their families, who had been called before the Un-American Activities Committee. It is in no way an exhaustive study of this committee or of the results of its activities. It simply takes three of the people who have been called for questioning and shows some of the effects on their lives and also on some of the members of their families.
The first on the screen was the wife of William Sherwood, a brilliant research scientist at Stanford University who at the age of 41 committed suicide when called before the committee. Do you wonder what accusations drove him to this step? Here are the facts:
At the age of 21, Sherwood had supported the cause of the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War. That is so long ago now that many people will have forgotten what happened then. The Spanish Loyalists fought to defend their republican government against a revolt headed by a group of army officers who eventually succeeded in establishing a despotic government. The present dictator of Spain—who is now our ally and with whom of necessity we have diplomatic relations because we have bases in his country—at that time was the leader of the insurrectionist army group. He called to his aid the Germans and Italians whose Nazi and Fascist forces we had to fight in Europe a few years later.
Some of our young people had a great sympathy with the Loyalists and went over to help. They did not know that before long the Russians would come to the help of the Loyalists, for desperate people accept help from wherever it is offered. The Russians not only gave help to the Loyalists in Spain but took many of their children and gave them shelter in Russia. Before long, this inevitably led to the accusation that the whole movement was Communist, which in the beginning, of course, was not true. But when you get help only from the Communists, I suppose you pay for it in the end. The Loyalists were defeated and branded as Communists. This made all those who had helped them also Communist, though it had not started that way. Many of our young people went over there not to help a Communist cause but to aid people who were trying to be free.
William Sherwood, when called before the Un-American Activities Committee, had been completely dissociated from politics and had devoted himself entirely to science, being deeply involved in some medical discoveries. But shortly before he was subpoenaed, he had been visited by the FBI and asked to identify photographs of scientists with whom he had worked in the past. He was torn, as so many others have been, by a painful dilemma. Should he aid the committee by naming colleagues he had known in the past or should he refuse to cooperate? If he refused, he would destroy his scientific career—or so he thought. While many of us might wish he had at least tried to fight this situation through, he felt unable to do it and took his own life. This left his wife with four small children to face the world without him. I wonder how many of the committee gave much thought to what happened to them?
Two other cases are included in the film. One is that of Carl Braden which was carried up to the Supreme Court, where it lost by a 5-4 decision. Braden's situation is complicated by the fact that he was fighting in a Southern area for integration, and in such cases, of course, the accusation of Communism has become the easiest way to "get" somebody. The other case is that of Pete Seeger, the folk singer. He lives not far from me near Beacon, N. Y., and is loved by many people, young and old, who have enjoyed his music. The accusation against him was that he had performed before very questionable, even Communist, groups—although I doubt that Seeger, like most performers, could list the innumerable people before whom he has played and sung. He has refused to take the Fifth Amendment because he felt that could be construed as an admission of guilt, and chose instead to invoke the freedoms of the First Amendment. His case is now in the higher courts.
A lot can be said against many of these situations. Still, may it not be a waste of time and money to have a whole committee of eminent lawmakers devoting so much of their time to cases like that of William Sherwood?
This film may be shown commercially, but if not, it will probably be made available to groups interested in having their members see it.
(Copyright, 1962, by United Feature Syndicate, Inc.)
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About this document
My Day by Eleanor Roosevelt, January 15, 1962
Digital edition created by The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project The George Washington University 312 Academic Building 2100 Foxhall Road, NW Washington, DC 20007
- Brick, Christopher (Editor)
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