Excerpt from 'A Covert Affair

Julia Child and Paul Child in the OSS'

by Jennet Connat

22 April 2011

Photo credit: The Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.  

Heads Down, Hope for the Best

Even more troubling than the hardening of ideology was the vicious Red-baiting of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy. To Julia, the whole government, spurred on by McCarthy’s unscrupulous zeal, seemed consumed with hunting for subversives. Venting her anger in a letter to her family, Julia wrote that she could not help thinking that most McCarthy supporters, of whom she was afraid her “dear old Pop” was one, were “good-hearted but fat-headed people” who were hopelessly stuck in the past. For twenty years, her father’s animosity had festered under the New Deal and the Fair Deal: “Roosevelt was, to him, the anti-Christ. Roosevelt was socialism. The enemy. He boiled and seethed with hatred.” As far as she could see, McCarthy had tapped right into that source of hatred, fueling people’s fears about the future: “Suddenly the new enemy is also Communism,” she continued. “It is these nasty foreigners with their socialistic ideas, these nasty intellectual egg-heads, who like the foreigners, & who have always caused all the trouble. What we want is to return to 1925, when we had no world responsibility (presumably), and no truck with foreigners. We just want to live alone. McCarthy is the savior symbol.”

They watched with sinking hearts as one after another of the career Foreign Service officers they had served with in China, among them some of their closest friends, had been forced out, while still others quit in disgust. Anyone who had departed from the official line in the Far East, or had the temerity to write a critical report, was being labeled un-American and blamed for having “lost China to the Reds.”

The junior senator from Wisconsin’s rapid rise to power was a recurring theme in the newspapers and Julia and Paul were riveted. They read everything they could get their hands on in Bonn, including the Herald Tribune and an edited version of the daily New York Times, and they beseeched family members to send articles from home. McCarthy had successfully made Communism a potent campaign issue, and he bullied President Truman into implementing an executive order to begin loyalty investigations of government employees. After the “fall” of China in October 1949, when the Communists led by Mao Tse-tung proclaimed the formation of the People’s Republic, McCarthy and his allies had stepped up their ideological attacks. On February 9, 1950, in a speech before the Women’s Republican Club of Wheeling, West Virginia, McCarthy had announced his crusade against government employees suspected of being members of the Communist Party, who were nevertheless “still working and shaping policy in the State Department.” Julia and Paul had seen the headlines that followed, all of which focused on McCarthy’s claim that he had in hand a “list of 205” names of traitors.

McCarthy’s Red scare became a real cause of concern, alarm even, to State Department personnel. He had made the overseas information agency one of his targets and had vowed to root out “security risks.” Hoping to appease McCarthy, President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s new secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, had dismissed a number of high-level diplomats and had warned that anything less than “positive loyalty” from Foreign Service officers was “not tolerable at this time.” Julia and Paul had been en route to Germany when they had heard about the flurry of coerced departures in Bonn. This had been followed by reports of books being removed from the shelves of libraries run by the USIS, known as America Houses, in a number of European cities. Dashiell Hammett’s hard-boiled detective novel The Maltese Falcon was one of the many books McCarthy wanted “deshelved”—a neat euphemism for censored. In Berlin, a book entitled Thunder Out of China, written by their friend Theodore H. White, a Time magazine correspondent during the war, was found to be objectionable; it was removed and burned. Apparently White’s sympathy with Mao and some of the Communist objectives made the book too dangerous for the eyes of impressionable Germans, the citizens of a country America was trying to turn into a unified democracy.

Julia and Paul learned from friends in Paris that Roy Cohn and David Schine, McCarthy’s young assistants—the newspapers called them “the gumshoe boys”—had paid a surprise visit to the embassy there. Cohn and Schine had nosed around looking for dirt. Inevitably, they had rooted out a handful of employees who were disgruntled and interviewed them. One of Paul’s former colleagues, Larry Morris, the Paris cultural attaché, had happened on the two men in his office one Saturday afternoon, apparently making themselves at home with their feet propped up on his desk. Incensed, he had demanded they remove their feet from his desk and leave. They had gone quietly, but not before holding a press conference during which they made all sorts of unsubstantiated charges—“vague, but dirty,” as Paul put it. Naturally, no official at the embassy was given the opportunity to reply. Then Cohn and Schine announced that the next day—Easter Sunday—they would be questioning the ambassador, and wanted to meet with all the top USIS officers at 3:00 p.m. that afternoon at the library to examine the books on display. Everyone canceled his or her holiday plans and assembled at the library at the appointed hour, but Cohn and Schine never showed. Finally someone called the Hôtel de Crillon and discovered that the “two young bloods” had just risen from their beds and were eating breakfast in their suite. As far as Paul could tell, the only investigating they did was “during most of Holy Saturday night, among the naked showgirls of Montmartre.”

Paul had seen only trouble ahead. Rumors about where McCarthy’s tactics of intimidation—the book burning and finger-pointing—might lead had spread like wildfire through the diplomatic community. Paul was unnerved by McCarthyism and considered the senator to be “a desperately dangerous, power-hungry, fascist-operating bastard.” He was less than sanguine about the new president’s ability to stand up to the notorious demagogue. “Eisenhower appears to be trying to save the Republican Party at the expense of the country,” he wrote his family in March 1954. “Sweeping the pieces under the rug in the plain view of the public won’t disguise the disaster. He better hurry up and act or he’ll find himself . . . eating out of McCarthy’s hand.”

Julia and Paul had watched with sinking hearts as one after another of the career Foreign Service officers they had served with in China, among them some of their closest friends, had been forced out, while still others quit in disgust. Anyone who had departed from the official line in the Far East, or had had the temerity to write a critical report, was being labeled un-American and blamed for having “lost China to the Reds.” Somehow Mao’s victory was now being seen as part of a master Kremlin plot, enabled by a band of Sinologists—known as China hands—who had conspired to undermine U.S. policy. “Quite a number of people were just ruined,” recalled Julia. She and Paul had both served with the OSS in China and wondered if they should be worried, too. At the same time, it was difficult to judge to what extent some of the transfers and resignations being ordered from Washington were part of the normal changing of the guard and would have happened eventually, even without the buzz saw of McCarthy’s Red hunt.

The Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University

The Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University

It was a point of personal honor with Julia and Paul that their colleagues could always count on their support. If loyalty was the burning question of the hour, they wanted to make it clear where theirs lay. When their old friend Haldore Hanson, a State Department official and longtime China expert—as a foreign correspondent in the 1930s, he had traveled the country by bicycle to cover the civil war—was accused by McCarthy of having “pro-Communist proclivities,” they immediately sent him a note of encouragement. On his day before the Senate subcommittee, he denied any involvement with the Communists, stating repeatedly that he was “a loyal American.” But as he later confided to Julia and Paul, he doubted whether his answer would “ever meet up with the charges.” Even though the subcommittee found no evidence against Hanson, as a result of McCarthy’s accusations his neighbors in Virginia had circulated a petition to drive him out, and one even labeled him a Russian spy. Hanson wrote to Julia and Paul that he had been “very touched” to hear from them, adding, “You have no idea what a few letters from friends can do for you in a time like that.”

Hanson’s letter depressed the hell out of them, but they kept it as a reminder of the perilous times they lived in. There was nothing they could do but keep their heads down and hope for the best. Writing to her sister, Julia confided her misgivings: “After the events of the last few years, I have entirely lost that nobility and esprit de corps. I feel, actually, that at any moment we might be accused of being Communists and traitors.”

It was no wonder they seized on the telegram from Washington as a reprieve. Paul’s orders to report to Washington meant that everything was going to be all right. He was going to get a promotion, maybe even a new post. The Sunday Paul was scheduled to fly back to the United States, Julia and a party of friends decided to see him off. They were in a festive mood as they drove to the airport in Düsseldorf. The following morning, still feeling giddy, Julia decided to get dressed up and go to a reception in honor of James B. Conant, the high commissioner for West Germany. Conant had overseen the end of the occupation and, as a last act before his office lapsed into history, was formally recognizing the beginning of rearmament. There would be champagne all around—even if many in the room, Julia included, felt it was a bit premature for the Germans to be given their army back.

On Tuesday, another telegram arrived. It was from Paul. The first words Julia read sent a chill down her spine: SITUATION CONFUSED.

Paul had landed in New York on Monday and caught the train to Washington from Penn Station, arriving late in the afternoon. He had wired her from the office first thing on Tuesday, after his trip was starting to look like a wild goose chase. He had spent an exasperating morning being shuffled from one office to another, where one bureaucrat after another expressed complete ignorance of and bewilderment at the reasons for his return. One official finally let it slip that he had been told to provide Paul with “a desk and telephone, nothing more.” No one seemed to have a clue what Paul was supposed to be doing or how long he would be staying. Thoroughly disgusted, he had ended up going out for drinks and dinner with two old colleagues, Mike Barjansky and George Henry, and they had spent much of the evening talking over “the mystery” of why he had been sent for. Back in his room at the Graylyn Hotel, Paul could not keep his growing anxiety at bay as he wrote a long letter to Julia:

I thought Barjansky would be able to clarify the mystery. But no. On the contrary. He was waiting for me to clarify it for him! Ah me—what a muck-up! He thinks it must be something special and secret, otherwise “they” would certainly have told him… Mike says there was a definite instruction to mind his own business. He then, naturally enough, assumed I was a CIA agent all the time and that my job as Exhibits Officer was merely a cover, and that I was being hauled back on a secret mission. We were both astonished when each of us learned that the other knew nothing.

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