IT WAS LEAP DAY, FEBRUARY 29, 1952. A Friday. The fifth day of testimony at the Communism in the Detroit Area hearings of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. There was only one witness all day, “the committee’s clean-up hitter,” as the press described her. Bereniece Baldwin entered Room 740 with a protective cordon of bodyguards, ready to recite all the names she had compiled during nine years inside the local Communist Party.
The hearing convened at 10:45, and for the next two hours, until the committee took an hour-and-a-half recess for lunch, Baldwin and Frank Tavenner (a HUAC lawyer) engaged in a carefully scripted dialogue as he took her step-by-step through the chronology of her involvement with the party and the names of people she encountered along the way. Chairman (John Wood, a Georgia Democrat) and Representatives ( Charles Potter, a Michigan Republican, and Donald Jackson, a California Republican) were also there, but spoke little.
Wood interrupted once to ask, “How do you spell that?” As it happens, his spelling question came at the mention of a communist club in Ann Arbor named in honor of Ralph Neafus, the Michigan graduate who fought and died in the Spanish Civil War. “R-a-l-p-h N-e-a-f-u-s,” Baldwin responded.
Potter perked up when Baldwin cited a communist club in the Upper Peninsula, part of his congressional district. He asked her to name the leaders there.
An hour into the session, Jackson sought to be recognized with a polite “May I ask a question at that point, Mr. Chairman?” When Wood acknowledged him, Jackson asked Baldwin, “To what extent does a communist fear exposure, if at all?”
Mrs. Baldwin: Well, I am glad you added that [if at all]. They don’t fear exposure as long as they are working in the open. But they would fear exposure underground.
Mr. Jackson: If they had been up to that time concealed?
Mrs. Baldwin: That is correct.
Mr. Jackson: He is no longer useful, once exposed?
Mrs. Baldwin: That is correct.
Potter joined the conversation to sum up: “So by that statement, Mrs. Baldwin, we will say in Detroit there are many persons who have never been identified as members of the party, but once the identity has been made, the Communist Party has lost a useful worker for them; is that true?
Mrs. Baldwin: That is too true.
By 12:45, when Chairman Wood called for a lunch recess, Baldwin had cited seventy Communist Party clubs in Michigan and named eighty people. During the break, she strolled over to the press table and pulled up a chair.
“You know you are sitting in Billy Allan’s chair,” said Kenneth McCormick of the Free Press. Allan covered the hearings for the Daily Worker. Baldwin had known Billy and his wife, Stephanie, for years. Until recently they had thought of her as a friend and comrade. She had attended a baby shower for Stephanie.
“Yes, I know it is,” Baldwin responded. “Where is Billy?”
Allan was not at the press table that day, perhaps because he knew that Baldwin would name him. Her “Where is Billy?” is telling on a few levels. It reveals Baldwin’s familiarity with many of the people on whom she was informing. It makes apparent the contradictions inherent in a job whose purpose was to deceive and then expose supposed friends. And it shows the comfort level she had reached in undertaking this difficult mission. What motivated her to do this? Most likely it was not one thing but a combination of factors. This was a job, to be sure. The FBI had been paying her for her work. And it seems from her testimony that she found some thrills in the cloak-and-dagger life. Finally, there was the patriotic impulse. “People will ask why my mother went into this dangerous work,” said her daughter. “I can only answer that she was one hundred percent American, through and through.”
Courtroom observers were struck by how tiny Baldwin was, barely five feet tall. She wore no makeup, and her face was pale, with “deep, dark hollows around her eyes.” E. A. Batchelor Jr., covering the hearings for the Detroit Times, was particularly taken by those eyes. “They are dark and flashing and they meet one squarely,” he wrote. “They bored right into chief counsel Frank Tavenner as Mrs. Baldwin unfolded her amazing evidence. Her eyes recalled the statement of a neighbor woman when Mrs. Baldwin’s role was first revealed. The neighbor had said, ‘You would think she was just a run of the [mill] person until you took a second look at her eyes. They seemed to go right through you.’ ” With her penetrating eyes and confident manner, Batchelor added, “Mrs. Baldwin cast something of a spell over the courtroom.”
THE DETROIT TIMES was an evening newspaper. Early editions hit the newsstands in midafternoon and late city editions were delivered by paperboys in time to be read before supper. Evening papers were on the decline by the early 1950s, with the rise of television, but they still had some advantages, one being that they could publish stories on the same day as the events they were covering instead of the next morning. With tight deadlines, reporters in the field often dictated rough drafts or scribbles from their notebooks back to the newsroom, where rewrite men—in that era they were almost always men—turned them into polished stories.
One of the top rewrite men on the copydesk at the Times was Elliott Maraniss, who was at work on the day Bereniece Baldwin testified in Room 740. At 1:20 that afternoon, during the lunch recess of the hearings, W. Jackson Jones, a HUAC investigator, walked into the Times newsroom in the Times Square Building at 1370 Cass Avenue with a subpoena that had been signed earlier in the day by Chairman Wood. Jones said he was looking for Maraniss. I presume that Jones conferred with the editors, explaining the purpose of his visit. I can only presume because all the journalists are dead, there are no records aside from the subpoena, and my father never talked about it. The only detail documented is the result: as soon as the subpoena was served, my father was fired. He told my brother later that his boss on the copydesk did not want to fire him, but the brass insisted.
I came across the original subpoena in Series 3, Box 32, of the HUAC files at the National Archives, the same folder where I first saw the imperfect S in my father’s unread statement to the committee. Holding the subpoena in my hands had a similar effect. It put me in the moment and made me sense—with remorse for my previous obliviousness — the fear and anguish my father might have felt at that difficult time. The language of the subpoena was archaic and intimidating. He was ordered to appear at the Federal Building at 10:00 a.m. on March 12. “Then and there to testify touching matters of inquiry committed to said Committee; and he is not to depart without leave of said Committee.” Jones, the server, was instructed, “Herein fail not, and make return of this summons.”
ABOUT A HALF hour into the afternoon testimony, the reason for the subpoena became public. Tavenner was asking Baldwin about certain names in a section of the local party that included members of the intelligentsia who had not been exposed.
Mr. Tavenner: Are you acquainted with a person by the name of Eliot Marioniss?
Based on the official transcript, Tavenner must have used a visual aid in his presentation, because Baldwin told him the name was spelled wrong.
Mr. Tavenner: Is that an improper spelling?
Mrs. Baldwin: Yes.
Mr. Tavenner: What is the proper spelling?
Mrs. Baldwin: M-a-r-a-n-i-s-s.
Mr. Tavenner: Were you acquainted with him?
Mrs. Baldwin: I was.
Mr. Tavenner: Will you state the circumstances?
Mrs. Baldwin: I was very well acquainted with him when the Michigan Herald, a publication of the Communist Party, printed in Detroit, began their subscription drive the latter part of 1946. I was assigned as secretary of that paper. The building that we occupied was at 1310 Broadway. Elliott Maraniss, I understand, worked for the Times paper.
Mr. Tavenner: What do you mean the Times paper?
Mrs. Baldwin: The Detroit Times. And he did not wish his identity to be known. He gave me and others in there strict orders not to call him by his name, either given or last, but to use the name “Ace.”
Baldwin said my father was active at the Herald from the time it was launched until it was dissolved and folded into the Michigan Worker. She said she saw him there as late as April or May 1950.
Then the counsel brought up my mother, but used a name I had never heard.
Mr. Tavenner: Did you become acquainted with Mary Morrison?
Mrs. Baldwin: Mary Morrison Maraniss—Mary Morrison is Elliott Maraniss’ wife. Prior to her marriage she was an officer of the YCL. That would be approximately 1944, 1945. They had an office on Broadway near Grand Circus Park. I made it my business to go there. I wanted to make a direct connection between the YCL and the CP.
Mr. Tavenner: By “YCL” you are referring to the Young Communist League?
Mrs. Baldwin: I am. At that time, Bridget Polson and Mary Morrison were in charge of the office. I purchased a YCL bond from them and upon questioning and inquiries they denied any connection with the Communist Party. However, within a short period, when I was working in the district office, Bridget Polson put in an appearance and then embarrassedly tried to explain her situation. She shortly thereafter made a trip to Europe, to England, and has not returned to my knowledge.
Morrison was not my mother’s middle name, nor her maiden name. It could have been an alias, since my father wanted to keep a low profile and have people refer to him only as “Ace.” Why Baldwin thought my mother was single until 1944 or 1945 I have no idea. My parents met at the University of Michigan in January 1939, and by Christmas of that year they were married.
Baldwin continued naming names, dates, and places for another hour, and near the end, before the committee finished its work for the day and wrapped up the week, not to start up again until March 10, the congressmen bathed their star witness in praise, one by one.
Representative Potter said that men in combat received decorations for gallant service, and he could think of no person “more worthy of a decoration for gallantry than you, Mrs. Baldwin.” Representative Jackson noted that in joining the Communist Party as an informant, she had been shut off from friends and associates for years. “The American people have no way of expressing directly to you their thanks,” he said. “You will receive abuse and vilification from those who are part and parcel of the international conspiracy. I should like to say, as one representative of the American people, that I feel you have rendered a tremendous service to human freedom and to our country.” Chairman Wood thanked her for her contribution “to the cause of democratic government everywhere throughout the world.” He also thanked the state police, the federal judges, the Detroit Police Department, the Detroit Loyalty Board, and all Detroit citizens “who have evidenced such widespread interest in the work of the committee, and who have contributed so warmly and generously to the pleasure of our stay here.”
By the time Wood gaveled the day’s proceedings to an end at 4:30, my father had straggled back to the family, which had gathered at our aunt’s house on Pingree Street. “Well, I got fired,” he announced.
In the 34 years of my life, in war and peace, I have been a loyal, law-abiding citizen of the United States.
One week after this nation was attacked at Pearl Harbor in 1941, I enlisted as a private in the Army of the United States and served for more than four years, climaxed by the campaign in Okinawa. I was honorably discharged in January 1946, with the rank of captain.
Upon my discharge I returned to my job as a newspaperman with the Detroit Times.
I am a homeowner, taxpayer, and parent, father of two boys and a girl.
I was taught as a child and in school that the highest responsibility of citizenship is to defend the principles of the U.S. Constitution and to do my part in securing for the American people the blessings of peace, economic well-being, and freedom.
I have tried to do just that to the very best of my ability.
And for doing just that—and nothing more—I have been summarily discharged from my job. I have been blacklisted in the newspaper business after 12 years in which my competency and objectivity have never once been questioned.
I must sell my home, uproot my family and upset the tranquility and security of my three small children in the happy, formative years of their childhood.
But I would rather have my children miss a meal or two now than have them grow up in the gruesome, fear-ridden future for America projected by the members of the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
I don’t like to talk about these personal things. But my Americanism has been questioned and to properly measure a man’s Americanism you must know the whole pattern of a life.
I feel that nobody has the right to question my Americanism—least of all a committee which itself has been called subversive, un-American and anti-labor by the (Congress of Industrial Organizations), of which I am a member, by President Roosevelt and by responsible organizations representing many millions of Americans.
I view this committee’s attempt to muzzle me and drive me off my job as a direct attack on freedom of the press and the right of newspapermen to participate freely in the political life of the country without fear of reprisal.
The U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights are not simply musty documents in a library. They have meaning only if they are used.
When I joined the staff at The Capital Times back in June of 1962, I was assigned to a desk directly across from Elliott Maraniss.
To betray and subvert the Bill of Rights is the most un-American act any man or committee can do: for that document was brought into being and maintained throughout our history by men who gave their lives and their blood.
Every newspaperman knows that history is not a printed page. It is the passion and striving, the struggling and endurance of men and women. These qualities that went into the making of our nation can be discarded only at great peril to ourselves and our children.
From the time of Peter Zenger, the colonial printer who defied the British crown’s effort to impose censorship in the American colonies, right down to the present, newspapermen have zealously defended the freedom of the press.
For the First Amendment is not only a guarantee of free speech and a free press: it is also an indispensable part of self-government.
That’s what makes this committee so dangerous. Ostensibly designed to protect the government against overthrow by force and violence, it proceeds by force, terror and threats to overthrow the rights of the American people.
A witness has no rights whatever. He is denied the elementary due processes of law. He has no opportunity to confront his accuser, to cross examine witnesses, to call witnesses in his own behalf or even to make a statement.
The committee is so poisoned with bigotry and malice that it is hard indeed to believe that it is indeed a committee of the Congress of the United States. It more resembles a session of the Spanish Inquisition or the witch-hunting trials in Salem in the late Seventeenth Century. If anyone believes this comparison far-fetched, read these words of Cotton Mather instructing the judges in the technique of extracting confessions from suspected witches:
“Now first a credible confession of the guilty wretches is one of the most hopeful ways at coming at them. I am far from urging the un-English method of torture . . . but whatever hath a tendency to put the witches into confusion is likely to bring them into confession. Here cross and swift questions have their use!”
Under this technique, as Supreme Court Justice Black has observed, many confessed; some were burned; all were innocent.
It was precisely to combat this technique, to rule it out forever from American life, that the Fifth Amendment was written into our Bill of Rights.
This committee reflects no credit on American institutions or ideas.
Its attempt to enforce conformity of political or economic thought is a long step toward dictatorship that holds the greatest danger to the entire American people.
In this country we have never acquiesced in the proposition that persons could be punished for their beliefs.
Back in Jefferson’s time, when the Alien and Sedition laws were passed, countless newspapermen and editors were indicted, and many sent to jail for their fight together with Jefferson to restore the Bill of Rights. In their number Matthew Lyon, John C. Ogden, David Brown, William Duane, James Thomas Callendar, Jedediah Peck, Charles Holt and Thomas Adams.
These men never stopped fighting. They forced the repeal of the repressive legislation and set the nation on the high road of its future development.
I am supremely confident that the same spirit that motivated those men in the brave days of our past still lives in the American people.
I am confident that the people of Detroit will reject this committee’s effort to subvert the U.S. Constitution.
I am confident that the American people will not allow our traditions and freedom to be transformed in the image of fascism nor allow our cities and millions of our people to be destroyed in the hellish fires of atomic war.
- ELLIOTT MARANISS