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Bernstein's Complaint : LOYALTIES A Son's Memoir by Carl Bernstein (Simon & Schuster: $18.95; 269 pp.; 0-671-64942-6)

April 09, 1989|Eric Foner | Foner teaches American history at Columbia University. His most recent book, "Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution" (Harper & Row), won the 1988 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for history. Foner's father, Jack Foner, is a professor of U.S. history who was blacklisted during the 1940s and 1950s. and

Even more revealing are the records of the loyalty board hearings. Despite his Watergate investigations, Bernstein appears to have been genuinely shocked by the disregard for individual liberties and callous abuse of power by the Truman Administration. In this Kafkaesque world, the charge of "disloyalty" was never defined, and the defendant, denied the right to cross-examine his anonymous accusers, was presumed guilty until proven innocent. Moreover, as Truman's adviser Clark Clifford admitted to Bernstein, the President knew that no threat to internal security existed; the boards were established in 1947 to fend off Republican charges of being "soft" on communism.

This is Bernstein's real discovery. Throughout the book, he ponders whether to acknowledge his parents' party membership. Conservatives, argues Al Bernstein, would pounce on such an admission to justify McCarthyism--a prediction borne out by some reviews of "Loyalties." (Here, as elsewhere, Bernstein senior turns out to have a more penetrating understanding of American politics than his famous son.) Eventually, Carl realizes that his father is right about the witch hunts--the Communists' "crime" was not membership in a disloyal party but union organizing, civil rights work and other political activities. The target of McCarthyism was not a conspiracy to overthrow the government, but the legacy of the New Deal.

For all its flaws, "Loyalties" does drive home a truly subversive idea: Rather than a nest of spies, the Communist Party was an integral and honorable part of the American radical tradition.

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