In the last election, a certain candidate spoke darkly of “card-carrying members” of the American Civil Liberties Union. Few missed the reference to the McCarthyite 1950s, when “card-carrying” signified Communist Party membership. From the 1940s through early 1950s--investigatory committees, FBI agents, detectives tracked, hounded and harassed countless Americans. Their crimes? They were or once were or may have been or could have been members of the Communist Party. Their punishment? Often wrecked careers, marriages, lives. In recent years, historians, critics and participants have re-examined the period and its costs. Since writers write and film makers make films, members of those two groups have received the most attention; of course there were others, less able to tell their stories.
Among the others was Alex Novikoff, whose career David R. Holmes, a professor of education at the University of Vermont, carefully examines in this book. In his hopes, politics and accomplishments, Novikoff typified an immigrant generation. His family, Russian Jews who settled in Brooklyn, worked and sacrificed so that young Novikoff could study medicine; a tightening quota of Jewish applicants blocked a medical future, however. Novikoff switched to zoology, teaching biology at Brooklyn College as he pursued his doctorate. The year was 1935. Novikoff was an underpaid teacher in the midst of the greatest economic crisis of capitalism; European fascism was on the rise; the Western democracies seemed indifferent. The Communist Party offered some answers.
At 23, Novikoff joined the Communist Party, exiting about 10 years later. During his party phase, Novikoff was active in a teacher’s union, a newspaper, and a college speaker’s program. He spoke, for example, at a symposium on “war and peace” where, according to a deadpan college newspaper, “he refuted those scientists who believe war is good for mankind.” To be sure, not all his activities were so benign; union commitments, often support for other party members, made him some enemies. Yet Novikoff never allowed politics to interfere with his scientific research; by the time he left the party he had published numerous scholarly papers on pathology, as well as a children’s book on evolution. By all accounts, he was a brilliant and hard-working scientist.
Nevertheless, Novikoff had transgressed. The question raised about Novikoff and others was not espionage or trading military secrets or teaching or research; it was simply whether he had once been a member of the Communist Party. Nothing more. That the Communist Party was small and ineffectual; and that, in any event, people like Novikoff only attended meetings, wrote for the paper, and worked for the union did not matter. To J. Edgar Hoover, Joseph McCarthy, Martin Dies, committees on subversive and un-American activities, and hundreds of newspaper editorialists’ membership in (or sympathy for) the Communist Party ranked with Satanism.
In 1948, the University of Vermont hired Novikoff as a cancer researcher and pathology professor; Novikoff and his family moved to Burlington, Vt., and a quiet and productive life. Not for long. The University of Washington investigated suspected Communist professors; other schools soon followed. Newspapers declaimed about “reds” teaching America’s young; philosophers like Sidney Hook justified firing Communists. It was bound to happen: In testimony, Novikoff was named as a (former) party member. By subpoenaing Novikoff in 1953, the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee alerted the University of Vermont to his past. The university trustees responded by announcing the immediate discharge of Communists and witnesses who claimed the Fifth Amendment. The rest of this story, though not simple, was forgone. After a series of hearings, which included the governor, Novikoff was dismissed.
There are lessons here about the vulnerability of American society to anti-communism; it is a tale about the fears of good people, the doings of not-so-good people, and the actions of some quiet heroes; but it is not a tragedy. After scrapping around for a couple of years, Novikoff found a position at the new Albert Einstein Medical School; he went on to a very distinguished and productive career in biochemistry. In a gesture of amends, several years before his death in 1983, the University of Vermont awarded Novikoff an honorary degree; in a further gesture, the University Press of New England is publishing this book for the University of Vermont. This follows the lead of the University of Washington, which brought out Melvin Rader’s moving memoir, “False Witness,” about his Seattle experience.
Regretfully this is not a gripping chronicle; Holmes’ prose is flat, and he skimps on personal life; we learn next to nothing about Novikoff’s emotions and thoughts, and just stray details about his family. Inasmuch as no great legal battle unfolds, the book reads too much like a dry report of a less than compelling instance of McCarthyism. To be sure, herein lies its interest; we are offered not a spectacular example of injustice, but--the more revealing--an ordinary one.