The Age of Suspicion
On the Shelf
When the small, depression Class of 1935 attended Commencement exercises at Columbia University, one graduating senior was absent; the missing man was James A. Wechsler who was absent; the busy elsewhere picketing for the Young Communist League. His absence was not surprising, however, for socialism had crept into Wechsler while he was a 17-year-old sophomore, and be had become a communist late in his junior year. But his marriage with the Party was shaky from the start. Possessed of a determinedly independent mind, Wechsler found that "the atmosphere was suffocating" in what he described as a "weird underworld of fanaticism and heresy hunting." and Wechatever's it was, no place for intellectual honesty, and Wechsler's inevitable diverce from the Party came at the age of 22. His job during the three-year stay was propaganda: he knew nothing of espionage or sabotage. In summary he said, "The essential fact about the communist experience in America in the 1930's was that for many of us, nothing truly cataclysis happened; we joined exultantly, we suffered silently, and we departed quietly." Thus in 1937, Wechsler started a new life as a journalist of the "anticommunist Left," serving with the Nation and PM, before joining the New York Post of which he has been editor since 1949.
It was in this capacity last spring that he was summoned to testify before Senator Joseph McCarthy's committee, and it was this hearing that stimulated Wechaler to write a frank and fascinating memoir of the past two decades, The Age of Suspicion. The autobiography is a recalling of history, not a hiding or a rewring of it. Weschsler lived the three most agonizing years of his life with those who re-write history, not a hiding and he spent the subset quest 16 years fighting against communism and fascism and for liberalism. Most readers will be canvinced beyond a shadow of a doubt of the patriotism of Wechsler since 1937.
Yet nothing is beyond the shadow of a doubt to MeCarthy, and The Age of Suspicion reaches its climaxes with Wechsler's hearing before McCarthy's committee last spring. As the New York Times stated then, the Senator "Was using his undoubted right of investigation as a cover for an attempt to harass and intimidate Mr. Wechsler as an editor who has bitterly and uncompremisingly opposed Mr. McCarthy." It was an inquisition in which McCarthy turned the world upside down, for Wechsler ended up "in the preposterous position of denying under oath that I had myself inspired the long series of communist attacks against me." Here indeed," he adds, "was a daring new concept in which the existence of evidence of innocence becomes the damning proof of guilt."
"It is not quite possible to communicate the quiet honor of examination by McCarthy," Wechsler comments. But he does quite admirably. The jaunty, journalistic style of the earlier pages is eschewed in the grim passages of the hearing. The good humor and sports page metaphors that characterize Wechsler's entertaining narrative style are dropped at the climactic moment, and the author's dabs of history and inveterate name-dropping no longer slow the action in the tension of the hearing. This is not to say, however, that his comments of PM (Which he left because it "continuously yielded to communist pressure"), on the Hiss case ("I accept Chambers' basic account of events"), or on Henry Wallace (The Communists have taken a lot of credulous men for a ride. Wallace seemed anxious to step on the accelerater himself") did not greatly enrich the book, Much of the autobiography includes this interesting rambling of a mind that is sharp, and thrilled to be free.
But the exultation comes to a halt with the discussion of McCarthysim and the age of suspicion. Wechsler's closing pages bear a depressing resemblance to the opening ones of a 1936 novel on dictatorship in America by Singular Lewis. Entitled It Can't Happen Here, Lewis' work tells how it could happen here. His hero, Doremus Jesseup, is a newspaperman not unlike Wechsler, and his dictator is a politician named Berzelius Windrip. In Wechsler's age of suspicion, an embryonic Windrip is incubating; only a cessation of panic and a new faith in freedom, the editor of the Post warns us, will prevent the age of suspicion from becoming the age of suppression.