The Persecution of My Father
An American diplomat’s son remembers an idyllic childhood in 1950s Paris that abruptly came to an end.
It was in June of 1956. My family, which included my brother, my sister, my father and mother and my mother’s mother, had been living in Paris since 1952. My father was First Secretary at the American Embassy and Special Assistant to the American ambassador to France. His brief was important: American point person for all nuclear issues in Europe. He was in the middle of the complex situation involving tensions between France, Germany and Great Britain over who was going to get the bomb during the developing cold war. He worked to mitigate these tensions in order to make peaceful nuclear energy widely available in Europe in a cooperative manner.
Life was good. My father’s prospects for advancement were excellent. He was doing important work, his personnel reviews were good, we had made plans for summer vacation in 1957, our house in the States had been rented long-term, my brother and I were in French schools absorbing the culture and language of that profoundly wonderful country. (We both subsequently became professors of French literature and culture at American universities.) We were taking fascinating trips to various parts of post-war France and neighboring countries, to historic sites, to architecturally significant sites, to battle fields, for example the Normandy beaches just 8 years after the invasion, to great museums, to great towns and cities, to wonderful Michelin-starred restaurants. My father made a good salary that went a long way in post-war France and we travelled well. And Paris, our home, was glorious. It was a long way from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where I was born and where my father, an MIT-trained physicist, had been head of the research department of a large industrial concern.
I have chosen not to reveal the name of my father, and therefore my own, for reasons that I will explain after you know more of his story.
On June 6, 1956 my father left Paris for a routine consultation in Washington D.C. A week later, a rare event occurred: We received a letter from him. My father didn’t routinely write letters. That was something my mother did. It was a Wednesday, my brother and I were home because there is no school on Wednesday afternoons in most French school systems. My mother opened the letter and began reading it. I remember the moment today as if it were last week. My mother sitting on the large overstuffed chair in her bedroom, the family clustered around her. Excitement in the air… a letter from our father! I remember especially the last sentence: “for all these reasons I have decided to leave the Foreign Service…” My mother was dumbstruck. She said: “He can’t do this to me…he can’t do this to me.”
On the 16th, a Saturday, my father returned. He was exhausted. My mother told us that he needed rest and we were told not to bother him. My sister saw him weeping.
A few days later he had recovered, and he and my mother started to visit all the places that they most loved in Paris—museums, cathedrals, parks. They took walks, went to the movies, discharged several social obligations. Exactly 14 days after my father came back, he left Paris with his father, who had been visiting us for the past month, and returned to the United States, leaving my mother with the task of packing everything up and getting the family back home. In August we all departed from Le Havre. Our house was still being rented. We had no place to go initially and had to stay with good friends. Subsequently we were able to return to our own house.
My father had no job and set about seeking one. It took a year. He ended up at a third-tier university on Long Island where he was chair of the physics department.
Until 2015, my siblings and I had no idea what had happened. Both my parents were dead, and the three of us had no clues about why my father resigned so suddenly. We spun theories: CIA involvement, Russian honey pots, did it have anything to do with my Russian-born mother and grandmother?
For a long time I have wanted to understand my father’s story, and today I know almost all the details. This is because I decided in 2012, to try to finally pierce the mystery, I made a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the State Department for all my father’s personnel records. Three years went by before I finally received 400 pages of material. I started sifting through it and finally discovered, several days later, sitting in a chair in my bedroom, what had happened. Another moment to remember.
The story that follows is informed by several sources: My father’s State Department personnel records from the FOIA request, a diary kept by my mother, together with letters that she had written home describing life in Paris, my own research. And, finally, my childhood memories of our miraculous time in Paris.
My mother announced to me that we were moving to France on a car ride home from a deplorable stay at a summer camp. It was the summer of 1952. I was nine years old. We were taking our car, a 1950 dark green Buick Super, and we were going on the most modern ship in the world, the magnificent SS United States.
We got to Le Havre, dilapidated by the war that had ended just seven years before our arrival. Our dark green Buick Super was unloaded; we were going to drive straight to Paris. I don’t believe that my father had ever driven in France, where there were no speed limits, and drivers were certifiably crazy. Each was personally, almost genetically committed to taking advantage of la priorité à droite, a law that legitimizes the right of cars coming from the right to have absolute, complete priority over anything else going in any direction at any speed on almost any road. This was a given in France. Everyone knew this, except possibly my father.
Driving in France does have an upside, however. The roads, at the time, were superbly marked. Although narrow, they were smooth, well-maintained and very beautiful. In addition, the comings and goings of most Frenchmen were at the time influenced by the magnificent Michelin guides and their accompanying maps. The Michelin Guides were a window into the wonders of France, famous for their way of directing you to appropriate destinations: “worthy of a detour” or, better yet: “worth the trip.”
I’m not sure what my father was thinking as we got into our enormous vehicle. Was he nervous? In the car were his wife, his three children, and his mother-in-law, who could sometimes be intimidating. Did he wonder whether he was up to driving this monstrous automobile, lacking power steering or power brakes, on these thread-like French roads, teeming with Frenchmen, all eager to apply their knowledge of la priorité à droite? I don’t remember him being anything but calm. We set off. We got to Paris unscathed. This was the beginning of a magical time in a magical city. My mother had found a large apartment for us on one of the avenues that radiate from the Arc de Triomphe. We were about two blocks down from this majestic memorial, and, looking out our fourth-floor apartment at night we could see its pearly surface transformed, by the illumination that the French use with such great effect on their major public buildings and monuments, into what looked like a stage set. The stage was Paris. The show was about to begin.
I think my father was thwarted by life in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He had escaped briefly for a one-year tour of duty as a newly inducted Foreign Service Reserve officer in 1948 when we all went to Sweden, where he served as Scientific Attaché. Sweden in 1948 was, in my five-year-old mind, unworldly and special. There, my father had gotten a glimpse of a larger stage: trips to European capitals and many meetings and trips to Washington to begin the process of rationalizing European-American nuclear policy. My father had excellent Swedish contacts, made the most of them in his work, and was lauded for his efforts after returning to Lancaster. He resumed his life there and, I imagine, began to dream of bigger things once again.
Lancaster was very much a company town, in fact a very socially conservative Republican town, as it still is today, surrounded by the Amish, their horse-drawn buggies and magnificent lush countryside. But it was provincial in all the best and worst senses of the word, and I felt even then that he was bored and sought greater things. He joined a painting group, exhibited at local events, and even won a national award for one of his paintings. He was particularly enamored by the work of Edvard Munch, and some of his paintings show that influence. But his paintings in general had a self-taught style of their own, and many of his canvasses show real talent. In Lancaster, too, he cultivated his taste for classical music, his taste being centered mostly on the Germans, but especially Richard Wagner. When travelling in Europe during his post graduate studies in Sweden he apparently went to the epicenter of Wagner idolatry, Bayreuth. He spoke passable German. As a youth he played the violin, but I never heard him play and have no idea how proficient he was.
So we were now in Paris and those greater things began to happen. Paris had the envergure that Lancaster, Pennsylvania lacked. Envergure is a wonderful French word that literally means “wingspan,” but its figurative sense suggests depth, breadth, scope, substance and, when used to describe a person: caliber. We had moved to a place that certainly had it. It was palpable. Even my nine-year-old self dimly realized it.
My mother’s diary reveals that just a few days after our arrival, my father began leading us on numerous day trips, to Fontainebleau, to parks, to cathedrals and to the flea market, where my brother and I began amassing a collection of muskets, and derringers, and World War I field telephones.
The life that we all had begun in Paris in 1952 was a golden moment. It glows even today in my memory. There is a famous French book, Le Grand Meaulnes, by Alain-Fournier, who was killed at the very beginning of World War I, which describes what happened to a young French peasant boy who stumbles onto a miraculous chateau at which a multiple-day fabulous party is taking place. He is drawn into its otherworldliness and spends several days reveling in an existence he had never imagined. Later, after he has returned to his squalid home, he tries to find the chateau once again, but he never does. He cannot ever recreate that splendor of his past. That is my family’s allegory.
Paris in 1952 was a strange anachronism. Essentially an entire decade—the 40s—had been lost, swallowed up by the dark years of the occupation and the first few years of the slow and hesitant moral and physical recovery from one of the most disastrous moments in French history. In 1952 the cityscape was resolutely that of the late 30s. The buses were from the thirties. Ancient pre-war cars prowled the streets. The pissoires, those round and very redolent public urinals, were ubiquitous. Paris was still pearl grey. The façades of its historic buildings had not yet been cleansed in the name of “progress,” Les Halles was not yet torn down, high-rises did yet threaten to drown out its historic architecture. Paris was not yet beset by mass tourism. Paris in 1952 was still the Paris of the "lost generation," of American literary expatriates, Earnest Hemingway and Sylvia Beach and Gertrude Stein. And I was there.
So we made our home in what seems in my memory to be a perfect place, a transcendent city captured at a unique moment of its history. My brother and I dove into this new life: Our French schooling began three months after our arrival. French school, with its strict and elegant way of making you think about subjects that were unknown to you, the surface area of a square, the hand-drawn and colored maps of the Middle East, or Rome…..Vercingétorix, defeated by Julius Caesar…. French literature, the classics, Molière, Racine (at age 11!), algebra, geography, science. French schools were vastly different from American schools; they were demanding, they were inspiring, they approached all subjects at a higher level than their American equivalents. After about six months of crash immersion I managed to begin to speak credible French. My brother and I joined a fencing club and took lessons from an Olympic coach.
My grandmother, who spoke perfect French as a result of being raised in an upper-class family in St. Petersburg, was in her element, as was my mother, who had learned French in Russia as a child. We vacationed in the summer in Brittany, and later in southwestern France, in the environs of that wonderful old town, Biarritz, center of the enchanting and slightly mysterious Basque country.
Life was as perfect as it ever gets.
Wonderful things happened to us. In 1955, my parents met Alice B. Toklas, immortalized in her life partner Gertrude Stein’s best-selling 1933 memoire, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. This is my mother writing at the end of her life, in an unpublished memoire, about “Alice B”:
When one sees photographs of her one can't realize how warm she was and what a gift she had to make one feel not only comfortable with her but somehow wanted, and that was with me, who had absolutely nothing to offer her. Before we left Paris she asked me if there was anything I might have liked to do and didn't and all I could think of was going to an opening at a couturier's. She immediately had Pierre Balmain send me an invitation as he was her and Gertrude's favorite designer, and made most of their clothes. So off I went on the great day unsuspecting that my invitation was not an ordinary one and was signed by the great man himself; I was ushered into the salon and seated at the very head of the horse-shoe arrangement for the show; again being very naive I had no idea what that seating meant; I recognized some of the women present having seen them in the society pages of illustrated magazines—winning the Arc de Triomphe races or going to some elegant balls; they obviously could not recognize me—so they were doing considerable staring, which again I did not catch immediately. Most of the people present had a young woman standing in back of them, but I had 2; then as the elegant models came down the stretch one of the young women would ask me if I was interested in this model! We could not have afforded one finger on a glove—so all I could do was shake my head and simply said "non, non, non." When I told Miss T. about it she was delighted and wondered what all the society ladies made of the mystery that I was that day.
During my four years in France I essentially became French. My friends were mostly French. I spoke French more fluently than English; in fact, English was my weak subject upon my return to America. Somehow I intuited how marvelous Paris was; I had an inkling that Paris was a different level of existence than Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I was too young to know why I knew this. I simply knew that Paris was special.
My father adored French cathedrals and had deep knowledge of aesthetic things, surprising for a physicist. He would make special detours to see special art objects be they in museums, cathedrals or in village squares. He was a passionate photographer and treated himself to the best 35 mm camera of the day, a Leica IIIf with an Elmar lens. He was deeply informed, highly intelligent and relished the opportunity to spread his wings, to bask in the envergure of this extraordinary city and country— all the while serving his own country in a serious, deep and sustained way. He had arrived. I think he was happy.
My Father's Work
My father was consumed by his work. He came home late at night, travelled often, met with people whose importance I have come to realize—ranging from Admiral Lewis Strauss, the head of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission to France’s Jean Monnet, who is widely seen as the chief architect of the European Union.
As a child I had no idea what my father did at work. I was not aware of his official title, First Secretary and Special Assistant to the ambassador for nuclear affairs, and I had no idea who he was meeting with. I had no idea that they were important. I rarely went to the office with him, although I was aware that it looked out onto the statue of Benjamin Franklin that adorns the front lawn of the embassy.
I have since learned more about what my father did. Before the FOIA request was finally fulfilled, I had hired a researcher to search government records held at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). I started to piece together some of his activities.
My father was navigating tricky shoals, as separate nations, especially France, were trying to make sure that they could get the bomb but that Germany could not—many agendas, often at cross purposes. A nexus of these discussions was my father, since he was the principal advisor on nuclear affairs for all of Europe. I have come to realize that he played an important role in what at the time was a considerable achievement, demanding tact, intelligence, skill, evenness and determination. And he was not simply a go-between. Memos drafted by my father, found at NARA, show that he was an active participant in shaping U.S. nuclear policy in Europe.
The NARA documents also show that my father’s forced resignation set back European nuclear negotiations during the summer and fall of 1956, because the State Department had difficulty finding a suitable replacement for my father. He had a scientific background, knew his brief backward and forward, and had already won the trust of Jean Monnet.
When we left Paris, Monnet gave my father a case of his family cognac. For Monnet, this was a significant gesture of respect and friendship, and is a testament to the role that my father played and how well he dispatched his work.
I was sitting in the same room where I am writing this. The FOIA package had arrived. I deliberately began at the beginning of the pile of pages. I already had pieced together the major elements of my father's working life. The anodyne forms were not very revealing. Evaluation reports: more revealing. Commendation letters for specific work assignments. Travel vouchers. Assignments to various committees. A letter from my father outlining his expectations in the service. A memo from a superior saying my father should be promoted to full service status from his current Foreign Service Reserve status, dated in late June. A puzzling notation, in pencil, in one corner of the memo: “a little late?” The memo, from my father’s immediate supervisor, was dated in late June, after my father’s fate had been sealed. His advisor had not been informed.
Then a peculiar document, signed by a Mr. Szluk—in which my father is referred to as “the subject”— followed by a second document with ominous words at the close, “Resignation accepted in lieu of preferment of charges involving suitability for further federal employment.”
Mr. Szluk was Peter Szluk, “a State Department security man,” interviewed by Griffin Fariello in his 1995 oral history, Red Scare: Memories of the American Inquisition. Szluk was the special assistant to the director of personnel from the late 1940s until 1962, which he himself defined as “hatchet man for the State Department.”
Szluk bragged he had “network of informants” that brought him “the secret vices and leanings of … people in government, from the White House … down to the janitor in the State Department.” He reveled in taking advantage of “how rotten people are to one another.”
To this day, nobody knows who some of the people were that I got rid of,” Szluk said, “because they were ‘sodomites.’ I would protect it, particularly because so many of them had families. The only thing I regret in my campaign to rid the State Department of that type of individual was when within minutes, and sometimes maybe a week, they would commit suicide….”
The Lavender Scare
Between the late 1940s and the early 1960s, the federal government made a wholesale purge of alleged homosexuals—especially in the State Department. Historian David K. Johnson has found that over 1000 State Department employees lost their jobs—and in many cases their careers and sometimes their lives—to the purge. Joseph McCarthy was not the instigator of the purge, Johnson notes. Its antecedents lay in events of the Truman administration and before, but McCarthy poured gasoline on the supposed problem. It burst into very hot flames and consumed many lives beyond repair.
My father had just been recommended for a promotion. A new background check might have turned up details that raised Szluk’s suspicions. I don’t know yet what evidence of my father’s supposed “unsuitability” was found, for which charges could have been threatened—but he became one of the Lavender Scare’s victims. This is why our stay in Paris came to an end.
I do not know when my father first understood that he was in trouble. It seems likely that he learned right as he returned to the United States on June 7. He seems to have decided to resign very quickly. We would not have received his fateful letter as soon as we did unless he had written it almost immediately upon his arrival in the Capitol. I have imagined that someone met him at the airport, when he got off the plane, and from there his fate quickly unfolded.
My father did not tell his brother what happened. He didn’t reveal anything to his children. And I don’t think, though I can’t be sure of this either, that my father told my mother what had occurred. I’m not sure my father would want what happened to him to be known. That he remained forever silent about this episode from the past makes me hesitate to reveal our names. I don’t know what he would think now that everyone involved is dead, but I must honor my father’s intentions as best as I can interpret them.
My father was dismissed summarily, entirely extrajudicially. I have found no record of his alleged activities. The resignation was treated as normal, even though it wasn’t. Five people who were mentioned in my father’s separation memo knew the real reason for his resignation. I’ve found no record of any reaction from them. I am not aware of any others who knew. Szluk told Fariello in Red Scare that he was careful to limit the ambit of those who had to be informed.
Resign quietly for “personal reasons” or else we will come after you. We will ruin your life.
This is his letter of resignation. I suspect it resembles the text of his letter home from Washington. The reason put forward in the letter for his resignation is false. My siblings were indeed headed for college in America, but this had never been considered an impediment to my father’s career by either my father or mother, who had only one reaction to the Washington letter. “He can’t do this to me….”
I have no idea whether my father was homosexual. The people who knew him best think the charge was dubious. He lit up in the company of beautiful women and was at times flirtatious with them. But he liked art, culture, music, painting, antiques. And, oh yes, he disliked sports and had joined the drama club at MIT.
My father left the service. Quietly. With dignity. Without revealing anything to anyone.
Many years later, my parents bought a summer house on a lake in Vermont, and my father became an expert on local ferns, and, in the afternoons, would retire to his bedroom and take a nap, just as he had done years before in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. But this peaceful later life belies the trauma that created it. How did he process the dreadful end of his chosen career? Where did his seeming serenity come from? Why did he keep all of this away from his family? What were his private torments? My siblings and I will never know.
In the last few semesters of a 50-year university career, I developed and taught a seminar on the Enlightenment. It was a fitting and bracing end to my formal academic work, as it encapsulated many ideas and values that I profoundly share. There were the big ideas, like the primacy of rational thought, but there were also many others, such as the ideal of cosmopolitanism, the concordance of nations, the importance of history, the need for tolerance, the role of national culture. But the most important notion of all was the idea of progress.
I’ve written this essay to honor my father, to attest that his life was worthwhile, productive, honorable, interesting, and decent. In the past, what befell him was seen as discrediting and shameful. But maybe progress is actually possible, as the Enlightenment suggested, and if so my father’s life can now be seen in a clearer and more revealing light: It is a life that had envergure.
I am proud of my father. And I am proud to be his son.