by Walter Jon Williams
Wild Cards is set in an alternative history, which means— pretty much by definition— that it exists as a kind of distorted reflection of our history. So in Wild Cards we see episodes out of our own history, but with an added Wild Cards twist: the Vietnam War (with General Zappa and the Joker Brigade); reality media (with American Hero), the 1988 presidential election (but with Gregg Hartmann).
But most importantly for how Wild Cards evolved, we see the Red Scare (with the Four Aces).
We hadn’t originally planned to go there. We had planned a more or less contemporary setting for the Wild Cards adventures, but George wanted Howard Waldrop to contribute, and Howard wanted to write a story set in 1946. What happened between 1946 and the mid-Eighties? We didn’t know.
Because I’m pretty much History Guy, I wrote up a one-page list of events that could have happened in that period, including “The Wild Cards Seventeen are called before the UnAmerican Activities Committee.”
I recall no other items on that list, and I had no intention of writing that story. These were intended as bits of alternate history that could form a common background for characters in a contemporary setting. But George thought that idea had potential, and he told me that I should write the story for the first book. “And seventeen Wild Cards is too many, keep it to four.”
I was a little annoyed, because I had my Modular Man story ready to go. But of course I’m History Guy, and while I knew about the Red Scare and the Hollywood Ten, I knew very few details, and in the end I was happy to do the research.
As it happens, I was alive during what came to be called the McCarthy Era, and though I was a child I remember my father saying that he had to be careful discussing politics with people, for fear that he would be denounced and/or lose his job. (My father wasn’t any kind of radical, by the way. But he knew it was Scoundrel Time, sure enough.) I was told that certain bits of my family history should never be discussed with outsiders.
“Cool!” I thought. “I know important big secrets!”
So I did the research for my Wild Cards story, and what I found was so rich (and often so bizarre) that the problem would be containing it all in one story. (In the end if was twostories, my own “Witness” and “Degradation Rites” by Melinda Snodgrass.)
The Red Scare didn’t begin with McCarthy, who arrived in the Senate in 1953, but with the House Committee on Un-American Activities, known somewhat illogically as HUAC. HUAC was a successor to a number of congressional committees that, over the years, had investigated groups branded as subversive, such as Communists, Trotskyists, Anarchists, immigrants, Fascists, and not least Japanese-Americans, who on HUAC’s recommendation were sent to camps. Most of these groups did their investigations, got a few headlines, issued a report or two, and then faded away.
With the end of World War II the Nazis had been defeated, and the Soviet Union swallowed Eastern Europe. China was on the brink of falling to Mao Zedong. The Cold War was on for real, and there wasn’t a lot of leverage in investigating Fascists any more. Where were the headlines to be found?
In Hollywood, of course, where headlines are always to be found. HUAC figured that investigating prominent Hollywood personalities would get the committee a lot more attention than interrogating obscure labor organizerd about his Bolshevik connections, and they were right— the Hollywood hearings were filmed, and covered live on radio. HUAC subpoenaed the Hollywood Ten on the grounds that they were injecting Communist propaganda into the American cinema— which, even if true, was not illegal. Once in the committee room the Ten were barely allowed to speak, stood on their First Amendment rights of free speech and free association, and ended up being sent to prison for contempt of Congress.
HUAC had learned that they’d get big headlines if they went after Hollywood, so they just kept going. In response the Hollywood studios blacklisted people named as subversives, including big stars like John Garfield and the star of The Jolson Story, Larry Parks, who cooperated with the committee but got blacklisted for being less than enthusiastic about being an informer.
The film star Adolphe Menjou testified as a friendly witness, and said that everyone in California knew that whole busloads of Communists were being brought up from Mexico every week. (These claims were just as true as similar claims made more recently.)
Lee J. Cobb testified as a friendly witness and named names, but got blacklisted anyway.
The film star Robert Taylor denied knowing any Communists, because his conservative politics were so well understood that no Communists would try to recruit him. He was then asked if he’d heard any rumors concerning who might be a Communist, and in his confusion dropped the name of Howard da Silva— not as a Communist, but as a troublemaker. Da Silva was promptly blacklisted, and Taylor gained a reputation as a rat.
Ginger Rogers’ mother testified at length and claimed a near-psychic ability to detect Communist propaganda in movies. Oo-ee-oo.
One member of the committee wondered aloud if Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe was a member of the Communist Party, and if “Mr. Euripides” preached class warfare.
HUAC’s various investigations were a model for Senator Joseph McCarthy, who gave his name to the whole era.
Stars like Charlie Chaplin, Paul Robeson, and Orson Welles moved to Europe to continue their careers. Others wanted to leave but couldn’t, because their passports were revoked. Hundreds went to prison, and thousands lost their jobs, and not just in Hollywood— investigating the backgrounds of ordinary people had become big business, and possibly my father was right to be cautious about exercising his constitutional right to speak his opinions aloud.
None were found guilty of actual crimes. It wasn’t illegal to be a Communist, or to know Communists. If people did prison time, it was for contempt of congress. If they starved, it was because they were unemployable.
It was small comfort that the chairman of HUAC, J Parnell Thomas, was found guilty of padding his payroll and sent to the same prison as many of his victims.
Despite all this, despite the best efforts of HUAC, precious little evidence of Hollywood subversion was ever found. Film studios were owned by banks and entrepreneurs, not bomb-throwing radicals, and none were interested in overthrowing the system that was making them extremely rich. There were actual Russian spies, of course, but they weren’t uncovered by HUAC, but defected to the U.S., or were uncovered by police or the FBI.
Nevertheless the Red Scare held America in terror for a dozen years or more, and was a springboard that launched HUAC member Richard Nixon into national politics.
All of this was more than enough material for a novel, let alone a shorter work. It stood to reason that a congressional committee investigating alleged subversion and desperate for headlines would investigate Wild Cards activity. After all, the wild card virus didn’t undermine politics, it undermined the individual’s own DNA. It was the most perfect metaphor imaginable for subversion of the individual.
Since George wanted four Wild Cards to be at the center of the story, it seemed obvious to call them the Four Aces. I created Golden Boy Jack Braun, Black Eagle Earl Sanderson, and the Four Aces’s boss, Archibald Holmes. Brain Trust was created by Melinda Snodgrass, and George created the Envoy.
The Aces were deliberately created to be everything HUAC hated, which is to say FDR-style liberals, with little hesitation in intervening in foreign conflicts if it meant giving Fascists the boot. The Four Aces are personifications of the self-confident, internationalist America that sprang into being at the end of the Second World War. We fixed the world once, they might say, and if necessary we’ll fix it again. A pity about those deluded unfortunates who get in our way.
Earl Sanderson, the Black Eagle and a civil rights hero, was designed to be an in-your-face provocation to HUAC members like the arch-racist John Rankin, who defended the Klan as a patriotic organization and used words like “kike” in his speeches. (The bizarre speeches I give him in my story don’t hold a candle to what he says in the real transcripts.)
What undoes the Four Aces is not so much Congress as History. The Chinese civil war was too big for the Aces to fix, and then they got blamed when the Communists took over. That failure gave HUAC a stick they could use to beat the Aces with, and Golden Boy— a new-minted movie star with a new-minted wife and a lot to lose— found himself staring at his own fate at very close range. As he explains it in the story:
It was clear that the Four Aces were doomed. We were bound by law and by decency, and the committee was not. The only way we could fight them was to break the law, to rise up in their smug faces and smash the committee room to bits, laughing as the congressmen dived for cover beneath their desks. And if we did that we’d become what we fought: an extralegal force for terror and violence. We’d become what the committee said we were. And that would only make things worse.
The Aces were going down, and nothing could stop it.
Golden Boy faces this knowledge and caves, and he testifies as a friendly witness, destroys his friends, and becomes the Judas Ace.
I based him on another friendly witness, the actor Sterling Hayden, who depicted his own terror and confusion in his memoir Wanderer. He was also eloquent on the subject of his self-hatred: I was a rat, a stoolie, and the names I named of those close friends were blacklisted and deprived of their livelihood.
Among others, he’d named his own girlfriend. Hayden spent the next thirty years trying to drink himself to death, and failing.
Like Hayden, Golden Boy faced a moral crisis and failed. Black Eagle faced the same crisis and held firm. He knew that History isn’t a river, but a tide, and that periods like the Red Scare come and go. But even so he becomes paralyzed by Jack’s betrayal, and is unable to act again in public for fear that he’d do more harm than good.
Reaction to the story was largely enthusiastic, enough to win it a nomination for the Nebula Award, but a subset of readers were puzzled. How did I come up with that wild idea? they wondered. Born after the end of the Scare, and come to maturity in the Eighties, when Reagan and Gorbachev were acting to reduce Cold War tensions, they had no idea that HUAC was a real thing.
It is said that those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it, and right now we find ourselves in a period when nationalism and intolerance of minorities, foreigners, and immigrants are all on the rise. Let’s hoped that we can learn from the past and see where this will lead us, and that there are more Eagles among us than Boys.