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‘Red Diaper Babies’ - Children of Communists

May 23, 1989 GMT

BOSTON (AP) _ Country Joe McDonald, whose rock band Country Joe and the Fish appeared at the Woodstock festival, remembers how strained his life was growing up in a communist family.

Joan Sokoloff, a 48-year-old therapist, grew up in Boston in the 1950s. But she might as well have spent her childhood on another planet. While other children were watching ″Father Knows Best,″ Sokoloff, the daughter of communists, was contemplating world change.

″I couldn’t care less if they were investigated as communists or not,″ said McDonald, who grew up in Southern California. ″All I cared about was when I went to a Cub Scout meeting or went to play baseball. ... I didn’t feel comfortable anymore.″

Said Sokoloff: ″They (my parents) always used to say that the revolution is just around the corner. So there was always a sense that we were working toward something imminent.″

McDonald and Sokoloff are two of five so-called ″red diaper babies,″ the children of communists, who appear in ″Children of the Left,″ a new documentary by filmmaker Eric Stange. The 60-minute film traces the evolution of children raised as communists who are now adults in a conservative America.

The topic is a hot one. ″Loyalties - a Son’s Memoir,″ a new book by former Washington Post investigative reporter Carl Bernstein, is the story of Bernstein’s childhood in a communist family.

Bernstein writes about the conflicting legacy left by communist parents. His story is woven out of what he says are the torn loyalties and lasting repercussions of a communist childhood.

Stange found that communist parents left a mixed legacy. Some of their children remained communists. One became a Reagan conservative. But almost all remain political and most vote.

Stange, 35, a former reporter and editor for the Boston Herald, had made one previous documentary, ″The Pitch of Grief,″ when he decided to make a film about the children of communists. He knew several as friends and found out about others through them. A network exists among them as adults, he said, formed from childhood when communist families often sent their children to the same progressive summer camps and schools.

But Stange said that even now, many who grew up in communist households were still hesitant going public about the experience.

″The penalties were too great in the ’50s,″ he said.

Stange spoke to 50 former ″red diaper babies,″ interviewed 15 on tape and culled five for his film. The term ″red diaper babies″ has several rumored origins. One is that communist parents in the ’20s were so poor that they used the red flags they received in return for their party dues to diaper their babies.

″I found an incredible mixture of pride and anger,″ he said. ″It was a way of looking at the world that was much more open and diverse and worldly than what most American kids were getting.″

The film, which premiered last month in Cambridge and was co-produced with the Newton Television Foundation, also will be shown at New York’s Public Theater this month and in Los Angeles in June.

The stories that unfold on camera are generally happy ones. Though they participated in one of the most tumultuous periods in American history, Stange’s subjects recall their childhoods with more pleasure than pain.

Eugene Dennis Jr., son of the former general secretary in the American Communist Party, was a longshoreman for many years and is now a historian. In the film, tears come to his eyes as he recalls how ″safe″ he felt, held in the arms of singer-actor-writer Paul Robeson at one point during the worst of the communist witch hunts in the ’50s.

David Horowitz, the son of public schoolteachers in New York, edited the leftist magazine Ramparts in the ’60s. He has since become a best-selling author of biographies with David Collier and a conservative Republican. Richard Healey, whose mother was a high-ranking communist leader in Southern California, edits an anti-nuclear magazine.

The film uses archival footage to trace the relatively swift downfall of the Communist Party in the United States, which had formed in 1919 and enjoyed peak years in the ’30s and early ’40s.

″Children of the Left″ also outlines the turmoil that marked the party’s rapid decline, beginning with the Red Scare initiated in the ’50s by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, chaired by Sen. Joseph McCarthy, the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in 1953 and revelations in 1956 that Soviet leader Josef Stalin was a murderous dictator.

Several subjects of the film recall their parents were jailed regularly. Joan Sokoloff remembers the day one of her mother’s arrests made the front page of The Boston Globe, her struggle to overcome her own embarrassment and her eventual pride in her parents’ work.

Healey recalls his childhood years at Communist Party meetings and picnics as ″the happiest moments of my life.″

″Growing up with ideals like that, with a world view of wanting a better life for people, it was still a very rich way of life,″ said Sokoloff.