The 1950's were a particularly dark period in American history. Lives, careers, and families were destroyed in the search for the enemy within (Communists and fellow travelers). But not all Americans sat at home waiting to be denounced or for the subpoena or letter informing them that they had lost their livelihoods. Some fled and many went south to America's near abroad, Mexico.
Diana Anhalt has written a fascinating portrait of these political expatriates, a "small group of controversial Americans who found refuge in Mexico during the late 40's and throughout the '50's..." in her book A Gathering of Fugitives: American Political Expatriates in Mexico. She was well placed to write their history; she was a young girl living in New York when her parents, Mike and Belle Zykofsky, uprooted the family and slipped out of the United States in 1950.
The FBI (and it was the FBI not the CIA that kept them under surveillance in Mexico) called them the American Communist Group in Mexico (ACGM), "A loosely knit organization of a prominently social nature of persons who are present and/or past members of the Communist Party of the United States and their friends and associates who share a common sympathy for communism and the Soviet Union."
Anhalt is a bit more precise in her description. They were "former labor leaders, 'undesirable' U.S. resident aliens, the Abraham Lincoln vets, Party organizers, Hollywood activists, and the unfriendly witnesses at Congressional and State hearings. Some were members or former members of the Communist Party; others were not."
Why did they leave? The answer seems obvious and yet, as Anhalt points out, many left before they became subjects of interest (it took the FBI four years to discover that her parents had left the country) and in many of her interviews with American expatriates they declined to cite homeland politics as their reason for leaving the United States. Though the harassment was highly unpleasant and some went to jail or lost their jobs, the repression never turned deadly (there were no camps or executions). Resident aliens had the least amount of protection - the tool of choice used against them was the threat of jail and deportation (Alien Registration Act of 1940). There was a general climate of fear and anyone associated with the Party or leftist groups felt vulnerable and decided to get out while they could:
"Therefore, the opposition, people like my parents, afraid they might lose their jobs or be harassed or detained for having associated with suspect organizations or individuals, fled to Mexico because the deteriorating political climate at home, like the signal lights at a railroad crossing, was a sign of danger."
Some stayed for a short time and returned to the U.S., others used Mexico as a stepping stone to further migration and a third country. Others settled in and here Amhalt's book really shines because she recounts what happened to these sojourners in the years they spent just south of the U.S. border. Like many migrants most had no intention of living there permanently, "We didn't come down to stay. We came down to cool off." Their strategy was to wait out the witch hunts, watch the American political scene closely and to return when/if things got better. For some that day never came and they died in exile.
This attitude was not exactly conducive to integration but such is the power of host country culture that most learned to speak some Spanish and a few became quite fluent. For the most part these American migrants were not rich and had to seek employment or start business ventures in order to survive.
There was another American community in Mexico at that time; a business community for the most part whose politics were on the other side of the American political spectrum: "In time, we would discover we had run straight into the arms of the very people we were running away from: white, middle class, conservative Republicans." Anhalt says that there was a huge divide between the two groups and, in spite of a shared American identity, the only common neutral ground was that both sent their children to American schools.
In no place was this gap between the American business community and these political fugitives more flagrant than in how they were treated by the American authorities in Mexico. The ACGM discovered very quickly that the home country had a long reach. Not only were they under surveillance by the FBI but their access to basic consular services at the American embassy was compromised. Every political expatriate Anhalt talked to had "Embassy stories"or a "Passport/non-Passport story." In some cases their passports were simply revoked, in others the consulate withdrew protection or refused to register the births of their children. When Anhalt's parents tried to do the latter, the Embassy attempted to seize their passports and when they refused to turn them over, "the Embassy reached the conclusion that they could no longer afford the Zykofsky's official protection or registration facilities unless they surrendered their, by then, expired passports and prepared affidavits explaining their alleged Communist activities." The Embassy then informed the Mexican authorities of their decisions, an act that was essentially an invitation for the Mexicans to deport them.
It is not clear from Anhalt's book at which level these policies were decided but it was undoubtedly tied to the McCarran Internal Security Act of 1950 (passed over the objections and veto of President Harry Truman).
Nonetheless, there was still some protection afforded by the Mexican government since the local authorities frowned on direct attacks on their sovereignty. A very few Americans were apprehended (illegally) and sent back to the U.S. but in general, the American government "proceeded with extreme caution when engaged in unauthorized seizures of U.S. citizens on Mexican soil or 'unofficial extraditions,' as they were referred to in police jargon."
The period Anhalt writes about (and one she lived personally) is from 1948 to 1965. Ancient history, some might say, or just a bad period that Americans at home and abroad lived through and learned from. I'm not so sure. In a post-911 world were there Americans who left the country for political reasons but did so with such discretion that we will never know them or their motivations? In historical context, laws like the Patriot Act seem frighteningly familiar. Under every discussion Americans abroad have with the homeland is a request on their, or an offering up on our side, of the reasons why we chose to live outside the U.S. And we all know that there are things to say that will establish us as "legitimate" expatriates in their eyes, and there are things not to say lest we rouse their ire. The U.S. government's reach is still long and they hold both the keys to our ever being allowed to return, and control over the breeder documents that allow us to be legal residents elsewhere.
And lastly, it's worth noting that at that time Anhalt writes about, there was very little support or sympathy from the homeland public for these people. They were described as undesirable, un-American individuals - rich dissident creatives or former ungrateful troublesome immigrants living it up on the beaches of Mexico. Am I being too sensitive when I say that the rhetoric about America's emigrants has not exactly improved in the last 60 years? What we hear in the American media today about us would seem to confirm that analysis. There is still something very un-American about us and the only difference now is that they have a new reason for suspecting our motives (which are still assumed to be nefarious until proven otherwise).
Anhalt's words and her research deserve our attention because I believe there are lessons to be gleaned from them that are as relevant today as they were decades ago. And it's a damn fine read to boot.