Blacklist: A Look at the 1947 HUAC Hearings

May 27, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

blak’ list n., v., list– ed, – list– ing
a list of per­sons who are under sus­pi­cion, disfavor,or censure,
or who are not to be hired, served, or oth­er­wise accepted.
—Ran­dom House Webster’s Dictionary—

Accord­ing to the experts, the start of the cold war with the Soviet Union began in July 1947 when Stalin refused to accept the Mar­shall Plan for the Soviet Union. Although Soviet—American ten­sions had been mount­ing ever since the Bol­she­vik Rev­o­lu­tion, they were briefly relaxed dur­ing the alliance to defeat Nazi Ger­many. By the spring of 1947 the eupho­ria cre­ated by the allied vic­to­ries was wan­ing. Mean­while the Soviet Union con­tin­ued its free and unabated dom­i­na­tion of a tat­tered Europe. Marx­ist prin­ci­ples appeared to be gain­ing a foothold in much of the world. It appeared to some Amer­i­cans that the ter­ri­ble sac­ri­fices by so many dur­ing the war years had been in vain.

cartoon truman stalin

Pres­i­dent Tru­man, Joseph Stalin, Car­toon Sat­ur­day Evening Post

The men­ace of Ger­man agents, and fifth colum­nists had given way to Com­mu­nist spies and “fel­low trav­el­ers” more men­ac­ing than their pre­de­ces­sors, because they spoke with­out accents and looked much like the rest of us! The wide­spread and pop­u­lar notion, many con­cluded, was that Amer­i­can Com­mu­nists were con­duct­ing atomic espi­onage for the Soviet Union. It was in this capri­cious envi­ron­ment, that the con­vic­tion of Alger Hiss (1948), the rise and fall of Sen­a­tor Joseph R. McCarthy (1950—1954), and the exe­cu­tions of Julius and Ethel Rosen­berg would open the door to one of the most dis­qui­et­ing peri­ods in Amer­i­can history.

In 1946, for the first time since the Hoover admin­is­tra­tion, the Repub­li­can Party had won con­trol of Con­gress. Polit­i­cal events in Europe and the rest of the world bewil­dered most Amer­i­cans. Early polls indi­cated offi­cial U.S. for­eign pol­icy at odds with that of the aver­age cit­i­zen. As a result, Pres­i­dent Tru­man came to be regarded by many as being soft towards Com­mu­nism, espe­cially domes­tic Com­mu­nism. Because of the newly empow­ered Repub­li­can major­ity and to com­bat these increas­ing uncer­tain­ties, Tru­man put into effect the first of many of the so—called anti—Communist loy­alty acts. How­ever, rather than shoring up a per­ceived weak­ness within his admin­is­tra­tion, these exec­u­tive man­dates lent cre­dence to Tru­man’ detrac­tors, and fueled his own self—doubts.

A revi­tal­ized HUAC (inac­tive dur­ing the war years) now under the lead­er­ship of the con­temp­tu­ous J. Par­nell Thomas, (R—New Jersey—who would later him­self be jailed for accept­ing kick­backs) launched mul­ti­ple inves­ti­ga­tions into Com­mu­nist infil­tra­tion of orga­nized labor, the Fed­eral gov­ern­ment, and most audaciously—Hollywood. The assault on the film indus­try was in many ways a pre­dictable after­math of the recent release of films of pre­dom­i­nantly lib­eral sen­ti­ment. The apo­lit­i­cal fledg­ling Amer­i­can style Film Noir which took a dis­parag­ing view of life under any sys­tem of gov­ern­ment, was crest­ing. And there was, it must be said at least a mod­icum of fac­tual sub­stance to the com­mit­tees charges. A num­ber of Hol­ly­wood direc­tors, screen­writ­ers, and actors had joined the Com­mu­nist Party or con­tributed funds to its activ­i­ties dur­ing the Depres­sion of the 1930s. It was to these espe­cially stri­dent par­tic­i­pants that HUAC was most mindful.

Members of HUAC

Mem­bers of HUAC, chair­man J. Par­nell Thomas, sec­ond from left, Richard Nixon far right

In Sep­tem­ber 1947, Thomas’s com­mit­tee sub­poe­naed 41 wit­ness, nine­teen of whom declared their inten­tion to be unfriendly (ie, to refuse to answer ques­tions about their polit­i­cal affil­i­a­tions). Of the nine­teen, eleven were directly ques­tioned about their mem­ber­ship in the Com­mu­nist Party. Ger­man emi­gre play­wright Bertolt Brecht left the coun­try the day after his appear­ance, leav­ing just 10—the infa­mous Hol­ly­wood Ten.

To counter what they claimed were reck­less attacks by HUAC, a group of Hol­ly­wood lib­er­als led by actor Humphrey Bog­art, his wife Lau­ren Bacall, John Hus­ton, William Wyler, Gene Kelly and oth­ers, estab­lished the “Com­mit­tee for the First Amend­ment” (CFA). The CFA trav­eled to Wash­ing­ton to lend its sup­port as the eleven unfriendly wit­ness’ began their tes­ti­mony. How­ever, as the eleven began to respond to their inquisi­tors with as much dis­dain, and often with histri­on­ics far more brusque than their accusers, the embar­rassed First Amend­menters began to unravel. Direc­tor Edward Dmytryk one of the Ten, said later, “I was so happy with the sup­port of the CFA and oth­ers, but when (screen­writer) John Howard Law­son began harangu­ing the com­mit­tee mem­bers, I died. We lost it right then and there!” Humphrey Bog­art wrote a piece for the March 1948 issue of Pho­to­play mag­a­zine enti­tled “I’m No Com­mu­nist”, in which he admit­ted being “duped”. His trip to Wash­ing­ton, he said, had been “ill—advised”. John Garfield wrote a sim­i­lar arti­cle called ”I’m a Sucker for a Left Hook. Edward G. Robin­son lamented “the Reds made a sucker out of me”.

The Tru­man admin­is­tra­tion was by now largely respon­si­ble for much of the anx­i­ety and anti—Communist fer­vor sur­round­ing the post—war period. As the elec­tions of 1948 approached, the White House grew more and more unrea­son­able in impos­ing the loy­alty oaths now being admin­is­tered to all Fed­eral employ­ees. In a speech at a Demo­c­ra­tic fund raiser, Tru­man vowed that all Com­mu­nists and Com­mu­nist sym­pa­thiz­ers would be, with­out delib­er­a­tion, removed from the gov­ern­ment! The Pres­i­dent now emerged more and more inclined to apply any tac­tics nec­es­sary to ease the dis­cerned ten­sions. He played right into the hands of the tyran­ni­cal red—baiters.

I have always believed that if the hear­ings had stopped after this ini­tial round, the major­ity of his­to­ri­ans and aca­d­e­mi­cians might have taken a more objec­tive view of them. After all, the Hol­ly­wood Ten who were all held in con­tempt of con­gress, later admit­ted to being or hav­ing been mem­bers of the Com­mu­nist Party.

Herblock cartoon Hunting Commies

Herblock car­toon “Hunt­ing Com­mies” Look mag­a­zine 1952

In his auto­bi­og­ra­phy “Inside Out: A Mem­oir of the Black­list”, Wal­ter Bern­stein, con­tribut­ing writer for The New Yorker, and for­mer screen­writer, claimed that while he was work­ing at Colum­bia Pic­tures, he and Direc­tor Robert Rossen, would set out delib­er­ately to include some left­ist point of view in a par­tic­u­lar scene. They left it up to stu­dio head Harry Cohn1 to delete the unwanted scenes. Rossen, an overt Com­mu­nist, was per­turbed at his exclu­sion as one of the orig­i­nal Hol­ly­wood Ten! He never got over “being snubbed in such an unsa­vory man­ner!” Here, for the first time, one of the key play­ers of the Hol­ly­wood left admit­ted pur­pose­fully and delib­er­ately to includ­ing pro—Communist mes­sages in movie scripts.

It was the later HUAC hear­ings of March 1951 lead by John S. Wood (D— Geor­gia), and the 1952 Inter­nal Secu­rity sub­com­mit­tee headed my Sen­a­tor Pat McCar­ran that the “naming—of—names” became the watch words. By 1951, Joseph R. McCarthy was in full blos­som. The entire coun­try, Con­gress, and the Tru­man admin­is­tra­tion share equally in what was to come. It was from these lat­ter hear­ings in Wash­ing­ton and in Hol­ly­wood, that the infa­mous BLACKLIST evolved. By that time, and as a direct result of these more recent hear­ings, more than 324 peo­ple had been fired by the stu­dios and were no longer per­mit­ted to work in the Motion Pic­ture Indus­try, none more pathetic than actor Larry Parks. Parks lit­er­ally begged the com­mit­tee not to force him to his knees.

Abra­ham Polon­sky. and Edward Dmytryk, two sur­viv­ing mem­bers of the orig­i­nal Hol­ly­wood Ten were inter­viewed in the 1996 AMC pro­duc­tion “Black­list: Hol­ly­wood On Trial”. Polon­sky still holds to his beliefs. He claims that the Party was sim­ply a social club. Dmytryk rejects Polonsky’s cav­a­lier demeanor ask­ing, “is he still deceiv­ing him­self for Christ Sake! I’m sur­prised at that, he knows bet­ter. We worked for the Com­intern, we were given direc­tions by the Com­inturn, the Party was in the mid­dle of all of it! I even­tu­ally came to see the Party as a men­ace”. Edward Dmytryk went on to direct The Caine Mutiny (1954), Rain­tree Coun­try (1957), The Young Lions (1958), Walk on the Wild Side (1962), and sev­eral other pictures.

At first glance it appears that the ini­tial hear­ings were unjus­ti­fied. Schol­ars and his­to­ri­ans incor­rectly grieve over how these ini­tial hear­ings deprived hun­dreds of inno­cent peo­ple their abil­ity to earn a liv­ing. But in point of fact, as a result of the 1947 hear­ings only the Ten unfriendly wit­nesses were sen­tenced; and only then for their refusal to admit and then dis­avow their affil­i­a­tion with the Com­mu­nist Party, how­ever sopho­moric and for­eign that sounds today. The tenor of the times must be taken into con­sid­er­a­tion here. None can now say that in the late 1940s there was not a gen­uine Com­mu­nist peril.

Alger Hiss

Alger Hiss at the Hiss, Cham­bers Hiss hear­ings 1948

Pro­ducer (Salt of the Earth, 1954), Paul Jer­rico was asked the inevitable ques­tion, “In the event of a war between Russ­ian and Amer­ica, would you sup­port the United States?”. At the time, his silence sug­gested an alle­giance to a “greater” cause. He is still stead­fast in his beliefs. His ret­i­cence, he now claims, meant only that he opposed any war that would destroy humanity?

Had the Tru­man admin­is­tra­tion heeded the early signs of anx­i­ety and mis­trust, and been more force­ful in putting them down, per­haps there would not have been a need for fur­ther hear­ings, or for a Joe McCarthy. In his biog­ra­phy “Whit­taker Cham­bers”, Sam Tane­haus presents a con­trast­ing view from what up to now has been the con­sen­sus atti­tude regard­ing Alger Hiss and Whit­taker Cham­bers. More­over, there is now com­pelling evi­dence to the guilt of Hiss. And there are sug­ges­tions that some in Tru­man’ State depart­ment may have been less than sterling.

The ini­tial hear­ings did pro­duce some tan­gi­ble results. Whether or not they were just or pop­u­lar is a topic for another day. It is legal in Amer­ica to be a Com­mu­nist. But open sub­ver­sion is another mat­ter. In that regard, the ques­tion must be asked “were these men in con­cert with the Soviet Union, or were they as Robin­son, Bog­art, and Garfield, sim­ply duped, dis­il­lu­sioned, or seduced?”

by Michael Mills

1 Bern­stein, Wal­ter. “Inside Out: A Mem­oir of the Black­list.” New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1996.

About Michael Mills
Rank-amateur photographer, I like Classic films, real Jazz, Opera, and a little Hank Williams . . . and sometimes baseball . . .