Communist Persecution: The Attack on Hollywood

Article by Jess Naylor. Edited by Tom Hartley. Additional Research by Rob Dann.

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1950s poster

The fear of communism and its perceived threat to the freedoms of society, which provided the ideological undercurrent driving events of the Cold War, culminated in a period of intense anti-communist sentiment in 1940s and 1950s America known as the Second Red Scare. The period became synonymous with Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose belief in communist infiltration of the American government and armed services created a climate of widespread hysteria, resulting in the accusations of thousands of United States citizens for association with the communist party. Prior to the onset of McCarthyism, a term coined in 1950, concerns were already being raised about the influence of communist propaganda in American society, heightened by an increase in membership of the Communist Party USA in the 1930s. The fears of communist propaganda and its ability to incite an overthrow of the American government prompted an inquiry into the nation’s most prominent cultural outlet, the Hollywood entertainment industry.

Infiltration of American institutions of power and American society by communist advocates with the intended desire to overthrow the government was grounded in the belief that communist ideology was rooted in a desire for revolution. This led the United States government to affiliate all those with connections to the Communist Party, or those who held a communist philosophy, with a personal desire to attack American freedom. The Smith Act of 1940 encapsulated this, permitting the arrest of ‘persons who teach, advocate, or encourage the overthrow or destruction of any such government by force or violence’, therefore allowing for the distribution of communist propaganda to be viewed as a crime. Hollywood provided a focus for government investigation; the belief that communist subliminal messages were rife in film, spurred the targeting of industry professionals in what came to be viewed as a witch-hunt.

Initial governmental investigations into the Hollywood entertainment industry began in 1938 with the establishment of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Chaired by Martin Dies, the body was set up partially to enquire into the effects of communist propaganda on United States society. Prior to its examination of Hollywood, the committee concerned itself with exploring charges against the Ku Klux Klan. However, this soon proved unsuccessful, with the body declaring that the KKK was an American institution and prosecution therefore proved futile, turning its attention instead towards Hollywood. Evidence of communist infiltration was argued to have been found when names of prominent entertainment figures appeared on telegram anniversary greetings to communist-owned French newspaper Ce Soir. One of the accused included the ten year old, Shirley Temple. Whilst Dies later stated, after coming under criticism, that he did not believe Temple herself to be communist, he believed that the industry was using the names of well-known individuals as propaganda to endorse communist activity. Communism in Hollywood appeared to be confirmed, reinforced by investigations into other entertainment bodies. One organisation that became a target was the Federal Theatre Project (FTP), an initiative of the New Deal formed to provide employment for entertainment professionals currently out of work. The FTP, through the ‘living newspaper’, portrayed current social concerns to a wide audience through the medium of the arts. With the pledge of ‘free, adult, and uncensored theatre’, the FTP was able to produce works with overtly political themes, a scheme that ultimately led to its demise in 1939 after accusations of communist domination. The FTP, whilst in operation, began the careers of many notable artists, such as Arthur Miller, who would later be blacklisted for allegations of Communist Party association.

1950s Poster

Early examinations into Hollywood were fuelled by comments from noteworthy anti-communists such as Walt Disney, who stated that he was ‘positively convinced that communistic agitation, leadership and activities’ brought about the five week industry strike in 1941. Disney also accused the Screen Actors Guild of communist alliance, founding the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals in 1944 to protect the film industry from communist permeation. In 1947, influenced by prior events and comments from Hollywood insiders, the HUAC launched an investigation into the industry. Calling on industry professionals, including Walt Disney, the body drew a list of forty-three witnesses, comprising actors, directors and screenwriters, to testify with regard to claims of the presence of communist propaganda in film. Of the forty three called, nineteen refused to provide evidence, arousing further suspicion and resulting in eleven of the nineteen being called before the committee on October 27th for questioning. Declaring the right of the First Amendment to the freedom of speech, ten of the eleven witnesses called refused to answer the question posed to them; ‘are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?’ This defiance, viewed as an obstruction of committee proceedings, led each of them to be prosecuted for contempt of Congress on November 24th, an accusation through which they gained the identity of the Hollywood Ten.

The accusation of ten prominent Hollywood individuals created a climate of anxiety and hysteria, ultimately resulting in the blacklisting of hundreds of persons for supposed links with the Communist Party; blacklists which provided a near guarantee of difficulty in finding future employment within the industry. Despite claims by Eric Johnson, the president of the Motion Picture Association of America, that he would ‘never be party to anything as un-American as a blacklist’; the accusation of the Hollywood Ten triggered the issuing of the Waldorf Statement on December 3rd, Johnson being a participant in its creation. The statement announced the discharging of the Hollywood Ten, barring them from re-employment in the industry until they had sworn an oath against communism. Moreover, it declared that the industry would “not knowingly employ a Communist”, a statement which spurred other organisations to join the hunt for communists in the field, most visible in the publication of Red Channels, a book containing the names of 151 Hollywood individuals suspected of communist association. The careers of those named were damaged, some permanently, simply due to their suspected political affiliation, a supposition that was often unfounded.

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Joseph McCarthy

Throughout the early and mid-1950s the blacklist continued to grow, most of its targets screenwriters, who made up around sixty percent of the accused. Cold War developments, such as the arrest of the Rosenbergs in 1950, furthered suspicion of communist infiltration in all areas of American society and as fear grew, the blacklist continued to increase. Blacklisted professionals testified other names and journalists added to the list, the destructive effect of such accusations was made visible in 1952 with the decision of the Screen Actors Guild to remove the names from productions of those who had not proved to Congress they had no link to the Communist Party. The hunt continued to expand until 1957, when John Henry Faulk filed a lawsuit to sue those who had blacklisted him. The case was won in 1962 and the use of blacklists began to decline, their effects upon those accused however, were detrimental and long lasting.

The Hollywood blacklist demonstrated the extent to which fear of communism affected American society during the Cold War. Although the blacklists were not formal prosecutions, their use was widespread within the industry and their effect upon those listed extremely damaging. The original accusations and convictions of the Hollywood Ten highlight government attempts at control over the industry and as the Cold War developed and hysteria grew, hundreds were blacklisted for supposed political affiliations in attempts to eliminate communist propaganda in film. The blacklists epitomise the climate of anxiety prevalent in American society, with the fear of communist infiltration resulting in the limiting of political expression and the suppression of certain liberties in order to protect American freedom.

  • John Berry produced a short film denouncing McCarthyism  in 1950 entitled The Hollywood Ten. The release of the film resulted in Berry being blacklisted and ultimately forced into exile in France.
  • Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were Jewish American Communists who were charged with passing on information regarding the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union in 1953. The couple were sentenced to death.

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