A Different Look at the 1947 HUAC Hearings

blak’ list n., v., list– ed, – list– ing n. 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.

president truman joseph stalin

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 fledging 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.

subcommette huac

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.

cartoon by herblock

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.

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?

alger hiss

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?”

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

m mills
Michael Mills