On October 20, 1947, hatred for that which is different, fear of ‘the other’, and a willful ignorance of that which we refused to understand commanded the nation.
It was on this day in history the Red Scare escalated to a new level. A Congressional Committee began investigating a ‘Communist influence’ that was believed to have infiltrated Hollywood.
As is no secret, following the end of World War II, the Cold War began to heat up between the United States and Soviet Union. In Washington, a group of conservative watchdogs worked to ‘out’ the ‘Communists’ in government. However, this was only the warm up to their main event.
Beginning in October, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) grilled a number of prominent witnesses. The HUAC called talent such as: Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles, Paul Robeson, and Yip Harburg before their session. They asked the question bluntly, “Are you or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?”
Some of those that were called to speak, possibly out of fear or a diluted sense of patriotism, provided names of those in the industry they believed to be Communist. Director Elia Kazan, actors Gary Cooper and Robert Taylor, and creators Walt Disney and Jack Warner all provided names.
But, a small group known as the “Hollywood Ten” resisted. They argued that the hearings violated their First Amendment rights. Each of the ten were convicted of obstructing the investigation. Each served jail sentences.
It’s a good thing too…we wouldn’t want to desecrate a free and open democracy by letting all these Commies running around.
These ten individuals were: Alvah Bessie (screenwriter), Herbert Biberman (screenwriter and director), Lester Cole (screenwriter), Edward Dmytryk (director), Ring Lardner Jr. (screenwriter), John Howard Lawson (screenwriter), Albert Maltz (screenwriter), Samuel Ornitz (screenwriter), Adrian Scott (producer and screenwriter), Dalton Trumbo (screenwriter).
Following the jail sentences – the Hollywood establishment started a ‘blacklist policy.’ The result would ban the work of about 325 screenwriters, actors, and directors. The policy blocked Aaron Copland (writer), Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman, and Dorothy Parker (writers), and Arthur Miller (playwright).
Side Note: Arthur Miller would go on to compose a play titled, The Crucible which was a tale describing the Red Scare.
Some of the blacklisted writers used the pseudonyms to continue working, while others wrote scripts that were credited to other writers.
At the height of this Second Red Scare, the poster-child for these warrantless and bigoted claims was Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisconsin).
His tactics of blasting those around him with no evidence came to be known as McCarthyism. He used his political clout to oppress those he didn’t like, spread fear, and gain influence over powerful institutions.
It is generally taught that Sen. McCarthy was working simply to out alleged Communists. However, that’s not quite the case. In fact, McCarthyism has since developed a new connotation. Generally, it is used to describe reckless and unsubstantiated personal attacks. It is used to describe demagogic attacks on character in the name of patriotism.
Sen. McCarthy and supporters of McCarthyism were far from American patriots. They ruined careers, forced innocent Americans into exile, and used political power entrusted to them to do evil.
Under the teachings of this ideology that is American Exceptionalism we are asked to believe that the United States is the greatest nation on earth. We are asked to believe that American Democracy is the greatest system of government. We are told that any other way of life, any other ideology, any other line of thinking is not only incorrect but dangerous.
McCarthy perfectly demonstrated why that idea does not represent what democracy looks like.
Eventually, McCarthy and his witch hunt fell. More than thirty years later in 1997, the Writer’s Guild of America unanimously voted to change the writing credits of 23 films made during the blacklist period.