[Editor’s note: Thanks, as always, to Ben Alpers, for this post. Ben’s book can be found here. You’ll find that just one copy is never enough. So avoid the rush: buy three today!]

Sixty-one years ago today, on October 20, 1947, the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), opened its hearings into alleged Communist infiltration into Hollywood. Out of these hearings came the Hollywood blacklist. They form a useful, if still somewhat arbitrary starting point for the Second Red Scare, which is sometimes mislabeled “McCarthyism” (more on why that’s not my preferred term below).

Rather than recount the probably fairly familiar tale of HUAC and the Hollywood Ten, let me note some things that are important in thinking about this episode today, especially in the wake of Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) recent excursion into what is usually called McCarthyism. For those seeking more information about the event itself and its context, there are a variety of excellent accounts of the Hollywood left, the HUAC hearings, and the blacklist. Although nearly thirty years old, Larry Ceplair and Steven Englund’s The Inquisition in Hollywood is still probably the most thorough account. For those who want a shorter, more recent telling of the tale, see Gorham Kinden’s chapter on HUAC in Thomas Schatz’s Boom and Bust: Hollywood Cinema in the 1940s.

The HUAC hearings were by no means the first time that Hollywood fell under legislative scrutiny. In the early 1930s, in the wake of the Payne Fund Studies, Congress investigated accusations that Hollywood was corrupting America’s youth. At the end of that decade, the California legislature, at the urging of Walt Disney (who was engaged in a labor dispute with his animators) among others, investigated accusations of Communist influence in Hollywood. And in 1941, the U.S. Senate held hearings into accusations that Hollywood was producing interventionist propaganda. Part of the force of each of these investigations was the fact that, as a result of the 1915 Mutual v. Ohio case, motion pictures enjoyed no First Amendment protection, as they were legally considered to be a business, not speech. Until this rather bizarre decision was overturned by the Supreme Court in Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson (1952; usually called the Miracle Case, after the film that was at issue), the threat of official censorship was a powerful stick that Congress and state legislatures held over Hollywood during any investigation.

Nonetheless, in these earlier investigations, Hollywood studios mostly stuck together and successfully resisted Congressional (and California Legislative) political pressure. In marked contrast, on November 25, 1947, about a month after the first HUAC Hollywood hearing, studio executives met at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York and issued what is now known as the Waldorf Statement. The Statement was a response to Congress’s contempt citations, issued the previous day, against the ten “unfriendly” witnesses who had refused to testify before HUAC: Alvah Bessie, Herbert Biberman, Lester Cole, Edward Dmytryk, Ring Lardner, Jr., John Howard Lawson, Abert Maltz, Samuel Ornitz, Adrian Scott, and Dalton Trumbo (all but Dmytryk were screenwriters). In the Waldorf Statement, the studio heads, through their trade organization, the Motion Picture Association of America and its president Eric Johnston, announced that the ten unfriendly witnesses (who would shortly be dubbed the “Hollywood Ten”) would be denied employment in the motion picture industry. Thus began the blacklist.

One cannot overestimate how important industry capitulation was to the establishment of the blacklist. Other entertainment industries, most notably Broadway, were much more willing to hire those who had run afoul of red hunters during the 1950s. So why was Hollywood willing to fold in 1947, when it had stood up to previous investigations? After all, despite Hollywood’s liberal — or at least libertine — reputation, the studio bosses had always leaned politically rightward.

In the case of the Senate hearings into supposed interventionist propaganda, most of the studio heads were themselves avid interventionists, so resistance to anti-interventionists in the Senate came easily. And the studios had the support of the White House in their attempts to warn the U.S. public of the Nazi menace. Most importantly, in all the various hearings during the 1930s and early 1940s, Hollywood figured that it made good business sense to resist efforts at state interference.

By the 1940s the equation was different for a variety of reasons. The U.S. v. Paramount antitrust case was nearing its conclusion (it was to be argued before the Supreme Court in February, 1948). Hollywood had reason to fear that its entire business model would soon be ruled illegal. Only a few months later, the Supreme Court did so. Moreover, Hollywood was in the midst of a series of threatening strikes by some of its craft unions. The Hollywood labor force was divided between more radical CIO unions and more accommodating AFL unions. The Red Scare provided a convenient method for the studios to divide and conquer its labor force, especially given that its most prominent unions, including the Screen Actors Guild (then headed by Ronald Reagan) and the Directors Guild were happy to go along with the blacklist. Finally, of course, the studio heads shared the virulent anticommunism of HUAC. Which brings me to the term “McCarthyism.”

As most readers of this blog know, Sen. Joseph McCarthy did not become a prominent national figure in the Second Red Scare until February 9, 1950, when he delivered a speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, announcing that there were 205 known Communists in the State Department. It thus seems odd to give the label “McCarthyism” to an event, the HUAC Hollywood hearings, that occurred before McCarthy had achieved any national prominence. But there’s a larger problem here. McCarthy is a convenient scapegoat for the much broader phenomenon of political repression in the name of anticommunism. And we still have the tendency when discussing these issues of falling back into old political arguments. The phenomenon of U.S. anticommunism in the post-war period is extraordinarily complicated. We ought to be able to take advantage of historical hindsight in considering it. Yet, even half a century later, public discussions about the period still often reproduce the positions staked out by anti-anticommunists, Cold War liberal anticommunists, or conservative anticommunists. Recent years
have seen more or less serious revivals in the reputation of anticommunist Cold War liberals like Niebuhr and Schlesinger and conservatives like Whittaker Chambers (as well as less serious attempts to revive the reputation of Joe McCarthy). With the apparent guilt of Julius Rosenberg and Alger Hiss, it becomes easy to forget that anticommunism, even of the variety supported by honest-to-goodness Cold War liberals, had its victims — most spectacularly Ethel Rosenberg and those who fell under various blacklists — in Hollywood, the academy, and elsewhere.

So my inclination is always to point people in the direction of work that reminds us of the complexity of these times, such as Kathy Olmsted’s excellent recent post on the Rosenbergs, (which I’m afraid is a lot more impressive than these musings).

To return to the present: however vile Michele Bachman’s attempts to label virtually all Democrats anti-American, they fall into a much broader history of guilt by association that goes back, at the very least, to the First Red Scare (and arguably much earlier), and — as Rick Perlstein in his still-unreviewed-by-this-blog book Nixonland suggests — has been a central element in our politics for most of the last half century. McCarthy fell from grace in 1954. The Hollywood blacklist began to fall in the late 1950s and was entirely over by the mid-1960s. But we needn’t look back that far to see earlier examples of the kind of politics that Bachmann is practicing. Politicians, chiefly Republicans, have been questioning the patriotism of their opponents, chiefly Democrats, for decades. And they never stopped to acknowledge the end of the Red Scare.

On a more positive note, Congresswoman Bachmann is receiving criticism not only from the Democratic Party (which has injected $1,000,000 into her opponent’s congressional campaign), but from the public (who donated $500,000 to her opponent in the day after her public statement), and even from some Republicans: Colin Powell denounced her statements while endorsing Obama; her Republican primary challenger from earlier this year has announced a write-in campaign against her. As the story of the HUAC hearings suggest, political intimidation of this sort needs institutional support to achieve its fullest impact. And we should be glad that, for the moment at least, there seems to be plenty of institutional pushback against the uglier aspects of this fall’s Republican campaign.