Fears of Communism: Social Pressures and Hollywood Propaganda
As World War II came to an end, the Communist Party in the U.S. started to fade away. Government officials worried that a Communist takeover would occur in the U.S., and that this would harm traditional American values. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was active from 1938 to 1975 and its goal was to investigate unpatriotic and rebel organizations. At the start of the Cold War, HUAC investigated suspected communist activity. If an individual was suspected of being a Communist, they were then tried in a court of law and would answer questions about their political beliefs.
During HUAC’s rise, McCarthyism also came to the forefront. McCarthyism refers to Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy, who ran a dominant campaign against alleged communists in the government. His crusade against Communism is commonly associated with the Red Scare, which he strongly promoted. McCarthy rose to prominence when he claimed to be in possession of a list of 205 Communists that were employed in the U.S. Department of State. As chairman of the Senate Permanent Investigation Subcommittee, McCarthy conducted hearings on communist subversion in the U.S. and investigated supposed communist penetration into the Armed Forces. McCarthy was dominant from 1950 to 1954. While HUAC had no formal connection to McCarthy since it was a House committee and he was in the Senate, his fear-mongering tactics allowed HUAC to thrive.
McCarthy had the unique ability to create hysteria. A 1950s novelist noted that McCarthysim was a by-product of national politics in post-World War II America and stated, “No one knew how to act. It felt as if this were a country consisting entirely of recent converts, and everyone went on tiptoe.” Senator McCarthy loved to make outlandish accusations that often had no strong evidence. It reached a point where an unsubstantiated accusation of holding communist beliefs resulted in social suicide and was very difficult to prove otherwise. Those who were called before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (which McCarthy served on) were often denied employment in the private sector or were unable to pass government security checks.
Inherent within HUAC and McCarthyism was fear. Fear of communism was used to pin members of the public against each other. While part of these intensified suspicions stemmed from the Korean War, it appears that part of this was from the fear that was perpetuated by government officials. People were suspicious of anything they considered to be “un-American.”
Members of the public could accuse others of being communist. Some took it to the extreme and went undercover. Mary Markward, a hairdresser in Washington D.C., was approached by the FBI because it was believed that several of her clients were Communists. She then worked undercover for over seven years and accused over 240 people of being a Communist. While she was shunned for her work, she believed it was her duty as an American to catch potential Communists. In 1951, Markward testified in front of HUAC the clients she believed to be members of the Communist party.
It was common for people that were accused of being a communist to face strong ridicule. In 1948, Time editor Whittaker Chambers accused the high ranking government official Alger Hiss of being a Communist, who had served as an aide to FDR at the Yalta conference. As proof, Chambers brought HUAC investigators to his pumpkin patch in Maryland and produced film which was hidden in a hollowed-out pumpkin the previous day. What is now referred to as the “Pumpkin Papers” were later revealed to possess classified State Department documents. Hiss denied Chambers’s charges. Richard Nixon, then a congressman on HUAC, was determined to expose Alger Hiss and proudly volunteered to testify at Hiss’s hearing. Hiss was later indicted for perjury. This case convinced many Americans that previous presidents had not done enough to crack down on Communism. An additional worry for Americans at the time of the case was the news that the Soviets had potentially stolen information which allowed them to develop the atom bomb.
The Rosenberg Trial is another prominent case that illustrates the strong attitudes towards communism. Shortly after Hiss’s conviction, the FBI arrested the married couple Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for conspiring to pass secrets to the Soviet Union, which they denied. They argued they were being victimized due to anti-semitism and anti-communist mania. In the 1930s, Ethel and Julius met in the Young Communist League and by 1942 Julius was heavily involved with espionage activities for the Soviet Union. He became a key spy for the Soviet Union and passed them information in relation to the Manhattan Project. After a short trial, the jury found them guilty of espionage and they were put to death. Documents were later revealed that suggest government officials were aware that Ethel was not guilty of espionage, but charged her anyway to force a confession out of her husband. The lead prosecutor of the case, Roy Cohn, would later go on to work for Senator Joseph McCarthy.
Red Scare attitudes were also prominent within Hollywood. The FBI had initiated investigations into the Hollywood sphere because they knew that TV and movies could shape American attitudes. Inspired by a pamphlet titled Red Channels, which claimed that Communists had penetrated the film industry and wanted to spread communist propaganda to the American public, HUAC started investigating Hollywood figures in 1950. Over 150 Hollywood figures were charged with having ties to the Communist Party and were immediately blacklisted, despite many of the accusations not being proven. Ronald Reagan, as a young actor, was elected leader of the Screen Actors Guild which aimed at purging communist influence. Richard Nixon, still a member of HUAC, also played a big role and asked studio executives why they did not make anti-communist television. Studios reacted with anti-communist films such as The Red Menace.
In 1948, the “Hollywood 10” confronted HUAC and would not answer whether they were Communist. They were blacklisted and unable to find new jobs in the movie industry. The blacklist served an ideological purpose. During the 1950s, over three hundred actors and TV writers were blacklisted in Hollywood and shut out of the workforce. If one’s name was drawn up by HUAC, their chance of finding employment decreased by 13%.
While many of the attitudes mentioned in this piece eventually faded, the impact they had was profound. Many Americans feared communism, and it forced them to confront the following question about their identity: What exactly did it mean to be an American?
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