5. Sound and Fury
Toward the end of the war, with public resentment against the disruptive practises of the Un-American Activities Committee at a peak, Chairman Martin Dies had withdrawn as a congressional candidate and three other Committee members had been crushingly defeated at the polls. At the time, it was generally believed that the Committee was about to be disbanded by Congress. Then, on January 3, 1945, during the opening session of the 79th Congress, a surprise bill was passed by a vote of 207-186 converting the Committee into a permanent congressional body.
The congressman responsible for this legislative coup was Representative John E. Rankin of Mississippi.
A rabid anti-Semite and white supremacist, the wizened, sallowfaced congressman from Mississippi had been described by the official Nazi propaganda bulletin, Welt-Dienst (World Service) as “an outstanding American.”
Under Rankin’s leadership,* in the months following V-J day, the Un-American Activities Committee launched an all-out anti-Communist crusade.
* Nominally, the chairman of the Committee was Representative Edward J. Hart of New Jersey. The actual head of the Committee was Representative Rankin. When Hart resigned as chairman in July 1945, and was succeeded bv Representative John S. Wood of Georgia, the change did not affect Rankin’s domination of the Committee.
In January 1947, Representative J. Parnell Thomas of New Jersey assumed the chairmanship.
In an incessant stream of lurid press releases, public statements and “official reports,” the Committee proclaimed that “Soviet imperialism” was plotting world domination and that a Kremlindirected network of saboteurs and atom bomb spies honeycombed the United States. Professional anti-Soviet propagandists, Communist renegades, and other “expert witnesses” appeared at Committee hearings and told hair-raising tales of “Red spy rings” and Soviet war preparations against America.
Typical of the “authoritative” testimony at the Committee’s hearings was that given by the anti-Soviet ex-diplomat, William C. Bullitt. Here are excerpts from Bullitt’s testimony:
RANKIN: Is it true that they eat human bodies there in Russia?
BULLITT: I did see a picture of a skeleton of a child eaten by its parents.
RANKIN: Then they’re just like human slaves in Russia?
BULLITT: There are more human slaves in Russia than ever existed anywhere in the world.
RANKIN: You said before that sixty percent of the Communist Party here are aliens. Now what percentage of these aliens are Jews? … Is it true, Mr. Bullitt, that the Communists went into the southern states and picked up niggers and sent them to Moscow to study revolution? Are you aware they teach niggers to blow up bridges?
There was nothing new in the fantastic tales told by Bullitt and other Committee witnesses. Since 1938 these tales had been the regular stock in trade of the Un-American Activities Committee. But now they were presented to the American people by the nation’s press and radio as news of momentous importance, and were even cited by high-ranking Government officials as data vitally affecting America’s domestic and foreign policies.
Behind the facade of investigating “Soviet plots” and “Communist intrigue,” the Un-American Activities Committee conducted a steadily broadening offensive during 19461947 against the democratic institutions and constitutional rights of the American people. The Committee launched “investigations” of numerous progressive and anti-fascist organizations which it characterized as “subversive.” These were some of them:
Civil Rights Congress
Independent Citizens Committee of the Arts, Sciences and Professions
National Committee to Combat Anti-Semitism
National Council of American-Soviet Friendship
Unitarian Service Committee
Veterans Against Discrimination
Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee *
*The tactics employed against the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee were t}^pical. They represented, in the words of Albert Deutsch of PM, “not an investigation but an inquisition.”
Since 1942, the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee had been engaged in raising funds and medical supplies, and maintaining hospitals and orphanages, to aid anti-fascist refugees abroad, particularly Spanish Republicans who had emigrated to France and Mexico after Franco’s fascist regime came into power in Spain.
Early in 1946 the Un-American Activities Committee denounced the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee as a “Communist-front organization,” and demanded that the relief agency surrender all its books and records. When the officers of the Refugee Committee refused to comply, its Chairman (the eminent surgeon. Dr. Edward K. Barsky), its Executive Secretary, and the sixteen members of its executive board were cited for contempt of Congress, tried and found guilty in Federal Court, and, on January 16, 1947, sentenced to prison terms ranging from three to six months and fines of $500 each.
Other persons indicted during the postwar period at the instigation of the Un-American Activities Committee, on charges of contempt of Congress included George Marshall, chairman of the Civil Rights Congress; Reverend Richard Morford, executive director of the National Council of AmericanSoviet Friendship; the ten Hollywood writers, actors and directors referred to above; and Leon Josephson, a Communist lawyer and former anti-Nazi underground fighter in Germany, who served a one-year prison sentence for his refusal to testify before members of the Committee on the grounds that this agency was unconstitutional.
In June 1947, the general secretary of the American Communist Party, Eugene Dennis, was tried on contempt charges brought by the Un-American Activities Committee, found guilty and sentenced to one year in prison and a fine of $1,000. On March 27, 1950, the conviction was upheld by the U. S. Supreme Court.
The most overt and brazen of the Committee’s attacks on freedom of expression in America was directed against the motion picture industry.
On October 20, 1947, after elaborate promotional preparations, the Committee opened public hearings on “subversive activities” in Hollywood. Two groups of witnesses had been subpoenaed. One group was composed of “friendly witnesses,” mostly famous movie stars, through whose “expert” testimony the Committee intended to reveal the extent to which Communists had subverted the film industry. The “unfriendly witnesses” were nineteen screen writers, actors and directors, who, according to the Committee, were leading figures in Hollywood’s “Red underground.”*
* Among the “unfriendly witnesses’* were Albert Maltz, author of such novels as The Cross and the Arrow and winner of the 1938 O. Henry Memorial Award; John Howard Lawson, author of the play Processional and well-known scholar and historian; Dalton Trumbo, author of the novel Johnny Got His Gun; Samuel Ornitz, author of Haunch, Faunch and Joivl; and Ring Lardner, Jr. The motion pictures on which these writers had worked had included such outstanding films as Pride of the Marines; Destination Tokyo; Action on the North Atlantic; Brotherhood of Man; and The House I Live In. Two other “unfriendly witnesses” were Adrian Scott and Edward Dmytryk, respectively producer and director of the widely acclaimed film, Crossfire.
From the start, the hearing assumed the character of a fantastic extravaganza. A battery of newsreel cameras with sound equipment recorded every gesture and word of the witnesses and Committee members. Reporters wore dark glasses to protect their eyes from the blazing Klieg lights. Special provisions had been made for television and radio coverage. Periodically, Chairman Thomas interrupted the proceedings to help cameramen secure dramatic picture effects.
Here is how Ruth Montgomery of the New York Daily News described the testimony of one of the Committee’s key witnesses, Robert Taylor:
More than 1,ooo shoving, sighing women today mobbed the House caucus room to see the film star Robert Taylor. The hearing room was jammed to capacity, with hundreds of curious lining the halls outside. A 65-year-old woman, scrambling on a radiator for a better look at the screen star, fell and struck her head. The clothes of others were torn in the mad scramble to the door . . . Wild applause frequently punctuated Taylor’s testimony.
With his head carefully cocked at the proper angle for the photographers, Taylor solemnly declared: “I personally believe the Communist Party should be outlawed. If I had my way, they’d all be sent back to Russia.” Asked to name some of the Communists in the motion picture industry, Taylor mentioned the names of two actors. “They’re the only two I can think of at the moment,’* he said. He paused then added, hesitantly, “I don’t know whether they’re Communists.”
For five days, other “friendly witnesses” gave similar testimony regarding “Communist activities” in Hollywood . . . When the “unfriendly witnesses” took the stand, they were peremptorily forbidden to read prepared statements and aggressively questioned regarding their political and trade union affihations. When they challenged the constitutionality of such questions they were curtly ordered from the stand and cited by Chairman Thomas for contempt.
Despite every effort to browbeat them, the “unfriendly witnesses” refused to be cowed.
“In this country we have the secret ballot and how a man votes is his own affair,” stated author Alvah Bessie. “General Eisenhower has refused to reveal his political affiliation and what’s good enough for him is good enough for me.”
Meanwhile, popular indignation against the whole proceedings was growing on a national scale. Trade unions, civic and fraternal organizations, church groups, and prominent citizens issued statements denouncing the character and conduct of the Committee. Mass protest rallies took place in many cities . . .
The Detroit Free Press editorialized:
The most un-American activity in the United States today is the conduct of the congressional committee on un-American activities . . .
No congressional committee that robs men and women of their good names for the sheer sadistic glee of getting headlines should be allowed to exist . . . The hypocritically named “Committee on Un-American Activities” should be abolished at the earliest possible moment by the United States Congress.
Confronted with mounting public condemnation and frustrated by the courageous conduct of the witnesses, the Un-American Activities Committee brought the hearing to a hasty, unexpected conclusion. On October 30, having questioned only ten of the nineteen “unfriendly witnesses,” Chairman Thomas abruptly announced that the hearings were being indefinitely adjourned.
An important victory had been won by the forces of decency and democracy in the United States.
But the victory was not unqualified.
On November 25, fifty executives of the motion picture industry, representing all the major studios and most of the independents, released a statement announcing their decision to refuse employment to Communists and to “discharge or suspend without compensation” those of the ten Hollywood figures cited for contempt of Congress who were then in their employ.*
* The statement of the film executives was drawn up under the legal advice of James F. Byrnes, former Secretary of State
The action of the film executives was enthusiastically hailed by Representative Thomas as “a constructive step and a body blow at the Communists.” The chairman of the Un-American Activities Committee added: “Our hearings and exposures will continue.” *
* On November 8, 1948, Representative Thomas, who had been a member of the Un-American Activities Committee since its formation in 1938, was indicted by a Federal Grand Jury on charges of conspiracy to defraud the Government. He was accused of padding his own payroll and that of the Un-American Activities Committee by placing on them the names of persons who performed no services and who turned over their paychecks to him. Thomas, according to the indictment, had been pursuing this criminal practise since January 1940.
Indignantly denying the charge, the Chairman of the Un-American Activities Committee declared he would “continue to expose the participants in this Communist conspiracy whether they be Government employes, scientists, diplomats, labor leaders or movie stars.”
Found guilty as charged, Thomas was sentenced on December 9, 1949, to six to eighteen months in prison and a fine of $10,000.
The most significant fact, however, about the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947 was not that it was continuing, on a greatly intensified scale and as a permanent congressional body, the ugly anti-democratic conspiracy that Congressman Dies had initiated a decade before. The most significant fact about the Committee was that its policies and those of the U.S. Government had in many respects now become identical.
During the Roosevelt Administration, leading Justice Department officials had denounced the Un-American Activities Committee as “anti-democratic” and “itself bordering on the subversive.” Now, Attorney General Tom Clark informed members of the Committee at one of its hearings:
We may say, I think, that you in Congress and we in the Department of Justice are laboring in neighboring vineyards and that we have the same purpose in view. The program of this Committee . . . can render real service to the American people.
During the Roosevelt Administration, even J. Edgar Hoover had carefully avoided all public association with the Committee. Now the Committee enjoyed in the words of Life magazine, “the hearty cooperation of the Federal Bureau of Investigation,” and FBI chief Hoover himself stated:
As this Committee fulfills its obligation of public disclosure of facts it is worthy of the support of loyal, patriotic Americans.
During the Roosevelt Administration, none of the Committee’s propaganda activities was more sharply condemned by responsible Government officials than its oft-repeated charge of “Communist infiltration” of Federal agencies and its constant demand for a “purge” of “disloyal Government employes.” Now, on March 22, 1947, President Truman himself promulgated an Executive Order calling for a loyalty investigation of all Government employes and the dismissal of those found to be “disloyal.”
President Roosevelt had characterized the Un-American Activities Committee as “sordid, flagrantly unfair and un-American.”
President Truman in his Executive Loyalty Order stipulated that one of the four investigative agencies chiefly to be relied upon in determining the loyalty of Government employes was “the House Committee on Un-American Activities.”