by Julian Wrobel
John Howard Lawson, Adrian Scott, Dalton Trumbo, Edward Dmytryk, Herbert Biberman, Alvah Bessie, Ring Larnder Jr., Albert Maltz, Lester Cole, and Samuel Ornitz. These ten individuals known as the “Hollywood Ten” are significant insofar as they were the first victims of a systematic Hollywood blacklist: a byproduct of McCarthyism, or a desperate fearmongering campaign involving political gangsterism and trumped up charges. But what was the explanation for this sudden Red Scare renaissance? Why all of a sudden did the U.S. make it a national priority to root out and silence potential communists and their sympathizers? We shall now examine the background in hopes of providing adequate context.
In the wake of the Soviet victory over fascism during the Great Patriotic War (WWII), the United States was faced with an alarming scenario: a growing world anti-imperialist and anti-colonial movement coupled with perceived internal threats such as the Communist Party USA & Soviet espionage. But, as was well-evident to the progressive forces around the world at this time, the United States had every intention of continuing the imperialistic work of the Nazis to continue waging a relentless struggle against the “Red Menace.” One need not look further than the fact that hordes of fascist collaborators and even prominent leaders freely defected to the U.S. after the war and were very successfully incorporated into organizations such as the CIA to engage in subversive efforts against liberatory forces around the world during the Cold War. In any event, the fact of the matter is that from a strategic point of view, these fascists & their collaborators were in fact very experienced at creating anticommunist propaganda. Such was the atmosphere in which propaganda against and domestic terror inflicted upon communists & communist sympathizers intensified, most poignantly demonstrated by the Hollywood blacklist beginning in the late 1940s.
Now concerning the “Hollywood Ten” proper: in the autumn of 1947, these ten individuals—ranging from 34 to 60 years old, all of whom had families and comprised a group of accomplished and renowned screenwriters, novelists, directors, producers, and much more—were subpoenaed to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). The hearing was run by none other than Congressman J. Parnell Thomas (R – NJ): a ruthless, bombastic anticommunist who had little patience for the testimonies of the Ten, and who explicitly expressed favoritism for the anticommunist witnesses (the irony is that Thomas later on ended up in the same prison as Lardner Jr. & Cole upon being convicted on fraud charges!). Due to the Congressmans corrupt and morally devoid-behavior during this “legal lynching,’ the Ten were declared to be in contempt of Congress for refusing to the following two main questions: 1) “Are you a member of the Screenwriters Guild”1 and 2) “Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party?’. In refusing to answer, the logic was to challenge the right of the HUAC to ask such questions because, as one of the men pointed out at the hearing, it was tantamount to having an election official tear open ones secret ballot at the voting booth to see for whom they voted. Nevertheless, the men were found guilty and appealed the decision to the higher courts only to find that this appeal was refused to be heard on April 10, 1950 by the Supreme Court, thereby cementing the prospect of a 1-year prison sentence which all these men with personal petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”
Though, this kind of treatment of of communists is not abnormal; in fact, it can be argued that the instance of the Hollywood blacklistings was merely the standard procedure of “you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t” unapologetically exposed in a public setting; President Truman even went so far as boasting on April 24, 1950 about how his administration convicted citizens of contempt for refusing to testify before. For this reason it remains of utmost importance that we do not forget the heroic actions of these men when they were the first to face head-on the repressive apparatus of the State merely for potentially having a certain ideology while being involved in our country’s entertainment industry. If they answered “yes” to any of the questions, they most likely would have been immediately blacklisted, their names plastered all over red-baiting publications such as Counterattack, and their careers instantly destroyed. Furthermore, they would be asked to inform on their other comrades, since there surely must have been other individuals in the film industry with such an ideology. On the other hand, if they answered ‘no, it is probable that the Committee would assume perjury and invite other anticommunist witnesses willing to testify (no matter their reliability) thus producing basically the same outcome. But its also important to emphasize that the plight of the Hollywood Ten was merely a microcosm of the anticommunist fear-mongering and repression campaigns that were sure to come in the 1950s in order to demonstrate the U.S’s unequivocal opposition to the Soviet Union. As Comrade Herbert Biberman so wisely said: “Loyalty oaths and loyalty boards, and nobody is loyal who criticizes the bi-partisan foreign policy. Thought control entering the university campuses. Educators being fired. Film studies enlisting in the Cold War. Labor leaders being framed on perjured testimony. Lawyers sent to prison for defending their clients. The reputation, career, and liberty of any citizen at the mercy of the professional stool pigeon.” In more ways than one, Biberman was correct; 9 of the Hollywood Ten (with the exception of Edward Dmytryk who betrayed his comrades and informed on them and others, daring to defend this decision in his later memoirs) after serving their prison sentences found their careers utterly destroyed. Of those who had the privilege to return to the film industry, they had to use the “front” strategy of using pseudonyms or the names of friends who posed as the actual writers in order to simply continue their work. Furthermore, these men were just the first ones to bear the brunt of the blacklist: what followed from 1947-1951 in particular was one of the most ruthless and mask-off campaigns of State repression of communists & communist sympathizers (oftentimes not even either of those categories!) within the entertainment industry that literally encompassed several hundreds of people. Among these sorry souls were well-known individuals such as Paul Robeson, Pete Seeger, Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Miller .. multiple pages could be filled with such people, some of whom even appeared on the “Red Channels” list in the aforementioned Counterattack anticommunist magazine.
To summarize, though, listen to Dalton Trumbo: “When we were asked ‘Are you, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party?, the Committee was really preparing to ask, ‘Are you now, or have you ever been, in favor of peace?” The Hollywood Ten affair marks a time which should never be forgotten in this country’s history: a time when the contradictions inherent to imperialism and monopoly capitalism desperately manifested at home, preying upon the very citizens of this country. Why? Because the ruling class was scared; scared of the fact that proletarian internationalism was winning amongst the oppressed peoples around the world, and even more afraid of this beautiful solidarity taking place domestically. Let us strive to never forget these comrades, as well as all the other wrongfully interrogated and abused individuals who had to. Suffer through this horrendous witch hunt.
Excerpt from Mumia Abu-Jamal’s 2002 article “Anti-American or Anti-Imperialist?”
“Decades ago, the U.S. Congress appropriated to itself the task of defining what ‘Anti-Americanism’ meant and established the infamous HUAC (for the House on Un-American Activities Committee). This group waged ideological war on Communists, socialists, and anyone who tried to organize social change in the repressive status quo of the United States. People barely remember the rednecks who sat on the side of the government, and who imperiously condemned those who came before them, but Paul Robeson, Dr. W.E. B. DuBois, and the Hollywood 10 (actors and writers who were black listed during the period) are remembered with something akin to reverence. Who were the ‘real Americans’? The rednecks and racists who stormed and raged and lorded it over those activists and artists? I stand with Robeson. I stand with DuBois. I would rather pitch my tent with the artists of the Hollywood Ten, who stood for the right to create work that reflected the truths about this society, rather than with the racists and segregationist politicians who stood for silence in the face of repression.