from: Ellen Schrecker, THE AGE OF MCCARTHYISM: A BRIEF HISTORY WITH DOCUMENTS. (Boston: St. Martin's Press, 1994)
Even at the height of the McCarthyist furor in the early 1950s, the anti-Communist crusade was relatively mild. Many prosecutions faltered on appeal and only a few foreign-born radicals were actually deported. Only Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were put to death; and of the roughly 150 people who went to prison, most were released within a year or two. Certainly compared to the horrors of Stalin's Russia, McCarthyism was not a drastic form of political repression. But it was an effective one.
The punishments were primarily economic. People lost their jobs. The official manifestations of McCarthyism--the public hearings, FBI investigations, and criminal prosecutions--would not have been as effective had they not been reinforced by the private sector. The political purges were a two-stage process that relied on the imposition of economic sanctions to bolster the political messages conveyed by public officials. The collaboration of private employers with HUAC and the rest of the anti-Communist network was necessary both to legitimate the network's activities and to punish the men and women identified as politically undesirable. Without the participation of the private sector, McCarthyism would not have affected the rank-and-file members of the Communist movement or so effectively stifled political dissent.
It is hard to come up with accurate statistics for the number of politically motivated dismissals during the McCarthy period, for both the employers and the people they fired tried to conceal what was happening--the former to protect themselves against charges of violating civil liberties, the latter to obtain future jobs. Yale Law School professor Ralph Brown, who conducted the most systematic survey of the economic damage of the McCarthy era, estimated that roughly ten thousand people lost their jobs. Such a figure may be low, as even Brown admits, for it does not include rejected applicants, people who resigned under duress, and the men and women who were ostensibly dismissed for other reasons. Still, it does suggest the scope of the economic sanctions.
The two-stage nature of McCarthyism, in which political undesirables were first identified by one agency and then fired by another, increased its effectiveness. By diffusing the responsibility, the separation of the two operations made it easier for the people who administered the economic sanctions to rationalize what they were doing and deny that they were involved in the business of McCarthyism. This was especially the case with the essentially moderate and liberal men (few women here) who ran the nation's major corporations, newspapers, universities, and other institutions that fired people for their politics. Many of these administrators sincerely deplored McCarthy and HUAC and tried to conceal the extent to which their own activities bolstered the witch-hunt.
Most of the time the first stage of identifying the alleged Communists was handled by an official agency like an investigating committee or the FBI. In some areas, such as the entertainment industry, private entrepreneurs entered the field. The bureau and the congressional committees expected that the people they exposed would lose their jobs; and the evidence we have suggests that about 80 percent of the unfriendly witnesses did. The investigators often greased the wheels by warning their witnesses' employers or releasing lists of prospective witnesses to the local press. Sometimes recalcitrant witnesses who kept their jobs were recalled for a second hearing.
The FBI was also involved in the unemployment business. Throughout the late 1950s, agents routinely visited Junius Scales's employers to ensure that he could not keep a job. Naturally, the bureau operated with greater stealth than the committees, for it was not supposed to release material from its files to anyone outside the executive branch. But not only did the FBI leak selected tidbits to sympathetic journalists and members of Congress, it also inaugurated a systematic flow of information called the "Responsibilities Program." The program began in 1951 when a group of liberal governors, who were worried that they might be vulnerable to right-wing charges of harboring Communists on their payrolls, asked the bureau to give them information about state employees. Deniability was the program's hallmark; FBI agents usually conveyed the requisite information to the governors or their representatives in oral reports or in the form of what the bureau called "blind memoranda," typed on plain unwatermarked paper that gave no evidence of its origins. During the four years of the program's existence, it transmitted 810 such reports, most of which resulted in the intended action.
It is important to realize that the dismissals were usually in response to outside pressures. Most of the firings of the McCarthy era occurred after someone had refused to cooperate with an investigating committee or was denied a security clearance. Major corporations like General Electric and U.S. Steel announced that they would discharge any worker who took the Fifth Amendment, and other employers made it equally clear that they would do the same. Some of these employers may well have welcomed and even actually arranged for a HUAC hearing, especially when it enabled them to fire left-wing union leaders. Left to their own devices, however, most of the other employers would not have initiated political dismissals, though they were usually willing to acquiesce in them once they were apprised of the identities of their allegedly subversive employees.
Self-defense was the primary motivation. Even when not threatened with direct reprisals, the leaders of the nation's major corporations, universities, and other private institutions seem to have decided that good public relations demanded the dismissal of someone openly identified as a Communist or even, in many cases, of people who were merely controversial. In retrospect, it is clear that the fear of retaliation for retaining a Fifth Amendment witness or other political undesirable was probably exaggerated. Those few institutions that kept such people in their employ did not suffer in any noticeable way. Alumni did not withhold their donations; moviegoers did not desert the theaters. But perception in this case was more important than reality.
Ideology shored up the dismissals. The cautious college presidents and studio heads who fired or refused to hire political undesirables shared the anti-Communist consensus. They were patriotic citizens who, however squeamish they may have been about the methods of McCarthy and the other investigators, agreed that communism threatened the United States and that the crisis engendered by the cold war necessitated measures that might violate the rights of individuals. By invoking the icon of national security, they were able to give their otherwise embarrassing actions a patina of patriotism. Equally pervasive was the belief that Communists deserved to be fired. Because of their alleged duplicity, dogmatism, and disloyalty to their nation and employers, Communists (and the definition was to be stretched to include ex-Communists, Fifth Amendment Communists, and anybody who associated with Communists) were seen as no longer qualified for their jobs. Since these disqualifications usually appeared only after the until-then qualified individuals were identified by part of the anti-Communist network, these rationalizations obviously involved considerable deception and self-deception.
There were few legal restraints. The Supreme Court's refusal to interfere with the firings of public servants prefigured its attitude toward similar dismissals within other institutions. Again, the Court, which initially acquiesced in the firing of unfriendly witnesses and other political dissidents, began to change its position by the mid-19SOs. But the reversals were never complete and they occurred after much of the damage had been done. In 1956, for example, the Court invalidated the dismissal of a Brooklyn College literature professor who had taken the Fifth Amendment, but since it admitted that there might be other reasons why he should be fired, he never got his job back. A few people whose careers had been destroyed by the entertainment industry blacklist tried to sue for damages, but federal judges did not even recognize the existence of the blacklist until the mid-1960s.
No doubt because of the glamour of the entertainment industry, the anti-Communist firings and subsequent blacklisting of men and women in show business are well known. The movies had been a target of the anti-Communist network since the late 1930s. Investigating show business was a sure way to attract publicity. There were plenty of potential witnesses, for the film industry had a lively radical community with an active core of some three hundred Communists. In 1947, the Hollywood Ten hearings precipitated the blacklist. At first it was not clear that employers would punish unfriendly witnesses. But when the indictment of the Ten showed that the federal government's law enforcement machinery was backing HUAC, the situation changed. At the end of November, the heads of the major studios met at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City and released a statement announcing that they had fired the Ten and would not rehire them until they recanted and cleared themselves with the committee.
Over the next few years many of the film industries more prominent leftists found it increasingly harder to get work. By 1951 when HUAC returned to Hollywood to resume the hearings it had begun four years before, the blacklist was in full operation. There was, of course, no official list and the studios routinely denied that blacklisting occurred. Still, writers stopped getting calls for work; actors were told they were "too good for the part."
The rise of television exacerbated the film industry's already serious financial slump and reinforced the major studios' reluctance to offend any segment of their audience. Threats of boycotts by the American Legion and other right-wing groups terrified the moviemakers and their Wall Street backers. Imposing an anti-Communist blacklist seemed an obvious way to avoid trouble at the box office for an industry that had, after all, long been subject to considerable self-censorship with regard to sexual as well as political issues.
The blacklist spread to the broadcast industry as well. Here, the process became public in June 1950 with the publication of Red Channels, a 213-page compilation of the alleged Communist affiliations of 151 actors, writers, musicians, and other radio and television entertainers. The book, which appeared three days before the start of the Korean War, was published by American Business Consultants, an outfit established in 1947 by a trio of former FBI agents who wanted to make the public aware of the information about communism that the bureau had collected. Initially funded by Alfred Kohlberg and the Catholic Church, the group became one of the anti-Communist network's main enterprises, offering its services in exposing and eliminating Communists to corporations, foundations, and government agencies. Red Channels was a special show business supplement to the exposes of individuals and organizations that appeared in the group's regular newsletter, Counterattack.
The listings in Red Channels were compiled, so J. B. Matthews claimed, from his collection of front group letterheads, congressional and California Un-American Activities Committee reports, and old Daily Workers. They were not always accurate, but they were devastating. By 1951, the television networks and their sponsors no longer hired anyone whose name was in the book, and the prohibition soon spread to anyone who seemed controversial. A tiny group of true believers enforced the blacklist by deluging networks, advertising agencies, and sponsors with letters and phone calls whenever someone they disapproved of got hired. One of the blacklist's most ardent enforcers was Laurence Johnson, a supermarket owner in Syracuse, New York, who threatened to place signs in his stores warning customers not to buy the products of any company that sponsored a program featuring one of "Stalin's little creatures." Although Johnson represented no one but himself and his employees, some of the nation's largest corporations capitulated to his demands.
Broadcasters scrambled to ensure that they did not hire the wrong kinds of talent and often enlisted professional anti-Communists to check the backgrounds of prospective employees. One of the authors of Red Channels charged five dollars a name; the ex-FBI agents of American Business Consultants provided similar services, sometimes, it was said, after threatening further exposures in Counterattack. CBS inaugurated a loyalty oath and, like the other networks and big advertising agencies, put full-time "security officers" on its payroll. In Hollywood the studios worked closely with the American Legion and the film industry's own anti-Communists and informers. The criteria for the blacklists varied. People who were cleared by one network or studio were banned by others. Even within a single network or agency, some shows hired performers that other shows refused to touch. The blacklisters' targets extended far beyond the Communist party and sometimes seemed to encompass almost every liberal in show business. One producer found that a third of the performers he wanted to hire were turned down by his superiors--including an eight-year-old girl.
It is not clear exactly why the entertainment industry's blacklist had such a broad reach. Although most of the people affected by it had once been in or near the Communist party, the blacklist also encompassed some genuine innocents, people who had merely signed letters supporting the Ho of true believers enforced the blacklist by deluging networks, Hollywood Ten's petition for a Supreme Court hearing or attended Popular Front gatherings during World War II. No doubt the visibility of the industry played a role, as did the reluctance of studios and networks to become involved in anything that seemed controversial. As one industry executive explained, "We're a business that has to please the customers; that's the main thing we have to do, keep people happy, and, to do that, we have to stay out of trouble." Finally, the professional anti-Communists seem to have been more directly involved in administering the entertainment industry blacklist than they were with the sanctions in other fields and could thus impose their own more stringent ideological criteria.
It was possible to get removed from the blacklist. The clearance procedure was complicated, secretive, and for many people morally repugnant. The people who initiated the blacklists, such as the authors of Red Channels, charged a few hundred dollars to shepherd someone through the process. A loose network of lawyers, gossip columnists, union leaders, and organizations like the American Legion, Anti-Defamation League, and, it was rumored, the Catholic Church provided similar services. Naming names was required, of course. Ex-Communists usually had to purge themselves with HUAC and the FBI before they could work again. The better known among them often had to publish articles in a mass-circulation magazine explaining how they had been duped by the party and describing its evils. For Humphrey Bogart, whose main offense was his public support for the Hollywood Ten, rehabilitation required an article in a fan magazine confessing, "I'm no Communist," just an "American dope." It was also helpful to take some kind of overtly anti-Communist actions such as opposing the antiblacklist factions within the talent unions or circulating petitions against the admission of Communist China to the United Nations. The film industry required more than three hundred people to clear themselves by writing letters, which then had to be approved by James O'Neil, the former American Legion national commander, and such anti-Communist professionals as J. B. Matthews and Benjamin Mandel. Clearance was not routine. Even people who had no party ties had to write two or three drafts of their letters until they showed the appropriate degree of contrition.
The show business people who couldn't or wouldn't clear themselves soon became unemployable and ostracized. Some left the country---if they could get passports. Others used subterfuges. Blacklisted writers worked under pseudonyms or hired "fronts" who were willing to pass off the blacklistees' scripts as their own. It was not a lucrative business. The aliases and fronts could not command the fees that the more established blacklisted writers had once earned. Producers knew what was going on and unscrupulous ones took advantage of it. The more principled ones began to chip away at the ban and hire some blacklisted writers. In 1956, the embarrassed silence that accompanied the failure of screenwriter "Richard Rich" (Dalton Trumbo, one of the Hollywood Ten) to claim his Academy Award began the process. By the mid-1960s, some of the blacklisted screenwriters were back in Hollywood.
Actors, of course, could not use fronts. Even the most talented of them had a tough time on the blacklist. Broadway, with its smaller clientele, did let them perform, but work in the legitimate theater was sporadic and much less remunerative than in movies or TV. Ultimately, many of the blacklisted actors had to abandon their careers and take whatever jobs they could find. More than one blacklistee ended up waiting tables. The blacklist took a personal toll as well. Broken health and broken marriages, even suicides, were not unknown. When the blacklist lifted in the 1960s, its former victims were never able to fully resuscitate their careers. They had simply lost too much time.
The entertainment industry's blacklist was the most visible of the economic sanctions of the McCarthy era, but it was hardly unique. Most of the politically motivated dismissals affected Communists and ex-Communists and tended to be concentrated in industries where Communist-led unions had been active or in sectors of society that harbored the middle-class intellectuals and professionals who had gravitated to the party during the Popular Front. Steelworkers, teachers, sailors, lawyers, social workers, electricians, journalists, and assembly line workers were all subject to the same kinds of political dismissals and prolonged unemployment as show business people. And the experience was just as devastating.
Considerable irony invests the McCarthy era dismissals within the academic community, for the nation's colleges and universities allegedly subscribed to the doctrines of academic freedom and to the notion that professors should not be punished for their political activities outside of class. But academia was not immune to McCarthyism, and by the late 1940s most of the nation's academic leaders believed that professors who were members of the Communist party had surrendered their intellectual independence and so were unqualified to teach. Significantly, no university administrators acted on these convictions unless pressured to do so by a state or congressional investigation or other outside agency. Until HUAC came to town or the FBI slid a "blind memorandum" across the college president's desk, there were no questions about the academic competence of the alleged subversives. At no point were any of them charged with recruiting their students or teaching the party line. Most of them were former Communists who, though hostile to the committees, were not especially active at the time.
The first important academic freedom case of the cold war arose in July 1948 at the University of Washington, where the state legislature's UnAmerican Activities Committee forced the issue by questioning a handful of faculty members. Six defied the committee and the administration filed charges against them. The faculty committee that dealt with the case in the fall recommended the retention of all but one, a professor who refused to answer any of its questions about his politics. The regents fired two others as well, since they had admitted to being members of the Communist party and were therefore, so the university's president explained, "incompetent, intellectually dishonest, and derelict in their duty to find and teach the truth." The rest of the academy agreed: Communists could not be college teachers. The academic community backed up its words with action or, rather, inaction; none of the dismissed professors was able to find a teaching job.
Within a few years the ban in academia extended to Fifth Amendment Communists. Concerned about the unfavorable publicity that unfriendly witnesses would draw to their institutions, the nation's academic leaders urged faculty members to cooperate with HUAC and the other committees. Because of the tradition of academic freedom, university administrators clothed their responses to McCarthyism in elaborate rationalizations about the academic profession's commitment to "complete candor and perfect integrity." The most authoritative such statement was released by the presidents of the nation's thirty-seven leading universities in the spring of 1953, just as the main congressional committees were about to investigate higher education. It stressed the professors' duty "to speak out"--that is, name names--and warned that "invocation of the Fifth Amendment places upon a professor a heavy burden of proof of his fitness to hold a teaching position and lays upon his university an obligation to reexamine his qualifications for membership in its society." The message was clear. College teachers subpoenaed by a congressional committee knew that if they took the Fifth Amendment or otherwise refused to testify they might lose their jobs.
The main academic purges occurred from 1952 to 1954 when the congressional committees had run out of more glamorous targets and turned to the nation's colleges and universities. Dismissals were not automatic; an academic hearing usually followed the congressional one. Though the faculty committees that mounted the investigations did not normally demand that their colleagues name names, they did expect them to cooperate and discuss their past political activities. People who refused, who felt that such questions were as illegitimate as HUAC's, were invariably fired. So were most of the others, especially at schools where conservative or politically insecure administrators and trustees refused to accept the favorable recommendations of faculty committees. In a few cases, if a professor had tenure, taught at a relatively less vulnerable private university, and cooperated fully with the institution's investigation, he or she could retain his or her job. But these were exceptional cases and they often masked the less publicized dismissals of junior professors, who were invariably let go when their contracts expired. By the time the McCarthyist furor subsided, close to a hundred academics had lost their jobs for refusing to cooperate with anti-Communist investigators. Several hundred more were probably eased out under the FBI's Responsibilities Program and similar measures.
Once fired, the politically tainted professors could rarely find other academic jobs. Like the Hollywood blacklistees, they were confronted with an unacknowledged but thoroughly effective embargo. Some emigrated, some switched fields, and some went to teach in small southern Negro colleges that were so desperate for qualified faculty members they asked no questions. The university blacklist began to subside by the early 1960s. Most of the banned professors returned to the academic world, but their careers had suffered in the interim.
Hundreds of elementary and high school teachers also lost their jobs, sometimes after an appearance before HUAC and sometimes as the result of a local loyalty probe. Social workers were similarly affected, especially in the welfare agencies of cities like New York and Philadelphia where they had formed unions and agitated on behalf of their clients. Again, a combination of outside investigations and loyalty programs cost these people their jobs. Journalists were another group of middle-class professionals who were fired when they defied congressional committees. There were only a handful of such people, their dismissals an embarrassment in an industry that presumably required so much freedom itself. The New York Times justified its firing of a copyreader in the foreign news department as a matter of national security; had he worked on the sports desk, the Times explained, he could have kept his job.
Industrial workers also faced dismissals and blacklists, especially if they were active in the locals of left-wing unions. Again, outside pressures precipitated the firings. Although alleged Communists were sometimes dropped outright (especially if found leafleting or circulating petitions outside plant gates), most of the time they lost their jobs as a result of a congressional investigation or the denial of a security clearance. Companies with defense contracts were under pressure to remove recalcitrant witnesses and other political undesirables from their payrolls; in several instances the government threatened to withdraw a contract if an offending worker was not fired. The most massive wave of dismissals occurred in the maritime industry, where the imposition of a port security program after the outbreak of the Korean War screened about fifteen hundred sailors and longshoremen off their jobs. Nor were employers and federal authorities the only agencies to impose sanctions within a factory. Unfriendly witnesses were sometimes subjected to "run-outs" organized by co-workers who beat them up and physically forced them off their jobs.
Occasionally the fired workers were reinstated. Successful litigation forced major revisions in the port security program, for example. In other instances, if--and this was an increasingly big if--their unions were willing to back up their grievances, some people got their jobs back. In the late 1940s, arbitrators hearing these cases were sometimes willing to restore the jobs of people who clearly could not endanger the national security. But after the outbreak of the Korean War, neither their unions nor the arbitrators would support such people's claims. In addition, workers who were fired for political reasons were often deprived of unemployment benefits.
Economic sanctions affected independent professionals and businesspeople in different ways. Being self-employed, they did not have to worry about being fired, but they had to endure other injuries. In some occupations, licensing requirements enabled the states to impose political tests, usually by making applicants take some kind of loyalty oath. Unfriendly witnesses could lose their licenses or, if they did work for a state or local government have their contracts canceled.
Lawyers were particularly affected, especially those who defended people in anti-Communist proceedings. Whatever their own political beliefs, such lawyers were perceived as sharing those of their clients. Of course, some attorneys were or had been Communists. Like other middle-class professionals, many lawyers had been attracted to the party during the 1930s and 1940s. Many of them belonged to the cohort of talented liberal and left-wing attorneys who had staffed the New Deal agencies or worked with the CIO. By the late 1940s most them had left the government and the mainstream unions and were trying to establish themselves in private practice. The few members of the legal profession willing to handle the cases of Communists suffered economically. Their other clients, fearful of being stigmatized by attorneys who were publicly identified with the national enemy, went elsewhere. The political dissidents, deportees, and left-led unions that provided the core of their business were usually too forced major revisions in the port security program, for example. Insolvent to pay much, if anything.
Worse than the loss of clients and income was the possibility that defending the party might land them in jail or get them disbarred. The lawyers who represented the Dennis defendants were not the only attorneys to be charged with contempt of court as the result of their efforts during a Communist trial. Nor were they the only lawyers threatened with disbarment because of their politics. As the testimony of a Bay Area attorney reveals, the problems such lawyers faced made it particularly difficult for the protagonists in anti-Communist proceedings to find legal representation, especially if they did not want a known left-winger. Some of the defendants in the second round of Smith Act trials were rejected by more than two hundred attorneys.
Unlike the academic world and film industry, which were under outside pressure, the legal profession undertook to oust its tainted members on its own. The initiatives came from conservative attorneys associated with the anti-Communist network. The American Bar Association (ABA) set up a Special Committee on Communist Tactics, Strategy, and Objectives to ensure that alleged subversives did not penetrate the legal profession. The association also adopted resolutions against allowing Communists and, later, Fifth Amendment witnesses to practice law. These resolutions, coming as they did from the organized voice of a highly respected profession, carried considerable weight. To implement them, national and local bar associations worked closely with HUAC, the FBI, and the rest of the anti-Communist network to screen applicants and begin disbarment proceedings against the more radical members. Few succeeded.
Important members of the legal establishment (and not just the targeted attorneys) opposed these ousters. After all, lawyers did have a traditional commitment to and understanding of civil liberties, as well as a professional responsibility to represent all types of clients. By the mid-1950s some eminent lawyers were concerned about protecting the public's right to counsel and refused to countenance political disbarments. Even more important, in a few instances local bar associations and attorneys from major law firms in cities like Philadelphia, Denver, and Cleveland had begun to take on Communist cases. Such gestures, coming from leading members of the bar, contributed to the lessening of the McCarthyist furor--even if they did not necessarily win their clients' acquittal.
Return to About McCarthyism