Hysteria as Patriotism, Duplicity as Duty

On June 22nd, 1950, the pamphlet-style screed Red Channels was released, purporting to name 151 actors, writers, musicians, broadcast journalists, and others in the context of Communist manipulation of the entertainment industry. Among those fingered were Orson Welles, Lillian Hellman, Arthur Miller, Burgess Meredith, Dorothy Parker, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Lena Horne, Pete Seeger and Artie Shaw.

The pamphlet was a special edition of the publication “Counterattack,” a periodical produced in turn by American Business Consultants, Inc., the proto-right-wing think tank founded by textile importer and John Bircher Arthur Kohlberg and three disgruntled FBI agents.

The tract came three years after formation of the original House Un-American Activities Committee, and claimed active Communist efforts through “[S]everal commercially sponsored dramatic series used as sounding boards, particularly with reference to current issues in which the Party is critically interested: ‘academic freedom,’ ‘civil rights,’ ‘peace,’ the H-bomb, etc . . . With radios in most American homes and with approximately 5 million TV sets in use . . . .”

In its format, Red Channels listed the 151 professionals in entertainment and on-air journalism whom it clearly implied were among “the Red Fascists and their sympathizers” in the broadcasting field. Each of the names was followed by a raw list of ostensibly telling data, with the sources of evidence varying from FBI and HUAC citations to newspaper articles culled from the mainstream press, industry trade sheets, and such Communist publications as the Daily Worker.

Scores of those individuals named in the full Hollywood Blacklist lost employment, income and standing within their communities, and often, their own families. In the end, Red Channels caused some of those named to be blacklisted, Pete Seeger among them, and to fight publicly to prove their “loyalty” to the United States. Still others caved in to the pressure to repudiate their political pasts and provide the HUAC with names of other suspected prominent leftists.

Several of those who named names, like director Elia Kazan and writer Bud Schulberg, argued for years after that they had made an ethically proper decision. Others, like actor Lee J. Cobb and director Michael Gordon, who gave friendly testimony to HUAC after suffering on the blacklist for a time, “concede[d] with remorse that their plan was to name their way back to work.”

And then there were those more gravely haunted by the choice they had made; in 1963, actor Sterling Hayden declared, “I was a rat, a stoolie, and the names I named of those close friends were blacklisted and deprived of their livelihood.”

And here, our story of cruelty and hysteria posing as patriotism and decency endeth.

Author: Bill Urich

A tail-end baby-boomer, Bill Urich was born in Cleveland to a grade school teacher and her Navy vet husband, and reared in Greater Detroit. Working his way through school primarily at night, Mr. Urich holds a Bachelor’s in Journalism, Phi Beta Kappa, and a Juris Doctorate from Wayne State University. In his legal career he has acted as an assistant state prosecutor, city attorney, special prosecutor, mediator, magistrate, private practitioner and mayor of Royal Oak, a large home-rule city in Michigan. Mr. Urich continues in private practice and municipal prosecution, is on faculty to DePaul University, pens regular contributions to political publications, and remains active in selected campaigns and causes related to labor, social and criminal justice. A father of three mostly-grown sons, he spends his precious free time on family, friends, the pursuit of happiness, beauty and truth, three rescue cats, and fronting the rock band Calcutta Rugs from behind the drum kit.

What say you, the people?