HUAC Investigates Hollywood Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The House Committee on Un-American Activities investigated communist influence in Hollywood, calling members of the entertainment industry to testify before it. A group of ten writers and directors who refused to cooperate with HUAC on First Amendment grounds was imprisoned for contempt of Congress, and the major motion picture studios announced that they would no longer employ any known communist.

Summary of Event

In 1938, nine-year-old film star Shirley Temple was accused of being a dupe of the Communist Party, because she had waved at a group of communist journalists while in France. This accusation was not an aberration; it was a logical outcome of the right- and left-wing extremism that infected the United States at the time. During times of intense crisis, Americans have been prone to hunt for scapegoats to explain their troubles. Having correct ideas is used as a measure to prove that a person is indeed “100 percent American.” Extremists on both the right and left vie to have their ideas become the moral law of the land. Purges (“witch hunts”), flag waving, and a decreased tolerance for dissent are symptoms of such epochs. House Committee on Un-American Activities[House Committee on UnAmerican Activities];investigation of Hollywood HUAC;investigation of Hollywood Hollywood studio system;investigation by HUAC McCarthyism[Maccarthyism] [kw]HUAC Investigates Hollywood (Oct. 20, 1947) [kw]Hollywood, HUAC Investigates (Oct. 20, 1947) House Committee on Un-American Activities[House Committee on UnAmerican Activities];investigation of Hollywood HUAC;investigation of Hollywood Hollywood studio system;investigation by HUAC McCarthyism[Maccarthyism] [g]North America;Oct. 20, 1947: HUAC Investigates Hollywood[02150] [g]United States;Oct. 20, 1947: HUAC Investigates Hollywood[02150] [c]Cold War;Oct. 20, 1947: HUAC Investigates Hollywood[02150] [c]Government and politics;Oct. 20, 1947: HUAC Investigates Hollywood[02150] [c]Motion pictures and video;Oct. 20, 1947: HUAC Investigates Hollywood[02150] [c]Civil rights and liberties;Oct. 20, 1947: HUAC Investigates Hollywood[02150] Thomas, J. Parnell Dies, Martin, Jr. Truman, Harry S. [p]Truman, Harry S.;Cold War

Anticommunist and general antiforeign sentiment increased during World War I in the United States, and it continued to find support into the 1920’s. This sentiment was expressed in legal action against foreigners, such as the raids conducted by U.S. attorney general Alexander Palmer against people suspected of socialist beliefs, as well as the passage of several acts limiting immigration into the United States. Hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, with their message of intolerance of “foreign” or different peoples and ideas, flourished.

In 1934, Representatives John W. McCormack McCormack, John W. and Samuel Dickstein Dickstein, Samuel formed a committee to investigate what they called “un-American activities.” Given the rise to power of Adolf Hitler in Germany the previous year, the McCormack-Dickstein Committee (officially the Special Committee on Un-American Activities Authorized to Investigate Nazi Propaganda and Certain Other Propaganda Activities) focused primarily on fascist, rather than communist, activities in the United States. The committee is most famous for investigating the so-called Business Plot, in which fascists allegedly conspired to overthrow President Franklin D. Roosevelt and seize the White House. Ironically, Congressman Dickstein was revealed in the 1990’s to have been on the payroll of a Soviet intelligence agency in the late 1930’s, although there is some dispute as to how much of the information he promised to the Soviets he actually delivered.

On May 26, 1938, the U.S. House of Representatives authorized another Special Committee to Investigate Un-American Activities. The committee was commonly known as the Dies Committee Dies Committee , after Martin Dies, Jr., its chair. Dies was assisted by his former clerk, Robert E. Stripling Stripling, Robert E. , as counsel, and by Representative J. Parnell Thomas and others. Although it, too, was meant to investigate Nazi infiltration, the committee quickly focused its efforts on communism instead.

During the first days of the committee’s existence, 640 organizations, 483 newspapers, and 280 labor unions were accused of un-American activities. The patriotism of the Boy Scouts, the Camp Fire Girls, and Shirley Temple was questioned. When the committee could find no communists more substantial than such long-dead playwrights as Christopher Marlowe and Euripides, it quickly lost credibility. Nevertheless, a similar lack of knowledge about Marxism and communism continued to underlie later inquests.

The Dies Committee contributed heavily to Congress’s June 1, 1939, elimination of the proposed Federal Theatre from President Roosevelt’s New Deal agenda. The committee’s lessons were not forgotten: Show-business people were easy targets, and targeting Hollywood brought instant media attention. The Dies Committee established the tactics that would be used by its own later incarnation, by Senator Joseph McCarthy, and by others after World War II. These tactics included sensational press releases, secret, fabricated lists of “known” communists, attacks on anything liberal, and “proof” in the form of gossip, illogic, and association with a touch of truth.

Attacks on communism diminished once the Soviet Union entered World War II on the side of the Allied Powers. As part of the war effort, Song of Russia Song of Russia (Ratoff) (1944) and other pro-Soviet films were made at the War Department’s request. Song of Russia would be denounced in 1947 hearings, because it showed happy, smiling people in the Soviet Union.

After World War II, the U.S.-Soviet alliance dissolved. Republicans and ultraconservative groups assaulted communism anew. The House Committee on Un-American Activities, or House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), became a permanent, standing committee of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1946. On March 12, 1947, President Harry S. Truman announced the Truman Doctrine, an anticommunist foreign-aid effort designed to blunt Republican charges that he was soft on communism. The State Department was purged of alleged communists, and Truman established a peacetime security and loyalty program. U.S. attorney general Tom C. Clark Clark, Tom C. compiled a list of organizations espousing communist, fascist, totalitarian, or subversive ideas, which was to be used internally to determine which government employees should be investigated. The list was published and quickly became HUAC’s primary source document.

On October 20, 1947, a subcommittee of HUAC opened its first postwar hearings. Because of prehearing publicity, more than one hundred news agencies were present, along with three major radio networks and eleven newsreel and television cameras stationed above the witness table. The committee was chaired by J. Parnell Thomas, and Robert E. Stripling served as its chief counsel. Other members of note were Richard M. Nixon and John S. Wood, who became HUAC’s chair in 1950.

Friendly witnesses, mainly studio executives, were called to testify before the committee during its first week of hearings. During the second week, nineteen witnesses, mainly writers, were subpoenaed. Ten witnesses said that the proceedings themselves were un-American and unconstitutional. They refused to cooperate with the committee. These ten, who became known as the Hollywood Ten Hollywood Ten or the Unfriendly Ten, were writers Alvah Bessie, Lester Cole, Ring Lardner, Lardner, Ring, Jr. Jr., John Howard Lawson, Albert Maltz, Sam Ornitz, and Dalton Trumbo Trumbo, Dalton , as well as directors Herbert Biberman and Edward Dmytryk and writer-producer Robert Adrian Scott. The Hollywood Ten asserted their right to the freedoms of speech and assembly under the First Amendment. Hollywood’s entertainment community loudly supported the ten’s First Amendment rights. The ten were liberal, and all had some affiliation, however cursory, with the Communist Party.

On November 24, 1947, Congress voted to cite the Hollywood Ten for contempt. Immediately, fifty top studio executives met at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City to determine their position regarding the ten. Eric Johnson Johnson, Eric , the president of the Motion Picture Association of America, read the Waldorf Declaration Waldorf Declaration (1947) : The Hollywood Ten would be suspended without pay, and from that point forward, no studio would “knowingly” employ anyone associated with the Communist Party.

Traditionally, a congressional investigatory committee has two primary functions: to secure information needed to create legislation and to oversee the executive branch’s activities. These committees have no direct legislative or judicial functions. HUAC, however, performed both those functions, and in so doing it violated both the constitutional separation of powers Separation of powers and the civil rights of subpoenaed witnesses. Civil liberties;United States Witnesses were not allowed to meet or cross-examine their accusers, no exclusionary rules regarding hearsay evidence were used, and witnesses were not allowed due process. Eight of the ten were writers, but the committee produced no evidence that they had written anything that was subversive or that called for the violent overthrow of the U.S. government. The committee never documented any evidence of Communist infiltration of the movie industry, and even if it had, membership in the Communist Party was not illegal. Nevertheless, without judge or jury, the Hollywood Ten were tried and sentenced.

If the committee had been serious about its attempt to root communism out of the film industry, it could have succeeded. The contributions of highly paid Hollywood artists to Communist Party causes were known but not investigated. Thomas contended that he had a list of seventy-nine prominent Communists in his files, but only the Hollywood Ten were prosecuted. The subpoenaing of entertainment-industry figures was not done to support legislation (none was ever proposed). None of the witnesses were government employees, so the attorney general’s list was not relevant. The Hollywood Ten were judged guilty because their thoughts were improper. They were convicted of contempt of Congress, because they refused to answer the committee’s questions the way the committee wanted them to.

In 1950, after the Supreme Court refused their last appeals, the Hollywood Ten went to jail for at least a year apiece. Ring Lardner, Jr., and Lester Cole were sent to the federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut—as was J. Parnell Thomas, who in 1948 had been convicted of fraud in a payroll scam. Lardner was made a stenographer in the classification and parole office; Thomas was made caretaker of the prison’s chicken yard.


Between March, 1947, and December, 1952, some 6.6 million people were investigated by Truman’s security program. No espionage was discovered, but some five hundred people were dismissed from government-related jobs. Alger Hiss was convicted in January, 1950, of perjury in a highly publicized and sensational trial. In February, the British uncovered massive espionage that eventually led to the execution of American spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Senator Joseph McCarthy began his campaign for reelection by using his attack on communism as a stepping stone to power. In June, the Korean War began, and three former Federal Bureau of Investigation agents published Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television (1950) Red Channels (Counterattack) , which became the bible of blacklisting.

HUAC’s Hollywood investigation began again in 1951. Blacklisting Blacklisting, Hollywood Hollywood studio system;blacklisting —for ridiculing HUAC, for being subpoenaed, or for unknowingly being on the list that Hollywood studios and professional guilds claimed did not exist—became institutionalized. A suspected Communist could not get work without publically naming names of other Communists and recanting supposed sins, thereby receiving absolution from the committee. Not only did Hollywood not support its own, but no one else did either. No one questioned the right of the committee to exist or to do what it was doing—not the press, not the American Civil Liberties Union, and not the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith or the Hollywood-based American Jewish Committee. Ten of the nineteen subpoenaed were Jewish, as were six of the ten who were indicted.

The blacklisted went underground and set up their own networks. The names of “clean” writers who were willing to act as “fronts” were put on scripts. Fictional names were also used. Only the Hollywood community knew that Maltz wrote The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and The Robe (1953) or that Trumbo wrote Roman Holiday (1953), Cowboy (1958), and The Brave One Brave One, The (Rapper) (1956). The Brave One won an Oscar that no one claimed until 1975. A mystique developed around the blacklisted writers. As a result, more work gradually came to them.

The blacklist had a chilling effect on social criticism. In 1947, 28 percent of Hollywood studio movies dealt with social issues; in 1949, only 18 percent did. By 1954, only about 9 percent of Hollywood films dealt with social problems. In 1953 and 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court made two rulings that finally protected witnesses from the abuses experienced by the Hollywood Ten and others caught up in the anti-Communist sweep. House Committee on Un-American Activities[House Committee on UnAmerican Activities];investigation of Hollywood HUAC;investigation of Hollywood Hollywood studio system;investigation by HUAC McCarthyism[Maccarthyism]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bentley, Eric. Are You Now or Have You Ever Been: The Investigation of Show Business by the Un-American Activities Committee, 1947-1958. New York: Harper & Row, 1972. Abridged testimonies of eighteen witnesses appearing before HUAC, 1947-1958. Testimonies of Edward Dmytryk (1947, 1951), Ring Lardner, Jr. (1947), Larry Parks (1951), Lillian Hellman (letter, 1952), and Paul Robeson (1956) are of particular interest. No references; easy to read. Photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dmytryk, Edward. Odd Man Out: A Memoir of the Hollywood Ten. Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996. A personal account of the director’s experience during the “witch hunts.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Miller, Douglas T., and Marion Nowak. The Fifties: The Way We Really Were. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1977. Written by a historian and a journalist. Documented and informative but still very readable. See in particular Chapter 1 on McCarthy and Chapter 12 on Hollywood. College-level reading.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Navasky, Victor S. Naming Names. New York: Penguin Books, 1982. Navasky was trained as a lawyer and a journalist; he gives a factual, informative study of the era and explains why so many people became informers. Excellent source. References provided. College-level reading.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Redish, Martin H. The Logic of Persecution: Free Expression and the McCarthy Era. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2005. An examination of the anticommunist hysteria of the 1940’s and 1950’s. Includes a chapter on HUAC and the Hollywood Ten. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr., and Roger Burns, eds. Congress Investigates, 1792-1974. New York: Chelsea House, 1975. Of particular interest here are Schlesinger’s introduction, which discusses Supreme Court cases related to congressional hearings, and the article by H. Lew Wallace, “The McCarthy Era.” Good background material on the era and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schrecker, Ellen. Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America. Boston: Little, Brown, 1998. Presents an account of Joseph McCarthy, the Hollywood blacklist, and the impact of McCarthyism on American history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schumach, Murray. The Face on the Cutting Room Floor. New York: William Morrow, 1964. Enlightening book on censorship in Hollywood from the silent film era through the 1960’s. Appendix gives samples of censorship rules in other countries and Hollywood’s motion-picture code. Photographs. No references. Good source on the gray list, the Hollywood underground, and the American Legion.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vaughn, Robert F. Only Victims: A Study of Show Business Blacklisting. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1972. This book is based on the actor’s doctoral dissertation, covering the time period 1938-1958. Well documented and informative. Introduction by Senator George McGovern. Focuses on the sociological and psychological underpinnings of the radical right and left that fueled HUAC. Good documents in appendixes.

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Categories: History