Testimony Regarding Communist Investigations Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In October 1947, the House Committee on Un-American Activities (popularized as House Un-American Activities Committee, or HUAC) held a series of investigations into a suspected Communist infiltration of the film industry. Among those summoned to testify was Motion Picture Association of America president Eric A. Johnston, a moderate Republican businessman whose position made him responsible for overseeing Hollywood studios' interests as a whole. While acknowledging the diversity of political viewpoints and the likely presence of at least a few affirmed Communists in Hollywood, Johnston sharply criticized the House committee for its headstrong approach to rooting out subversion. He both strongly contested the implications that Hollywood permitted Communist ideology to inform its films and complained that the scandal stirred by the committee's efforts infringed on free speech and carried the possibility of economic devastation for the film industry. He argued that it was better and more American to resolve the underlying social problems that led people to support Communist ideals.

Summary Overview

In October 1947, the House Committee on Un-American Activities (popularized as House Un-American Activities Committee, or HUAC) held a series of investigations into a suspected Communist infiltration of the film industry. Among those summoned to testify was Motion Picture Association of America president Eric A. Johnston, a moderate Republican businessman whose position made him responsible for overseeing Hollywood studios' interests as a whole. While acknowledging the diversity of political viewpoints and the likely presence of at least a few affirmed Communists in Hollywood, Johnston sharply criticized the House committee for its headstrong approach to rooting out subversion. He both strongly contested the implications that Hollywood permitted Communist ideology to inform its films and complained that the scandal stirred by the committee's efforts infringed on free speech and carried the possibility of economic devastation for the film industry. He argued that it was better and more American to resolve the underlying social problems that led people to support Communist ideals.

Defining Moment

Although the political and economic ideology known as Communism developed during the 1800s, it did not become a major force into world politics until the Russian Revolution of 1917 installed the Soviet Communist regime in place of Russia's imperial government. The radical and bloody nature of the Russian Revolution shocked the world and caused many Americans to fear that a similar radical movement could transform into an actively revolutionary one in the United States. The First Red Scare that followed World War I reflected these concerns, and during this time, the American government rooted out both real and perceived threats from the left. Although this fervor soon faded, Americans remained deeply uneasy about Communism.

With the rise of the Nazi government in Germany, however, US leaders such as President Franklin D. Roosevelt began to see the Soviet Union as a useful ally against German aggression. Supported in part by US aid, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and the Soviet army weakened Nazi troops along the Eastern Front; after the German surrender, the Soviets helped pressure the Japanese to surrender in the Pacific theater. However, the resolution of World War II brought the US-Soviet partnership to an end. Immense wartime damage left traditional European powers such as Great Britain, Germany, and France unusually weakened. The ascendance of the United States ensured its role as the leading geopolitical power of the Western world; despite its own heavy wartime losses, the Soviet Union quickly proved its main challenger. As the Allies sought to remake a tattered Europe, Stalin pressed for greater Soviet influence in Eastern Europe. US leaders saw the existence of Communism as a threat to democratic values and, therefore, strongly opposed its expansion. The theory of containment, which argued that limiting Soviet expansion would ultimately destroy Communism, underpinned the postwar Truman Doctrine, which pledged US assistance to any people resisting Communism. The Cold War had begun.

As it had during the First Red Scare, domestic concern over the threat of Communism skyrocketed during the late 1940s, sparking a Second Red Scare. Two congressional entities came to exemplify the Red Scare of the post–World War II era: the House Un-American Activities Committee, first formed in the late 1930s to investigate subversive activity, and, from 1950 on, the inquiries headed by Senator Joseph McCarthy. Even as President Harry S. Truman issued executive orders requiring government employees to swear loyalty oaths, HUAC held hearings seeking evidence or simple accusations of subversive support for Communist ideals among the nation's people. Among its high-profile and best-known investigations were those into government official Alger Hiss and into entertainers ranging from folk singer Pete Seeger to numerous Hollywood directors, actors, and screenwriters. In 1947, notable figures, including Screen Actors Guild head Ronald Reagan and famed animator Walt Disney, appeared before the committee to discuss the issue of possible Communist influence in Hollywood.

Author Biography

In 1945, Eric Allen Johnston succeeded long-standing Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) head Will H. Hays as the studio organization's president. In this role, Johnston was primarily responsible for enforcing the studios' self-imposed censorship rules, commonly known as the Hays Code. Before becoming head of the MPAA, Johnston had already built a career in the business world. He worked as a traveling vacuum salesman after World War I, and by the early 1930s, he was at the head of a thriving business in household appliance manufacturing and distribution located in the Pacific Northwest. As his interests expanded, Johnston became active in the Chamber of Commerce. In 1942, members elected him as the organization's president in something of an upset: Johnston held more liberal, pro-labor views than his forebears in that role. Although a Republican, he developed a relationship with the Roosevelt administration and represented the US entrepreneurial spirit abroad throughout the 1940s and 1950s.

Historical Document

I'm not here to try to whitewash Hollywood, and I'm not here to help sling a tar brush at it, either.

I want to stick to the facts as I see them.

There are several points I'd like to make to this committee.

The first one is this: A damaging impression of Hollywood has spread all over the country as a result of last week's hearings. You have a lot of sensational testimony about Hollywood. From some of it the public will get the idea that Hollywood is running over with Communists and communism.

I believe the impression which has gone out is the sort of scare-head stuff which is grossly unfair to a great American industry. It must be a great satisfaction to the Communist leadership in this country to have people believe that Hollywood Communists are astronomical in number and almost irresistible in power.

Now, what are the facts? Not everybody in Hollywood is a Communist. I have said before that undoubtedly there are Communists in Hollywood, but in my opinion the percentage is extremely small.

I have had a number of close looks at Hollywood in the last 2 years, and I have looked at it through the eyes of an average businessman. I recognize that as the world's capital of show business, there is bound to be a lot of show business in Hollywood. There is no business, Mr. Chairman, like show business. But underneath there is the solid foundation of patriotic, hardworking, decent citizens. Making motion pictures is hard work. You just don't dash off a motion picture between social engagements.…

I wind up my first point with a request of this committee. The damaging impression about Hollywood should be corrected. I urge your committee to do so in these public hearings.

There is another damaging impression which should be corrected. The report of the subcommittee said that some of the most flagrant Communist propaganda films were produced as the result of White House pressure. This charge has been completely refuted by the testimony before you.

My second point includes another request of the committee.

The report of your subcommittee stated that you had a list of all pictures produced in Hollywood in the last 8 years which contained Communist propaganda. Your committee has not made this list public. Until the list is made public the industry stands condemned by unsupported generalizations, and we are denied the opportunity to refute these charges publicly.

Again, I remind the committee that we have offered to put on a special showing of any or all of the pictures which stand accused so that you can see for yourselves what's in them. The contents of the pictures constitute the only proof.

Unless this evidence is presented and we are given the chance to refute it in these public hearings, it is the obligation of the committee to absolve the industry from the charges against it.

Now, I come to my third point—a vitally important one to every American and to the system under which we live.

It is free speech.…

When I talk about freedom of speech in connection with this hearing, I mean just this: You don't need to pass a law to choke off free speech or seriously curtail it. Intimidation or coercion will do it just as well. You can't make good and honest motion pictures in an atmosphere of fear.

I intend to use every influence at my command to keep the screen free. I don't propose that Government shall tell the motion-picture industry, directly or by coercion, what kind of pictures it ought to make. I am as whole-souledly against that as I would be against dictating to the press or the radio, to the book publishers or to the magazines.…

To sum up this point: We insist on our rights to decide what will or will not go in our pictures. We are deeply conscious of the responsibility this freedom involves, but we have no intention to violate this trust by permitting subversive propaganda in our films.

Now, my next point is this:

When I was before this committee last March, I said that I wanted to see Communists exposed. I still do. I'm heart and soul for it. An exposed Communist is an unarmed Communist. Expose them, but expose them in the traditional American manner.

But I believe that when this committee or any other agency undertakes to expose communism it must be scrupulous to avoid tying a red tag on innocent people by indiscriminate labeling.

It seems to me it is getting dangerously easy to call a man a Communist without proof or even reasonable suspicion. When a distinguished leader of the Republican Party in the United States Senate is accused of following the Communist Party line for introducing a housing bill, it is time, gentlemen, to give a little serious thought to the dangers of thoughtless smearing by gossip and hearsay.

Senator Robert Taft isn't going to worry about being called a Communist. But not every American is a Senator Taft who can properly ignore such an accusation. Most of us in America are just little people, and loose charges can hurt little people. They take away everything a man has—his livelihood, his reputation, and his personal dignity.

When just one man is falsely damned as a Communist in an hour like this when the Red issue is at white heat, no one of us is safe.

Gentlemen, I maintain that preservation of the rights of the individual is a proper duty for this Committee on Un-American Activities. This country's entire tradition is based on the principle that the individual is a higher power than the state; that the state owes its authority to the individual, and must treat him accordingly.

Expose communism, but don't put any American who isn't a Communist in a concentration camp of suspicion. We are not willing to give up our freedoms to save our freedoms.

I now come to my final point:

What are we going to do positively and constructively about combating communism? It isn't enough to be anti-Communist any more than it is to be antismallpox. You can still die from smallpox if you haven't used a serum against it. A positive program is the best antitoxin of the plague of communism.

Communism must have breeding grounds. Men and women who have a reasonable measure of opportunity aren't taken in by the prattle of Communists. Revolutions plotted by frustrated intellectuals at cocktail parties won't get anywhere if we wipe out the potential causes of communism. The most effective way is to make democracy work for greater opportunity, for greater participation, for greater security for all our people.

The real breeding ground of communism is in the slums. It is everywhere where people haven't enough to eat or enough to wear through no fault of their own. Communism hunts misery, feeds on misery, and profits by it.

Freedoms walk hand-in-hand with abundance. That has been the history of America. It has been the American story. It turned the eyes of the world to America, because America gave reality to freedom, plus abundance when it was still an idle daydream in the rest of the world.

We have been the greatest exporter of freedom, and the world is hungry for it. Today it needs our wheat and our fuel to stave off hunger and fight off cold, but hungry and cold as they may be, men always hunger for freedom.

We want to continue to practice and to export freedom.

If we fortify our democracy to lick want, we will lick communism—here and abroad. Communists can hang all the iron curtains they like, but they'll never be able to shut out the story of a land where freemen walk without fear and live with abundance.

[Applause.]

(The chairman pounding gavel.)…

Document Analysis

Speaking to HUAC, Johnston asserts four key points in his defense of Hollywood studios and their role in US society. He uses strong, forthright language to present his positions to the committee, showing neither a great willingness nor a complete refusal to assist in its investigations. This stance of avowed anti-Communism combined with strong support for independent expression and social welfare meant that Johnston could not himself be accused to subversive opinions even as he admonishes the committee for what he saw as its rabid excesses.

Johnston works systematically through four key points. The first of these rests on the claim that HUAC's actions have given the American people the impression that Hollywood—one of the nation's cultural centers—is rife with Communist influence, a suggestion he say is “grossly unfair” to the film industry and to the “patriotic, hardworking, decent citizens,” who kept the movies humming. To that end, Johnston asks that the committee back away from its attack on the studios—a goal well in keeping with his role in protecting studios interests.

Johnston also requests that the committee give up some of the secrecy surrounding its suggestions that Hollywood films contain subversive elements by naming the offending films. “Unless this evidence is presented and we are given the chance to refute it in these public hearings, it is the obligation of the committee to absolve the industry from the charges against it,” he argues. Later in his testimony, Johnston further argues that accusations based on the slightest perception of leftism threatened individual liberties and could unfairly ruin lives. Indeed, this type of unsupported attack was common of the anti-Communist craze of the era, and ultimately proved to be its undoing.

Finally, Johnston moves on to two ideological points that applied to society at large. He argues that political intimidation—like that taking place, it is implied, by HUAC—is a threat to free speech, one of the bedrock American ideals. Private individuals have the right to dictate their own content, but also the responsibility to ensure that it is not a danger to liberty. In the same way, he asserts that government has the responsibility to fight Communism through positive measures, such as economic and social support for the poorest and least privileged members of society, as those with the greatest need were the most likely to seek refuge in political radicalism.

Essential Themes

Johnston offered a resounding condemnation of the accusations leveled by HUAC and the accompanying anti-Communist fervor of the Second Red Scare. However, despite his assertions that Hollywood was largely free of Communist influence, he did go on to support an internal measure shortly after his testimony in which Hollywood studios refused to give work to Communists; this also came to include those people who would not deny membership in the Community Party, who would not cooperate with HUAC's inquisition, or who were simply believed to have Communist sympathies or affiliations. The most famous of these blacklisted professionals were the “Hollywood Ten,” a group of ten leftist directors and screenwriters who challenged HUAC's tactics and were ruled in contempt of Congress for their protest. Hollywood's blacklist of political radicals endured into the 1960s. Hollywood executives by these actions agreed that protecting the image of the movie industry, which Johnston noted risked being tarnished by HUAC's inquiries, outweighed protecting the free speech or political association rights of its individual employees.

Nevertheless, Johnston's complaints about the baseless nature of many of the accusations leveled at the Hollywood film industry resounded with those offered by critics of the Red Scare across political parties and ideologies. During the 1950s, HUAC's investigations gave way to those of Senator McCarthy, who accused numerous people of Communist involvement without cause or evidence. Fear of domestic subversion reached a fever pitch. Eventually, however, the histrionic and fruitless nature of McCarthy's investigations turned the American public against the anti-Communist witch hunts of the era.

Tensions between film and political free speech remain in the twenty-first century. In 2014, for example, Sony pulled the politically charged comedy The Interview from its scheduled wide release after hackers believed to represent North Korea, whose leader was trivialized in the film, interfered with studio operations and made threats against movie theaters that planned to show the picture. After drawing condemnations from the press, the public, and President Barack Obama, Sony reversed its position and released the film to independent theaters and digital services. Thus, the struggle among corporate interests, political appearances, and artistic expression continues.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Ceplair, Larry, & Steven Englund. The Inquisition in Hollywood: Politics in the Film Community, 1930–1960. Berkeley: U of California P, 1979. Print.
  • Dick, Bernard K. Radical Innocence: A Critical Study of the Hollywood Ten. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1983. Print.
  • “Eric Johnston Dies; Aided 3 Presidents.” New York Times 23 Aug. 1963: 1. Print.
  • Gladchuck, John Joseph. Hollywood and Anticommunism: HUAC and the Evolution of the Red Menace, 1935–1950. 2006. Hoboken: Taylor, 2013. Digital file.
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