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Tuesday, October 18, 2022

October 18, 2022: HUAC Histories: The Blacklist

[75 years ago, the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HCUA), usually referred to instead as the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), built on its new status as a standing committee in the US House of Representatives and held its first trials. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of layers to that controversial committee and its influences and legacies, leading up to a weekend post on pop culture representations!]

On three stages to HUAC’s divisive and destructive attacks on cultural figures.

1)      The Hollywood Ten: In September 1947, not long after it became a standing committee, HUAC began its work by subpoenaing 79 Hollywood figures (mostly directors and screenwriters) under the claim that they had been adding Communist propaganda into their films. The majority chose to cooperate with the committee, but 19 resisted; of those, 10 eventually testified, challenging the committee’s narratives and authority and as a result becoming the first group of blacklisted individuals, known forever after as the Hollywood Ten. Their stories are of course individual and complicated, with some (like director Edward Dmytryk) eventually cooperating with the committee and others (like screenwriter Dalton Trumbo) becoming the face of both the blacklist and of resistance. But whatever their individual choices and arcs, this group of men embody the human effects of HUAC’s attacks.

2)      Red Channels: For the next few years HUAC’s hearings proceeded somewhat haphazardly, identifying and targeting individuals along the way. But in June 1950, the right-wing magazine Counterattack published a pamphlet entitled Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television. This document, which identified 151 purported Communist cultural figures—including not only filmmakers but writers, journalists, musicians, and more—became the basis for a far more systematic and wide-reaching blacklist, one that targeted all 151 of those figures and soon many more besides. While this text was not in any official way associated with HUAC, I would argue that it would never have existed were it not for HUAC’s presence and influence; these political and social voices and forces worked together to truly create the blacklist that would dominate the next decade in American culture.

3)      Faulk’s Pushback: That dominance was very real and destructive, and in some ways did not begin to truly change until Trumbo prominently found work in 1960 as the named screenwriter of the epic film Spartacus (thanks in no small measure to star Kirk Douglas’ advocacy for Trumbo). But nonetheless, there was definite and important pushback throughout the 1950s, and a leading figure in that resistance was comedian and radio host John Henry Faulk. Fired from CBS Radio for his alleged Communist sympathies, Faulk decided to sue AWARE, Inc., a private detective agency that had investigated him on HUAC’s behalf. While he did not win that lawsuit until 1962, its presence in the legal system as well as broader social and political conversations over these years made clear that the resistance exemplified from the outset by the Hollywood Ten had not dissipated. I’m glad we’ve started to better remember Dalton Trumbo, but certainly John Henry Faulk deserves a significant place in our collective memories as well.

Next HUAC histories tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other histories or contexts you’d highlight?

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