OTD in History… June 8, 1949, the FBI releases list accusing major Hollywood actors of being Communists
By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS
On this day in history June 8, 1949, the FBI released a report naming a number of prominent Hollywood actors as members of the Communist Party. The report came two years after a group of screenwriters dubbed the Hollywood Ten were blacklisted. This new report accused Frederic March, John Garfield, Paul Muni, Edward G. Robinson, Paul Robeson, Danny Kaye and other actors, screenwriters, and directors. The Hollywood example brought prominence to the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover’s anti-Communism crusade. The post-World War II era, with the start of the Cold War, made the Soviet Union the conservatives’ enemy number one, commencing the “Second Red Scare.” The assault on the motion picture industry was not only filled with concern over Communism in the United States but also filled with anti-Semitism towards an industry with a major Jewish population.
The cry that Communism infiltrated Hollywood was not new; it started over 10 years earlier in 1938 when the then-chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) Martin Dies, Jr. released his report stating there was communism in Hollywood. Two years later, a former Communist Party member, John L. Leech testified that 42 members of the industry were Communists; he repeated this in a grand jury testimony. Among those accused were major actors of the time, including “Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Katharine Hepburn, Melvyn Douglas and Fredric March.” Dies promised to clear them if they meet him in an executive session with him; it took two weeks to clear all the actors except Lionel Stander.
The 1946 Midterm Elections brought the FBI and HUAC’s flimsy investigation and accusations to full speed. The election brought Conservative Republicans control of both Houses in Congress. The blacklist began in the summer of 1946 when the publisher and founder of The Hollywood Reporter William R. Wilkerson wrote a series of column accusing a number in the industry of being either Communists or sympathizers, which became known as Billy’s Blacklist.
Meanwhile, at the same time, Attorney General Tom Clark asked Hoover to compile a list of any “disloyal” Americans, in case of a “national emergency. In 1947, the HUAC built on the Hollywood Reporter list and called some strategic players in Hollywood to testify as “friendly witnesses.” Among those included Walt Disney, who had been making accusations within his studio for years, and the then President of the Screen Actors’ Guild Ronald Reagan. Reagan refused to name anyone specific but claimed, “That small clique referred to has been suspected of more or less following the tactics that we associate with the Communist Party.”
To contrast to the HUAC’s red-baiting, a number of Hollywood heavyweights created the Committee for the First Amendment to protest the hearings. Over 200 members of the industry signed the “Hollywood Fights Back” ad in Variety against the HUAC hearings. Some of the biggest actors of the time, “Humphrey Bogart, Henry Fonda, Judy Garland, Katharine Hepburn, Gene Kelly, Groucho Marx, Gregory Peck, Frank Sinatra, Orson Welles, William Wyler, and Billy Wilder” signed the ad. Two of the later accused, March and Robinson also signed the ad, which read, “Any investigation into the political beliefs of the individual is contrary to the basic principles of our democracy; any attempt to curb freedom of expression and to set arbitrary standards of Americanism is in itself disloyal to both the spirit and the letter of our Constitution.” Ultimately, it led to more suspicions because of member Sterling Hayden’s involvement with the Communist Party.
HUAC developed a list of 43 screenwriters, and lesser extent actors, directors, producers, who they suspected of being Communists. In October 1947, of the 43 only 10, in the end, refused to testify and answer if they had belonged to the Communist Party, they cited the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution as the basis of their refusal. The Hollywood Ten were held in contempt of Congress and sentenced each to a year in prison. The official blacklist began.
Then in 1949, came the FBI report mostly based on “confidential informants,” as sources. The informant was probably Judith Coplon, who was on trial for espionage and possessed a list of actors supposedly involved in the Communist Party. The report argued the Communist Party “have been successful in using well-known Hollywood personalities to further Communist Party aims.” The report emphasized actor Fredric March, for the second time he was accused of being a Communist. March was a two-time Academy Award winner, who just won a Best Actor award in 1946 for the “Best Years of Our Lives,” and was nominated numerous times including for the original “A Star is Born” in 1937. March advocated aid to the Soviet Union after the war, which heightened suspicion.
Even President Harry Truman dismissed the FBI’s list in a press conference, but the blacklist and witch-hunt would continue. Edward G. Robinson, one of the accused claimed, “These rantings, ravings, accusations, smearing and character assassinations can only emanate from sick, diseased minds of people who rush to the press with indictments of good American citizens. I have played many parts in my life, but no part have I played better or been more proud of than that of being an American citizen.”
The FBI report was only a start, the HUAC investigation continued into the 1950s, with more friendly witnesses and former accused outing Communists in the industry with the second round of HUAC hearings in 1951–52; as those in the industry turned on each other in attempts to salvage their careers and avoid the blacklist. There would be additional investigations by non-governmental organizations, most prominently the American Legion. Studios began demanding loyalty oaths; actors would publicly denounce any involvement with the Communist Party as Humphrey Bogart did. The hysteria was at a fever pitch in the mid-1950s with hundreds blacklisted predominantly screenwriters. Only by the latter part of the decade close to 1960 would the blacklist start to be lifted and slowly those on the list returned to be credited for their work, but it took years for the scars to heal in an industry torn apart over a fact that was never proven.
Bonnie K. Goodman BA, MLIS (McGill University), is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor. She is a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion, and news. She has a over dozen years experience in education & political journalism.