Historian studies the Cold War culture that silenced liberal and
leftist news commentators in radio's Golden Age
About the Photo
Illustration: Photos far left: In 1948, members of the House
Un-American Activities Committee included, left to right, Rep.
Richard Vail; Rep. Parnell Thomas, then chair of the committee; Rep.
John McDowell; Robert Stripling, chief counsel; and Rep. Richard
Nixon. A 1947 photo of a committee hearing shows H.A. Smith swearing
in Rep. Parnell Thomas. Also shown are Reps. Richard Vail, John
McDowell, Richard Nixon and John Delaney.
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In the 1940s, radio had it all.
Early in the decade, Franklin Roosevelt
talked to the nation in a series of Fireside Chats. In 1945, millions
sat by their radios to "attend" his funeral. Edward R. Murrow vividly
took Americans onto a London rooftop during a blitz and into Buchenwald
after the liberation of the concentration camp. From a small town in
Missouri, with Harry Truman at his side, Winston Churchill delivered his
"Iron Curtain" speech to a crowd of 40,000 — and the world.
We cried at the up-to-the-minute news
of Pearl Harbor and D-Day, and got goose bumps listening to weekly
episodes of "Suspense" and "The Shadow." We thrilled to the adventures
of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, laughed at the antics of characters in
"The Great Gildersleeve." Red Skelton, Arthur Godfrey, Fred Allen and
Jack Benny were household names.
In addition, scores of news
commentators of varied political ilk helped us make sense of the rapidly
changing world, providing more social and political views of our
nation's foreign and domestic agendas than has been possible at any
other time in U.S. history, according to University of Maine historian
But beneath the surface of what is now
remembered fondly as Old Time Radio was a very real undercurrent that
threatened the voices and livelihoods of thousands of radio actors,
writers, producers and news commentators throughout the decade. By 1950,
that undercurrent became a riptide.
At stake were civil liberties in the
name of national security.
Long before Sen. Joseph McCarthy's sensational four-year reign of terror
to root out communists, Soviet spies and fellow travelers who
purportedly threatened the underpinnings of democracy and the American
way of life, there was the United States House of Representatives
Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Created in 1938 as a temporary
investigation unit to examine un-American propaganda, HUAC spent its
early years searching out communists in labor unions, New Deal programs
and the American Civil Liberties Union.
HUAC became a permanent committee in
1945; the post-World War II years witnessed its most active and
Beginning in 1946, HUAC issued general
reports on subversive activities based on its hearings. The first report
contained a section on the radio broadcasts of "certain unnamed liberal
commentators." The committee found the commentators to be pro-communist
and pro-Russian based on their verbal attacks on the State Department,
presidential appointees, European and Latin American governments,
General Douglas MacArthur and Chiang Kai-shek. The 1946 annual report
"From the review of scripts of several
news commentators, it appears that several of the so-called ‘liberal'
commentators are all receiving information from the same source . . ..
Many individual Members, and Congress as a whole, are slandered,
maligned and ridiculed by certain commentators in what appears to be a
well-organized campaign to break the confidence of the American people
in our elective system and representative form of government. Some of
these loud-mouthed troublemakers can hardly speak English. America has
given them refuge and they in return seek to destroy our constitutional
form of government."
Thus, according to Godfried, HUAC
contributed to "an environment demanding ideological and political
conformity during the late 1940s. It was part of the formal and
informal, institutional and individual, public and private sector
mechanism that sought to suppress liberal and leftist radio
commentators, ultimately contributing to the strangling of an open
debate about the efficacy or even the necessity of Cold War political
and economic policies."
The commentators that HUAC directly and
indirectly attacked performed an essential service for the American
public. "Their critical and insightful assessment of the news proved
particularly crucial in the crisis period of the early Cold War.
Citizens required an array of perspectives in order to make informed
decisions involving war and peace, civil liberties and human rights.
Yet, precisely during a crisis period, journalists experienced pressures
to tow the ‘party line,'" says Godfried, a specialist in the history of
mass communication and American labor, who has spent the past six years
researching news commentators of the 1940s.
Reform has a way of waxing and waning
in America — a tendency to go through reform and then react to it, says Godfried. With the Depression, the reform impulse took the form of the
New Deal and the rise of organized labor as a significant force. The
post-World War II era was a time of reaction.
America's heavy military spending
during World War II pulled the nation out of the Depression and helped
it become a world economic power. Both business and political leaders
sought to secure an American-defined world order of economic
internationalism and collective security, Godfried says. A recalcitrant
Soviet Union, a defeated Germany and Japan, and an anti-imperialist and
nationalist Third World all threatened to obstruct American domination
abroad. At home, working-class organizations, civil rights activists and
other groups committed to continuing social reforms posed challenges and
threats to the domestic and foreign policy agenda of national leaders.
The Truman administration developed
strategies like the Marshall Plan in 1948 to aid war-torn Europe and to
stem the spread of communism. But the majority of Americans seemed
little interested in establishing a permanent war economy and supporting
foreign expansionism, Godfried says. The left-liberal coalition that
developed during the Depression and World War II had the potential of
addressing significant social and economic issues. It railed at what it
saw as an aggressive foreign policy obliterating domestic and
"The government was concerned with
sustaining its international role, and that involved maintaining a
consensus for an active foreign policy," says Godfried. "That's where
the Red Scare became so crucial; having a viable enemy out there — the
Soviet Union — helped to galvanize popular support for policymakers'
global agenda. But we must be clear that the agenda existed independent
of any international conspiracy."
Those who questioned the nation's
ramping up for the Cold War were soon labeled unpatriotic and communist.
It didn't help that in the late '30s, people indirectly or directly
affiliated with the Communist party were linking with other leftists in
their support of Roosevelt's reforms, particularly economic reforms,
Godfried says. Many of the leftist and liberal radio commentators of the
1940s participated in progressive social movements that emphasized
working class and industrial democracy, ethnic Americanism, civil rights
and an indigenous version of social democracy. With their political
activism sharpening their analytical skills, these commentators
contributed to the maturation of radio news.
"Radio commentary had grown in the
decade of the '30s from a curiosity to a concatenation of voice with the
power to influence political decisions and, by the end of World War II,
to a vital, mature force in our democracy," according to University of
Minnesota journalism professor Irving Fang in his book Those Radio
Commentators! "Five years later, by 1950, its power had waned," weakened
in part by the Red Scare.
In his often-cited volume The House
Committee on Un-American Activities, 1945– 1950, Dartmouth political
scientist Robert Carr noted in 1952 that "efforts to safeguard national
security cannot be condemned out of hand because of the danger that such
efforts, if badly conceived or unwisely administered, may jeopardize
civil liberties. At the same time, a free people must be ever on guard
lest this rationalization be used to justify unnecessary encroachments
by government upon the individual's
In the end, writes Carr, the U.S. must
find "a satisfactory balance between the demands of national security
and the interests of individual freedom."
Problem was, HUAC acted more like a lightening rod than a balancing
force. According to Carr, no Congressional investigating committee
provoked more controversy or criticism, was more bitterly attacked or
more vigorously defended.
Drawing on HUAC's hearings and reports,
three ex-FBI agents in 1950 published a booklet titled Red Channels: The
Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television. The infamous
213-page Red Channels listed people, organizations and publications
purported to have ties to communism. Among those people cited for their
ties to communist organizations: conductor Leonard Bernstein and
composer Aaron Copland, author Lillian Hellman, actors Orson Welles and
Burgess Meredith, playwright Arthur Miller, folksingers Burl Ives and
Pete Seeger. Radio actors, writers and directors also made the list, as
well as radio news commentators: Rod Holmgren, Lisa Sergio, William S.
Gailmor, William Shirer, Johannes Steel and J. Raymond Walsh.
In a 1951 New York Times story,
"Conspiracy of Silence," the paper's radio editor Jack Gould described
the effect of the blacklisting: "The vicious ‘controversiality' policy
in effect has circumvented all the traditional safeguards of due process
and fair hearing. The person named in Red Channels is ‘controversial'
per se; his innocence or guilt is now beside the point so far as many —
if not most — prospective employers are concerned."
It turns out that by the time the
blacklist was published, all six commentators listed in its pages had
been forced off the air. The "spectrum of parameters" of what was
permissible on-air discussion was dramatically restrained. Sponsors were
increasingly gun-shy about being linked to controversy, newspaper
columnists toned down their critical volume and some alternative papers
Americans should never forget the
convergence of forces during the heightening of the Cold War that made
it difficult for these people to continue, says Godfried. "Anticommunism
was a way to get rid of a lot of annoying criticism, like Holmgren's
analyses of domestic policies or Walsh's assessment of foreign policy.
The Cold War became a mechanism for debilitating or silencing advocates
for civil and labor rights or nuclear nonproliferation, or at least
putting them on the defensive."
Years later, activists in the women's
and civil rights movements who had ties to some of the blacklisted
organizations distanced themselves from those radical roots in order to
not be painted with the broad red brush.
"Even now, what happened to them (the
radio news commentators) remains a touchy subject," says Godfried.
"There's a sense on the part of some blacklisted victims that it was all
a misunderstanding; that their accusers simplistically equated being a
communist or fellow traveler with spying for the Soviet Union and
betraying the United States. These people had legitimate causes,
especially social justice causes, that were dear to them, and they did
not and do not want them smeared or dismissed out of hand."
What distinguished Holmgren and other
radio news commentators was their commitment to fundamental reform in
American life, says Godfried. "They saw their role as journalists as
having an important educational function. None of them engaged in
propaganda; as journalists, they believed they were speaking truth to
power and informing their listeners that the emperor often had no
clothes. It was advocacy journalism on some level."
Godfried characterizes the leftist
radio news commentators of the 1940s as "organic" intellectuals. "They
were politically active and they acquired knowledge of the world not
just from studying at universities, but by participating in mass
movements," he says. "They showed that it's altogether proper to
question public policy — even in times of national emergency — that
that's not aiding the enemy but enlightening people."
A society that purports to be a democracy must have information,
Godfried says. That was true yesterday, and it's true today.
"I don't believe history repeats
itself; that's too simplistic," says Godfried. "But there are parallels
that can give us some insight. We must be aware that people in power use
history for their own purposes, especially how they want us to remember
events like the dropping of the atomic bomb or the aftermath of Sept.
"Officials hope to build consensus
about such events and that allows them to carry out policies. That's why
it's important for people to protest and to offer alternatives, even
radical alternatives, without being dismissed as traitors."
Soviet expansionism after World War II
generated legitimate security concerns, just as the Sept. 11 terrorist
attacks did, Godfried says. But America's Cold War leaders manipulated
the fear of external Soviet expansionism and internal communist
subversion. The nation's most conservative elements used the Cold War
political culture for their own purposes.
"The leaders of America's war on
terrorism, like their Cold War predecessors, remain committed to a world
dominated by the United States and remade in its image," says Godfried.
"They rely on public acquiescence to legitimize their agenda. We
continue to need political commentators like those blacklisted radio
personalities of the 1940s for critical and alternative perspectives."
by Margaret Nagle
for more stories from this issue of UMaine Today Magazine.