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Red Air

Photos courtesy of the Library of Congress, New York World-Telegram, and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection


Red Air
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 Nathan Godfried.

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 controversial period.

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 went on:

"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 international reform.

"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
freedom."

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 were dead.
 

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. 11.

"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
November-December, 2005

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