|J. Edgar Hoover, Commie Hunter No. 1.
Sixty-five years ago on June 9, 1949 J. Edgar Hoover did his part to fuel the growing anti-Communist hysteria sweeping post-World War II America when he released a “confidential” Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) report that named scores of influential Americans, most of them in the movie and entertainment business as members of the Communist Party.
Hoover had developed his list after Attorney General Tom Clark in 1946 had asked for a list of potentially “disloyal Americans” who might be detained in event of a “national emergency.” The names on the list were included a year later after the Korean War broke in a report to President Harry Truman with the names of more than 12,000 who should be rounded up and detained after the formal suspension of the right of habeas corpus. Truman had the good sense to thank his powerful FBI boss and promptly put the report and recommendation in the bottom drawer never to be acted upon.
But there were plenty, many of the in Congress and including some of the country’s most powerful media barons like the Chicago Tribune’s Col. Robert R. McCormack and Time’s Henry Luce were already clamoring for just such draconian measures.
Hollywood where the major studios were run by Jew; where many actors, writers, and creative people were politically active liberals and leftists; and where there was a powerful labor union movement with sometimes radical leadership, had already been singled out as a virtual commie fifth column.
In 1946 and ’47 the powerful House Un-American Activities Committee had launched high profile hearings on Communist infiltration of the film industry and had subpoenaed hundred to testify and name names. 19 of those refused to do so and were named as unfriendly witnesses. 11 of those were called before the committee and 10 refused to answer questions. Only German émigré Berthold Brecht relented and testified. The others including screen writers Dalton Tumbro, Howard Koch, and Ring Larder, Jr. were indicted for contempt of Congress and eventually sent to prison and blacklisted from the industry.
Some of Hollywood royalty including John Huston, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, John Garfield, Danny Kaye, and Billy Wilder attempted to rally support for the Hollywood Ten by organizing a Committee to Defend the Bill of Rights and traveling to Washington to protest. They came under intense attack by the Committee, the press, and by the terrified studio owners. Bogart, spearhead and principle spokesman for the group, was forced to back track and issue a statement that the trip had been ill advised. The group broke up acrimoniously between those who thought they should have toughed it out and those like Wilder who advised it was time “to fold our tents.”
Two years later Garfield and Kaye were among those named in the new FBI report, which was based on unnamed confidential informants and the Bureau’s own “analysis” which concluded that the Communists claimed “to have been successful in using well-known Hollywood personalities to further Communist Party aims.” Analysis was often based on no more than the recollection of an informant seeing an individual at a meeting years earlier, attendance at public functions, donations to certain charities, or signatures on some petitions. It included pre-war support for anti-Fascist causes and war time support of the Soviet Union—including activities undertaken at the request of the government.
Some people on the list were, or had been Party Members. Others were sympathetic. Some were non-Communist leftists—members of the Socialist Party, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Many were unionists or sympathizers with the early Civil Rights Movement. And very many were simply liberals. It made no difference. To Hoover all were not just the “willing dupes” of the HUAC hearings, but active, card carrying Communists.
Among those listed were acknowledged Socialist and IWW member Helen Keller, even then widely regarded as a sort of secular saint. The report centered on the activities of Fredric March, a well-known liberal and an active Democrat who had recently won his second Academy Award for the brilliant film about the return of World War II GIs, The Best Years of Our Lives. March was no Communist, but he had organized a group concerned about atomic weapons and critical of America’s growing arsenal. Any one even tangentially connected to that effort, or to people connected to the effort were caught up in rippling waves of innuendo.
John Garfield, once the brightest new star at Warner Bros. came under especially severe scrutiny and his career immediately suffered. Already plagued with heart problems the stress of the accusations was widely believed to be a direct contributing factor to his death of a heart attack in May of 1952.
Other prominent people named in the report, along with hundreds of non-celebrities included writer and wit Dorothy Parker, Paul Muni, and Edward G. Robinson. Like Garfield and Kaye they were all Jewish. In fact the reek of Anti-Semitism hung over the whole report.
The effect on careers varied. Many of the more obscure found themselves on blacklists. Parker lost the radio panel show jobs that had provided most of her income. Muni’s film career was essentially finished. March and Kaye were able to keep working had had some of their best work ahead of them. Robinson’s career was hurt, but not over. And he was the most outspokenly defiant befitting his tough guy image.
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.
Was it something in the air, or just coincidence that on the very same Day Hoover was releasing his report in Washington, George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel of totalitarianism triumphant and run amok Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in London?
Eric Arthur Blair a/k/a Orwell was at the time a 45 year old English writer who had been born to a civil servant in India. After a largely unhappy public school education back home (that actually means private, residential academies to Americans), he returned to the orient as a policeman in Burma. He was an outsider among his British colleagues there, preferring to explore the country, learn the language and culture. He was soon sympathetic to the colonial people and alienated from his own Empire and career.
In the mid 1920’s Blare left the service and moved to Paris, the scene of a well-known expatriate community of writers and artists. Even there, he spent more time with the French working class than with the self-exiled intellectuals. After returning to England he based himself mostly at his parent’s comfortable suburban home while making frequent forays into the poverty stricken London East End. He tried to live the life of the poor at intervals, for instance as a Kentish hops picker.
Blare began to write about his experiences while teaching school. His first book Down and Out in Paris and London an account of his life as a self-described tramp was published in 1933 under the pseudonym Orwell to avoid embarrassment to his family.
He published a novel and then a memoir of his Burma years in America, but was only slowly establishing himself as a writer. He knocked around London working part time in a bookstore, rooming with old friends and then taking a walking tour of the industrial north, then deep in Depression. He attended meeting of both Oswald Mosley’s Black Shirt fascists who deeply offended him and of the Communists whose cause appealed to him even as their authoritarian meathods left him queasy. The result of that trip was The Road to Wigan Pier, published by the Left Book Club in 1937. It contained a frank avowal and defense of Socialism while describing his middle class up bring and his road to it. But he was also not uncritical of the left and raised questions about barriers to a truly egalitarian society. His publisher was so afraid that those critiques would not be met well by the left, that he inserted his own apologetic forward in the printed edition.
By the time the book came out Orwell had traveled to Spain to fight fascism. Arriving in Catalonia he enlisted in the militia of the Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista—POUM, a Trotskyist Communist Party that was then in coalition with the anarcho-syndicalist Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT) and the Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia, a wing of the Spanish Communist Party, which was backed by Soviet Union. All were fighting Fredrico Franco Falange forces under a supposedly united Republican banner.
Catalonia and its capital Barcelona were the most secure ground of the Republican. The coalition, largely led by the CNT was firmly in control, well-armed, and the economy, including a vigorous industrial sector and agriculture had been re-organized in workers and peasants co-operatives. The province was able to send troops to other fronts and provide arms and food to the cause. It was the heart of the Republic, operating along non-authoritarian communal lines.
Orwell’s experiences in Spain would forever change he idealistic young man. In his first winter there, he was posted to a quiet sector and experienced mostly discomfort and boredom. He yearned to get into the fight. Returning to Barcelona he decided to ask for a transfer to the International Brigade so that he could get to the front around Madrid. But in May of 1937 street fighting broke out in the city as the Communists attacked POUM, who it labeled as “objectively fascist” for supporting revolutionary reform of society even as the war was pursued. In this they were allied with the CNT. But on other issues they clashed with the Anarchists. Orwell laid low during the fighting, aghast at the breach of solidarity as the war against fascism still raged at the front.
He decided to return to the with the Aragon front with the POUM militia rather than wait for the call from the Communists, who he now deeply mistrusted. There he was wounded in the throat by sniper fire. After nearly bleeding to death, he was evacuated back to Barcelona where his wife managed to join him from England. There the situation had deteriorated even worse. The Communists had gotten the upper hand and had outlawed POUM. They were rousting and imprisoning members, especially international volunteers like Orwell. He had to go into hiding.
In July Orwell and his wife managed to escape across the Pyrenees to the Mediterranean village of Banyuls sur Mer, France and from there to England. He escaped just in time. On July 15 he was charged in abstencia by the Communist Tribunal for Espionage & High Treason along with POUM leaders with “rabid Trotskyism.” His trial was held in October. Had he been in attendance he would have been found guilty and executed. Orwell was recovering in French Morocco at the time and noted that the trials were “only a by-product of the Russian Trotskyist trials and from the start every kind of lie, including flagrant absurdities, has been circulated in the Communist press.”
Orwell’s health was nearly broken by his experience, as he was nursed back to health he processed his experience in writing. He had now come to the conclusion that authoritarianism of the left and right were mirrors of each other and equally evil.
Homage to Catalonia was published in 1939 and was immediately attacked by the British Communist press and much of the left that was still sympathetic to them. The opinion at home was the Communists were the heroes of the Spanish Civil War and that POUM and the CNT had sabotaged the war effort by demanding immediate revolutionary reform instead of concentrating on the war effort. In fact, as Orwell recognized the Communists had concluded that it was better to lose the war in Spain than allow a successful alternative revolutionary system to arise. The book sold poorly. It is now considered a classic by the libertarian left.
With Britain’s entry into World War II, Orwell struggled to join the effort. He was rejected by the military and for most active work because he had contracted tuberculosis in Spain. It took until 1942 to get a post with the BCC in charge of cultural programing to be aired in India to counter Japanese propaganda there. He was not comfortable as a bureaucrat and left the service after two years to concentrate on writing his parable of fascism, Animal Farm.
Animal Farm was Orwell’s first commercial success and sales helped make him financially secure for the first time since his youth. But his health continued to deteriorate. He worked desperately on the manuscript for Nineteen Eighty-four.
In this future world Britain was just part of one of three warring totalitarian regimes that between them control the world. England is now Airstrip One of Oceania which is at war with Eurasia and Eastasia. Oceania is supposedly led by the hero of the revolution which followed an earlier worldwide war known as Big Brother, whose image is everywhere along with the admonition that “Big Brother is Watching. But Big Brother may not even exist—he may just be a figure head. The official ideology of Oceania is EnglishSocialism or IngSoc in the official language New Speak. But the system is socialism in no recognizable way. Instead it is a total surrender of the individual to the state enforced by constant surveillance.
Protagonist—hero is too strong a word—Winston Smith is a minor functionary in the Ministry of Truth whose growing doubts about the system make him yearn for rebellion. As Animal Farm was about fascism, Nineteen Eighty-four was clearly an extrapolation of Stalinism. The book was a success. In some ways it stoked the Anti-Communism that was sweeping the West, particularly America.
But the real enemy was totalitarianism of any sort. In America anti-Communism was veering dangerously close to totalitarianism itself. Enforced conformity and the unchecked power of the security establishment were the hallmarks of post-war America.
Orwell, his health finally collapsing entirely, only tasted the beginning of the influence his novel would have. He died on January 21, 1950 in London.
More than sixty years after the fact, the technology of the surveillance state described by Orwell has become a reality. A new hobgoblin—terrorism—is the excuse now to unleash that technology on the citizenry. Surveillance cameras are everywhere, the cell phones in everyone’s pockets become personal tracking devices, the National Security Agency seems to have the power and the capability to monitor all Americans’ phone usage, e-mail, and computer web surfing habits.
As a popular Facebook meme has it, “Nineteen Eighty-four was meant to be a warning, not a blueprint.”