In this investigative episode I look into the background of the Hollywood Ten – a group of filmmakers who were jailed for refusing to answer questions by the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities. Their case helped establish the Hollywood blacklist, and all ten were Communists of one sort or another. Despite this, four of the ten were involved in military/intelligence assisted productions. I explore this apparent contradiction and try to resolve it via the papertrail, concluding that McCarthyism was not just a domestic subversion program, but also subject to a turf war between the FBI and CIA.
Because this documentary The Hollywood Ten is only 15 minutes long I am going to play it in its entirety. It tells the story better than I can so I’m just going to play you it by way of an explanation of this story, and then we’ll look at some of the papertrail and what that tells us about the story behind the story.
So this is a tale of postwar Hollywood, the response to the Red Menace that was perceived to be everywhere. And in truth all ten of the Hollywood Ten were members of the Communist party. But as the documentary noted at the beginning, one of the Ten, Albert Maltz, was involved in making productions sponsored by the US military.
This struck me as worthy of further investigation. I wondered about this – to what extent did the perceived Communist infiltration of Hollywood overlap with the military intelligence state-sponsorship of Hollywood productions? It turns out, quite a lot. Not just Albert Maltz but three others among the Hollywood Ten were directly involved in major state-sponsored productions. I’ll give you a quick rundown, without getting into the films themselves.
Albert Maltz – during WW2 he wrote the screenplay for Destination Tokyo, which premiered aboard a US navy submarine and was adopted as an official training film for the navy. He also wrote Pride of the Marines, 1945, which premiered in 28 cities under the auspices of the US Marine Corps.
He also contributed to writing the film Cloak and Dagger, one of three movies produced immediately after WW2 promoting the OSS, the Office of Strategic Services that was the precursor to the CIA. So that’s Maltz – three movies, two with the military, one with the OSS.
Another one of the Ten, and another writer, Ring Lardner Jr. also worked on Cloak and Dagger. Two of the Ten worked on this film, which is very interesting because former OSS man E Michael Burke was a technical consultant on the film. Burke went on to be a senior CIA agent, a senior media executive and even floated himself as a possible head of the CIA amid rumours that Allen Dulles was retiring.
Another of the Ten, John Howard Lawson wrote Action in the North Atlantic in 1943, which was about the US Merchant Marine but was also sponsored by the DOD and is on the DOD film list. Lawson also worked during the war for the Office of War Information, the government’s propaganda agency.
Fourthly, Dalton Trumbo, the man described as an unrepentant Communist who everyone knew was a Communist even before he was dragged before Congress. He wrote Thirty Seconds over Tokyo, another DOD film, in 1944.
So all of these men were involved in the pro-American, pro-military propaganda effort during WW2, and some continued after the war with an intelligence propaganda film. So why did they end up being dragged before the House Committee on Un-American Activities?
You can read their testimony here, it is very funny in places because these hearings were a complete farce, everyone talking over each other, total theatre. And some of the responses of the Hollywood Ten are genuinely amusing in their utter refusal to answer questions.
They were in many ways the test case for the Hollywood blacklist – they all struggled for work after completing their prison sentences, though some did do work under pseudonyms. When it emerged that they had actually won major awards, which had been collected by the wrong people because the real work had been done by a Commie, this caused a stir. This is actually what led to the end of the Hollywood blacklist, so the Hollywood Ten encapsulates a lot of this process.
So how did they end up in front of Congress? The answer lies in the FBI’s files on the Communist Infiltration of Hollywood. The full file appears to have been published by the FBI in the past, and runs to 13,000 pages, but I was only able to find the 2000 page version. Having now read that, in PDF format, at great cost to my eyesight, it is full of references to the Hollywood Ten, as well as numerous other Communist and alleged/suspected Communists. Clearly the FBI had a lot of informants and undercover agents in Hollywood at this time, in the immediate postwar period. That much is obvious from the file, most of the information comes from informants.
The file is basically a running memo summarising the information the FBI knew, or thought they knew, about Commie infiltration in Hollywood. It was updated regularly, and so the 2000 pages is in reality maybe a dozen different versions of the same memo, adding a bit more each time.
In this memo there is a section, in each version, dedicated to ‘Communist Influence in Current Motion Pictures’. Some versions of this list include lengthy analysis of the parts of the films considered to be Communism, including believe it or not, It’s a Wonderful Life. The film includes a ‘scrooge like’ banker character, and apparently according to the FBI this is a regular Communist trick to make you hate bankers. Or, alternatively J Edgar Hoover, it’s a film about a bastard banker because most bankers are bastards.
It’s a wonderful life was co-written, directed and produced by Frank Capra, who had made films for the US military and worked for the Air Force’s First Motion Picture Unit. Among the other films listed in the FBI file as probable Communist propaganda is, of course, Cloak and Dagger, the OSS movie in part written by two of the Hollywood Ten. The file also includes another of the trio of OSS movies released in 1946, titled O.S.S.. The file even notes how the film had two OSS technical consultants, John Shaheen and Raphael Beugnon. Shaheen was not only the OSS head of Special Projects, but also head of the declassification section. The man who was in charge of what the OSS were declassifying was also involved in a major Hollywood movie promoting their activities right after the war.
And somehow, despite knowing that this was an OSS film with OSS technical consultants, the FBI still thought it might be Communist propaganda. I hope by now you’re getting a sense of the insanity of all this. A bunch of DOD and OSS or CIA movies being listed by the FBI as Communist propaganda. Some would say this is just the paranoia of the early Cold War, or the general craziness of the FBI under J Edgar Hoover. There is probably an element of that, but I feel there’s more to it than that.
Others, of a more – shall we say – childish ideological bent will claim that there really is Communism in these movies and they can prove it because if you slow down a particular shot a particular tree looks a bit like a gopher and Stalin looked a bit like a gopher. Now, Stalin did look like a gopher, and was a tyrannical psychopathic megalomaniac, but the problem with most fervent anti-Communists is that they never display any great knowledge of Communist philosophy or history. This is one of the problems of anti-Communism, or anti-any ideology for that matter, on a personal level it becomes an obsession, you start to see secret Communists or covert Muslims or Illuminati culture creators or predictive programming or whatever, absolutely everywhere. It becomes an all-consuming threat, rather than a specific thing distinct from other things.
I have noticed something of a surge in anti-Communism in the truth movement of late, it’s quite in vogue to talk about cultural Marxism. Not that cultural Marxism isn’t real or isn’t worth talking about, but once again I wonder if these commentators who are identifying this everywhere actually stopped to read the philosophy, or study the works of known cultural Marxists, before going about identifying it in the here and now. That would be the prudent thing to do, then you can walk people through how the philosophy was put into practice, and draw parallels between that process and some of the stuff that’s going on today. That would be really educative and useful. But I haven’t seen anything even close to that yet, and I don’t have the time to make it myself.
Since some people will presumably accuse me of being a Communist I will happily answer the question the Hollywood Ten refused to answer – I am not now nor have I ever been a member of the Communist party. Nor am I ideologically a Marxist or a Leninist or anything like it, I don’t buy the philosophy of history, I don’t buy the notion of taking over the state by revolution and using that as a means to wage peace, I do buy quite a lot of the critiques of capitalism offered by Marxists, but very rarely do I agree with their proposed solutions, and pretty much never with the policies that result.
Returning to McCarthyism and the Hollywood Ten, I think that while for some, like McCarthy himself, anti-Communism was an all-consuming obsession. For others it was an extremely useful tool for leveraging public opinion and political will at a time when the US security state was becoming solidified, permanent on a scale never seen before. And in a way that had never been seen before, in the form of the CIA.
So, my thinking is that just as the Pentagon founded their entertainment liaison offices in the wake of WW2, expanding their involvement with the entertainment industry, we also got the FBI-CIA domestic subversion program that was McCarthyism, rabid anti-Communism, directed in part at Hollywood. This whole process enabled the FBI, and implicitly the CIA, to point the finger at anyone in Hollywood that they wanted to make an example of or cause trouble for, thus making Tinsel Town a much more compliant Dream Factory. This isn’t really my hypothesis, one of the Hollywood Ten, Ring Lardner Jr, who worked on the OSS film, said before the House Committee:
“I want to be cooperative about this, but there are certain limits to my cooperation. I don’t want to help you divide or smash this particular guild, or to infiltrate the motion-picture business in any way for the purpose which seems to me to be to try to control that business, to control what the American people can see and hear in their motion-picture theaters.”
My hypothesis is a little more complex than that. I do think this was going on, that this was the stick with which to beat the dream factory, while the entertainment liaison offices with all their toys and tricks were the carrot. But I think there might be another layer to this, in the form of a minor turf war between the FBI and the nascent CIA.
The FBI was founded in its original form in 1908, but the CIA didn’t officially come along until nearly 40 years later. The FBI enjoyed quite a good relationship with Hollywood, one where they didn’t tend to admit official co-operation with a production, but they very much did co-operate. See, for example, 1939 movie Confessions of a Nazi Spy, possibly the first major anti-Nazi blockbuster movie. Or see 1945’s The House on 92nd Street, a wartime spy story in much the same vein as O.S.S. and Cloak and Dagger.
So the FBI and OSS/CIA were not just competing for authority, territory, budgets, they were also competing for public images using the increasingly compliant dream factory. If anything, with their exotic locations and ability to kill people and blow stuff up, OSS and CIA agents had a one-up on the FBI, in terms of entertainment.
I think this competitiveness to some extent explains why some of the Hollywood Ten were chosen to make an example of, and to herald in this new era of blacklisting. The FBI does note how Albert Maltz and Ring Lardner Jr worked on Cloak and Dagger, and repeatedly lists this film as Communist propaganda. Given their vast network of informants they must have realised the true provenance and purpose of this film, so why attack its screenwriters under the guise of anti-Communism if not to send a message to the emerging CIA? The message being ‘hands off Hollywood’. And in truth, despite these three OSS movies all being made with OSS technical advisors and all being released in 1946 immediately following the war and immediately preceding the founding of the CIA, despite all that, the CIA did not establish an office in Hollywood until the 1990s. They were still involved, but in a different sort of way.
One such way was through the likes of Eric Johnston, the head of the Motion Picture Association of America, the MPAA. He was given the job in 1945, and oversaw the blacklisting process including issuing what is now known as the Waldorf Statement in the wake of the Hollywood Ten refusing to answer questions before congress. He was also, it is my belief, a CIA asset. A while ago I posted some CIA documents showing how he was good friends with Allen Dulles, and when he travelled to the Soviet Union to meet Kruschev he reported back to the CIA. When he hosted Soviet ambassador Menshikov along with old-school Soviet Anastas Mikoyan he also reported back to the CIA.
So, while the CIA didn’t really get their hands into Hollywood productions in a big way in the early Cold War, they did have an influence on how the stick, the weapon that was anti-Communism, was wielded. And that is the story behind the story of the Hollywood Ten.