Eric Johnston was the second head of the MPAA, a high level political operative and a friend of CIA director Allen Dulles. In this episode we take a look at his life and work, from his role instituting the Hollywood blacklist to his relationships with the FBI and CIA. From his meeting with high level businessmen after a trip to the Soviet Union and his liberalising of the production code and promotion of American films in foreign markets to his testimony at HUAC, this story encompasses much of the deep politics of Hollywood.
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Eric Allan Johnston is another one of those really important people that hardly anyone remembers, apart from professional historians. Like Sterling Hayden, the subject of the last episode, he lived a fascinating life and the brief biography I’m going to offer in this edition offers a window into the world of politics, spies and Hollywood. Why? Because Johnston was the second head of the MPAA, a high level political operator and a CIA asset with an FBI file that runs to over 200 pages. He was the first American diplomat to see inside the Central Asian Soviet Republics near the end of World War 2, was critical in instigating the Hollywood blacklist and was friends with Allen Dulles. So we’re going to explore all this and break it down a bit, as a continuation of this mini-series looking at the deep politics of Hollywood.
Eric Johnston’s life in brief
Eric Johnston was born Eric Johnson in Washington DC in 1896. In his earlier years his family moved first to Montana and then to Washington state and when he was 15 his parents divorced, his mother taking custody of young Eric and changing his surname from Johnson to Johnston. He grew up in Spokane, went to the university of Washington and joined the Theta Delta Chi fraternity, and worked his way through higher education as a stevedore, shoe salesman and in other jobs. In World War 1 he joined the Marine Corps and was part of the American Expeditionary Force Siberia, and while he remained in the Corps after the war he traveled in Asia and made money speculating in Chinese currency.
After being assaulted by unknown people and suffering serious injuries he was discharged on medical grounds and went back to Spokane, marrying his girlfriend and working selling vacuum cleaners. In part due to his business talents and success, and no doubt his fraternal connections too, Johnston was elected president of the Spokane chamber of commerce in 1931. This opened doors for him in the national Chamber of Commerce, where he consistently rose through the ranks through the 1930s. By 1941 he was Vice President of the Chamber of Commerce and thus was a mover and shaker in national politics. He served on several wartime commissions and helped persuade the labour federations to commit to a no-strike policy during World War 2. In 1944 he was invited to the Soviet Union by Joseph Stalin and was appointed an official emissary of the US. He toured the Soviet Union for a month and then reported back. This was the beginning of an international political career that would see him meet with very high level Soviets throughout the early Cold War period. In 1946 he was made president of the MPAA, a position he maintained up until his death in 1963. Johnston oversaw the movie industry during a critical time in its development – through the Red Scare and the gradual falling apart of the Production Code. He testified at HUAC, it was he who issued the Waldorf Statement effectively blacklisting the Hollywood Ten, who I have talked about in the previous episode and in others (see here and here).
He continued to work for the government from time to time, both in Truman and Eisenhower’s administration. Eisenhower appointed him a Special Representative of the President of the United States to deal with the 1950s conflict over water between Israel, Jordan and Syria. His FBI file refers to him as the President’s ‘Middle East Troubleshooter’ in this period. He also became something of a CIA asset, as letters between Johnston and CIA director Allen Dulles show that he reported directly to Dulles on his meetings with high level Soviets including Nikita Kruschev. So when Johnston died in 1963 aged just 66 it was probably due to overwork. Few people could say their professional lives were as varied, and successfully so, as Eric Johnston could say his was. However, it is his role as MPAA president, and his relationships with the FBI and CIA and how this all fits together that is what especially interests me and is most relevant and important element of this.
Eric Johnston as President of the MPAA
The MPAA was set up in the 1920s as a means for the big studios to have a representative body to work with, and to some extent defend them from, the federal government. The problem was that anyone could go and see pretty much any movie they liked, and this led to calls for government regulation of the content of films. Just like today, there are quite noisy and widespread arguments over what should and shouldn’t be allowed, typically revolving around the twin themes of sex and violence. Increasingly in the post-Cold War period when the Left has pursued identity politics in place of socialism we’ve seen a bunch of stuff about the objectification of women – but rarely of men – and sometimes about the whitewashing common in Hollywood casting. But in the first half of the 20th century it was mostly about sex and violence.
So the MPAA set up the Production Code Administration, and wrote down a code for film-makers that determined what they could, and for most part could not put in their films. This included that a man and a woman could not be seen embracing and kissing on a bed unless they both had at least one foot on the floor, Because apparently that was where they drew the line between romance and sex. Romance is fine, after all without romantic fantasy how the hell were they supposed to get women to pay for films? But sex is an animalistic urge that will apparently bring down society, even though society would be kind of screwed if people stopped having sex. But I imagine you’re all aware of the inherent contradictions between ‘go forth and multiply’ and ‘only have heterosexual monogamous lifelong relationships because that’s good for the government revenue model’.
When it comes to violence the production code, especially its most famous form the Hays Code, was quite complex. Essentially, you could show violence, but not criminal violence. You couldn’t portray how to blow up the wall of a bank so you can break in at night and rob the place. They were worried that putting these things into movies would inspire real life copycats and lead to wanton criminality. It’s the same as the approach to sex – deep down all societies are predicated on sex and violence, without sex we couldn’t procreate and therefore perpetuate our society, and without violence we could not even define our societies borders, let alone protect them. But at the same time a society is an attempt to rationalise sex and violence, or at least limit those impulses to good and beneficient purposes. The impulses themselves are neither good nor bad, they’re simply necessary and inherent in human beings. The attempt to limit them to their best uses is, I would argue, the essence of all morality. Otherwise you might as well just be a sociopath, killing and raping whoever you like.
So, to avoid government saying where the lines were drawn the MPAA instituted the Production Code and the Production Code Administration (PCA). All scripts were supposed to go through them and be checked for violations prior to them actually being shot. But producers inherently knew that it is only by offering people something they haven’t seen before – rather than the same old sterile sexless romance stories, for example – that you grab people’s attention. This is crucial to your product standing out from the other products, especially in these early decades of Hollywood when tons of movies were being made and so any individual film could only expect a very limited shelf life. So they regularly flaunted or tried to flaunt the production code, exploiting ambiguities or even submitting one script and then shooting another.
During Johnston’s time as head of the MPAA he quietly liberalised the code, as a bulwark against removing it entirely. The threat of the government coming in and regulating the industry was something they were very keen to avoid, but at the same time the tension between portraying sex and violence but only within rather difficult to define ‘rational’ and ‘socially acceptable’ boundaries has never been resolved. People agree there should be limits, but disagree as to what the limits are. Film-makers will always press for more creative freedom, executives will always err on the side of caution because once your audience no longer trusts you it is hard to win that back. Audiences are divided – a 13 year old boy will always want to see as much sex and violence as he can get away with. A parent of a 13 year old boy will usually prefer it if he doesn’t see quite so much sex and violence.
So these tensions are inherent not just in the fundamental attempt to be rationale that is human society, they’re inherent in the relationships within studios making films and between those studios and their audiences. Eric Johnston took over after the war, and after William Hays had stepped down. As the instigator of the Code and the man who was synonymous with the Code Hays was unlikely to reform it, even though it was in some ways ludicrously strict and in others ludicrously ambiguous. So, one of the reasons that 1950s movies are a little more lusty, a bit more violent, a little more explicit in lots of ways than 1930s movies tend to be, is that Johnston had adopted a more permissive version of the Production Code.
That is what his time at the MPAA represents – the attempt to maintain a Code even when it was under threat and being flaunted. Again, they did not want the government coming in and doing the job, so they had to be seen to be self-regulating. But the problem with self-regulation is that people will always bend and break the rules, or at least test them to find out where the boundaries lie. And when there isn’t a clear boundary, the rules need to be rewritten to accommodate for shifting attitudes and expectations. A similar thing happened when Jack Valenti took over a couple of years after Johnston’s death, and replaced the Code with the classification system. But that’s a story for the next episode.
Eric Johnston, Communism and the FBI
In Johnston’s time at the MPAA the much bigger threat of government censorship or takeover of the movie industry was entirely political. The idea of Communist infiltration of the industry again reared its ugly head, having been conveniently forgotten during the war. The FBI and the House Committee on Un-American Activities were determined to root out those dirty Commie traitors who were maybe, possibly doing something nefarious to the movie industry and secretly turning our children black, Jewish and gay. I joke, but in reality Hoover’s FBI were very morally reactionary and suspected everything of being some kind of social or moral perversion. They devoted several hundred pages, which translates to thousands of man hours, to the controversy over whether Charlie Chaplin had an illegitimate son. Did they not have anything more important to do? It seems the answer is no.
However, as head of the post war MPAA Johnston was inevitably involved in this. He testified before HUAC as a representative of the movie industry as a whole, he was at the meeting at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York where the Hollywood bigwigs decided to institute the blacklist. So I put in a FOIA request for his FBI file, and they provided it to me on a disk, digitised. Sometimes you get paper versions, sometimes it’s PDFs on a disc. So I put the CD in and open up the letter addressed to me, which is also a PDF file. My firewall goes off, saying that the specific file I had just opened was trying to access the registry of the computer. For those of you who don’t know the registry is a bunch of core computer information about which programs are installed, their settings and passwords and stuff like that. The FBI letter was trying to access a protected part of the registry, which is one of the things my firewall monitors. I got an alert telling me that it is trying to modify a registry key to do with my internet settings – I don’t even know what it was trying to do but this has never happened before with a simple PDF file. So I contacted the FBI and gave them some shit when they acted nonchalantly. They also sent me a whole paper copy of the FBI file on Eric Johnston which must have cost them quite a lot to print and post to the UK. I don’t know what to make of this, it’s just part of the story of my attempts to investigate this particular historical figure.
The file itself is divided into two main parts – a security investigation into Johnston to clear him for White House jobs in the 1950s, and a section covering his interactions with HUAC and his role in the Hollywood blacklist. There are also some references to him in the FBI’s file on COMPIC – Communist Infiltration of the Motion Picture Industry.
This part of our story begins in 1944, when Johnston returned from his month-long tour of the Soviet Union. He was invited to a meeting at the Blackstone Hotel, Chicago, attended by many prominent businessmen. A classified FBI informant report recorded how he was invited there to talk about his experiences and impressions of the Soviet Union, though who the informant was is not known. Johnston’s comments were quite fair, both critical of the Soviet system for the poverty it produced but impressed by its accomplishments. ‘He found conditions of dirt and squalor appalling. On the other hand, he said that the industrial progress had to be seen to be believed. Huge factories on the east of the Urals had been dismantled, transported and reassembled in sixty days. The potential wealth of the country is staggering, and the developing process is well underway.’ Johnston expressed the view that after the war Russia would emerge as a superpower second only to the US.
Some of the businessmen held a followup private meeting that evening in a suite at the hotel, which was apparently also attended by the FBI informant. They felt that the situation was dire, that Russia would rule the world in 20 years if they didn’t do anything about it. They saw the Russian people as ‘little more than machines’ who would simply obey the government, unlike Americans. ‘It was suggested that the sources of incessant propaganda, the torrent of literature sold for less than it costs to be produced, the lies and propaganda such as is shown in MGM movies, and the laudatory radio talks on the standard of living in Russia, which are untrue, must be traced and fought.’ So this meeting was a key step on the way to the Cultural Cold War that would emerge immediately following the end of World War 2.
Not long afterwards Johnston got the MPAA job and Hoover wrote to him congratulating him on the position. Then things started to go a bit array when Johnston testified before HUAC in March 1947. While sympathising with the Committee’s concerns he also defended the right of Americans to believe whatever they liked, including in the benefits of a collectivist society. He then reached out to Hoover to discuss the issue, but Hoover said no because in his mind Johnston had testified without being aware of the facts and should have been aware before saying anything. Hoover’s handwritten note records how ‘he has one view and I another, and oil and water don’t mix’.
This was the beginning of a tension between Johnston and the FBI, who considered him soft on Communism. Other pages in the file record statements and newspaper articles where Johnston was trying to be friendly towards the Soviets for diplomatic reasons, which the Bureau viewed with suspicion. When Johnston again reached out to discuss issues with the Bureau he was refused because they thought he didn’t take the Communist threat to motion pictures seriously enough. There are articles in the file noting Johnston’s statement that the Communists had been defeated in Hollywood, saying that he was regularly attacked in the Daily Worker and that ‘ American films are the target for bitter, organized attack by Communists all over the world. The Communists hate and fear American motion pictures. It is their No.1 hate’.
This hostility towards Johnston continued for years. Another memo in the file records an informant telling the FBI about a 1961 dinner at the home of Blake Clarke, one the editors of Reader’s Digest. Senator Ken Keating got very drunk and gave a flowery speech extolling the virtues of the Bureau and how the country owed them an obligation. The informant notes, ‘I noticed that Eric Johnson was very mild in his applause, however the remainder of the group responded quite loudly.’ So even 15 years later the FBI still had tattle-tales snitching on Johnston’s behaviour. Displaying his consummate hypocrisy, Hoover sent a letter to Johnston’s wife when he died, offering his condolences.
So, given his refusal to accept the Bureau’s view of Communism, how did Johnston end up helping to create the Hollywood blacklist? In October 1947 the Hollywood Ten testified at HUAC, and a few weeks later at the beginning of December the Waldorf Statement was made, announcing the blacklist. In October and in mid November Johnston met with Bertley C Crum, the lawyer for the Hollywood Ten, and said there would be no blacklist, saying it was Un-American and that HUAC was ‘censorship by intimidation’. The day after their November meeting in testimony before HUAC Johnston spoke in favour of a blacklist. Exactly how the FBI knew the intimate details of discussions in private meetings between the Hollywood Ten, their lawyer and representatives of the movie industry, we can only guess. The same way they knew about the private meeting between Johnston and the big businessmen in 1944 – because in this period the FBI were basically the fucking Stasi.
Johnston’s lack of a clear position on this issue, or his reversal of his position, reflects the movie industry as a whole. The FBI also had an informant within the meeting of the big studio executives and Johnston at the Waldorf-Astoria where the blacklist policy was first decided on. Some were very anti-Communist, but others were not all that fussed. Apparently, during a recess ‘Sam Goldwyn told Eric Johnston that he personally intended to hire any of the Communists who were fired and pick up some good talent and then watch them closely for possible propaganda’.
‘Then the meeting resumed Johnston asked permission to address the group and gave a brilliant and bitter speech, in which he said ‘Gentlemen, I don’t know why you hired me. I don’t need this job. You won’t listen to me. You won’t take my advice. You don’t mean what you say, and you have no guts.’ From there on out Johnston criticized the fact that the group would not make and abide by a decision. When he sat down, Sam Goldwyn stood up and said, “Eric, I feel you were talking to me.” At this point Joe Schenk said, “Don’t make a speech, Sam. Sit down and shut up or get out.” Goldwyn sat down and the meeting proceeded.’
So the blacklist was by no means a unanimous decision in Hollywood, who as a whole had mixed feelings about it. It is unsurprising therefore that Johnston had mixed feelings, or an inconsistent position. On the other hand it’s also possible he simply lied to the lawyers of the Hollywood Ten because, at least from what I can glean from the Bureau files, in private he was always quite in favour of a blacklist as a way to deal with what he saw as a very limited problem.
The other main section of Johnston’s file is a lengthy background check the FBI conducted when he was being considered for White House jobs. This is very similar to other background checks I’ve read on Jack Valenti and Tom Clancy – they basically asked everyone they could ask apart from his neighbours. They reached out to other government agencies and the files record the responses, which they folded into the memo they eventually supplied to the White House. Most people offered glowing opinions of Johnston, though quite a few mentioned his egotism. The files note how he was very helpful in furthering NATO, served on a NATO committee and as treasurer of the Atlantic Council.
The Secret Service, Air Force investigations unit, Office of Naval Intelligence and other Pentagon detective squads were all consulted, none of them had any problem with Johnston. They also asked the CIA, who took their sweet time about responding. Indeed, they along with the State Department were the last to respond, by which time the FBI had already sent their summary investigation to the White House. As you might expect, it is only the CIA’s comments that are redacted, when all the other agencies’ comments are fully readable.
Eric Johnston and the CIA
Perhaps this is because the CIA’s comment implied what we now know to be the case – Eric Johnston was a CIA asset. Throughout the 1950s he was in touch with senior CIA officers, mostly Allen Dulles with whom there was a friendship as well as a professional relationship. They mostly discussed Johnston’s meetings with high ranking Soviets, including when the went to the Soviet Union and met Premier Nikita Kruschev, and when he hosted ambassador Stanislav Menshikov and old-school Soviet Anastas Mikoyan in the US. He also hosted Kruschev, and each time he reported back to the Agency on their private conversations. So he was primarily an informal political intelligence asset.
I think this substantiates a theory I’ve been proposing for a while – that the issue of Communism in Hollywood was fuelled in part by a turf war between the FBI and CIA. Just as with Sterling Hayden and some of the Hollywood Ten, Johnston was on the OSS and CIA side. While he instituted the blacklist this was the result of discussions with the studio chiefs where there was no clear decision. Otherwise he was quite critical of the FBI and HUAC’s rabid pursuit of Communists and possible Communists in Hollywood. In his second testimony before HUAC he expressed this quite nuanced position that is much closer to the CIA’s view of Communism in the early Cold War than it is to the FBI’s.
We should also note the 1943 OSS memo on Motion Pictures as a Weapon of Psychological Warfare. That memo speaks of films being one the US’s most important exports in terms of national image and projecting American values. Johnston made similar comments before HUAC four years later.
He also helped fulfill one of the aims that the memo outlines – to get more American films into foreign markets. Johnston lobbied in many countries, including Russia, to remove or loosen the restrictions they placed on how many American films could be imported and distributed. This was relatively successful, and though it was nothing like it is today where Hollywood films are literally shown in pretty much every country in the world, it was a step on that road. This had an economic benefit to the US, films are one of the most lucrative export markets America has. But from the government’s point of view it also has propaganda benefits, and helped spread the message that the US won World War 2, excluding Russia and the Soviet Union more generally and minimising the role of the other Allies. Likewise it helped portray America as a happy, wealthy and safe society who everyone else would want to emulate.
Now, there is no direct evidence that Johnston was doing this because it was an OSS or CIA goal, there are other reasons. But the fact that the CIA saw movies as valuable and powerful assets in projecting a desirable image of America abroad, and that Johnston shared this view, is not in doubt. One example we can draw on is Luigi Luraschi, an executive at Paramount, who sent a series of reports to an anonymous CIA contact known only as ‘Owen’. The best source on this is David Eldridge’s article ‘Dear Owen’: The CIA, Luigi Luraschi and Hollywood because he includes copies of the letters.
Luraschi was removing and adding content to films in an attempt to achieve certain propaganda goals, mostly concerning how people in other countries saw the USA. While we don’t have the other side of this correspondence, these changes were to some extent being done at the CIA’s behest. They included:
– Planting ‘well dressed negroes’ into scenes to try to give a picture of mutually beneficial race relations in the US, at a time when segregation was still in effect.
– Killing off productions that were likely to aggravate or offend foreign audiences
– Removing a scene from a Martin and Lewis comedy where ‘the manhandling of Moslem women by Lewis… would have had disastrous results in the Moslem world’.
– Redubbing Arrowhead to remove negative stereotypes about Apaches and to soften a scene where a whole tribe are tagged and forcibly relocated to Florida.
The correspondence only covers a couple of months at the beginning of 1953 but it gives a sense of how, at that time, films were considered to be America’s principal means of projecting an image of themselves around the world. According to Eldridge’s article it seems this initiative came to an end because Eric Johnston developed a plan for the MPAA to build more formal relationships with the State Department and foreign embassies for the same purposes. So we have a CIA asset formalising what was a covert CIA initiative, in keeping with a strategy laid out a decade earlier in an OSS memo.
A decade later Johnston died after a pair of heart attacks left him in a coma, and it took the MPAA three years to find his replacement Jack Valenti, who we will look at next time. Johnston’s legacy was a film industry that was in some ways more liberalised and in others more restricted by government interference. The notion of the MPAA as ‘a little State Department’ developed during his tenure, making him a very important figure in the history of American cinema.