Rethinking the Red Scare in Post–World War II Hollywood

Authors

  • LARY MAY


Andrew J. Falk . Upstaging the Cold War: American Dissent and Cultural Diplomacy, 1940–1960 . Amherst, MA : University of Massachusetts Press , 2010 . 258 pp. Notes, Illustrations, index. $45.00 (cloth), $26.95 (paper) .

The distinctiveness of Andrew Falk's fine book, Upstaging the Cold War: American Dissent and Cultural Diplomacy, 1940–1960, is that he has gathered a vast body of original research to show that a battle over national identity informed the anticommunist crusade in Hollywood in the postwar era. Where earlier scholars focused on domestic politics, seeing the anticommunist crusade as another flowering of “paranoid politics” that informed national life for over a hundred years, or the continuing effort of conservative business and political leaders to contain the class conflict of the recent past, Falk demonstrates that sharp divisions over foreign policy defined the contours of the Hollywood Red Scare. As he argues, the contestants divided along two axes. On one side stood promoters of “one world,” consisting of artists like Rod Serling, Lillian Hellman, and Arthur Miller. All had been part of the Popular Front of the Depression and World War II years, and looked to the Republican presidential candidate of 1940, Wendell Wilkie's One World, for a blueprint for foreign policy after World War II. In the Truman years, this faction backed former Vice President Henry Wallace's criticism of the administration's hard line toward the Soviets, arguing that the United States and Russia could continue the wartime alliance, by linking support for decolonization of the third world to civil rights at home and enacting international control of nuclear weapons. On the other side stood backers of Henry Luce's American Century in his Time Life publications. They rejected international control of atomic weapons and shied away from domestic civil rights, while promoting the assimilation of minorities to Anglo-Saxon norms.

The stakes were high because the battle also revolved around what images of America the film industry would spread to the world, particularly to the nations in the Marshall Plan and occupied Japan. Falk reveals that as the anticommunist crusade unfolded, Hollywood leaders cooperated with the government and the House Un-American Activities Committee to create new censorship codes that helped forge the idealized, exceptional vision of the American Way that dominated screens in the 1950s. In this context, industry leaders and their congressional allies purged films that had once gained enormous profits. As domestic and foreign politics of anticommunism now interacted, Hollywood producers blacklisted major artists and condemned films that had gained great success, such as Charles Chaplin's Modern Times, John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath, and Michael Wilson and Herbert Biberman's postwar production, Salt of the Earth. Paradoxically, while these films vanished at home, they received permission by Russia, China, and Cuba to enter their nations as among the few American movies to show to their population.

To add to the complexity, Falk demonstrates that radicals found work in early television shows like See It Now and were able to make films in Europe like Rififi. Falk demonstrates that by the late 1950s the works of blacklisted artists were so popular abroad that the American government placed them in exhibits and broadcasts sponsored by United States officials. Based on this new evidence, Falk argues that Europe and television comprised the two places where the radicals continued to express their views. The evidence for this claim is persuasive, but it is overstated. True, a more rigid system of censorship existed in Hollywood. Yet artists were less confined than Falk asserts. Like postwar novelists, folk and be-bop musicians, filmmakers forged fresh visual and narrative forms, either in film noir or in popular films like From Here to Eternity, A Place in the Sun, Viva Zapata, and Bridge on the River Kwai, to critique Cold War values. While it is also true that the blacklisted artists found work in Europe, Falk fails to explain why European nations, equally committed to containing the Soviets, provided such a hospitable environment.

Still, the major contribution of Falk's excellent book is that he demonstrates that the anticommunist crusade was part of an earth-shaking transformation in American nationality and political language. In the process Falk has joined a group of scholars who over the last decade have shown that a major paradigm shift in identity and popular values unfolded in the 1940s and 1950s. Prior to that time, Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Roosevelt gained wide support with calls for breaking up the industrial “trusts” and purging the “money changers” from the temple, while in the 1930s New Dealers supported a mass union movement and popular artists like Will Rogers evoked American folk symbols to advance participatory democracy and a redistribution of wealth and power. Yet as recent historians have demonstrated. domestic anticommunism after World War II erased that memory and forged a “liberal consensus” in which America emerged as an exceptional society rooted in class harmony, “democratic capitalism,” individualism, and mass abundance.1 The film capital was central to this reorientation because, in the age of mass communications, its artists and producers recast American myths and symbols to defeat worldwide communism.

Falk shares the view that a Cold War Americanism arose in the 1950s. Yet his emphasis on foreign policy alone slights the way the invention of the new American identity overlapped with cold warriors' efforts to erase images of class conflict from politics and popular art. It was this goal that Eric Johnston, the new president of the Motion Picture Association and former head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, articulated when he came to Hollywood. Arguing for the necessity to contain world communism in his book America Unlimited (1944) he told script writers that they must purge “nightmares of class conflict” from Hollywood politics and movies. Working on the same page was the president of the Screen Actors Guild, Ronald Reagan, who called radicals and the studio strikers the “class conflict boys” whose traitorous acts aided the Communists who were killing our “boys” in Korea. There is perhaps an explanation why Falk glides over the issue of class-based imagery in Hollywood films As he tells us in a remarkable footnote, some readers might “prefer more textual analysis of scripts,” but he has not performed that task since he has learned in recent diplomatic history conventions that one cannot know what a fictional film really means, or who created it or how audiences interpret a text (p. 218). If taken literally, this guideline means that we historians must dismiss Perry Miller's explication of Puritan sermons, Gary Wills's textual analysis of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, or Lawrence Levine's interpretation of black blues songs as clues to the mentality of African Americans over time.

These limitations, however, should not detract from the vast accomplishment of Falk's book. Falk advances our knowledge by showing that anticommunist crusading converged with debates over foreign policy and national identity amid the crisis and traumas of the early Cold War years.

Footnotes

  • 1

    Anthony Burke Smith, The Look of Catholics: Portrayals in Popular Culture from the Great Depression to the Cold War (Lawrence, KS, 2010); Wendy Wall, Inventing the “American Way”: The Politics of Consensus from the New Deal to the Civil Rights Movement (New York, 2008), 3, 6–7; David Noble, The Death of a Nation: American Culture and the End of Exceptionalism (Minneapolis, MN, 2002); Lary May, The Big Tomorrow: Hollywood and the Politics of the American Way (Chicago, 2000).

Ancillary