Although it went unnoticed in the media, this summer marked the anniversary of an important historic event. In 1962, forty-five years ago, a blacklisted radio personality named John Henry Faulk won a record-setting libel judgment against those who had accused him of pro-Communist sympathies. Not only did Faulk win a previously unprecedented award of $3.5 million, but his 1962 legal victory signaled the end of the anti-Red purge in radio and TV.
The significance of the trial is not confined to the number of years that have elapsed since its verdict. The case and, more important, the broadcast blacklist that served as the trial’s back-story provide perspective on issues we still face today, another period when we must strike a balance between vigilance and civil liberties. The story of measures taken during the early years of the Cold War can offer lessons for our own times, but not necessarily the ones that many might expect to find.
When I began research on my book on the broadcast blacklist I believed the time had come for a comprehensive history of the anti-Red campaign in radio and TV as distinct from the better known blacklist in the movie industry. Radio and TV, after all, reached a much larger audience than movies did and included not only entertainment but news and information programming that could have a much more direct impact on the public debates of the day. My thoughts on the need for a new study in this area didn’t change as I dug deeper into the subject. What did change was how I perceived the period. Originally, I had accepted the basic premise found in previous accounts that the broadcast blacklist was a stark morality tale about the persecutors and the persecuted, the standard witch-hunt narrative of right-wing fanatics hounding political innocents accused of serving as agents of the Communist devil.
Eventually, however, I came to see that the blacklisters, though clearly excessive and destructive, were not necessarily delusional in focusing on the issue of Communists in the media. It’s true that American Communists in the 1940s and early 1950s were not on the verge of commandeering the airwaves. But a combination of sources – FBI reports, congressional testimony, Communist Party statements and Venona transcripts – indicate that they were attempting to gain a foothold in broadcasting at a time when the U.S. was confronting a monstrous Soviet dictator, a leader that American Communists supported. What became especially clear to me was that the blacklist was best understood as the culmination of a long-standing ideological struggle in the media in which advantage shifted from one side to the other, a time when neither side was willing to engage in reasonable discourse. It is this dimension, I believe, that has the most relevance for today.
I’m often asked if there is a parallel between the blacklist period and our current situation on the home-front in the War on Terror. My short answer is, “No,” because there is no comparable blacklist today, despite warnings we have heard of a new age of McCarthyism. True, the cancellation of Bill Maher’s show, “Politically Incorrect,” and the firing of Danny Glover from his job as spokesperson for MCI certainly echoed elements of the blacklist period, but, unlike targets of the 1950s Red hunters, both men continued to work in their field. Even more significant, no organized purge took shape at the time, and that is a crucial distinction. What made the 1950s blacklist so troubling were not individual firings but the institutionalized nature of the ban on certain types of performers. In other, less direct ways, however, there is a parallel between the two periods. The polarization to be found today – the temptation to embrace political extremes typified by the rants of Rush Limbaugh and Michael Moore and the ongoing struggle over who controls the content of the media – is reminiscent and in some ways a continuation of what happened during the early Cold War.
With the kind of demagoguery found in both periods comes an eagerness to stifle the opposition, sometimes successful, sometimes not, but always managing to inject intolerance into the public square. During the 1950s, the most damage done to political adversaries, and civil liberties in general, was perpetrated by right-wing zealots when they took advantage of the furor over the Korean War and installed a media purge. Leftists couldn’t match the right’s efforts – but not for lack of trying. During World War II, they had supported the Roosevelt administration’s sedition trials and the suppression of publications considered pro-Axis. Later, as the Cold War began, the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship demanded that an anti-Soviet film, The Iron Curtain, be banned, and the Voice of Freedom Committee attacked anti-Communist radio commentators by organizing protest campaigns against their sponsors, employing techniques that presaged the methods used later by Red hunters to instigate the blacklist. A similar tendency would even be embraced by avowed free-speech champion John Henry Faulk. Just three years after striking a blow for tolerance and fair play in his historic 1962 libel trial, he adopted the tactical thinking of his old enemies by urging the John Lindsay mayoral campaign to publicize the past political affiliations of rival candidate William F. Buckley in order to “shut him up.”
In our own times, the readiness to silence the opposition continues to crop up. While the right tried to derail the careers of Danny Glover and the Dixie Chicks, the left attempted to do the same for radio psychologist Laura Schlesinger and, just recently, proposed a bill to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine in an effort to undermine the influence of conservative talk radio. On the broader political scene, this habit has been accompanied by extremist rhetoric and paranoid conspiracy-mongering, also reminiscent of the blacklist period. Some on the left have characterized Dick Cheney as a Nazi, just as Secretary of State Dean Acheson was once branded the “Red Dean.” Many have recently fulminated over a Zionist, neo-conservative cabal that secretly controls the Bush administration, just as right-wingers once denounced an insidious group of Ivy League pinkos manipulating foreign policy in the early Cold War (while leftists simultaneously insisted that Truman was the puppet of Wall Street warmongers).
The history of the media blacklist teaches us to be on our guard against those who would abuse the virtue of patriotism by imposing repressive measures in time of emergency. But it also teaches us that this mind-set does not reside on only one side of the political spectrum. And even when this way of thinking fails to suppress its enemies, its rhetoric succeeds in clouding the issues and distorting the debate at a time when the country requires level-headed reason to meet external threats.
Ronald Radosh: Review of David Everitt's A Shadow of Red: Communism and the Blacklist in Radio and Television