Appetite for Fear

David Everitt's history of the pamphleteers who hunted 'pinkos'

Sixty years after the house un-American Activities Committee began hunting for Communists in the entertainment industry, the HUAC hearings that bred the screen blacklist are vivid in the received memory of countless Americans too young to recall the proceedings from life. Hollywood triumphed, ultimately, in ways more glorious than mere vindication. The movie business gained an ennobling narrative of persecution and martyrdom, a group hagiography that has become the sacred text of the studios. For many of us today, the era of the blacklist is a history we learned from Hollywood and one we conceive of in cinematic terms. We imagine a scene in black and white. Flash bulbs: Pop! The atmosphere has the tense formality of courtroom melodrama. There are bad guys: fleshy Washington politicians barking accusations, and scurrilous turncoats naming names. And good guys: defamed writers and actors defending their honor, upholding the First Amendment, and suffering for the sake of their principles.

This enduring conception of the blacklist period neatly simplifies it, reducing it to a clash between two familiar American institutions, Washington and Hollywood—the former, one to which we are generally disposed to suspicion; the latter, one grounded in our eagerness to suspend disbelief. Among the lesser-known problems with this mode of thinking are its sizable omissions. The cast of characters is too small for the story. After all, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the movie studios of southern California represented only one of two major power centers in American entertainment. The other was the broadcast industry, comprising radio—then the dominant form of mass communication in the United States—and the emerging medium of television.

Based in New York, the broadcast business functioned largely independently of the movie studios. Of course, the pools of creative talent in all realms of popular entertainment—including theater and recording—spilled into each other: Bing Crosby started as a jazz-band attraction, then made films and worked in radio; Jack Benny and Fred Allen got Hollywood contracts on the power of their fame on the air, although they did not translate well to the big screen; Judy Garland, a movie star from childhood, made hit records. Yet the traditions, the antitrust regulations, and the practical limits of communication technology and travel at the time kept the West Coast sphere of film-making and the East Coast world of broadcasting wholly separate on the levels of corporate culture, operating structure, and economics.

In the years following World War II, the broadcast industry was hit hard by the campaign against Communism that swept through nearly every corner of America. There were crusaders devoted to rooting out and exposing “pinkos” and anyone suggestive of a wisp of red who could be working (or trying to get work) on the air or in the control rooms; there was a broadcast blacklist, and it was enforced. While HUAC turned in time to the radio and television fields and carried some influence in New York, the driving force against Communist influence on the airwaves was not a body of the United States government but a tiny group of fervent mysteriosos functioning under the tactically generic name of American Business Consultants. And the organization’s forum of action was not dramatic public hearings, but a specimen of the humblest form of ad hoc journalism, a newsletter—two sheets of eight-and-a-half-by-eleven-inch stationery, typewritten and printed on an offset machine, folded into thirds, and delivered through the mail.

The workings and the effects of that newsletter, Counterattack, and its offshoot, the pamphlet Red Channels, receive due attention in a recently published book, A Shadow of Red: Communism and the Blacklist in Radio and Television. The author, David Everitt, is an entertainment journalist who wrote on the early years of television with authority and verve in a previous book, King of the Half Hour, a biography of Nat Hiken, the blacklisted comedy writer and producer best remembered for creating Phil Silvers’s G.I. sitcom, You’ll Never Get Rich (popularly known as Sgt. Bilko). Everitt, with A Shadow of Red, attempts to provide a clear-eyed, nonpolemical narrative history of the broadcast blacklist, and his effort is a significant contribution to the literature on anti-Communism in the popular arts. Important earlier works in this subject area, such as Naming Names (by Victor S. Navasky, cjr’s chairman, 1980), Hide in Plain Sight: The Hollywood Blacklistees in Film and Television, 1950-2002 (Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner, 2003), and Red Star Over Hollywood: The Film Colony’s Long Romance with the Left (Ronald Radosh and Allis Radosh, 2005) stand above A Shadow of Red for their breadth and cogency (Navasky), critical insight (Buhle and Wagner), and revisionist daring (Radosh and Radosh). Still, the odd, unnerving story Everitt tells has been largely untold.

As Everitt explains in lucid detail, Counterattack was published by a trio of enterprising young FBI dropouts: Kenneth M. Bierly, John G. Keenan, and Theodore C. Kirkpatrick, all of whom had joined the bureau in the early forties and were assigned to the FBI’s New York-based “Communist Squad,” a division charged with sniffing out subversion in communications, transportation, and other fields considered vital in a time of war or national crisis. United in a conviction that the postwar expansion of Soviet power represented an immediate crisis as well as an entrepreneurial opportunity, Bierly, Keenan, and Kirkpatrick left the FBI, separately, and later regrouped. Their debut effort was an anti-Communist magazine called Plain Talk. When it failed, as most magazine start-ups do, the former agents switched to a more economical publishing model and set up American Business Consultants.

Counterattack, subtitled The Newsletter of Facts on Communism, was at once a descendant of the earliest American news sources and an ancestor to the personalized, targeted Web journalism of the blog era. Designed for the first mode of mass communication in the New World, the mail, eighteenth-century publications such as The Boston News-Letter informed colonial readers about births and deaths, ship arrivals and departures, and other comings and goings of public interest. After newspapers as we know them took form, newsletters declined in numbers for several decades only to flourish again in the early 1900s, this time providing the near opposite of mass communication: highly specialized information gathered by experts with unique access, relayed in clubby “inside” language, and delivered directly to subscribers by mail. Thousands of newsletters on subjects from gold prospecting to foot care were thriving by the mid-twentieth century. Newsletter publishing was the blogosphere of the cold-war era.

First printed in the spring of 1947, a few months before HUAC opened its hearings on the film industry, Counterattack had two missions: one, ostensibly journalistic, the other vigorously interventionist. First, it set out to expose everyone it could find who had any connection, however dubious or tenuous, to anything or anyone associated with Communism, Socialism, the Soviet Union, or progressive ideology. Then, more significantly, Counterattack sought to rally its subscribers to action against the individuals it targeted. In its assault on performers and production personnel in radio and television, Counterattack exhorted its readers to write protest letters to the corporate sponsors of programs featuring actors with purported links to the left.

Counterattack—like its digital progeny, such as The Drudge Report—flattered its audience with cryptic tidbits of information and pseudo-information obtained by unexplained means. “here’s a secret communist-party document, now in possession of counterattack,” began a typical item, in the capital letters that then, as now, read like a scream. The contents of the document, in its entirety, were these:

Dear Comrade: spring! clean up time is here—Your desks, files, pockets and your homes—all excess baggage to be destroyed.

Through obscurity and indirection, Bierly, Keenan, and Kirkpatrick gained influence. The names of the partners were never mentioned in Counterattack, nor were their claims supported with conventional journalistic or scholarly citations. Thus, the whole operation was left to grow in the reader’s imagination. Unlike HUAC, which acted on behalf of mere government, Counterattack represented the more powerful realm of fantasy.

For several years, articles in Counterattack ridiculed the idea of a broadcast blacklist while it labored to make that list reality. “If [there] were a blacklist,” the newsletter suggested in its issue of July 22, 1949, “there would be mighty few party-liners in radio….You can help to alleviate it by notifying the sponsor and the agency whenever you learn of a Communist or fellow-traveler on payroll of any sponsored program.”

In 1950, Bierly, Keenan, and Kirkpatrick dropped the doublespeak and simply published the list of performers and others in broadcasting the partners decreed to be “Communists and Communist sympathizers [who] have no place on our air.” The now notorious booklet, Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television, listed 151 names, among them the radio writer and broadcaster Norman Corwin; the actors John Garfield, Judy Holiday, and Lena Horne; and the poet Langston Hughes. Horne, who had had enough trouble being accepted in white America without being further marginalized for her loose association with liberal politics, would bellow at the mention of Red Channels forty years after it was published. “Those bastards,” she would say, were “crooks” and “blackmailers.” Indeed, Bierly, Keenan, and Kirkpatrick opened themselves to charges of racketeering by marketing services to clear the names they had cited in Counterattack or listed in Red Channels.

Everitt, in Shadows of Red, explores this charge and casts some doubt on it, at the risk of seeming himself like someone concerned more with clearance than with truth. He works hard to portray the publishers of Counterattack as complex figures, and he strives to avoid the demonization that was their trade. Shadows of Red is spotty and often turgid, but serious in intention and illuminating on several counts, especially the outsize influence of three shadowy men with an offset press and an appetite for fear.

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David Hajdu is a professor of arts and culture journalism at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism.