Jay Roach’s historical drama TRUMBO revisits the political inquisition that put Dalton Trumbo in jail and then blacklisted him from working in film for over a decade. Trumbo and the other members of the Hollywood Ten were professionally shuttered after the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and its allies put pressure on the film industry to fire people who refused to cooperate by naming names or denouncing their past affiliations. In the decade and a half that HUAC was in full force, over 320 people were blacklisted in one way or another. But while HUAC was the public face of the red witch hunt, suspected sympathizers were targeted more quietly, and often more effectively, by a booklet entitled Red Channels.
In 1947, three ex-FBI men who’d previously been assigned to the Bureau’s “Communist Squad” – Kenneth M. Bierly, John G. Keenan, and Theodore C. Kirkpatrick – created Counterattack. With the subtitle “The Newsletter of Facts on Communism,” Counterattack was a subscriber-based newsletter that attempted to spotlight communist influence, and then suggested ways for the public to fight back. In 1950, Counterattackused its connections to HUAC and its access to classified FBI files to put together dossiers on 151 people working in the entertainment industry who they believed to have communist connections. Featuring an ominous blood-red hand about to smother a microphone on its cover, the booklet Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television gathered all these records into a single publication. While the distribution of the book was small, being sent to subscribers and handed off to television companies and advertising firms, its impact was overwhelming.
The individuals covered in Red Channels covered a wide range of media professionals who had some connection to TV or radio. The list included actors (like Edward G. Robinson, Orson Welles, Lee J. Cobb, Judy Holliday, Burgess Meredith, and Zero Mostel), writers (like Lillian Hellman, Arthur Miller, Dashiell Hammett, and Langston Hughes), musicians (like Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, and Artie Shaw) and performers (like Pete Seeger, Lena Horne, and Burl Ives). Beneath each target’s name and profession was a list of their suspicious activities, which mostly involved either attending a meeting of, or contributing to, some left-leaning group. For example, Lena Horne’s support of a South African famine relief program was given as evidence of her red leanings. Aaron Copland’s presence on a panel in the 1949 Scientific and Cultural Conference for World Peace was listed on his record. And actress Judy Holliday’s crimes were that she’d made contributions to the Stop Censorship Committee, the World Federation for Democratic Youth, and the Civil Rights Congress.
For people working primarily in radio and television, industries that were advertising driven, the punitive effects of being named in Red Channels came quickly and often by surprise. In 1950, actress Jean Muir had just been cast for NBC’s “The Aldrich Family”, when suddenly her contract was cancelled for seemingly no reason. Only after being pushed for an answer did the show’s sponsor, General Foods, acknowledge they had been hit with letters and phone calls from Red Channels subscribers demanding Muir be fired. In an attempt to regain her reputation, Muir offered a public statement, exclaiming, “I am not a communist, have never been one and believe that the communists represent a vicious and destructive force, and I am opposed to them." But despite her public atonement and the hundreds of phone calls supporting her, General Foods refused to re-hire her, claiming they couldn’t support “controversial persons.” Muir wouldn’t appear on TV for eight more years.
While some writers and musicians found ways around the blacklist, either working under the table or moving out of the country, actors couldn’t escape the spotlight. As Zero Mostel tragically quipped, “I am a man of a thousand faces, all of them blacklisted.” For years, Edward G. Robinson tried to avoid being caught in HUAC’s headlights, but his inclusion in Red Channels forced him to come out publically as an anti-communist. After spending thousands of dollars trying to clear his name, in 1952 he finally struck a deal to write an article for The American Legion Magazine entitled “How the Reds Made a Sucker Out of Me.” As a preface, the editors wrote, “Mr. Robinson, whose name, prestige, and money were used by communist causes in the past, here fits action to his words with a statement of how it happened to him.”
People named in Red Channels often found themselves fighting shadows, since few broadcast executives, or adverting agencies explicitly cited one’s inclusion on the list as the reason their phones suddenly stopped ringing. As one ad executive anonymously explained at the time, “Nobody has to tell me not to use anybody listed in Red Channels…I just know not to.” Those trying to reclaim their reputation after being listed found the path often perilous and unclear. Lena Horne sought the help of various respected conservative figures, including TV host Ed Sullivan and Red Channels’ editor Theodore C. Kirkpatrick, who approved a statement Sullivan ran in his column in 1951. “No minority group in the country within the past ten years has made the advances scored by the Negroes,” wrote Horne. “We would have made even greater advances if the communists didn’t deliberately try to confuse the issue and stir agitation.” But even after her mea culpa, Horne had to wait years before she started getting TV offers again. Actress Marsha Hunt, who claimed that Red Channels “ended my career,” identified the overall cost of reclaiming one’s name: “You had to repent any official stand you may have taken, such as signing a petition for something you believed in. You had to repent all those activities that were cited under your name in Red Channels and to swear lifelong hatred and opposition to the Communist Party."
For Judy Holliday, being listed in Red Channels was a prelude to being called before a government committee. In 1952, Judy Holliday was summoned by Senator Pat McCarran’s Internal Security Subcommittee (the Senate’s version of HUAC) to answer questions about her association with the groups listed in her Red Channels entry. While Holliday continued to work in film, she had been dropped by TV shows like “What’s My Line” and “The Name’s the Same” after Red Channels came out. In a tour-de-force performance, Holliday played a character similar to the Billie Dawn role for which she’d won an Oscar the year before in the film Born Yesterday. When she was pressed about her inability to name names, Holliday shrugged that she didn’t have a trained memory: “Now I’m getting one, but I didn’t know that I needed one.” Unfortunately, her performance did not keep TV offers from disappearing or the Catholic War Veterans from protesting her film The Marrying Kind with signs reading, “While our boys are dying in Korea, Judy Holliday is defaming Congress.”
By the end of the 1950s, the power of Red Channels abated, as blacklisted artists started finding work again. In 1957, CBS radio broadcast John Henry Faulk brought a libel suit against AWARE, the organization founded by Red Channels’ Vincent Hartnett. And after a drawn out court battle, with Roy Cohn defending AWARE, the courts awarded Faulk a $3.5 million (reduced to $550,000) award in 1962, thus putting an official end to the persecutions that had begun more than a decade before.