ca. August 1948, Washington, DC, USA --- Alger Hiss, accused of Communist espionage, takes an oath during hearings before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. He denied Whittaker Chambers' accusation that he was a Communist. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Duped Liberals : The 70th Anniversary of the HUAC Hearings


Seventy years ago, liberals were duped by the “victims” they formed a group around to defend.

In 1947, The Committee for The First Amendment was organized by liberal Hollywood in response to Congress subpoenaing ten members of the film community to answer questions about their Communist affiliations.

The leaders of the Committee were screenwriter Philip Dunne, and directors John Huston and Billy Wilder, all of whom were non-Communist liberals and knew or either suspected that the “Unfriendly Ten” were Communists.

Before the gavel even struck, the Committee asserted that they were defending the rights of the Ten and not their ideology:

“We couldn’t defend their peculiar politics, we could and did defend their rights,” Dunne, a bloodied veteran of battles with Communists in liberal organizations in the 1930s, said.

But not every liberal in the organization knew the Ten were or had been members of the Communist Party, and much to their embarrassment would discover they were being used by the Ten. Actress Lauren Bacall said she didn’t realize “until much later that were being used to some degree by the Unfriendly Ten.”

Even the leaders in the loop were fooled, however. Huddling with the Ten, Dunne and Huston were assured by the “unfriendly witnesses” that they would make a dignified stand affirming the rights of free speech, and not engage in agitprop.

HUAC (the House Committee on Un-American Activities) had long been opposed by both liberals and Communists. And it was readily apparent that the Committee and the Ten relished the opportunity to take on Congress. Abraham Polonsky, a Communist Party member and later a blacklisted screenwriter, recalled that at CFFA meetings the “excitement was intense” and the group “felt they were going to win.”

Bacall was typical of the “heart is in the right place” liberalism the group expressed. Upon learning of the past behavior of HUAC, she later recalled, “I became very emotional about it:”

“How dare that bastard Thomas (Congressman J.Parnell Thomas, chair of HUAC} treat people this way? What was happening to our country? He must be stopped,” she said.

Along with her husband, Humphrey Bogart, she joined other members to go to the Washington hearings as a sign of solidarity with the Ten.

But what the liberals present during the hearings heard from the Ten was not liberal principles, but obvious Communist agitprop. For the Ten reneged on their promise to Dunne and Huston not to take a dignified stand; instead of a sober defense of the Constitution, the Ten came across as shrill, doctrinaire, and secretive.

The head of the Hollywood Communist Party, John Howard Lawson attacked the “friendly”—read anti-Communist–witnesses who testified before him (composed of “friendly” witnesses as “Gestapo agents,” and HUAC as Hitlerites. Dalton Trumbo accused the Committee of creating an “American concentration camp.”

Equally offensive to liberals was the legal strategy of the Ten. They rejected Dunne and Huston’s suggestion refuse to answer HUAC’s questions, then call a press conference, have a Supreme Court justice swear them in, and answer honestly any question put to them by reporters.

Instead, the Ten adopted a policy designed to keep them wealthy and employed and out of jail: to pretend to “answer” the questions of the Committee but in actuality evade them.

CFFA member Judy Garland, sitting in the audience, later exclaimed, “why didn’t they answer their [HUAC’s] questions or flat out refuse to?” Dunne and Huston were equally horrified, with the latter stating that their guise of pretending to “answer the questions while actually evading them and indulging in combative political speeches,” “deservedly” “backfired.”

One of the Ten, screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr., although initially supportive of the group’s legal strategy, eventually agreed with Huston. This strategy, Lardner later wrote, gave the Ten the appearance of being “weasely and abrasive in the eyes of some liberals who supported our position but not our way of expressing it.” Lardner stated that Huston and Dunne were correct, as the Ten should have made “a simple and straightforward refusal.”

After the hearings, it was a grim ride for the CFFA back to Hollywood, with many liberals now wised-up about the Ten being what HUAC accused them of being: Communists.

Bogart, the CFFA’s biggest A-list star, believed himself duped not only by Ten but also by his fellow CFFA members who knew the “unfriendly witnesses” were Communists. He exploded at a CFFA meeting, pointing a shaky finger at Danny Kaye and bellowing, “You fuckers sold me out.”

His career on the line, Bogart issued a statement denouncing his support of the Ten as “foolish,” and asserted his anti-Communist beliefs:

“I am not a Communist. I am not a Communist sympathizer. I detest Communism just as any decent American does.”

And unlike the Ten, Bogart was upfront about his liberal politics, declaring himself an FDR liberal in a period where “liberal” was equated with “Communist.”

By now liberal support dropped off the radar. But, against assertions by the Ten that all liberals abandoned them, Dunne and Huston and MGM producer Dore Schary did try to help. Despite being lied to about their Communist membership by two of his employees, Scott and Dmytryk, (who had actually been expelled by Lawson from the Party in 1945), and in a pre-testimony meeting with the Ten’s lawyers concluded all of the group were Communists (“they were trying to use me”), Schary still defended their civil liberties.

Before an increasingly nervous studio brass, Schary stated that the “Ten were not guilty of anything,” and that there was no proof they were bent on overthrowing the government by force. Moreover, he refused to fire Scott and Dmytryk. Nevertheless, Schary was given the thankless chore of informing the Ten they were fired and henceforth blacklisted from studio employment.

By far, the liberal who expended the most energy on the Ten’s behalf was Phillip Dunne. When his friend Ring Lardner Jr. was fired from Twentieth Century Fox, Dunne was going to quit the studio. Lardner talked him out of it, and for the remainder, Dunne expressed self-disgust for staying on (“I earned the medal, ‘the Order of the Chicken’”).

But Dunne did try to stop the blacklist in the Screen Writers Guild and testified as a character witness for Dalton Trumbo during the latter’s trial. He also gave money to the families of the Ten.

And along with other anti-Communist but anti-blacklist liberals, Dunne formed a group to “limit the scope” of the blacklist. Mutating out of the blacklist, he believed, was a “gray list:” “people who could be hired, but just to be on the safe side, better not.” Along with Ronald Reagan and Dore Schary, Dunne got fifteen people off the gray list.

From the vantage point of 70 years, it is readily apparent that both HUAC and the Ten were mirror images of each other. HUAC member, John Rankin, was an equal opportunity racist, employing racial epithets on the floor of Congress. Of those who supported the Ten, Rankin spewed out anti-Semitism:

“They sent this petition to Congress, and I want to read you some of their names. One of the names is June Havoc. We found her real name is June Hovick. Another one was Danny Kaye, and we found out his real name was David Daniel Kaminsky…They are attacking the Committee for doing its duty to protect this country and save the American people from the horrible fate the Communists have meted out to the unfortunate Christian people of Europe.”

Although not as racist in tone, the Ten did defend the actions of Adolf Hitler during the early years of World War II when the dictator had signed a military partnership (billed as a “Non-Aggression Pact”) with their beloved Stalin. Trumbo mitigated the treatment meted out to the conquered France by their Nazi occupiers by stating “To the vanquished all conquerors are inhuman,” and declared Great Britain, then being bombed daily by Hitler, as more “fascist” than Germany (the best example of the pro-Hitlerism of the Party, in general, came when a Party member, upon hearing that Hitler had just conquered France in 1940, exclaimed “We’ve taken Paris!”).

Nor were they supporters of free speech for all as they portrayed themselves to be before HUAC. When an anti-Communist submitter argued that the editor of the Hollywood magazine, The Screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo, should print his rejected article as an example of “the free exchange of ideas, Trumbo replied:

“It is difficult to support your belief in the “inalienable right of man’s mind to be exposed to any thought whatsoever, however intolerable that thought might be to anyone else.” Frequently such a right encroaches upon the right of others to their lives. It was this “inalienable” right in Fascist countries which directly resulted in the slaughter of five million Jews.”

This was in 1945, two years before the hearings. And not even during the hearings, when the Ten were potentially on the ropes changed this view that “fascists” (a wide category for Party members as they once applied that term to the FDR they were now claiming) were ineligible for free speech protections.

Behind closed doors, Lawson instructed his fellow members that “you do not believe in free speech for fascists,” only for Communists, based on his Manichean belief that “what” {Communists} say is true,” and what fascists declare “is a lie.”

Lawson and his group had spent the decade before blasting even those liberals who went to bat for them in 1947 as little more than Nazis. During the Non-Aggression Pact period, when Roosevelt was steadily moving in an anti-Nazi direction, Dunne and his fellow liberal actor Melvyn Douglas, tried to get a resolution passed in the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League to express support for FDR’s foreign policy. Communist members immediately attacked them in terms they would dust off in 1947—as “red-baiting” Nazis.

Reviewing, The Front (1976), a movie about the injustices of the blacklist, Pauline Kael blamed Communists partly for their plight because “they nowhere to turn…because they had denounced the anti-Communist left as ‘fascist.”

But as evidenced by the CFFA, “fascists” did try to help for a time, and one wonders if had the roles been reversed, would the Ten have gone to bat for them.

Based on what we know about the Ten’s free speech views, the answer probably would have been “no.”

Ron Capshaw is a Senior Contributor to The Liberty Conservative from Midlothian, Va. His work has appeared in National Review, The Weekly Standard, and the American Spectator.


  1. I was reading the transcripts of the 1947 Huac Motion Picture hearings, and anyone expecting hysterical racist yahoo Elmer Gantry “Santa Claus must be a Communist because he wears a red suit” ravings will be disappointed. The arguments of the “Inquisitors” were reasonable and well thought out, the accusations were not willy-nilly, and I couldn’t find much anti-Semitism in there(Morrie Ryskind was one of the friendly witnesses). Do commutators today even bother to read the actual transcripts?

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