When Big Brother stole the First Amendment from writers.

Famous screenwriter Dalton Trumbo testifying before the House Committee on Un-American activities. He was blacklisted.
Famous screenwriter Dalton Trumbo testifying before the House Committee of Un-American activities. He was blacklisted.

SO YOU’RE A WRITER, and you’ve got problems.

You’ve knocked out a book, maybe more, and you feel as though you are caught in a riptide of social media that is robbing you of all of your creative time, energy, and juices.

Rest assured. You don’t have problems.

You have challenges maybe.

You have circumstances running amuck.

You have consequences often beyond your control.

But, as a writer, you don’t have problems.

Not once do you wake up and see Big Brother looking over your shoulder, shoving you into a dark corner, firing accusations at you, and threatening to send you to jail for something you might or might not have done fifteen or twenty years ago.

The writers in the late 1940s and 1950s had problems.


They were lined up in front of a government firing squad, headed by a band of wild-eyed, radical, fire-breathing congressman, and ordered to testify, under oath, whether or not they had ever been a member of the Communist Party.

Senator Joe McCarthy led the fight to strip writers of their First Amendment rights.
Senator Joe McCarthy led the fight to strip writers of their First Amendment rights.

And what’s worse, they were ordered to look around at their friends and colleagues, point accusatory fingers, name names, and betray anyone in the Hollywood writing or acting family who had ever even whispered the word Communism aloud or more than once.

It was the beginning of the Red Scare. And the writers were looked upon as the Red Menace. The law be damned. The First Amendment be damned. The Constitution be damned. Senator Joe McCarthy was on his glory-bound soapbox and vowing to rid every distant corner in America of its growing infestation of communists. Worry about the wordsmiths, he said. He feared the pen more than the sword.

Then, as now, so many of the writers, especially during the difficult days of the Great Depression, had a distinct leftist view of the world around them. It was not a good world, and a lot of them had joined the Communist Party, which was the primary force in America fighting for the right of poor people, leading campaigns for improvements in welfare, unemployment, and social security benefits.

Those are the kinds of social battles that have long pricked the conscience of America’s writers.

In Hollywood and behind typewriters all of the country, writers were merely churning out words and telling their stories. In Washington, the House Committee of Un-American Activities (HUAC) were bent on investigating those words and stories, claiming that Communist agents and sympathizers had been surreptitiously planting Red propaganda in U. S. films.

If they had, it was certainly news to the writers. It didn’t make any difference. One by one, the screenwriters were called to testify. Many admitted they had been a card-carrying communist, fell on their knees, and repented of their sins.

The tough ones stood firm. The tough ones told the committee that their lives and their opinions and their words were protected by the First Amendment and what they had done wrong, if anything, was none of the Congressmen’s business.

The tough ones fought back.

The tough ones went to prison.

In Hollywood, they were blacklisted. Their names were churned around and turned to mud. If they had a regular job, they were fired. If they didn’t, no one would hire them. They and their work simply vanished off the face of the movie screens.

These were people like well-known playwright Lillian Hellman, whose words had been attached to ten motion pictures. She would not be employed again until 1966. Composer Elmer Bernstein said he had never been a member of the Communist Party, refused to name any friends who had, and found himself composing music for such movies as Cat Women of the Moon.

Arthur Miller and Elia Kazan came under attack. Gordon Kahn fled to Mexico, and he had written The African Queen, hardly the stuff of Red propaganda. Dashiell Hammett, who wrote The Maltese Falcon, refused to cooperate, and his five months in jail hastened his death. Dalton Trumbo was fired from MGM not long after the hearing. He was found guilty of contempt of Congress and sent to prison.

From behind bars, he wrote this poem to his family: “Say then but this of me: Preferring not to crawl on his knee In freedom to a bowl of buttered slop Set out for him by some contemptuous clown, He walked to jail on his feet.”

Dalton Trumbo remained defiant.

And like many of his friends in Hollywood, he continued to write, sometimes using an alias, sometimes using a front man who allowed his name to be placed on the silver screen with writing credits. It would be more than a decade later before Dalton Trumbo was finally given credit for two films he wrote in exile: Spartacus and Exodus.

Some endured and made it back. Some were lost in the whirlwind of public opinion. They and their work were cast aside and forgotten. They were the victims. Lionel Stander stood before HUAC and said boldly: “I know of a group of fanatics … they are ex-Fascists and America firsters and anti-Semites, people who hate everybody, including Negroes, minority groups, and most likely themselves … These people are engaged in a conspiracy outside all the legal processes to undermine the very fundamental American concepts upon which our entire system of democracy exists.”

Members of the Committee might have nodded in agreement. But if they thought long and hard, they would have realized that Lionel Stander was talking about the sins of the Committee.

So you’re a writer and think you have problems. Think again. Right or wrong, good or bad, long or short, you have the freedom to sit down every day of your life and write whatever story is battling to crawl its way out of your brain.

You worry about a bad book review? Don’t. It could be Big Brother.

He didn’t give a one-star.

He gave jail.

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  • Caleb Pirtle

    It happened once. Could it happen again? And what would we do if it did?

  • Don Newbury

    An important history lesson for old-timers to remember and younger folks to learn about.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      1984 arrived about thirty years early.

  • jack43

    This is a tough one and at first blush I fall squarely on the side of freedom of speech. However, there is a niggling voice at my ear whispering, “…but what about responsibility? Doesn’t freedom come with responsibility?”

    Many laugh at “The Red Scare” as though it is just another manifestation of the bogeyman. The truth is that The Reds were worthy of fear. The very people that these writers championed would have happily stripped them of any vestige of individual liberty, especially freedom of speech, had it been in their power. They presided over an Evil Empire in which even copy machines were licensed and woe betide anyone who “abused” the privilege of owning one.

    Why didn’t the writers and other intellectuals of their day (or “our day” for that matter) champion individual liberty? Why don’t they see that the very scourge that infected Washington in those days (and runs rampant these days) was/is akin to the menace of communism? Why didn’t they see that pursuing the dream enunciated in the Constitution would have a far better chance of providing the liberty and justice that they espoused? National socialism (NAZI) and international socialism (communism) and democratic socialism (most of modern Europe) cannot come close.

    Yes, this is a very important history lesson for old-timers to remember and younger folks to learn about. Sadly, it’s being taught in schools where socialist indoctrination has replaced education…

    • Caleb Pirtle

      The red menace was indeed worthy of fear. We’ll never know how close to extinction we really were during the Cold War. However, the movie writers joined the Communist party when the U. S. and Russia were allies during the War, and years later they were not writing propaganda films supporting Communism. I would hate to be judged today on who I was and what I did back during those years right out of college. I was a wild-eyed liberal then. I’m much more a Conservative now.

      • jack43

        Hell, I’m still a wild-eyed liberal. It’s sad that the Left has hijacked the appellation. Today’s “Liberals” want nothing to do with liberty. They want elites to make all our decisions for us.

        And, no, sorry, I’m not buying the argument that they joined the Communist Party because Russia was an ally during WWII. They weren’t supporting Russians. They were supporting communists. They were using their talents to extol communism.

        Today, they use their talents and their wealth to support the Left. Basically, the name has changed but not the mission. They still support elitism…

        • Caleb Pirtle

          Sorry, Jack, I didn’t mean to say they joined the Communist Party because we were allies. I only meant to say, at the time, we and the Russians weren’t enemies, so no one thought anything about it until 15 or 20 years had passed.

  • Christina Carson

    Lest we forget. Thank Caleb for keeping that era alive in our memories for most certainly it could happen again. Look at the sorts of freedoms that were denied us after 911 in the name of national security.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Christina, every morning when i sit down at my machine, the first thing I do is type in: “Good Morning, NSA.” I want to make sure they know I’m friendly.

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