Americans spent the 1930s trying to survive the Great Depression . Many people lost faith in their country's economic system, and some turned to communism , an economic theory in which the production and distribution of products and services are owned and controlled by the government. It was a low point in American history.
After World War II (1939–45), America entered into a “cold war” with Russia. This was not an actual war but a time of intense tension and competition between the two countries. Russia was communist, and America feared communism and the possibility that it might spread. (See also Red Scare .)
In 1947, a congressional committee known as the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) began investigating the motion picture industry for communist influence. The movie industry was made up of idealistic writers, actors, and producers; many had been against the war and dismayed with the leadership in place at the White House. Some had joined the American Communist Party, which boasted a membership of around fifty thousand during the war.
Going to movie theaters was a major pastime in America during the mid-twentieth century. Films provided a brief escape from the worries of the day, and even those families who did not have much money could enjoy an occasional movie. Films had great influence, and the government knew this. The investigation into the film industry began when it was alleged that communist values were being glorified in movies.
A witness list of about forty people was prepared. For one reason or another, only eleven of these individuals were called before the committee to testify. Most of these professionals were screenwriters. The question put before them was: “Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communisty Party?” Just one witness, playwright Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956), answered. It immediately became clear that answering that one question was not enough to satisfy the HUAC; it wanted names of other members. Ultimately, it wanted to embarrass the witnesses by forcing them to publicly tell on their friends and colleagues.
Ten of the original witnesses refused to answer the question, not necessarily because they were members of the Communist Party but because they believed that political affiliation in the United States was a private issue. Refusing to answer, however, could be construed as an admission of “guilt.” These ten screenwriters became known as the Hollywood Ten, and their names were added to a list that circulated throughout the industry. Anyone on that list could no longer work in the movie industry. The Ten each served a one-year jail sentence.
By the end of the investigation, about three hundred entertainers were blacklisted; only about thirty were able to rebuild their careers. Some continued to work infrequently, but only if they agreed to use false names or not receive credit for their work. The blacklisting went beyond the professional realm, however, and severed even the closest of friendships. Families were destroyed in some cases where both spouses worked in the industry and one gave the name of the other.
Blacklisting continued until 1957 despite the fact that evidence of the promotion of communist values in film was virtually nonexistent.