In the years following World War II (1939-45), the United States and Soviet Union engaged in a tense military and political rivalry that became known as the Cold War. Although the U.S. and its communist rival rarely confronted each other directly, they both attempted to extend their influence and promote their systems of government around the world. A number of Americans believed that their nation's security depended on preventing the spread of communism, and this attitude created an atmosphere of fear and suspicion in many parts of the country.
The House Un-American Activities Committee was charged with investigating allegations of communist influence and subversion in the U.S. during the early years of the Cold War. Committee members quickly settled their gaze on the Hollywood film industry, which was seen as a hotbed of communist activity. This reputation originated in the 1930s, when the economic difficulties of the Great Depression increased the appeal of leftist organizations for many struggling actors and studio workers.
With the dawning of the Cold War, anti-communist legislators grew concerned that the movie industry could serve as a source of subversive propaganda. Although popular Hollywood films of the 1930s and 1940s offered little evidence of an overriding Socialist agenda, the investigation proceeded. In October 1947, more than 40 people with connections to the movie industry received subpoenas to appear before HUAC on suspicion of holding communist loyalties or being involved in subversive activities.
During the investigative hearings, members of HUAC grilled the witnesses about their past and present associations with the Communist Party. Aware that their answers could ruin their reputations and careers, most individuals either sought leniency by cooperating with investigators or cited their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. However, a group of 10 Hollywood screenwriters and directors took a different approach and openly challenged the legitimacy of the committee's investigations.
The 10 individuals who defied HUAC were Alvah Bessie (c. 1904-85), Herbert Biberman (1900-71), Lester Cole (c. 1904-85), Edward Dmytryk (1908-99), Ring Lardner Jr. (1915-2000), John Howard Lawson (1894-1977), Albert Maltz (1908-1985), Samuel Ornitz (1890-1957), Robert Adrian Scott (1912-73) and Dalton Trumbo (1905-76). These men, who became known as the Hollywood Ten, not only refused to cooperate with the investigation but denounced the HUAC anti-communist hearings as an outrageous violation of their civil rights, as the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gave them the right to belong to any political organization they chose. Some compared the committee's coercive methods and intimidating tactics to the oppressive measures enacted in Nazi Germany. "I am not on trial here," declared screenwriter Lawson. "This committee is on trial."
Imprisoned and Blacklisted
The Hollywood Ten paid a high price for their actions at the HUAC hearings. In November 1947, they were cited for contempt of Congress. Facing trial on that charge in April 1948, each man was found guilty and sentenced to spend a year in prison and pay a $1,000 fine. After unsuccessfully appealing the verdicts, they began serving their terms in 1950. While in prison, one member of the group, Edward Dmytryk, decided to cooperate with the government. In 1951, he testified at a HUAC hearing and provided the names of more than 20 industry colleagues he claimed were communists.
A more lasting punishment came as a result of the movie industry blacklist. Studio executives did not want their business to be associated with radical politics in the minds of the movie-going public and therefore agreed that they would not employ the Hollywood Ten (with the exception of Dmytryk) or anyone else suspected of being affiliated with the Communist Party. The motion picture industry blacklist grew steadily larger as Congress continued its investigations into the 1950s, and numerous careers were damaged as a result. The blacklist ended in the 1960s.
The Hollywood Ten were controversial figures at the time they launched their protest, and their actions continue to inspire debate decades later. Some tend to view their punishment as justified, since the individuals were admitted communists, while others generally view them as heroic figures who spoke out against the abuses of the Red Scare--and in defense of the U.S. Constitution--when many of their colleagues remained silent.