Blogs > HNN > Murray Polner: Review of Robert Justin Goldstein's American Blacklist: The Attorney General's List of Subversive Organizations (University Press of Kansas, 2008) and Loren Ghiglione's CBS's Don Hollenbeck: An Honest Reporter in the Age of McCarthyism (Col

Feb 22, 2009 4:12 pm

Murray Polner: Review of Robert Justin Goldstein's American Blacklist: The Attorney General's List of Subversive Organizations (University Press of Kansas, 2008) and Loren Ghiglione's CBS's Don Hollenbeck: An Honest Reporter in the Age of McCarthyism (Col

When Harry Truman issued Executive order 9835 in 1947, which in effect required all federal civil-service workers to swear they were loyal Americans, little did he realize that it would become a precursor to Joe McCarthy’s reign of terror two years later. Soon after, the government published the Attorney General’s List of Subversive Organizations (AGLOSO) which constituted, what Robert Justin Goldstein, professor emeritus of political science at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, properly concludes “was critically important to the entire Red Scare, far more than McCarthy.”

Truman wanted to fend off rightwing attacks on his presidency and his close friend Clark Clifford’s memoir claims he never believed communism was a serious domestic threat and deeply regretted not ending “the loyalty program at its inception.” But it was too late to shut the door to a legion of inquisitors on state and federal levels eager to punish supposed malefactors and promote their own careers.

Goldstein opens by citing Alan Barth, the Washington Post editorialist, a preeminent civil libertarian and author of The Loyalty of Free Men accurately portraying the authority granted Attorney General(s) as “perhaps the most arbitrary and far-reaching power ever exercised by a single public official” in our entire history. Some 300 groups were eventually officially proclaimed to be seditious, un-American, revolutionary, and most of all, Communist (a few shuttered fascist and pro-Nazi groups plus the KKK were included as well), the overwhelming majority for their political slant and without so much as a hint of due process.

People were fired without hearings or evidence of criminal activities, while organizations were destroyed for “subversive tendencies.” The euphoria after the end of WWII was quickly drowned out by hysterical fear of Soviet Russia and news of its espionage network and, writes Goldstein in this indispensable study, “deliberate attempts by a powerful coalition of American conservatives, notably the FBI, significant elements of the business community, the Catholic Church and especially an increasingly politically desperate Republican Party, to ignite a domestic Red Scare.” Famously, Senator Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan, a former isolationist turned internationalist, advised Truman, then seeking congressional backing for his Truman Doctrine, to “scare the hell out of the American people.” Informed and misinformed by politicians, radio, films and the press, many Americans panicked.

Actually, the fear and intimidation created by the list and the new class of professional hunters it sired (and later, by McCarthyism) was the opening act in transforming millions of Americans into silent citizens fearful of joining any group, signing any petition, writing any article, reading or recommending any book, or in any way arousing the suspicions of professional Red hunters. With very few exceptions the major media -- no surprise here, given its role as government’s echo chambers during the early years of the Vietnam and Iraq wars—rarely challenged AGLOSO. Radio networks and public and private institutions began demanding loyalty oaths from their employees. Even the ACLU and NAACP cooperated with the FBI in eliminating its “suspicious” members. Justice, legal rights, and fairness were abandoned, a replay of Woodrow Wilson’s post-WWI Red Scare.

Remarkably, given our current two wars and “war on terror” and the Bush-Cheney administration’s dishonorable record in Guantanamo, its reliance on torture, rendition and domestic surveillance, and despite its attempts to bully domestic opponents, we haven’t had any major show trials against antiwar critics as in the Vietnam era. In fact, contemporary American dissenters have not allowed themselves to be silenced. Perhaps we’ve finally learned a lesson.

Don Hollenbeck, whose character was featured in George Clooney’s film about Joe McCarthy and the role of CBS News in “Good Night and Good Luck” killed himself after years of being falsely portrayed as a Comsymp by Jack O’Brien, a New York Journal- American entertainment columnist. Long after Hollenbeck had died O’Brien told Ghiglione that Hollenbeck, a journalist and editor, wasn’t a communist only a liberal “just sympathetic to anything on the left and very antagonistic to anything on the right,” thus presumably giving him the right to malign. When Ghiglione read Holenbeck’s FBI file (a dossier, including reports about many other Americans,that should never have been assembled) he wrote, “two detailed FBI investigation reports suggest Hollenbeck was a patriotic American.”

Loren Ghiglione’s workmanlike and sympathetic biography of a reporter, editor and radio newsman long forgotten details the life of this Nebraska-born newsman, warts and all: his alcoholism, failed marriages, mental depression and loss of a job he most cherished and his suicide in 1954. All the same, the essential theme of this compelling book by a onetime newspaper editor and currently professor of Media Ethics at Northwestern University, is the familiar but nevertheless toxic impact the post-WWII Red hunt had and still has on too many people and institutions.

In 1947 Ed Morrow chose Hollenbeck as the writer and host of “CBS Views the Press,” a weekly 15-minute examination of New York City’s daily newspapers (by my estimate and recollection, ten papers, excluding those published in the outer boroughs). Not that criticizing newspapers then or now is novel. Hollenbeck’s predecessors and contemporaries included Upton Sinclair (The Brass Check), A.J. Liebling at The New Yorker, George Seldes’ In Fact newsletter, and I.F. Stone’s weekly on the left plus several on the right. But Hollenbeck’s comments and analysis hit home and drew fire from the papers. While he sought to be even-handed – in one example, he praised the Times and Herald Tribune for “the fairest and most unbiased account” of House Un-American Activities Committee sessions while the Post and PM were too anti- HUAC and the rest of the papers too pro-HUAC. Still, his was a distinct left-liberal bias, something his rightwing critics could never forgive, especially when he went after phony headlines such as “U.S. Ship Fired on Off Siberia.”

The pressure was obviously too much for CBS and on February 4, 1950 Hollenbeck was sacked from the program accompanied by innuendos and anonymous sources detailing his alleged Communist party membership (denied by several FBI reports). Five days after his dismissal Joe McCarthy made his Wheeling, West Virginia, speech, describing the State Department as inundated with communists. The speech eventually created a new class of victims, like Robert Lewis Shayon, a onetime CBS “You Are There” writer-director-producer whose name was mentioned in Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television. He was accused of having been a member of an allegedly Red front group, thus losing a job he coveted. The Red Channels’ reference, Shayon said, “cost me five years of my life and career.” Added Ghiglione: “That was a price that those who supported the blacklists were willing to have others pay.”

Don Hollenbeck was a reporter and editor and this fine book does him justice.

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