As Jewish Museum Milwaukee prepares to launch Blacklist: The Hollywood Red Scare, which focuses on an area of history that has personally interested me for decades, I have to confess to spying a wall calendar notation in a JMM staff member’s office and literally nagging to be included in the planning! I waged an unprecedented campaign for a volunteer position, and I am honored and proud to co-chair this exhibit with Lori Craig.
One might ask, What’s Jewish or Milwaukee about this topic? The answer could be: What isn’t?
The most direct Milwaukee connection is our state’s history as the constituency of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, the name that instantly comes to mind when we hear Red Scare. McCarthy was dangerous and a threat to American democracy. A portion of the exhibit and one lecture program will focus on his crusade. His mission was to “out” and oust Communists in the State Department and other federal agencies, as well as in the military. Finally, in 1954, the Army-McCarthy hearings signaled the beginning of his downfall.
I remember, as a child during the McCarthy era, that my parents did not subscribe to the North Shore Herald newspapers, because the chain’s owners were pro-McCarthy. But the Jewish community, locally and nationally, was not so monolithic in opposing him.
Jews were also prominently involved in the Red Scare as it played out in Hollywood and the entertainment industry investigated by the earlier and simultaneous hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Jews and non-Jews alike were both good guys, who resisted the congressional witchhunts and risked contempt of court citations, and bad guys, who named names. Whether one reacted, when the FBI knocked on the door, out of fear or with courage would affect one’s livelihood and family life, in some cases permanently. Prominent name namers were the mostly Jewish owners of the major movie studios, whose likely motivations were both economic survival and the desire to be considered “real Americans.”
Many of the targeted writers, actors, directors, production people and journalists had been lauded for their World War II support. Many had fought in our military when the Soviet Union was our ally. Some were refugees from the Nazis, only to be deported by the Red Scare.
Some had been members of the Communist Party long before it became a crime (1954). Others were sympathizers whom today we might call liberals or progressives or social justice advocates. Even if their views diverged from the government’s, they assumed they could express themselves freely and associate freely, protected by—you know–the First Amendment.
There were no tweets or Facebook or alt-right or alt-left bloggers, but there were boycotts, sponsorships rescinded, passports confiscated, friends betrayed, whipped up rallies, children hounded, suicides.
McCarthy’s ultimate nemesis, the Army’s General Counsel Joseph Welch, made the definitive pronouncement on the Red Scare era: “At long last, have you no shame?”
Relevance? To Milwaukee? To Jews? To our history? To our NOW? Do we have to ask?
– Linda Frank, co-chair of Blacklist: The Hollywood Red Scare