The Second Red Scare, also known as McCarthyism, was a period in American history that immediately followed World War II. It was the beginning of the Cold War, and the United States government was concerned with Soviet influence on the homefront. One of the most vocal proponents of the theory that the Soviets were trying to lure Americans into communism was Senator Joseph McCarthy, who compiled a list of 205 communist sympathizers who had infiltrated the State Department.
This (ultimately unfounded) fear that communism would influence the American public was mirrored by the House Un-American Activities Committee, which, during the 1940s and 50s, joined by the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover, investigated, accused, and subpoenaed several celebrities, suspicious of their involvement in left-wing politics. Here are five stars who became victims of the Red Scare in the 1940s and 50s.
1. Charlie Chaplin
Charlie Chaplin is remembered today for his silent films and has a reputation for being a pioneer in the world of comedy. However, in the 1940s, Chaplin was targeted as a communist sympathizer and was investigated by the FBI. Chaplin was well known for having left-leaning politics but denied involvement with the Communist Party.
In the 1940s, Chaplin’s reputation in the public devolved while his involvement with politics increased. He advocated for a Second Front during World War II to help the Soviet Union in its fight against fascism. He was also known to support many American-Soviet friendship groups, have openly communist friends, and attend functions thrown by Soviet diplomats. His progressivism was reason enough for J. Edgar Hoover, who had vehemently denounced Chaplin’s politics for many years, to seek action against the actor.
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Chaplin knew about and disputed the government’s attempt to silence his political views. He believed it was a breach of his civil liberties and publicly began supporting those facing the same treatment. Chaplin protested against the trials of leaders of the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Eventually, the HUAC subpoenaed Chaplin to appear before the committee, but he was never called to testify, despite Hoover and the FBI’s clear motive to discredit his beliefs.
The press razed Chaplin, and as Cold War anxiety grew, many questioned his decision never to naturalize himself as an American citizen. The public and government officials called for him to be deported, with representative John E. Rankin telling Congress, “[Chaplin’s] very life in Hollywood is detrimental to the moral fabric of America. [If he is deported] … his loathsome pictures can be kept from before the eyes of the American youth. He should be deported and gotten rid of at once.”
When Chaplin decided to hold the premiere of his next movie, Limelight, in London, the United States promptly followed their promise. His re-entry permit was revoked by US Attorney General James P. McGranery the day after he set sail for the United Kingdom. It seems, however, that despite their claims of evidence against Chaplin, the FBI could find no connections between the actor and communism, and he could’ve reentered if he chose to. Chaplin had no love lost for the United States, though, and he never returned, living the rest of his life with his family in Europe.
2. Leonard Bernstein
Leonard Bernstein is one of the most notable conductors of the 20th century. His most famous work, West Side Story, has attracted generations of fans and two movie adaptations. Bernstein was also very well known for being open about his political affiliations, including during the Second Red Scare. This landed him on an internal memo that listed Bernstein as suspicious for his involvement with many political groups, including the American Committee for Yugoslav Relief, the Civil Rights Congress, the Southern Negro Youth Congress, and the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee, among others.
The FBI eventually compiled a file of over 800 pages that detailed Bernstein’s activities. He was personally targeted by Harry Truman and, perhaps more dangerously, Joseph McCarthy himself. While the FBI could never officially accuse Bernstein, they kept trying while waiting for McCarthyism to take its toll on the conductor. Bernstein was named in the book Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television, written by former FBI agents as a tool of McCarthyism, and was therefore blacklisted by the US State Department and CBS. His music was banned from overseas State Department functions, and the FBI added him to a Security Index listed as a communist, which served as a guide to those people the government would round up as traitors in an emergency.
While members of the government personally targeted him, Bernstein was never called before HUAC. However, he did have his passport revoked in 1953. He was made to sign an affidavit detailing his opposition to communism which, he penned, as a Jewish man, he was “necessarily…a foe to communism.” Bernstein received his passport back, and his career went along without many more speed bumps, despite his involvement with the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Panthers.
3. Orson Welles
Orson Welles’ 1941 movie Citizen Kane is considered one of the greatest films in cinema history. The film is a loose commentary on the life of William Randolph Hearst, a media mogul and, dangerously for Welles, a staunch anti-communist who helped supply the FBI with information often. Thus began Welles’s experience as a victim of the Second Red Scare.
The FBI opened a file on Welles before Citizen Kane’s release. They found the film was “nothing more than an extension of the Communist Party’s campaign to smear one of its most effective and consistent opponents in the United States [i.e., Hearst].” Although Hoover and the FBI could never pin enough evidence onto Welles to formally accuse him of being a communist, they did list him on the FBI Security Index from 1945 to 1949. Welles was also listed in Red Channels, which usually necessitated those listed in it to write a letter renouncing their involvement or listing the names of other “communists” they were involved with.
After being blacklisted by Red Channels, Welles left the United States for Europe in November 1947. Contemporary biographers claim that Welles most likely left at this time because it was right before the beginning of the HUAC hearings. It is almost certain that when Welles returned to the United States or worked for United States production companies during the 1950s, he would have had to pen letters of apology or dissociation from communist ideals. Welles had to compensate to get studio work in the 50s, and he did. Even so, the FBI could find no evidence of Communist Party involvement. In their report, they simply described Welles as enthusiastic about leftist activity. Welles’s career continued, albeit slower than before the accusations.
4. Lena Horne
Lena Horne was an actress and singer who, at the time of her death, former President Barack Obama said that he joined America in “appreciating the joy she brought to our lives and the progress she forged for our country.” Horne was a well-known civil rights activist, who sided with Malcolm X, but attended events like the March on Washington of 1963. She was honored by the NAACP with a medal previously bestowed upon Langston Hughes, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King Jr.
However, in the 1950s, Lena Horne’s career was nearly cut short by accusations against her during the Second Red Scare. The FBI had a file on her, and she was heavily suspected of being a member of the Communist Party. She spoke at events for Soviet authors and dignitaries; she performed for fundraisers that honored the ten screenwriters charged with contempt of Congress during the HUAC hearings. Horne was also vice-chairman of the Independent Citizens Committee of the Arts, Sciences, and Professions. She joined the committee at the urging of her friend and communist, Carlton Moss.
Horne may or may not have been aware of the committee’s association with the CPUSA. She was undoubtedly a political progressive, and being on the committee allowed her to perform in front of swaths of large audiences but also access to a circle of elite progressives. Horne was used to being treated like a pin-up girl, and this ability to cavort in intellectual circles was new and exciting. Her daughter, writing in 1986, said that her mother “never felt she was aiding communism; she felt that communism was aiding her.” Horne never said anything to distance herself from the cause, nor from people who were firm believers in it, like actor Paul Robeson.
Horne’s appearance in Red Channels and the public’s general wariness of false denunciations of communism worked together to make Horne a victim of McCarthyism. Her last resort was to write a letter to Roy Brewer, a labor union leader who was staunchly anti-communist. Horne appealed to Brewer in a 12-page letter, disclaiming any interest or relationship with communism. Brewer, on behalf of Horne, sent this letter to production companies, and all of a sudden, by 1953, Horne’s career was on track again. Lena Horne’s work in activism did not stop, but it did shift, almost solely focusing on civil rights and equality for Black Americans. Horne was committed to this work until her death, alongside her incredibly successful career. After the Red Scare of the 1950s, her reputation was never again sullied by accusations of communist activity.
5. Burl Ives
Burl Ives is most famous for his Christmas music. He is the writer and singer of “Holly Jolly Christmas,” “Silver and Gold,” “Frosty the Snowman,” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” in which he also starred. However, beginning in the 1940s, Ives was monitored by the FBI for potentially communist activity. As an American folk singer who lived through the Great Depression, it was no surprise that Ives was considered suspicious. He was friends with confirmed Communist Party members and other musicians like Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie.
The FBI dossier states claims from several informants, providing the information that Ives supported various pseudo-communist organizations, like the American Committee for Spanish Freedom and the Citizens Committee of the Upper West Side. He also performed at communist-leaning gatherings. Another informant states that Ives “was an entertainer in 1941 at a function sponsored by the American Friends of the Chinese People, which was cited as a Communist front by the House Committee on Un-American Activities on March 20, 1944.”
This, plus Ives’s relationships with confirmed members of the Communist Party of the USA, gave the HUAC enough suspicion to call him before Congress in 1952. Before that, Ives had also gone to the FBI personally in 1950 to state that he had cut all ties with communists and communism.
Ives cooperated with the FBI and the House of Representatives during the Red Scare to ostensibly save his career. He went voluntarily to testify in front of the HUAC, where he said, “I made a decision a good many years ago in regard to communism. I realized I was not a communist and did not believe in the communist philosophy.” While Ives claimed that he was not involved with communism, according to the FBI, he did admit “participating in various Communist Party fronts…that in the Spring of 1944 he did attend six or seven open meetings of the Communist Political Association.”
According to several other folk musicians, Ives was selling out to McCarthyism. He was not watched by the government, which is more than other folk singers at the time could claim. However, Ives did retain popularity and success in his career.