“Where there’s red smoke there’s usually Communist fire.”

What do Leonard Bernstein, Dashiell Hammett, Langston HughesGypsy Rose Lee, Alan Lomax, Arthur Miller, Zero Mostel, Pete Seeger, William L. Shirer, and Orson Welles have in common?

They all appear in Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television, which was first released on this day in 1950.  The Library of Congress describes it succinctly:

In June 1950, three former FBI agents who had created American Business Consultants, a vigilante organization to combat communism, issued Red Channels, a booklet listing 151 people connected with the broadcasting industry whom they suspected of subversive activities. The publication listed organizations and activities with which each individual had “reported” associations. Along with in-house private lists, Red Channels was adopted by the radio and television industries as a blacklist to deny employment to those named.

Pretty crazy, huh? Well, it gets even crazier once you wade into it:

The purpose of this compilation is … to indicate the extent to which many prominent actors and artist have been inveigled to lend their names, according to these public records, to organizations espousing Communist causes. This regardless of whether they actually believe in, sympathise with, or even recognize the cause advanced. (p. 9)

Looks ominous.

Let’s for a moment ignore the fact that “inveigled” is an awesome word that doesn’t get used nearly often enough, and focus on the fact that you could end up on this list even if you didn’t believe in Communism. Even if you didn’t know or care about Communism. Damn, that’s harsh.

To a modern reader, the variety of “subversive activities” listed within is both confusing and hilarious. According to Red Channels, those sneaky Communists intend to destroy America by attending spring balls, supporting Paul Robeson, entertaining at anti-Fascist rallies (isn’t that a good thing?), trying to abolish the House Un-American Activities Committee (that one’s a big no-no), reviewing Russian poems, sending telegrams to the President, and sponsoring milk drives.

Telegrams and milk drives. Wow.

If you’d like to learn more about this depressing, paranoid, and just plain weird chapter in American history, look in our catalog under Blacklisting of Authors – United States and Blacklisting of Entertainers – United States. You’ll find books like these, and more.


For easy, clickable fun, here are a few web resources.

I learned about Lord Haw Haw in college. Neato.

The title of this post comes from an August 15, 1949 editorial in Broadcasting magazine, quoted on p. 6 of Red Channels. The full editorial, pictured at left, is taken from AmericanRadioHistory.com.

Subversively yours,

Amy (once again not writing about Film or Audio)


Filed under Uncategorized

6 responses to ““Where there’s red smoke there’s usually Communist fire.”

  1. Nancy M. Griffis

    Reblogged this on Nancy M. Griffis and commented:
    Wow. This is both awesomely informative and horrifying.

  2. Blacklist story: Dalton Trumbo was (a) on that list and (b) regarded as one of the best writers ever to wield a pen in Hollywood. That meant that he couldn’t work there, but he was still in demand. That caused a difficulty, which the studios solved in their inimitable fashion: by hiring him to write, than giving someone else the screen credit.

    For example, “The Bridge on the River Kwai ” was credited to Pierre Boulle, who spoke no English.

    Trumbo wrote “Roman Holiday” (1953), but they couldn’t put his nae on the screen.

    He also wrote “The Brave One” (1956), which won the Award for best original screenplay. Naturally, they couldn’t give him the Award – it went instead to Jesse Lasky, Jr. Some years later, after Trumbo died, the Academy decided (for some reason) to set the record straight. His widow went to the Lasky family (Jesse had also died), and asked for the statue. They refused. So she went back the to Academy, and they agreed to give her the award he should have gotten.

    That marked the only time two different people got an Award for the same thing.

    In 1958. Kirk Douglas broke the blacklist and hired Trumbo to write “Spartacus”.

    That time was one of the more un-American periods in our history.

  3. Anita D. Alverio

    Thank you for writing this — it’s an extremely important topic with quite relevant warnings for us today.
    Anita Alverio

  4. Pingback: This Thank-You is Overdue… | Eleventh Stack

  5. Steve Burstein

    “Where there’s red smoke there’s communist fire”? I wonder if that means Smokey the Bear named names?

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