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“They Want to Muzzle Public Opinion”: John Howard Lawson’s Warning to the American Public

Playwright and screenwriter John Howard Lawson, the president and organizing force of the Screen Writers’ Guild and acknowledged leader of the Communist Party in Hollywood in the late 1930s, became the first “unfriendly” witness subpoenaed to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) on October 27, 1947. This followed a week-long session during which numerous studio heads, stars, and others spoke at length about purported Communist activity in the industry. During that first week, film critic and former screenwriter John Charles Moffitt detailed Lawson’s supposed instructions to writers on how to get propaganda into films. When his turn came, Lawson attempted unsuccessfully to read a statement into the record warning that the investigation threatened basic American rights and liberties. That statement appears below following the testimonies of Moffitt and Lawson. With nine other “unfriendly” witnesses, Lawson gambled that the Committee would issue contempt citations for their refusal to answer questions about their political associations and beliefs, and that after a court case and appeal, the Supreme Court would rule that such questioning violated their First Amendment rights. Further HUAC interrogations would thus be stopped. In 1949, however, before the appeal reach the high court, two liberal justices died, and the next year, the newly constituted Court refused to hear their appeal. The Ten were sent to prison as a result, and in 1951, HUAC continued its Hollywood probe.


Mr. STRIPLING. Did you ever join any organizations while you were in Hollywood in connection with being a writer for the motion-picture industry?

Mr. MOFFITT. Yes, sir; I did. In 1937, shocked by the conduct of the Fascists in Spain, I joined an organization known as the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League. Both my wife and I became members of that organization. We contributed considerable sums of money—for us—to what we supposed was the buying of ambulances and medical supplies for the assistance of the Loyalists in Spain.

After we had been in that organization some months we were invited to what turned out to be a more or less star chamber meeting, an inner corps meeting. It took place in the home of Mr. Frank Tuttle, a director. Mr. Herbert Biberman, who had been responsible for my being in the Anti-Nazi League, was there, as was his wife, Miss Gail Sondergaard, an actress. Donald Ogden Stewart was also one of those present. . . .

Mr. STRIPLING. Would you give the committee an account of the activities that you observed as a member during those 6 weeks?

Mr. MOFFITT. Well, the most significant activity I observed came out in a conversation with Mr. John Howard Lawson—

Mr. STRIPLING. Would you identify Mr. Lawson?

Mr. MOFFITT. Yes, sir.

Mr. STRIPLING. He is a writer, is he not?

Mr. MOFFITT. John Howard Lawson is a writer. He was the first president of the Screen Writers Guild.

It has been testified before the Tenney committee of the California legislature that Mr. Lawson was sent to Los Angeles by the Communist Party for the purpose of organizing Communist activities in Hollywood. It was testified by a former secretary of the Communist Party for Los Angeles County. . . .

Mr. STRIPLING. We will go back to your activities in the Anti-Nazi League.

Mr. MOFFITT. During the period I referred to, the period between the time I discovered that this was a Communist front organization and the period some 6 weeks later, there, when I resigned, I had several conversations with Mr. Biberman, Mr. Lawson, and others of that organization.

During the course of it Mr. Lawson made this significant statement:

He said: As a writer do not try to write an entire Communist picture.

He said: The producers will quickly identify it and it will be killed by the front office.

He said: As a writer try to get 5 minutes of the Communist doctrine, 5 minutes of the party line in every script that you write.

He said: Get that into an expensive scene, a scene involving expensive stars, large sets or many extras, because—

he said: then even if it is discovered by the front office the business manager of the unit, the very watchdog of the treasury, the very servant of capitalism, in order to keep the budget from going too high, will resist the elimination of that scene. If you can make the message come from the mouth of Gary Cooper or some other important star who is unaware of what he is saying, by the time it is discovered he is in New York and a great deal of expense will be involved to bring him back and reshoot the scene.

If you get the message into a scene employing many extras it will be very expensive to reshoot that scene because of the number of extras involved or the amount of labor that would be necessary to light and reconstruct a large set.

That was the nucleus of what he said at that time.

I later heard another statement by Mr. Lawson. That was made in the summer of 1941 when some young friends of mine who were attending what was purported to be a school for actors in Hollywood—I think it was on Labrea Boulevard—asked me to go over and hear one of the lectures, instructions on acting.

I went over on this night and Mr. Lawson was the lecturer. During the course of the evening Mr. Lawson said this—and I think I quote it practically verbatim—Mr. Lawson said to these young men and women who were training for a career of acting, he said:

It is your duty to further the class struggle by your performance.

He said: If you are nothing more than an extra wearing white flannels on a country club veranda do your best to appear decadent, do your best to appear to be a snob; do your best to create class antagonism.

He said: If you are an extra on a tenement street do your best to look downtrodden, do your best to look a victim of existing society. . . .



Mr. LAWSON. Mr. Chairman, I have a statement here which I wish to make—

The CHAIRMAN. Well, all right, let me see your statement.

(Statement handed to the chairman.)

The CHAIRMAN. I don’t care to read any more of the statement. The statement will not be read. I read the first line.

Mr. LAWSON. You have spent 1 week vilifying me before the American public—

The CHAIRMAN. Just a minute—

Mr. LAWSON. And you refuse to allow me to make a statement on my rights as an American citizen.

The CHAIRMAN. I refuse you to make the statement, because of the first sentence in your statement. That statement is not pertinent to the inquiry.

Now, this is a congressional committee— a congressional committee set up by law. We must have orderly procedure, and we are going to have orderly procedure.

Mr. Stripling, identify the witness.

Mr. LAWSON. The rights of American citizens are important in this room here, and I intend to stand up for those rights, Congressman Thomas.

Mr. STRIPLING. Mr. Lawson, will you state your full name, please?

Mr. LAWSON. I wish to protest against the unwillingness of this committee to read a statement, when you permitted Mr. Warner, Mr. Mayer, and others to read statements in this room.

My name is John Howard Lawson. . . .

Mr. STRIPLING. What is your occupation, Mr. Lawson?

Mr. LAWSON. I am a writer.

Mr. STRIPLING. How long have you been a writer?

Mr. LAWSON. All my life—at least 35 years—my adult life.

Mr. STRIPLING. Are you a member of the Screen Writers Guild?

Mr. LAWSON. The raising of any question here in regard to membership, political beliefs, or affiliation—

Mr. STRIPLING. Mr. Chairman—

Mr. LAWSON. Is absolutely beyond the powers of this committee.

Mr. STRIPLING. Mr. Chairman—

Mr. LAWSON. But—

(The chairman pounding gavel.)

Mr. LAWSON. It is a matter of public record that I am a member of the Screen Writers Guild.



The CHAIRMAN. I want to caution the people in the audience: You are the guests of this committee and you will have to maintain order at all times. I do not care for any applause or any demonstrations of one kind or another.

Mr. STRIPLING. Now, Mr. Chairman, I am also going to request that you instruct the witness to be responsive to the questions.

The CHAIRMAN. I think the witness will be more responsive to the questions.

Mr. LAWSON. Mr. Chairman, you permitted—

The CHAIRMAN (pounding gavel). Never mind—

Mr. LAWSON (continuing). Witnesses in this room to make answers of three or four or five hundred words to questions here.

The CHAIRMAN. Mr. Lawson, you will please be responsive to these questions and not continue to try to disrupt these hearings.

Mr. LAWSON. I am not on trial here, Mr. Chairman. This committee is on trial here before the American people. Let us get that straight.

The CHAIRMAN. We don’t want you to be on trial.

Mr. STRIPLING. Mr. Lawson, how long have you been a member of the Screen Writers Guild?

Mr. LAWSON. Since it was founded in its present form, in 1933.

Mr. STRIPLING. Have you ever held any office in the guild?

Mr. LAWSON. The question of whether I have held office is also a question which is beyond the purview of this Committee.

(The chairman pounding gavel.)

Mr. LAWSON. It is an invasion of the right of association under the Bill of Rights of this country.

The CHAIRMAN. Please be responsive to the question.

Mr. LAWSON. It is also a matter—

(The chairman pounding gavel.)

Mr. LAWSON. Of public record—

The CHAIRMAN. You asked to be heard. Through your attorney, you asked to be heard, and we want you to be heard. And if you don’t care to be heard, then we will excuse you and we will put the record in without your answers.

Mr. LAWSON. I wish to frame my own answers to your questions, Mr. Chairman, and I intend to do so.

. . . .

Mr. LAWSON. It is absolutely beyond the power of this committee to inquire into my association in any organization.

The CHAIRMAN. Mr. Lawson, you will have to stop or you will leave the witness stand. And you will leave the witness stand because you are in contempt. That is why you will leave the witness stand. And if you are just trying to force me to put you in contempt, you won’t have to try much harder. You know what has happened to a lot of people that have been in contempt of this committee this year, don’t you?

Mr. LAWSON. I am glad you have made it perfectly clear that you are going to threaten and intimidate the witnesses, Mr. Chairman.

(The chairman pounding gavel.)

Mr. LAWSON. I am an American and I am not at all easy to intimidate, and don’t think I am.

(The chairman pounding gavel.)

. . . .

The CHAIRMAN (pounding gavel). Mr. Lawson, just quiet down again.

Mr. Lawson, the most pertinent question that we can ask is whether or not you have ever been a member of the Communist Party. Now, do you care to answer that question?

Mr. LAWSON. You are using the old technique, which was used in Hitler Germany in order to create a scare here—

The CHAIRMAN (pounding gavel). Oh—

Mr. LAWSON. In order to create an entirely false atmosphere in which this hearing is conducted—

(The chairman pounding gavel.)

. . .

The CHAIRMAN (pounding gavel). Excuse the witness—

Mr. LAWSON. As they do from what I have written.

The CHAIRMAN (pounding gavel). Stand away from the stand—

Mr. LAWSON. I have written Americanism for many years, and I shall continue to fight for the Bill of Rights, which you are trying to destroy.

The CHAIRMAN. Officers, take this man away from the stand—

[Applause and boos.]

The CHAIRMAN (pounding gavel). There will be no demonstrations. No demonstrations, for or against. Everyone will please be seated. . . .


A Statement by John Howard Lawson [note: This statement was never put into the public record by HUAC.]

For a week, this Committee has conducted an illegal and indecent trial of American citizens, whom the Committee has selected to be publicly pilloried and smeared. I am not here to defend myself, or to answer the agglomeration of falsehoods that has been heaped upon me, I believe lawyers describe this material, rather mildly, as “hearsay evidence.” To the American public, it has a shorter name: dirt. Rational people don’t argue with dirt. I feel like a man who has had truckloads of filth heaped upon him; I am now asked to struggle to my feet and talk while more truckloads pour more filth around my head.

No, you don’t argue with dirt. But you try to find out where it comes from. And to stop the evil deluge before it buries you—and others. The immediate source is obvious. The so-called “evidence” comes from a parade of stool-pigeons, neurotics, publicity-seeking clowns, Gestapo agents, paid informers, and a few ignorant and frightened Hollywood artists. I am not going to discuss this perjured testimony. Let these people live with their consciences, with the knowledge that they have violated their country’s most sacred principles.

These individuals are not important. As an individual, I am not important. The obvious fact that the Committee is trying to destroy me personally and professionally, to deprive me of my livelihood and what is far dearer to me—my honor as an American—gains significance only because it opens the way to similar destruction of any citizen whom the Committee selects for annihilation.

I am not going to touch on the gross violation of the Constitution of the United States, and especially of its First and Fifth Amendments, that is taking place here. The proof is so overwhelming that it needs no elaboration. The Un-American Activities Committee stands convicted in the court of public opinion.

I want to speak here as a writer and a citizen. . . .

My political and social views are well known. My deep faith in the motion picture as a popular art is also well known. I don’t “sneak ideas” into pictures. I never make a contract to write a picture unless I am convinced that it serves democracy and the interests of the American people. I will never permit what I write and think to be subject to the orders of self-appointed dictators, ambitious politicians, thought-control gestapos, or any other form of censorship this Un-American Committee may attempt to devise. My freedom to speak and write is not for sale in return for a card signed by J. Parnell Thomas saying “O.K. for employment until further notice.”

Pictures written by me have been seen and approved by millions of Americans. A subpoena for me is a subpoena for all those who have enjoyed these pictures and recognized them as an honest portrayal of our American life.

Thus, my integrity as a writer is obviously an integral part of my integrity as a citizen. As a citizen I am not alone here. I am not only one of nineteen men who have been subpoenaed. I am forced to appear here as a representative of one hundred and thirty million Americans because the illegal conduct of this Committee has linked me with every citizen. If I can be destroyed no American is safe. You can subpoena a farmer in a field, a lumberjack in the woods, a worker at a machine, a doctor in his office—you can deprive them of a livelihood, deprive them of their honor as Americans.

Let no one think that this is an idle or thoughtless statement. This is the course that the Un-American Activities Committee has charted. Millions of Americans who may as yet be unconscious of what may be in store for them will find that the warning I speak today is literally fulfilled. No American will be safe if the Committee is not stopped in its illegal enterprise.

I am like most Americans in resenting interference with my conscience and belief. I am like most Americans in insisting on my right to serve my country in the way that seems to me most helpful and effective. I am like most Americans in feeling that loyalty to the United States and pride in its traditions is the guiding principle of my life. I am like most Americans in believing that divided loyalty—which is another word for treason—is the most despicable crime of which any man or woman can be accused.

It is my profound conviction that it is precisely because I hold these beliefs that I have been hailed before this illegal court. These are the beliefs that the so-called Un-American Activities Committee is seeking to root out in order to subvert orderly government and establish an autocratic dictatorship.

I am not suggesting that J. Parnell Thomas aspires to be the man on horseback. He is a petty politician, serving more powerful forces. Those forces are trying to introduce fascism in this country. They know that the only way to trick the American people into abandoning their rights and liberties is to manufacture an imaginary danger, to frighten the people into accepting repressive laws which are supposedly for their protection.

. . . .

Today, we face a serious crisis in the determination of national policy. The only way to solve that crisis is by free discussion. Americans must know the facts. The only plot against American safety is the plot to conceal facts. I am plastered with mud because I happen to be an American who expresses opinions that the House Un-American Activities Committee does not like. But my opinions are not an issue in this case. The issue is my right to have opinions. The Committee’s logic is obviously: Lawson’s opinions are properly subject to censorship; he writes for the motion picture industry, so the industry is properly subject to censorship; the industry makes pictures for the American people, so the minds of the people must be censored and controlled.

Why? What are J. Parnell Thomas and the Un-American interests he serves, afraid of? They’re afraid of the American people. They don’t want to muzzle me. They want to muzzle public opinion. They want to muzzle the great Voice of democracy. Because they’re conspiring against the American way of life. They want to cut living standards, introduce an economy of poverty, wipe out labor’s rights, attack Negroes, Jews, and other minorities, drive us into a disastrous and unnecessary war.

The struggle between thought-control and freedom of expression is the struggle between the people and a greedy unpatriotic minority which hates and fears the people. I wish to present as an integral part of this statement, a paper which I read at a Conference on Thought Control in the United States held in Hollywood on July 9th to 13th. The paper presents the historical background of the threatening situation that we face today, and shows that the attack on freedom of communication is, and has always been, an attack on the American people.

The American people will know how to answer that attack. They will rally, as they have always rallied, to protect their birthright.

Source: Congress, House, Committee on Un-American Activities, Hearings Regarding the Communist Infiltration of the Motion Picture Industry, 80th Congress, 1st Session, October 1947 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1947); “A Statement by John Howard Lawson,” published in Gordon Kahn, Hollywood on Trial (New York, 1948); quoted in Thirty Years of Treason: Excerpts from Hearings before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, 1938–1968, Eric Bentley, ed. (New York: Viking Press, 1971), 161–65.

See Also:"You Are the Un-Americans, and You Ought to be Ashamed of Yourselves": Paul Robeson Appears Before HUAC
"The World Was at Stake": Three "Friendly" HUAC Hollywood Witnesses Assess Pro-Soviet Wartime Films
"A Damaging Impression of Hollywood Has Spread": Movie "Czar" Eric Johnston Testifies before HUAC
"Have You No Sense of Decency": The Army-McCarthy Hearings
"Communists are second to none in our devotion to our people and to our country": Prosecution and Defense Statements, 1949 Trial of American Communist Party Leaders
"Damage": Collier's Assesses the Army-McCarthy Hearings
"Not Only Ridiculous, but Dangerous": Collier's Objects to Joseph McCarthy's Attacks on the Press
"I Cannot and Will Not Cut My Conscience to Fit This Year's Fashions": Lillian Hellman Refuses to Name Names
"Enemies from Within": Senator Joseph R. McCarthy's Accusations of Disloyalty
"I Have Sung in Hobo Jungles, and I Have Sung for the Rockefellers": Pete Seeger Refuses to "Sing" for HUAC
"We Must Keep the Labor Unions Clean": "Friendly" HUAC Witnesses Ronald Reagan and Walt Disney Blame Hollywood Labor Conflicts on Communist Infiltration
"National Suicide": Margaret Chase Smith and Six Republican Senators Speak Out Against Joseph McCarthy's Attack on "Individual Freedom"