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“A Damaging Impression of Hollywood Has Spread”: Movie “Czar” Eric Johnston Testifies before HUAC

The House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) held hearings in October 1947 on Communist activity in Hollywood. In the following testimony, Eric Johnston, a successful businessman who in 1945 succeeded Will H. Hays as President of the Motion Picture Association of America—the industry’s institution for self-regulation—defended Hollywood against HUAC’s attacks and complained vigorously that the “atmosphere of fear” resulting from the investigation precluded the production of “good and honest motion pictures.” Although Johnston earlier had argued against the Committee’s request that studio officials discharge known Communists, in November 1947, after ten screenwriters and directors who refused to cooperate with the Committee were cited for contempt of Congress, Johnston and the studio heads issued a statement that the studios would not employ Communists and would dismiss or suspend the ten. HUAC then agreed to stop investigating studios and the content of films and limited their inquiries to personnel. Although Johnston insisted that the industry did not engage in blacklisting, those in the filmmaking community who did not deny that they were Communists and refused to inform on others when questioned at HUAC hearings were prohibited from working in the industry.


I’m not here to try to whitewash Hollywood, and I’m not here to help sling a tar brush at it, either.

I want to stick to the facts as I see them.

There are several points I’d like to make to this committee.

The first one is this: A damaging impression of Hollywood has spread all over the country as a result of last week’s hearings. You have a lot of sensational testimony about Hollywood. From some of it the public will get the idea that Hollywood is running over with Communists and communism.

I believe the impression which has gone out is the sort of scare-head stuff which is grossly unfair to a great American industry. It must be a great satisfaction to the Communist leadership in this country to have people believe that Hollywood Communists are astronomical in number and almost irresistible in power.

Now, what are the facts? Not everybody in Hollywood is a Communist. I have said before that undoubtedly there are Communists in Hollywood, but in my opinion the percentage is extremely small.

I have had a number of close looks at Hollywood in the last 2 years, and I have looked at it through the eyes of an average businessman. I recognize that as the world’s capital of show business, there is bound to be a lot of show business in Hollywood. There is no business, Mr. Chairman, like show business. But underneath there is the solid foundation of patriotic, hardworking, decent citizens. Making motion pictures is hard work. You just don’t dash off a motion picture between social engagements. . . .

I wind up my first point with a request of this committee. The damaging impression about Hollywood should be corrected. I urge your committee to do so in these public hearings.

There is another damaging impression which should be corrected. The report of the subcommittee said that some of the most flagrant Communist propaganda films were produced as the result of White House pressure. This charge has been completely refuted by the testimony before you.

My second point includes another request of the committee.

The report of your subcommittee stated that you had a list of all pictures produced in Hollywood in the last 8 years which contained Communist propaganda. Your committee has not made this list public. Until the list is made public the industry stands condemned by unsupported generalizations, and we are denied the opportunity to refute these charges publicly.

Again, I remind the committee that we have offered to put on a special showing of any or all of the pictures which stand accused so that you can see for yourselves what’s in them. The contents of the pictures constitute the only proof.

Unless this evidence is presented and we are given the chance to refute it in these public hearings, it is the obligation of the committee to absolve the industry from the charges against it.

Now, I come to my third point—a vitally important one to every American and to the system under which we live.

It is free speech. . . .

When I talk about freedom of speech in connection with this hearing, I mean just this: You don’t need to pass a law to choke off free speech or seriously curtail it. Intimidation or coercion will do it just as well. You can’t make good and honest motion pictures in an atmosphere of fear.

I intend to use every influence at my command to keep the screen free. I don’t propose that Government shall tell the motion-picture industry, directly or by coercion, what kind of pictures it ought to make. I am as whole-souledly against that as I would be against dictating to the press or the radio, to the book publishers or to the magazines. . . .

To sum up this point: We insist on our rights to decide what will or will not go in our pictures. We are deeply conscious of the responsibility this freedom involves, but we have no intention to violate this trust by permitting subversive propaganda in our films.

Now, my next point is this:

When I was before this committee last March, I said that I wanted to see Communists exposed. I still do. I’m heart and soul for it. An exposed Communist is an unarmed Communist. Expose them, but expose them in the traditional American manner.

But I believe that when this committee or any other agency undertakes to expose communism it must be scrupulous to avoid tying a red tag on innocent people by indiscriminate labeling.

It seems to me it is getting dangerously easy to call a man a Communist without proof or even reasonable suspicion. When a distinguished leader of the Republican Party in the United States Senate is accused of following the Communist Party line for introducing a housing bill, it is time, gentlemen, to give a little serious thought to the dangers of thoughtless smearing by gossip and hearsay.

Senator Robert Taft isn’t going to worry about being called a Communist. But not every American is a Senator Taft who can properly ignore such an accusation. Most of us in America are just little people, and loose charges can hurt little people. They take away everything a man has—his livelihood, his reputation, and his personal dignity.

When just one man is falsely damned as a Communist in an hour like this when the Red issue is at white heat, no one of us is safe.

Gentlemen, I maintain that preservation of the rights of the individual is a proper duty for this Committee on Un-American Activities. This country’s entire tradition is based on the principle that the individual is a higher power than the state; that the state owes its authority to the individual, and must treat him accordingly.

Expose communism, but don’t put any American who isn’t a Communist in a concentration camp of suspicion. We are not willing to give up our freedoms to save our freedoms.

I now come to my final point:

What are we going to do positively and constructively about combating communism? It isn’t enough to be anti-Communist any more than it is to be antismallpox. You can still die from smallpox if you haven’t used a serum against it. A positive program is the best antitoxin of the plague of communism.

Communism must have breeding grounds. Men and women who have a reasonable measure of opportunity aren’t taken in by the prattle of Communists. Revolutions plotted by frustrated intellectuals at cocktail parties won’t get anywhere if we wipe out the potential causes of communism. The most effective way is to make democracy work for greater opportunity, for greater participation, for greater security for all our people.

The real breeding ground of communism is in the slums. It is everywhere where people haven’t enough to eat or enough to wear through no fault of their own. Communism hunts misery, feeds on misery, and profits by it.

Freedoms walk hand-in-hand with abundance. That has been the history of America. It has been the American story. It turned the eyes of the world to America, because America gave reality to freedom, plus abundance when it was still an idle daydream in the rest of the world.

We have been the greatest exporter of freedom, and the world is hungry for it. Today it needs our wheat and our fuel to stave off hunger and fight off cold, but hungry and cold as they may be, men always hunger for freedom.

We want to continue to practice and to export freedom.

If we fortify our democracy to lick want, we will lick communism—here and abroad. Communists can hang all the iron curtains they like, but they’ll never be able to shut out the story of a land where freemen walk without fear and live with abundance.


(The chairman pounding gavel.) . . .

Source: Congress, House, Committee on Un-American Activities, Hearings Regarding the Communist Infiltration of the Motion Picture Industry, 80th Congress, 1st Session, in William Bruce Wheeler and Susan D. Becker Discovering the American Past: A Look at the Evidence, Volume II: Since 1865, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1990), 280–83.

See Also:"You Are the Un-Americans, and You Ought to be Ashamed of Yourselves": Paul Robeson Appears Before HUAC
"They Want to Muzzle Public Opinion": John Howard Lawson's Warning to the American Public
"The World Was at Stake": Three "Friendly" HUAC Hollywood Witnesses Assess Pro-Soviet Wartime Films
"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"