Black List, White Wash
May 8, 2012
Last month, in a buffoonishly McCarthyesque moment, Representative Allen West (R-Fla.) claimed in a town hall meeting that there were “about 78 to 81” communists in the United States House of Representatives. Asked to support that claim, West’s office could provide only some qualified (and unreciprocated) statements of support for the Congressional Progressive Caucus that appeared in a Communist Party USA publication. The Communist Party itself confirmed that it lists no members of Congress in its membership rolls. (If only….)
Also last month, a post on the UCLA Library Special Collections Blog announced that it has made available the papers of television pioneer Roy Huggins. The headline of the post characterized Huggins as a “blacklisted writer,” and the article went on to offer a description of Huggins’s relationship to the blacklist so artfully sanitized that it deserves to be called Orwellian:
In September of 1952, Huggins was summoned before the infamous U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to answer questions about his brief membership in the Communist Party. He continued to write under his own name, and under the name “John Thomas James,” combining the names of his three sons.
It would seem that, more than two decades after the demise of the Cold War and the end of anti-communist hysteria, the subject still encourages the most basic and blatant distortions of fact.
Roy Huggins was a gifted television producer. With Maverick, The Fugitive, and The Rockford Files, all of which were largely his conception, Huggins proved that ongoing television series could defy genre conventions – could have authority figures as villains and defiers of authority as protagonists – and still attract an audience. The other series that bore Huggins’s imprint – 77 Sunset Strip, Run For Your Life, The Outsider, the Lawyers segments of The Bold Ones, Alias Smith and Jones – were less adventurous, but were consistently smart and well-produced.
Roy Huggins was also a fink.
On September 29, 1952, Huggins appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee and gave the names of nineteen colleagues and acquaintances whom he believed to be present or former members of the Communist Party. He gave the names with the full knowledge that, if they hadn’t been already, the careers of those men and women would be destroyed.
Huggins stood behind the defense that all of the names he supplied were already known to the Committee; in other words, he wasn’t fingering anyone whose life hadn’t already been wrecked. Huggins even worked that rationalization into his testimony (which is fascinating to read), although it does not bear up under scrutiny: if the handy appendix in Robert Vaughn’s Only Victims is accurate, Huggins was the only witness to name the optometrist Howard Davis in public testimony, and a few of the other eighteen were fingered in the HUAC record for the first time by Huggins (and then subsequently repeated by other friendly witnesses).
And of course, as Huggins later articulated, the actual names were irrelevant. HUAC was not interested in the names (which its investigators, and the FBI, already had); it was interested in legitimizing itself through the ritual of naming. Anyone who gave names bolstered the witchhunters’ influence, and prolonged the blacklist for everyone. Huggins thought he was beating HUAC at its own game (not just in his choice of names, but through several more arcane gambits that I haven’t gone into here). But, in the end, the House won.
It’s not my desire to rake Huggins over the coals again. Huggins himself was blunt, and repentant, on the subject of HUAC. In an eloquent interview in Victor Navasky’s Naming Names, Huggins called his cooperative testimony “a failure of nerve” and said that he was “ashamed of myself.”
The problem is that, no matter how much UCLA might like to, it is impossible to separate Huggins’s HUAC record from his later success. The inconvenient truth is that his career thrived during the era of the blacklist. Maverick, 77 Sunset Strip, and even The Fugitive came about during the decade when anyone who defied HUAC could not work in Hollywood. Had Huggins chosen not to give names, none of those shows would exist.
So, if we return to that post on the UCLA blog, some annotation is in order. In no way was Huggins a “blacklisted writer.” He has screenwriting credits in every year between 1948 and 1953, and directed a film, Hangman’s Knot, which was released in late 1952. Huggins worked steadily before the HUAC subpoena arrived, and his cooperation was immediate (or very nearly so). Some of the “late friendlies” were in fact sad figures who endured years of unemployability before finally capitulating to HUAC (in other words, they could accurately be described both as blacklisted and as friendly witnesses), but Huggins was not one of these. It is an insult to anyone who truly was blacklisted to apply the term to Huggins.
Further, the placement and wording of the UCLA post’s discussion of Huggins’s pseudonym implies that, like many authentically blacklisted writers, Huggins had to write under a false name during the Red Scare. In fact, he didn’t start using “John Thomas James” until the mid-sixties, and for reasons that had nothing to do with the blacklist. (Huggins described the pseudonym, which he often used on stories that were fleshed out into teleplays by other writers, as an act of modesty; a few writers I’ve talked to have suggested that Huggins was a credit grabber, and used the pseudonym to make it less obvious.)
It would be bad enough if some random blogger on the internet (like me) got these facts wrong. For an academic institution like UCLA to whitewash history in this way is inexcusable – particularly since the same misinformation (or disinformation) has also been recorded for posterity in the library’s official finding aid for the Huggins collection. This post – which is bylined by Peggy Alexander, a Performing Arts Special Collections Librarian at UCLA – betrays either an embarrassing ignorance of its subject or, perhaps, an even more dismaying inclination to obscure the facts and to rehabilitate Huggins for later generations who have (fairly or not) come to view the friendly witnesses as cowards and opportunists. If it’s the latter case, then UCLA shows incredibly poor judgment. Since when is it the job of libraries to act as press agents for its depositors? Not to mention that Huggins himself was frank about his role in the blacklist. Why should the curators of his legacy be any less so?
And finally, I submitted an early draft of the above as a comment on the UCLA blog last week. As of now, it is still “awaiting moderation” and not visible to the public. I guess that’s the internet version of getting gaveled down by J. Parnell Thomas.
Edited slightly for clarity on 5/9/12 – SB.