Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 467
Blacklisting reached its height during the Cold War in the United States, but it has historically been used by governments, churches, and businesses to target dissidents. During World War I the U.S. government blacklisted businesses with suspected subversive connections. In 1947 the administration of President Harry S. Truman blacklisted ninety supposedly disloyal businesses as part of a “get tough with Russia policy” designed to halt communism. Truman’s Loyalty Review Board investigated three million federal employees, three thousand of whom resigned or were dismissed.
The 1950’s Red Scare, reminiscent of the 1919-1920 Red Scare, linked political radicalism with suspected foreign conspiracies. Conservatives, fearing that American communists (numbering about eighty thousand during the 1940’s) were conspiring to overthrow the government, united to blacklist suspects.
The 1950’s Hollywood blacklist originated during an industry-wide meeting in New York City on November 24-25, 1947. Bowing to political and economic pressure, film studios fired a group of allegedly procommunist employees and implemented the blacklist, a self-policing strategy to prevent government control and to avert costly public boycotts.
The House Committee on Un-American Activities (also known as the House Un-American Activities Committee, or the HUAC) targeted Hollywood because it considered movies, disseminated to millions, an ideal vehicle to spread subversive ideas among the American public. Hollywood developed the largest blacklist in America, eventually barring 212 employees, some with only a slightly suspicious past. Blacklists targeted those who refused to sign a loyalty oath, those who invoked the Fifth Amendment, and those who refused to appear before the HUAC. People knew they were blacklisted when jobs disappeared, income dropped, and friends evaporated. Removal from the blacklist required a degrading ceremony, in which one renounced communism and named other former communists. The pressure to recant was constant and unrelenting; the alternative—social and financial ostracism— was devastating.
Blacklisting repressed information as well as people. The Index Librorum Prohibitorum blacklisted books that the Roman Catholic church believed damaged faith or morals. The U.S. Customs banned books, beginning in 1842. Modern American churches, libraries, and schools have blacklisted literature, removing materials disapproved of by interest groups. Films have been banned because of their subject matter or the suspected radicalism of the actors.
Blacklisting gradually eroded during the 1960’s. Dalton Trumbo, nominated under a pseudonym for an Academy Award, struck a blow against blacklisting by publicly accepting the award in his own name. The HUAC blacklisted former communists without such constitutional safeguards as an impartial trial, the right to cross examination, and the exclusionary rule. Informers became role models, honored with jobs, prestige, and media praise.
Blacklisting had immense social costs, damaging government credibility and faith in freedoms guaranteed by the United States Constitution. Fear, suspicion, and betrayal destroyed community trust. Film content became extremely conservative, avoiding controversial subjects. Blacklisting, by tampering with ideas and information, changed and corrupted history.
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