Prisoners of Silence

“Are you or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” It’s like asking someone “œwhen did you stop beating your wife?” Questions like these more often than not led to no-win situations. If the answer was, “I didn’t”, the interrogator could take it to mean that the person under the spotlight never stopped hitting his spouse or if they were of a less suspicious nature that the person never had hit his wife. As for the political persuasion- even if one had once been a member but had quit five years earlier- it still made them guilty by association.

The “being a commie” question was asked to several show business personnel in 1947. Forty-one partial and real celebrities were questioned as so-called friendly witnesses to Federal Government officials . They also named nineteen others whom they knew to be practicing Reds.

When brought before Congress, ten of the nineteen remained silent when asked that specific question about Party membership. They were quite willing to give answers to other questions. This partial cooperation got them in trouble with the law. All ten were held in contempt of Congress and sentenced to spend time in Federal Prison. Eight of them were given a full year’s stay behind bars while two others were given only six moths. Those with the longer sentence petitioned that an unfair sentencing had been handed down as the two with shorter sentences were presided over by a different judge. Their lawyers argued that punishment should have been meted out equally regardless of who dished it. The plea fell on deaf ears. Most, if not, all ten served less than the allotted time due to good behavior.

The First Amendment of the United States Constitution states that no one can be prosecuted because of their speech and beliefs. That is what Freedom of Speech is supposed to be in a perfect world. However, the Ten made the calculated mistake of believing that this freedom gave a twofold protection- the right to speak and not to speak for each question asked as well as the right to hold certain beliefs that are contrary to the majority thinking.

Once they answered even one question, they lost the protection to not speak. There is no Freedom From Speech. The Fifth Amendment which guarantees the right of a person to not self-incriminate is only protective if the person refuses to speak at all. Selective responses invalidates this protection.

By keeping silent after answering some innocuous questions, it didn’t matter whether they were a Communist or not, or had once been but quit after recognizing it as folly, they were guilty of breaking the law- the law of answering questions in a Congressional hearing.

The irony is that just as the Federal Government had taken away their employment by having them banned from openly working again in Hollywood, the Fed’s unwittingly conspired to help them gain work in the black market of opportunity. At the same time the witch hunt for Communists was being pursued, the Feds were also making a strong effort to break up the oligopoly that a handful of movie studios such as Paramount and MGM had on their industry. These studios were owned by big East Coast corporations that also owned the theaters the movies played in. They effectively controlled distribution, production and what the audiences were able to see. By 1950, to get the Government off their backs, the studios stopped signing actors to long term contracts, took in independent productions for distribution and practically closed the book on the studio era.

The ban on the Hollywood Ten from working was only with the major studios. Several were able to get work with independent producers using fake names so as to not embarrass their customers and to avoid the snooping eyes of the watchdogs.

Ironically, today Hollywood is perceived as one large leftist crowd. Even as far as as the 1960’s, there were actors who refused to be involved in projects with John Wayne because of his hawkish view on US involvement in Viet Nam. The Oscar Awards show has turned into a political statement forum espousing anti-American causes. However, it came far too late for the Hollywood Ten, some who never recovered from being denied the work they coveted.

Roll forward more than fifty years later and Congressional hearings in 2005 wee in the forefront with the Federal Government wanting to know with simple yes and no answers if selected baseball players were taking banned steroid substances. Sammy Sosa said he did not knowingly take any. Mark McGwire chose a different path. He refused to answer saying that if he said ‘no’, no one would believe him. If he said ‘yes’, he would be open to public scorn. He was not declared in contempt of Congress because he was not asked anything else that was directly linked to that issue.

Five years later, in 2010, McGwire openly admitted to taking steroids. This did not put him in jeopardy of lying to Congress because he never said “no, I didn’t”. However, if Sammy Sosa were to be exposed as a steroid user, he would be subject to prosecution.

Putting aside the question of having trust in liars, maybe we ought to look back at the big picture: Was the United States ever in danger of going Communistic because of a few wealthy Party members in the 1940’s? Was Baseball on a path of ruin because a few athletes were able to respond to new capabilities by taking self-destructive body additives?

Some people say Silence is Golden. Hmmm……

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *