Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Operation Abolition and the Red Menace

The Red Menace. It almost has a quaint ring to it now, but in the 1950s it was the scariest thing imaginable for a gullible American populace. The US had just fought to an uneasy standstill in Korea, the Evil Empire that was the Soviet Union had nuclear weapons -- thanks to its spies at Los Alamos (including the most famous of the "atom spies", the Rosenbergs) -- and there was much fear and loathing in the land.

It became a terror-based witch hunt propped up by the likes of Senator Joseph "Taligunner Joe" McCarthy and his crowd, and by the most reactionary congressmen, who seemed to overpopulate the House Un-American Activities Committee.*

Lives were ruined from just the innuendo that someone was a Communist. People lost their jobs, especially schoolteachers and other government employees, their houses torched by arsonists, their children harassed at school, and for a while during the 50s you would have suffered less from an accusation of child molestation than you would from an accusation of Communism. With the passage of Communist Control Act of 1954 it actually became illegal to be a member of the Party.

In May of 1960 the Committee decided to hold its witch-hunting hearings in San Francisco. Stretched over three days, from May 12 to May 14 at the city hall, the participants included several dozen suspected Communists. The witnesses were characterized as active members of the communist conspiracy, their deluded supporters and their "commie dupes".

It was there that the 1960s got its kick-start when students from nearby Berkeley and San Francisco State staged protest demonstrations. On Friday a demonstration turned into what was labeled at the time -- by the HUAC -- as a "riot" when police turned fire hoses on the demonstrators. That weekend really set the stage for the rest of the 60s, and I believe that it marked the first time that large numbers of white middleclass youth felt galvanized into action.

Naturally, HUAC put the blame squarely on the Communists and their nefarious plans to subvert American youth. The students, in the view of the Committee, were nothing more than pathetic dupes who were tricked by their handlers in The Party to come out and protest the Committee. And create a riot while they were at it.

To further its ends, the Committee subpoenaed -- confiscated -- television and newsreel film shot over the three day period and then had their own sympathetic editor and hired-gun narrator stitch together a 45 minute "documentary" intended to show how the hearings were sabotaged by the Communists and their dupes.

They called the film "Operation Abolition", because the Communist goal was to abolish the committee.

Here it is in its entirety:

Joseph Goebbels himself would be proud of the Committee's work if he could see this film.

The Northern California branch of the American Civil Liberties Union took the same footage used by the Committee and analyzed it for its handling of the truth of the protests at the hearing. With a different voice-over narrator and some telling subtitles it shows that much of the film footage was used out of chronological order in order to enhance the false narrative.

Here it is in its entirety:

I first saw these two films in college in the spring of 1969. They were shown in an English class with the purpose of illustrating how easy it was for "documentary" films to show a distorted reality. However, since the professor was also the leader of the local chapter of the ACLU, I suspect he had an ulterior motive. Especially when he was instrumental in bringing Frank Wilkinson (whom you will see in the movie) to speak on campus.

Oddly enough, by 1969 the New Left had taken over the political discussion on the left and Wilkinson was viewed as an odd historical artifact, a quaint flashback to a different time. I expected some kind of protest, if only a weak one, from the right wing element on campus (yes, there were some), but they were strangely silent. Probably none of them really knew of his Communist pedigree, or even his name.

So go ahead and watch both of these movies, and keep in mind that the "false narrative" is still alive and fully active, especially in the "documentary" productions of Faux News. But not only there. Pretty much all of the "news" media does it, which is why we all need to be informed consumers of the news, get our updates from numerous sources, and take everything with a grain of salt. A giant grain of salt. Or maybe a 50 lb. pound of salt...

Further Reading: A Focus on Rebellion, by Albert T. and Bernice Prince Biggs Anderson, 1962. Looks at the larger picture of student revolt, and has a long section on the San Francisco hearings, the "riot" and the trial of Robert Meisenbach, the only protester to face criminal charges resulting from the riot. Spoiler alert: He was found Not Guilty.

*As an aside, it should come as a surprise to no one that one Richard Milhouse Nixon was on the Committee when he was in the House before he moved on to the Senate, the Vice Presidency and finally the Presidency and the personal and political disaster that was Watergate.


the yellow fringe said...

Good post. I have read a lot about that era, and now I fear we have it again, via the media, and the corporatocracy. Did you see that Tuesday the house passed a bill to make scientist ineligible to advise the EPA in any subject they have written about and unfit to serve on the advisory board if their research was through a government grant, this to prevent bias. In their place industry advisors may serve, this to prevent bias. It seems todays "red menace" is science, as it was in Leonardo's days.

Nan said...

Are you familiar with the 1964 documentary "Point of Order"?

Farnsworth68 said...

@Nan -- Yes, thanks for the reminder. I saw it once many years ago, and thanks to the magic of YouTube it's available again. Here's the link:

double nickel said...

This is why I'm glad you're back.

Katy Anders said...

This is great - thank you for posting it.

You know, I always here about the campus activism of the 60s being solely about the war, but I've never considered the fact that it could have been in part a backlash against anti-communist craziness from the 50s.

Farnsworth68 said...

@Katy -- Thanks for the comment. There was protest in the air long before it got focused on the war. The Free Speech Movement came to fruition in 1964, which was before any real combat troops had been sent to Vietnam.
You are correct that history looks back at the protest that were just against the war, but there was a log wrong that the students intended to right.
--The Man