Republican Representative J. Parnell Thomas of New Jersey feasted on his hate for the New Deal. An investment banker before winning his House seat in the 1936 election, Thomas viewed its progressive reforms with almost pathological aversion. It was, he said in a 1938 radio broadcast, a plan “to sabotage the capitalist system.” Within the administration’s far-flung array of programs, Thomas reserved his harshest hostility for the Federal Theatre Project. He hurled his first accusations even before the Dies Committee hearings opened, when it was still interviewing witnesses privately. The theater project, said Thomas, was “a patronage vehicle for Communists,” in which “practically every play presented…'is sheer propaganda for Communism or the New Deal.” He vowed to give it a “thorough cleansing.”
Practically alone among the WPA’s adminstrators, Hallie Flanagan viewed these rumblings with alarm. When she read Thomas’s charge in a New York paper that project workers were required to belong to the pro-Communist Workers Alliance, she issued an immediate denial. But the Dies Committee’s potential to do serious damage had not penetrated the WPA’s hierarchy because Flanagan had been reined in. David K. Niles, who headed the Information Division and advised Hopkins on press matters, had told her that only his office was to respond to press reports. At this point the WPA’s official policy on the Dies Committee was apparently to laugh at it or ignore it altogether.
But as Flanagan wrote later, “It never seemed funny to me.” Indeed, as the committee opened hearings and immediately shifted its focus from Nazis to Communists, Dies trotted out a parade of witnesses hurling charges against the theater project and completely ignored suggestions that he try to balance the testimony by calling project officials or theater experts. Flanagan found it “increasingly incredible” that the WPA let the charges go unanswered.
One early star witness was a woman named Hazel Huffman. Dies announced her as representing “a committee of theatrical workers on relief.” Huffman was in fact strongly prejudiced. She had worked in the mail room of the New York project office, where her duties included handling the mail and, unbeknownst to Flanagan, opening her letters and reporting their contents to the New York administrator, Somervell, who was seeking to confirm his own suspicions of leftist influence. Huffman had been discovered and dismissed before her testimony, but Dies ignored this history and her meager credentials, and treated her as an authority on a wide range of project activities. She flung charges far and wide: most of the workers had no theatrical experience, a Communist paper was circulated among employees, she had seen portraits of Lenin and Stalin in a meeting room, and while she could not prove Flanagan was a Communist, the Theatre Project head was “an active participant in communist activities.” The proof Huffman offered was that a play of Flanagan’s had been described in the Communist magazine New Masses as the “best revolutionary play yet produced in America.”
Testimony from other witnesses produced more of the same: a “dangerous un-American atmosphere on the project” Communist propaganda sold on government property; a blond Austrian-born actress who complained that she was asked for a date by a Negro, and that blacks and whites on the project fraternized “like Communists” in pursuit of social equality and race mixing.
Flanagan maintained her public silence through September but wrote Dies asking that she and the six regional directors who made up the project’s policy board be allowed to testify. They were the only people, she noted, who could speak to the direction and intentions of the theater project. But she received no reply, the hearings continued, and the WPA continued to officially ignore the wild charges they produced.
Not only was Flanagan concerned by the damage the project was suffering; she was also mystified by the way Thomas interpreted its plays. He had even found fault with Prologue to Glory, about young Abraham Lincoln: because the play portrayed Lincoln “battling with the politicians,” it was “simply a propaganda play to prove that all politicians are crooked.” Flanagan had considered it a patriotic look at the sixteenth president, and when she encountered Thomas on a train from Washington to New York she approached him in the hope that she could decipher his objections. He described a scene in which the Lincoln character had objected to an abstract debate topic—the value of bees versus ants—and suggested instead that “the subjects for debate before this forum ought to be alive—subjects for action, useful for living.”
“That is Communist talk,” she recounted him saying.
Indeed, Flanagan herself was perplexed by much of the adverse reaction, not just from Thomas but from some project workers, even with plays that had no obvious political content. The New Jersey project was rehearsing Created Equal, a drama that retold the history of the Constitution. Half the cast supported the play, but the others claimed it was un-American, and sent Thomas a petition saying it should not be allowed to open. This contingent believed that the play’s stress on the roles of ordinary citizens in the revolution, as opposed to leaders, smacked of “collectivism.” They also thought that when the characters of Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Lincoln did speak, their lines made them sound like Roosevelt. Ludicrous though charges such as these were, Flanagan could not find much humor in them; their implications for the future of the project were just too scary.
It was little consolation that the Federal Theatre Project was neither the only target of the committee nor the only one being accused with neither documentation of the charges nor a chance to answer them. Colonel John P. Frey, an official of the American Federation of Labor, charged that the AFL’s competitor, the CIO—the Congress of Industrial Organizations—was riddled with Communists. Asked to give a source for a specific charge, Frey said, “I cannot openly give the source of my information.” But he assured Dies that he was convinced of its authenticity, and the testimony was allowed to stand. Similarly, a committee investigator charged that Communists dominated the Hollywood movie industry, and that labor organizer Harry Bridges was a Communist guilty of terrorism, crop sabotage, and murder in fomenting labor strife on the West Coast. Bridges’s accuser was Edward F. Sullivan, a longtime labor spy who had actively supported anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic activities in the United States. And when the HUAC spotlight turned again to the WPA and one Edwin P. Banta testified to Communist domination of the Federal Writers’ Project in New York, he turned out to be a professional informer and a Nazi sympathizer.
Yet it was not until Dies allowed Michigan Republicans to hurl charges against the state’s Democratic governor, Frank Murphy, who was locked in a tight reelection battle, that the administration made any response at all. The so-called issue was Murphy’s handling of the General Motors sit-down strike in January 1937. Fearing lethal violence, he had resisted calling out the National Guard to remove the strikers. GM capitulated, and much of the auto industry except for Ford had unionized as a result. The parade of politically motivated witnesses against Murphy included Detroit police officials, the Flint city manager, and a judge, all of whom testified to Communist activity in Michigan, Communist control of the unions, Communist links to Murphy, and Murphy’s “treasonous” failure to remove the union members from GM property. As usual, Dies called no rebuttal witnesses and did not allow Murphy to respond.
When the polls showed Murphy losing ground, Roosevelt finally struck back. He issued a statement accusing Dies of allowing the committee “to be used in a flagrantly unfair and un-American attempt to influence an election.” It had made “no effort to get at the truth, either by calling for facts to support mere personal opinion, or by allowing facts or personal opinion on the other side,” he said.
But Dies was unmoved; the administration, he said, was trying to discredit the committee’s work with “a well-planned campaign of misrepresentation, ridicule, and sarcasm.” He also announced that he planned to investigate Communism among Democratic officeholders in California, Minnesota, and Ohio. The California charges were discredited, and the election had passed before the committee could turn to Minnesota and Ohio, but in a close race Murphy lost.
The reporters and photographers who were the only public witnesses to the sensation-mongering parade were unsure what to make of it. They felt they were being used, yet the charges of Communism in high places were too juicy to ignore. The Dies Committee hearings sold newspapers. Dies shrugged off accusations that he was allowing witnesses to make wild, defamatory, and unsubstantiated charges. He blamed this on the administration-backed leaders of the House, who had given him a budget of only $25,000 to conduct his investigations after he had asked for $100,000. What was more, he said, the WPA and other agencies had ignored his requests for investigative help. The WPA had lent staff to help the La Follette Civil Liberties committee, but Hopkins refused it to Dies on grounds that its most recent relief appropriation had stipulated that its personnel not work for other agencies. Attorney General Homer Cummings declined Dies’s request for FBI agents to work with the committee as investigators. The Labor Department under Frances Perkins also turned him down.
“I offered them the chance to put their own choice of attorneys, clerks, investigators, office boys, everything,” said Dies. “Without help from the administration…'I have still gone on the best I could.”
He did acknowledge that the witnesses had shortcomings. “Some of it’s no good. I know that. I admit it. I don’t believe a lot of the testimony myself.” But what could he do? “I haven’t the money or the trained men,” he pleaded. “I have to rely on the testimony of witnesses who are willing to testify.”
And an “unfortunately large number” of them, according to an article in Public Opinion Quarterly, were “professional patriots, vigilantes, political stool-pigeons, labor spies, anti-Semites, Nazi-sympathizers, and criminals.”
Thus the hearings continued: a riot of false accusations, publicity ploys, and grandstanding. And as the “evidence” from these fusillades against the WPA and the two arts projects mounted, it was countered by nothing at all. Again Flanagan wrote to Dies asking to appear before the committee. She was concerned for the jobs of thousands of theater project workers, she said, and that there was much good to be said about the project, if only the committee would listen. Yet again, her letters were ignored. So were those of playwright Emmet Lavery, the head of the project’s Play Bureau, which coordinated the selection and clearance of plays nationally, who told the committee that he had never permitted a Communist play and wished to be heard. Like Flanagan, he never received a reply.