That Hopkins’s successor, F. C. Harrington, lacked this ineffable quality was not immediately clear. But as the WPA struggled to cope with the fallout from the Dies Committee hearings, it would emerge that while the new administrator believed in the overall work program, he found the arts projects a distraction that he was unwilling to defend as Hopkins had.
Dies had kept his committee hard at work investigating “un-American activities,” and grandstanding and slandering its targets, into December. By then, after seeing Governor Frank Murphy brought down by Dies’s unanswered charges and the president powerless to negate his one-sided scandal-mongering, the administration and the WPA itself began to take the Dies circus seriously at last. Under Flanagan’s direction, Emmet Lavery of the Federal Theatre Project’s Play Bureau, who was familiar with all the plays mounted by the project, and Ted Mauntz, the New York project’s information director, undertook to answer the charges of widespread Communist influence. They broke down the composition of the theater parties that were a large part of the Federal Theatre audiences to reveal that of more than 1,000 organizations that had attended the project’s plays, only fifteen were political organizations, and these represented all political parties. They compiled a list of every play that had been performed, and analyzed those criticized by witnesses and the committee. And they reminded the committee of the Congress-passed WPA rule prohibiting discrimination against employees based on political affiliation, adding that no policy makers in the play project were Communists.
Alsberg and his staff at the Writers’ Project also put together a brief answering the charges made against it. These preparations were coordinated with Hopkins’s deputy, David K. Niles of the WPA Information Division. Hopkins, with less than three weeks to go before his resignation, was typically defiant. He said that as far as he was concerned, Flanagan and Alsberg could “go up and spit in the faces of the Dies Committee.” But in a meeting on December 4, Niles shocked Flanagan and Alsberg with the news that they would not be testifying. Instead, Women’s and Professional Projects head Ellen Woodward would make the case for the theater and writing projects. Niles gave no reason for refusing to let the heads of the two projects defend themselves. Woodward’s long political experience and the possibility that the committee would defer to her as a southerner were probably among the factors. Flanagan and Alsberg argued heatedly but failed to change Niles’s mind. Good soldiers that they were, they spent the rest of the day going over with Woodward the points made in their briefs.
It took only a few minutes on the morning of December 5 to erase the thought that the committee would treat Woodward gently. She entered the high-ceilinged hearing room to find its members decidedly hostile. By now their grandstanding had become addictive. With Dies directing traffic, a smirk visible behind the black cigar jammed in one corner of his mouth, they attacked without letup. None of the committee’s friendly witnesses, the ones who told them what they wanted to hear, were subjected to the abuse Woodward received. She put up a good fight. Interrupted at the outset as she began to read her statement, she said, “Would you kindly listen for just a minute?” She expressed deep concern and disappointment “over the very un-American way in which the committee has handled charges made against this project.” But when she asked if the members had read any of the plays they had charged were communistic, she earned a rebuke from Starnes of Alabama. “You are not here to ask the committee questions. You are here to answer questions,” he said sternly, and forced her to apologize. Moreover, Woodward herself, even after her briefing, could not refute accusations about individual plays or Writers’ Project manuscripts because she did not have the details. She faced the committee for a day and a half, then was excused.
Now the committee, bursting with anticipation, looked forward to Flanagan and Alsberg, who were freed by Niles to testify.
Flanagan was called on December 6. She took her seat at the foot of the T in which two long tables had been arranged, with the members arrayed across the top and reporters, photographers, and stenographers on either side. In her initial statement, she observed that while the committee had been investigating un-American activities, she had spent four years fighting un-American inactivity, by which she meant unemployment in the theater world. “The distinction,” she later wrote, “was lost on the committee.”
Predictably, its members dwelled on the charges of Communism. They managed to see it everywhere. Thomas quoted the statements of witnesses who had said that project employees had to belong to the Workers Alliance. Flanagan explained that most project workers were required to belong to other unions—the stagehands union, Actors Equity, and so forth—which precluded Workers Alliance membership. Starnes questioned Flanagan about her visits to view Russian theater in 1926 and 1931, about whether propaganda was circulated at project sites, about the plays themselves, and about an article she had written for Theatre Arts Monthly, a professional trade magazine. Reporting on a drive to set up workers’ theaters, she had described their audiences as possessing “a certain Marlowesque madness.”
“You are quoting from this Marlowe,” said Starnes. “Is he a Communist?”
Laughter rippled through the hearing room. When it died, Flanagan explained that she was referring to Christopher Marlowe.
Starnes persisted. “Tell us who Marlowe is, so we can get the proper references,” he demanded.
At that moment Flanagan felt a deep pang of despair for the 8,000 Federal Theatre employees whose jobs were at stake. She gathered herself and with careful patience said, “Put in the record that Marlowe was the greatest dramatist in the period of Shakespeare, immediately preceding Shakespeare.”
Starnes, she later wrote, “subsided.” But his was not the only display of ignorance or confusion on the part of the committee. Dies questioned Flanagan about the Communist Party membership of Edwin P. Banta, who had worked not for the theater but for the Writers’ Project. He confused a Michigan labor leader named John G. Reid with the American Communist and journalist John Reed, for whom the Communist John Reed Clubs were named and who had died in 1920. He had similar difficulty distinguishing between Tom Mann, a member of the British Labor Party, and Thomas Mann, the Nobel Prize–winning German novelist whom he went on to refer to as a Communist. Errors such as these would have been laughable had they not shown its victims the sloppiness, intractability, and stupidity they faced.
The committee dismissed Flanagan at a lunch break. She asked to be recalled to make a final statement, but her request was ignored. “We don’t want you back,” said Thomas. “You’re a tough witness and we’re all worn out.” He then conceded that she didn’t look like a Communist. “You look like a Republican,” he joked.
Alsberg was called after the lunch break. He took his seat at the table as an aide wheeled in a cart stacked with Writers’ Project publications. Fighting through his initial nervousness and speaking in a low, gruff voice that gained strength as he grew more confident, he gradually won over the committee by recounting his well-documented disillusionment with Soviet-style Communism. He spoke of a book he had edited of letters from Russian political prisoners. He said the book, published in 1925, was “considered the most devastating attack on the tyrannical Russian situation” and lost him many liberal friends. “I suffered. I was blacklisted. I could not get my articles published,” he recounted.
He went on to complain about the disruptions caused by the political infighting at the New York project offices. He said he laid the law down after one of the frequent sit-down strikes, issuing an order that the project would shut down if there were any more disruptions. “That is flat,” he said. But he said it was still almost impossible to keep the fractious New York writers from agitating for one concession or another: “Every time we drop a man there are delegations. There are protests…'wanting to expand the Writers’ Project, wanting to do this and wanting to do that.”
When Dies asked him about Orrick Johns, whose term as director of the New York project had been marked by the episode in which the jealous husband set fire to his wooden leg, Alsberg pointed out that while Johns indeed had been a Communist, he had been dismissed, and that the three directors who followed him had no Communist affiliations. He said that he had objected in strong terms to the Communists’ handing out their pamphlets at the project door. And he agreed that the New Jersey guide, which witnesses had charged with promoting class hatred, had overstated the case for labor but only because uncorrected galley proofs had reached the printer in error. The staff responsible for this had been changed. Meanwhile, said Alsberg, editors in Washington had worked to moderate controversial language in the guidebooks.
All this was in marked contrast to the combative tones taken by Flanagan and Woodward. But the distinction made no difference. The damage had been done. Despite the cordiality Dies accorded Alsberg, the report he submitted to the incoming Congress after the first of the new year condemned the Writers’ Project, and it painted the Theatre Project with the same broad brush of damning generalities: “We are convinced that a rather large number of the employees on the Federal Theatre Project are either members of the Communist Party or are sympathetic with the Communist Party. It is also clear that certain employees felt under compulsion to join the Workers Alliance in order to retain their jobs.” A single paragraph from the committee’s beleaguered liberals took exception to the majority report, pointing out the extent of “biased” and “exaggerated” testimony.
The Dies Committee was now a national phenomenon. During its short life, no institution in the country had ever received as much press coverage. The reams of newsprint that it generated defied any sober assessment of its methods, and the obvious biases of its report. A Gallup poll showed that 60 percent of the country was now familiar with the committee, and three-quarters of those wanted it to continue. No more would Dies have to struggle for appropriations to continue its work. The Seventy-sixth Congress, which took office in January 1939, quadrupled the HUAC budget to $100,000, and the committee, with its rants and excesses, its powers to be abused and feared, was now a fixture of American life.