The Beauty of the Blacklist: In Memory of Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger’s death has prompted several reminiscences about his 1955 appearance before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). And for good reason. Two good reasons, in fact.

First, Seeger refused to answer questions about his beliefs and associations—up until the 1940s, he had been a member of the Communist Party—not on the basis of the Fifth Amendment, which protects men and women from self-incrimination, but on the basis of the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of speech.

While invoking the Fifth was not without its perils—most important, it could put someone on the blacklist; individuals who invoked it frequently found themselves without work—it had the advantage of keeping one out of jail. But the cost of the 5th was clear: though you could refuse to testify about yourself, you could not refuse to testify about others.

So Seeger invoked the First Amendment instead. A far riskier legal position—the Court had already held, in the case of the Hollywood Ten, that the First Amendment did not protect men and women who refused to testify before HUAC—it was the more principled stance. As Seeger explained later, “The Fifth means they can’t ask me, the First means they can’t ask anybody.” And he paid for it. Cited for contempt of Congress, he was indicted, convicted, and sentenced to a year in prison. Eventually the sentence got overturned.

Second, not only did Seeger refuse to answer questions about his associations and beliefs, but he also did it with great panache. When asked by HUAC to name names, he refused—and then almost immediately offered to sing songs instead. Much to the consternation of the Committee chair, Francis Walters, Seeger followed up with a more personal offer.

I know many beautiful songs from your home county, Carbon, and Monroe, and I hitchhiked through there and stayed in the homes of miners.

Parenthetically, I should note that Seeger’s hearings were not the only such circus of absurdity.  If you want to treat yourself to an afternoon of giggles, check out Ayn Rand’s testimony, where she insisted that no one in Russia ever smiled. Or this wondrous exchange between Zero Mostel and two members of HUAC.

Mostel: If I appeared there, what if I did an imitation of a butterfly at rest? There is no crime in making anybody laugh. I don’t care if you laugh at me.
Congressman Donald Jackson: If your interpretation of a butterfly at rest brought any money into the coffers of the Communist Party, you contributed directly to the propaganda effort of the Communist Party.
Mostel: Suppose I had the urge to do the butterfly at rest somewhere?
Congressman Clyde Doyle: Yes, but please, when you have the urge, don’t have such an urge to put the butterfly at rest by putting some money in the Communist Party coffers as a result of that urge to put a butterfly at rest.

But I digress.

While Seeger’s HUAC appearance, and its legal aftermath, is making the rounds of his eulogists, it’s important to remember that HUAC was probably not the most difficult of his tribulations during the McCarthy era. Far more toxic for most leftists was the blacklist itself. From the early 1950s to the mid-1960s (the dates are fuzzy, and it depends on which particular medium we’re talking about), Seeger was prevented from performing on a great many stages and venues. First with The Weavers, and then on his own.

The blacklist did not work independently of the state. It was the transmission belt of the state, both a feeder to, and an enforcement mechanism of, the government. Men and women who didn’t cooperate with the government were subject to the blacklist, so it was a useful means of securing cooperation and providing information. The secret enforcers of the blacklist were often ex-FBI men or ex-HUAC staffers, and the FBI and HUAC supplied critical information to industry executives and their underlings. Who then used it for either political or narrower self-interested purposes.

That said, the blacklist, and the more general specter of private penalties, touched more people than did HUAC or the state. For most men and women during the McCarthy years, the immediate point of contact with political repression and coercion was their employer, their teacher, their therapist, their lawyer, their supervisor, their co-worker.

And that raises a larger question. It is easy today to look back on that time, to read the transcripts and case histories, and tut-tut at all the nastiness or laugh at all the foolishness of the blacklist. With everyone from President Obama to the New York Times delivering warm encomia for Seeger, we forget that the blacklist only worked because so many people like President Obama, like the editors of the New York Times—who refused during the McCarthy years to hire anyone who was a member of the Communist Party—worked together to make it work.

To be sure, there were many hard-right ideologues behind the blacklist: the writers at Red Channels, an anticommunist handbook that named names in the entertainment industry, were conservative propagandists of the first order, anatomized to brilliant effect by a young researcher by the name of Michael Harrington.

But the blacklist would never have had the reach it did—not merely in Hollywood or the academy, but throughout virtually every industry in the United States—had it not attracted a wide range of men and women to its cause. The blacklist was also the work of liberal pamphleteers, executives in the culture industries, influential politicians in and around the Democratic Party, and most prominent of all, J. Edgar Hoover, about whom Arthur Schlesinger wrote:

All Americans must bear in mind J. Edgar Hoover’s warning that counter-espionage is no field for amateurs. We need the best professional counterespionage agency we can get to protect our national security.

Far from being the object of liberal derision that he is today, Hoover was, in his time, thought to be the consummate rational bureaucrat, a professional of the first order who needed, said the liberals, more money, more resources, more power, not less. As Hubert Humphrey declared:

If the FBI does not have enough trained manpower to do this job, then, for goodness sake, let us give the FBI the necessary funds for recruiting the manpower it needs….This is a job that must be done by experts.

For liberals, Hoover, the ultimate impresario of the blacklist, was someone to collaborate with, not contend against.

The blacklist, as Victor Navasky reminded us long ago, was the triumphant realization of a perverse version of Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand. Everyone pursued their own private or personal definition of the good; the result was cooperation, exchange—and coercion. What’s most striking about the blacklist is just how diversely inspired, and collaborative, its various protagonists were. Some were hardcore anticommunist true believers. Others were cold calculators of the bottom line. Some were patriots, others careerists, and still others cowards. There were liberals, conservatives, socialists, ex-communists, atheists, Catholics, libertarians, Jews.

Most amazingly, these differences didn’t matter. Despite what virtually every modern political theorist—from Hobbes to Montesquieu to Madison—maintains, pluralism and diversity did not lead to liberty, anarchy, or disorder. Instead, they provided more avenues and opportunities for collusion, collaboration, and coercion.

Beyond the collusion and collaboration, there’s another dimension of the blacklist worth mentioning: the intense and dense infrastructure of support, at the lowest levels, that made the machine go. When we think about political repression, we tend to focus on elites, officials on high, industry executives, and the like. But the blacklist was the work of hundreds of thousands of men and women, operating at the middling and lower tiers of institutions and organizations.

In some way, we could say that the blacklist is the dark answer to Bertolt Brecht’s poem “Questions from a Worker Who Reads.” Long invoked by the left as a tribute to the anonymous laboring heroes of history, the poem can also be read as a more unsettling account of the invisible but necessary labor that goes into the production of political crimes like aggressive war or imperial conquest.

Who built Thebes of the 7 gates?
In the books you will read the names of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?

And Babylon, many times demolished,
Who raised it up so many times?

In what houses of gold glittering Lima did its builders live?
Where, the evening that the Great Wall of China was finished, did the masons go?

Great Rome is full of triumphal arches.
Who erected them?

Over whom did the Caesars triumph?
Had Byzantium, much praised in song, only palaces for its inhabitants?

Even in fabled Atlantis, the night that the ocean engulfed it,
The drowning still cried out for their slaves.

The young Alexander conquered India.
Was he alone?

Caesar defeated the Gauls.
Did he not even have a cook with him?

Philip of Spain wept when his armada went down.
Was he the only one to weep?

Frederick the 2nd won the 7 Years War.
Who else won it?

Every page a victory.
Who cooked the feast for the victors?

Every 10 years a great man.
Who paid the bill?

So many reports.

So many questions.

“Did he not even have a cook with him?” That question is often with me. Not just in the context of the blacklist, but in other, far more terrible circumstances. Like genocide.

This past weekend I watched “Conspiracy” on Youtube. It’s a BBC reenactment of the 1942 Wannsee Conference, at which various officials (many now forgotten) of the Nazi regime gathered to draw up plans for the deportation and mass murder of the Jews. The opening sequence of the film—in which the house staff at the villa on the Wannsee scramble to prepare for the arrival of regime’s elite—does a brilliant job of answering Brecht’s question. Yes, there were cooks at Wannsee. Lots of them. And maids, waiters, butlers, secretaries, transcriptionists, drivers: an entire army of support staff helping to make the conference go off without a hitch. Eichmann, who organized the logistics of the conference, comes off less as an architect of mass murder than as an anxious host of a dinner party, the Martha Stewart of the Shoah.

Hart Crane marveled at the Brooklyn Bridge: “How could mere toil align thy choiring strings!” And like the Brooklyn Bridge, large-scale enterprises like genocide or the blacklist—needless to say, I am in no way equating these phenomena—entail the aligning of choiring strings. Not only through spectacular mobilization of the masses or ideological indoctrination from on high but also through the most mundane and individual calculations of career.

Political crime is work. Whether the crime is mass murder or persecution, someone has to do that work. And to help the people who do that work. So men and women must be hired and paid, supervised and promoted.

At the height of European imperialism, Disraeli wrote, “The East is a career.” So was the Holocaust. So was the blacklist.

While we rightly recall today the heroism of Pete Seeger in refusing to make the blacklist a career—indeed, sacrificing his career in order to unmake the blacklist—we have to ask ourselves how many of us would have chosen the path he did. Particularly in the United States, where the obligations of career are nearly the first item on our list of civic duties.


  1. Alan Hertz January 29, 2014 at 2:21 pm | #

    are you sure that we are not collaborating in similar repression now? For membership of the Communist Party, substitute involvement with certain forms of Islam?

  2. Critical Reading January 29, 2014 at 3:02 pm | #

    Worth pointing out too that it was Truman who initiated the loyalty oath, just as he was ramping up the cold war in 1947.

    “When asked by HUAC to name names, he refused—and then almost immediately offered to sign songs instead.” Signing songs would have been good, singing them even better.

  3. neffer January 29, 2014 at 3:21 pm | #

    It seems a bit odd that you find blacklisting offensive. It is, after all, what you support with respect to the Israelis.

    Another point, we have testimony, courtesy of the NY Times, that Seeger’s views of, most particularly, the USSR changed. It would be interesting to guess what he might have done if the post 1997 Seeger had been the one testifying.

    My view is that blacklisting is generally a bad thing. It does not become good just because it is intended to advance a cause you support. Or, putting it a bit differently, hypocrisy is an apt word here.

    Another point. It is rather difficult, looking back on that period, to note not only the dangerous reaction in the US to the USSR and its ideology. There is also the fact of the Soviet/Stalinist/Leninist ideology, which, to anyone with a brain, has to be understood as among the most loathsome of ideological movement history has ever thrown up. That fact has to make us at least somewhat forgiving of those who advocated blacklists. By contrast, those who work for boycotts today have latched onto another loathsome ideological movement in support of an insane ideology. That the advocates of the new blacklist fail to see in themselves what they see in the blacklist of the 1950’s is, to be blunt, rather telling.

    • Alan Hertz January 30, 2014 at 1:55 am | #

      Is a boycott the same as a blacklist? I don’t think so. And your language seems a bit intemperate.

  4. s. wallerstein January 29, 2014 at 4:08 pm | #

    I’m almost 68 and I grew up in the United States in the 1950’s.

    My parents were anti-communist, but not fanatical by any means. However, until I entered the university at age 18, I had no idea that there was a blacklist or who Pete Seeger was.

    The daily fact of a blacklist was simply disappeared from my comfortable suburban upbringing. No one in my family or school ever brought it up. It would have been uncomfortable, I imagine, for moderately liberal Jews (my family and their friends) to talk about the paths that they did not take in order to assure a comfortable middle class lifestyle for themselves. By the way, at our family dinner table we discussed current events a lot and cited the New York Times as if it were the Bible.

    Whenever family conversation got dangerously near anything to do with the dissent left, with people like Seeger, they were immediately dismissed by family opinion leaders as “losers” or “people who couldn’t make it”. No one ever reflected on the fact that they had other priorities than “making it”.

    When I was 16 or so, I had an optional European history course in high school. With the pretext that we had to understand modern political philosophies, our history teacher, Mr. Goetz (I’m not sure how his name is spelled), gave us a short course in Marxism, which I still remember in detail since it made so much sense to me. With all the fear of a blacklist present, Mr. Goetz took the risk of showing us the merits of Marxism.

    I want to use this space to thank him for his courage so many years later.

  5. Hangaku Gozen January 29, 2014 at 4:29 pm | #

    We do continue to collaborate in witch hunts against those who happen to belong to groups deemed threatening to the status quo. Only two years ago, four anarchists were placed in a federal prison for refusing to testify before a grand jury in regards to a May Day protest that resulted in broken windows on a federal courthouse in Seattle. None of them were considered suspects in the case (broken windows!), but simply for refusing to testify, they were imprisoned and at one point held in solitary confinement.

    They were eventually released early last year, only because a judge concluded that there wasn’t much point in keeping them in priso: the four “defendants” had made it clear they would never testify, in jail or not. But what took me aback was the number of comments on Seattle newsfeeds and online articles that claimed the anarchists deserved to be in prison, if not for refusing to testify, then for being who they said they were. It’s as if attitudes hadn’t changed since the Saccho and Vanzetti case or Emma Goldman’s lifetime. And all this under a supposedly liberal President.

  6. J. Otto Pohl January 29, 2014 at 4:57 pm | #

    Ironically Seeger as a member of CPUSA in the US got a lot better treatment then a lot of loyal communists in the USSR under Stalin.

  7. P.M.Lawrence January 29, 2014 at 6:03 pm | #

    In case anybody missed it, that reference to “the transmission belt of the state” appears to be an allusion to Stalin’s description of what Trade Unions and other such extramural arrangements did for the Soviet Union (cross-posted at Crooked Timber).

  8. sadbillionaire January 29, 2014 at 6:24 pm | #

    Corey, this is a terrific essay. I will use it when I next teach the Cold War.

    Many of these comments confirm what the author is saying: when push comes to shove, a lot of people agree(d) with HUAC and don’t/didn’t agree with Pete Seeger. That includes many liberals, and most of the people who welled up when Seeger and Springsteen sang Woody Guthrie songs to Obama in 2008.

    This is more than a historical irony: it is a contradiction–something more like the cause-and-effect paradoxes of time travel movies than an instance of hypocrisy (the hypocrisy part is the least relevant dimension, as far as I can see). Many want a Pete Seeger who can perform at the White House in 2008 but who was also silenced by the FBI and Congress in the 1950s. Speaking mathematically, that’s impossible.

    Maybe, more simply, it is about wanting to have one’s cake and eat it, too. Which is a simple, but profound, allegory that could not be more relevant, qua “liberal” politics in 2014.

  9. stephenkmacksd January 29, 2014 at 8:03 pm | #

    Please read Mr. Michael Moynihan’s essay at The Daily Beast for an update on the HUAC hysteria,updated: ‘The Death of Stalin’s Songbird’.

    • rockwell January 29, 2014 at 8:34 pm | #

      It’s full of lies. There’s a big difference between Communism and Stalinism; most Americans had no idea of “Uncle Joe’s” crimes until much later; and when Seeger found out in the late 40s he renounced him.

      • J. Otto Pohl January 30, 2014 at 5:27 am | #

        No, the crimes were well known in the US and Canada already in the early 1930s during dekulakization and the Holodomor. There were a large number of letters sent from ethnic Germans and Mennonites from Ukraine to relatives in the US and Canada detailing the crimes of Stalin at this time. Many were published in German language newspapers in North America.

      • Peter Blau February 12, 2014 at 12:00 pm | #

        Who’s Lies?

        “Most Americans had no idea of Stalin’s crimes,” in large part, because of cover-ups by Fellow Travelers in the media. For example: Pulitzer Prize winner, Walter Duranty of the New York Times, wrote story after story dismissing reports by other news organization of famine in the Ukraine in the early 30’s.

        While Seeger WAS young at the time, and did apologize many years later for his Stalinist past, neither mitigating circumstance was true for folks like Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett. Already mature, wealthy and famous at the time of their Stalinist collaborations,
        Hellman and Hammett (and many other media celebs) were portrayed throughout their lives, and afterward, as heroes for their defiance of the Hollywood boycott, with nary a mention of their past totalitarian ties.

    • s. wallerstein January 30, 2014 at 6:45 am | #

      If you cherry pick the life of any public figure who has lived long enough, you’ll find lots of things that they shouldn’t have said.

      Seeger was 20 years old at the time of the Hitler-Stalin Pact. Anyone who always says wise things at age 20 has a hormone problem. I thank God that you can’t Google what I said at age 20.

      The title “The Death of Stalin’s Songbird” is offensive.

      If you find some famous liberal backed Israel, would you call them “Sharon’s Songbird”? What about liberal support for so many anti-communist dictators during the 50’s and 60’s? Were they “Franco’s Songbirds” or “Chiang Kai-Shek’s Songbirds” or “Diem’s Songbirds”?

      Seeger made mistakes, as we all do. He showed lots of courage when being courageous had heavy costs and that is what counts.

  10. Jara Handala January 29, 2014 at 8:50 pm | #

    Quite early on in your piece you said, “the blacklist was the work of hundreds of thousands of men and women, operating at the middling and lower tiers of institutions and organizations”, & I immediately thought of a conversation between two men:

    Then between one of them & another man: (please end @ 7:05)

    (The text in the book, pages 132-45, is very slightly different.)

    Even if she had been remembered, Emily Henochowicz is forgotten by most. She lost her left eye: a gas canister was fired into it. By whom? A guy in an everyday job, a policeman, but with special duties, he was a border guard. Amy Goodman made a killer remark to this young woman: “your grandfather was a border guard?” “Um, yeah.”

    Railway timetabler. Border guard. Everyday jobs.

    Simple tasks. Just doing their job. Following orders.

    The beauty of it all.

    And the epigraph of the book I referred to? “‘I will give them an everlasting name’ Isaiah 56:5”

    • Jara Handala January 29, 2014 at 9:34 pm | #

      In error I’d assumed that the clip included all that Hilberg said about organising trains; I can’t find it in a short excerpt from ‘Shoah’ but it’s here in the film itself, from 1:45:45, sub-titles available in five languages (CC icon):

  11. Roquentin January 30, 2014 at 12:38 pm | #

    I think enlightenment and modernist notions of individuality need to be abandoned as concepts. You state that plurality and diversity lead not to chaos but to collaboration and in a sense this is right. I’d also argue that the very ideas of individuality this opposition is based on are faulty. The system doesn’t care an ounce for what you identify as, only about how you can be made to act in its interests. Jacques Ellul’s Propaganda is one of the best books ever written on this subject, in no small part because it doesn’t treat the topic with the crude definitions it is typically given. Propaganda is all about crowding out all other viewpoints and presenting the desired position as the only one which is acceptable. It is also a constant effort spanning long periods of time and including all available media forms, not some specific campaign of pamphlets…

    For many it is comfortable to think that the populations who participated in some of the most sinister political movements of the last century were manipulated into doing so. The belief roughly states that it was solely the dictator or party in charge which made these things happen with an otherwise innocent population taken along for the ride. I think this position is popular because it coheres with liberal, humanistic ideas about all people fundamentally being “good” at the core. This is simply not the case. People are neither good nor evil and this entire approach is misguided. What you state about the Red Scare and even the Holocaust is particularly accurate because basic research shows that at the time these movements were popular and individual participation was sincere.

    You could even apply the folly of this thinking to the second Iraq war, which was perhaps the definitive event in my personal political awakening. It was this same logic with allowed people to believe that if you simply removed Saddam everything in Iraq could be wonderful again. The opposite occurred, and for the average Iraqi living standards became worse by almost any metric (I forget the precise statistics on how many of them had access to running water and electricity before and after the occupation, but I remember them being ugly). For even the worst dictator, there is a society and a population which allowed him to exist. Even the most coercive tyrants draw their support from somewhere…..

    • Harold January 31, 2014 at 6:11 pm | #

      I find your comment interesting, as I have observed that individualistic notions are only important at the individual level. That sounds like a tautological statement, but once you get people together (even at a pair), the individual perspective becomes affected by the presence of another perspective. The individual perspective can be nuanced and rational, but becomes less nuanced with the addition of other individuals. And it aggregates upward with the amount of people involved, until you have a mob mentality that is much more basic and closer to an instinctual response than you had with just the individual.

      Again, this is just my personal observation.

  12. gratuitous January 30, 2014 at 3:38 pm | #

    An interesting dramatization of the blacklist is “The Front,” a movie starring Zero Mostel and Woody Allen. Set in the 1950s, Allen is a nobody, a schlemiel who runs the cash register at a diner where certain creative types hang out in the infancy of television. Writers find themselves at odds with the prevailing anti-communist ethos, and find themselves unable to get work. One writer asks Allen to “front” for him: turn in television show scripts under his own name, and split the pay with the writer.

    You get a good chance to see how the sticky tentacles of the blacklist attach themselves to people, rendering them unable to support themselves. The movie has probably the best and most poignant suicide scene ever, as well as a climax the way things should have been. The real punch of the movie, though, is left for the closing credits.

  13. Peter Blau February 12, 2014 at 11:13 am | #

    Not sure you read Seeger’s NYT obituary, or the Guardian op-ed from 2006 “Stalin’s Songbird,” but it recounts that Seeger was actually — by being a Stalinist Fellow Traveler at the time — an ally of Nazi Germany during the period of the Stalin – Hitler Pact. (August 1939-June 1941.)

    Seeger went so far as to sing songs urging the U.S. not to join Britain in the “imperialist” war against Hitler. This, despite Seeger having enthusiastically SUPPORTED the U.S. going to war against Hitler, before the Pact was signed.

    Is one a greater hero for fighting for the good name of a bunch of blacklisted Hollywood entertainers, while having sold out the millions slaughtered in Poland (and elsewhere) thanks to the legacy of that evil deal with Hitler?

    • s. wallerstein February 12, 2014 at 11:42 am | #

      Peter Blau:

      Seeger was 20 years old in 1939. If you always made wise decisions at age 20, my congratulations. If you’d like to be remembered for what you said at age 20, let me know.

      Seeger grew and matured. That’s more than I can say about some people and there is merit in that.

      • Peter Blau February 12, 2014 at 12:05 pm | #

        The question still stands: does middle-aged courage on behalf of a handful of wealthy and famous Hollywood friends outweigh youthful, ignorant betrayal of millions?

      • s. wallerstein February 12, 2014 at 2:12 pm | #

        Peter Blau:

        At age 20 most people’s brains are not fully mature. What’s more, at that age most people’s opinions either reproduce those of their parents or are a knee-jerk reaction against those of their parents or
        the product of a small homogeneous circle of friends.

        We generally judge people by their trajectory. Just as some people start off idealistically and end up justifying or not speaking out about countless horrors, so too some begin with their eyes closed and open them with time. Seeger, after justifying Stalin’s policy at age 20, went on not only to stand up to McCarthyism, but also to participate in the civil rights movement, in that against the war in Viet Nam, in environmental causes and in other struggles worthy of praise.

        By the way, although some of the people Seeger defended by not naming names may have been wealthy and famous, as you claim, I’ve met U.S. communists of Seeger’s generation, whom Seeger may have protected and they were far from wealthy or famous.

        I’m currently reading Leonardo Padura’s novel, The Man Who Loved Dogs, which is about Ramon Mercader and the assassination of Trotsky. If you are interested in the policies of the Comintern, as I am, the book might interest you too. The portrait of Mercader and his Comintern circle is fascinating.

  14. job vacancy February 16, 2014 at 3:54 pm | #

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  15. prayerwarriorpsychicnot March 12, 2014 at 8:55 am | #

    Reblogged this on Gangstalked and slandered and commented:
    Insightful historical view on blacklisting in the McCarthy era.

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