The two texts under discussion in this paper are verbatim transcriptions of live speech. The first is an interview in which the animated film and studio director Walter E. Disney gives evidence under questioning by the House Committee on Un-American Activities (known as HUAC) in 1947. The second is a political speech made by Senator Joseph McCarthy 1951. The context for both speeches is the post war era now known as the “Cold War” in which the United States of America distanced itself from its former ally, the Soviet Union, and sought to purge itself from any sort of communist or fascist influences.
The Walt Disney interview is a fairly typical example of the HUAC committee’s work. The questioner seeks information on political activities, and especially on communist influence in the film industry. Hollywood had very quickly become a focus for anti-communist investigations because it had a large number of artistic and creative people who were inclined to question traditionalist views.
There was also a concern that the huge film industry was an effective means of spreading unwelcome ideas to the nation. The government had become adept at using films for propaganda purposes during the war but in 1947 this option was no longer easily available. Prominent figures like Walt Disney could be influenced, but not ordered, to produce materials which were in line with the prevailing government’s views.
There appear to be two main topics in the interview: first to identify names and facts of communist activities, presumably to assist other agencies in follow up and removal of those responsible and secondly, the overarching expectations that the committee has of Mr. Disney’s business. It is apparent that the tone of the questioning is respectful, and quite formal, since everyone is referred to as “Mr. ”, Walt Disney replies “Yes Sir” and the chairman thanks Disney at the end saying “You have been a good witness”.
The studio and film director is co-operative and provides the information required with no objections. His style is open, and though he does not appear over-eager to provide information, he gives up the names of his employees, and passes on rumors he has heard about them, even though he must surely be aware that the consequences for these individuals are likely to be unemployment and further attentions from the anti communist establishment. No doubt he is keen to prove his own anti-communist credentials.
When prompted to add his support for proposed laws to increase government powers, Disney hedges a little, making reference to the need to pass anti-communist laws “without interfering with the rights of the people” and refusing to be drawn further. Fried notes that other prominent Hollywood based individuals including big stars like Danny Kaye, Humphry Bogart, Lauren Bacall and Frank Sinatra spoke up against the methods and aims of the anti-communist apparatus of state but were not supported by studio bosses, or by the American public at large.
Some went to prison, some took out newspaper ads, but in the end most were silenced. Some of the text reads as if it has been stage-managed in advance, for example at the very end when the chairman asks the chief investigator, who has been silent during the questioning by Mr. Smith “Do you have any more questions Mr. Stripling? ”. Mr. Smith says rather confidently “I am sure he does not have any more, Mr. Chairman”, and this proves to be the case, suggesting that there has been a prior agreement, or perhaps at least some non-verbal communication between the two, to the effect that Mr. Smith will conduct a smooth and uninterrupted interview which does not subject Walt Disney to a difficult process.
One might have expected Walt Disney to protect the interests of his workers, or at the very least allow them to speak for themselves rather than be condemned by their boss. He does speak of them in a paternalistic, protective way, calling them “my boys” but he offers up full information on particular individuals who were involved in strike activity. The interview shows how the interests of employers, as opposed to employees, were served in this period by a widespread tendency to align most labor relations activism with communism.
Disney’s remark that one of the accused threatened to make a “dust bowl” of his studio recalls the great depression of 1926 and the fear that Americans at all levels of society had of economic disaster. Disney presents himself as the provider of prosperity and jobs. The little speech by the Chairman on the way that communist have attempted to make “inroads” into the film industry shows that the purpose of the interview was, partly at least, to flatter Walt Disney and enlist the support of key financial players in Hollywood, and especially producers who had powers of hiring and firing.
What is remarkable about this text is the ease with which the questioner obtains incriminating information and the unremarkable, almost “normal” tone of the conversation. The McCarthy speech, in contrast, is strident and confrontational. The speaker was, in 1951, approaching the height of his influence and frequently indulged in this kind of extreme anti-communist rhetoric, which is why the period of the early 1950s is often referred to as “the McCarthy era”.
Other figures, including Hoover, the head of the FBI, may have been even more active behind the scenes, but McCarthy was the loud and insistent public face of the extreme right wing of Republicanism. He appealed to large sections of the American public, both Republican and Democrat, and was widely reported because of his sensationalist speeches. He starts his speech with an attack on the President’s competence. This is standard procedure for a politician speaking in opposition.
He then launches into a full blown attack on General George Marshall, a much decorated hero from both world wars. Marshall was a key member of the Truman administration who masterminded the “Marshall Plan” of American aid for the rebuilding of war torn Europe, and was a leading military planner at the start of the Korean War. McCarthy’s rant uses two very effective rhetorical techniques: the posing of loaded rhetorical questions, and frequent repetition of “It was Marshall who…” with some variations such as “It was the State Department under Marshall…that…”.
While the Disney interview allows for polite exchange between individuals, the McCarthy speech is a monologue which accords Marshal his title of “General” only once, at the beginning. After that he is named by his surname only. The main theme of the McCarthy speech is to reinterpret past events with a heavy overtone of communist influenced “conspiracy”. Emotive labels like “timidity as a policy” and “strategy of defeat” are used to discredit the contribution of General Marshall.
At the time this speech raised more than a few eyebrows across America, but McCarthy held such a powerful influence that few dared to speak out against him. Wicker notes how this speech against Marshall particularly annoyed Eisenhower and cemented the personal dislike that the future president had of McCarthy. On the campaign trail, however, Eisenhower relied on McCarthy’s attention-seeking abilities to gain press coverage and distance his party from the Democrats in the public mind. It would have not been in the party’s interest for Eisenhower to display open disagreement at that time.
Later scholarship has demonstrated without doubt that the slurs against General Marshall were unjustified, and that the “great conspiracy” at work in the McCarthy era was in fact more a conspiracy of the American establishment against its own citizens than any communist faction trying to gain control of America. On the face of it, McCarthy’s speech is the more powerful of the two texts discussed here, but on closer reading it is apparent that the blustering, vote-seeking politician’s extremism and mudslinging tactics are transparently ridiculous in their over-statement of the case.
These are clearly not the words of reason, and the venom in them is palpable. Much more insidious, and it could be argued, much more worrying, is the urbane Mr Walt Disney, pillar of the establishment and to this day world renowned hero of American twentieth century culture, who happily collaborates with the state interrogators to provide evidence against his own employees.