This Day In Literary History
On June 21st, 1956, the legendary American playwright Arthur Miller defied the United States Congress, refusing to inform on his friends and colleagues whom a Congressional committee had suspected of being communists.
At the time of his Congressional hearing, Miller, born in Harlem, New York, in 1915, had established himself as one of America's greatest playwrights. An outspoken liberal who openly supported leftist causes, he was long suspected of being a communist.
No evidence exists to prove that he belonged to the American Communist Party; some biographers have speculated that he may have joined under a pseudonym, but that's pure conjecture.
A Red Scare had swept through the American landscape of the 1950s - the height of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union - infesting the country with fear and paranoia.
The House Unamerican Activities Committee (HUAC), founded by Congress in 1938, was tasked with weeding out suspected communists and communist sympathizers. The committee became notorious for its dubious methods.
To extract confessions from suspected communists, the HUAC, under the direction of Joseph McCarthy, the notorious Republican senator from Wisconsin, would resort to coercion, deception, and false testimony by so-called witnesses.
Another tool in the committee's arsenal was guilt by association - if a defendant's relatives and / or friends were communists, then the defendant must be as well, or he wouldn't associate with them.
Worst of all, when no evidence existed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt the HUAC's mostly false and slanderous accusations of communism, the committee simply manufactured it.
In those days, being convicted of communism meant not only jail time, but also the blacklisting of the defendant from his trade, the loss of his civil rights, and public ostracism.
During the infamous Hollywood Blacklist, actors, directors, writers, and producers convicted of being communists or communist sympathizers could not find work after their release from jail.
The Hollywood studios refused to hire convicted or even suspected communists or communist sympathizers, for fear of governmental interference in the movie business.
Blacklisted actors and directors would have to work in small independent productions or make movies in foreign countries. Blacklisted writers would have to use fronts - impostors pretending to be them - to sell their works in Hollywood.
Three years before he found himself brought before the HUAC, Arthur Miller had written a play inspired by what happened to his close friend, legendary filmmaker Elia Kazan.
Brought before the HUAC and accused of being a communist, Kazan, wishing to avoid the Hollywood Blacklist, informed on several of his friends, including legendary playwright Lillian Hellman and actor John Garfield.
Kazan avoided the Blacklist, but his reputation would take a huge hit. He was rightfully considered a rat willing to ruin the lives of others for the sake of his own self interest. Miller didn't speak to him for ten years.
In his classic play The Crucible (1953), Arthur Miller presented a scathing satirical indictment of the HUAC, likening its hearings to the infamous 17th century Salem witch hunts.
In those trials, innocent lives were also destroyed by false accusations, (of witchcraft) national hysteria, and pompous, self-righteous judges more interested in extracting confessions than in uncovering the truth and delivering justice.
The Crucible became a huge hit on Broadway and would go on to become Miller's most frequently produced play. It infuriated the HUAC to no end.
So, in 1956, when Miller applied for a renewal of his passport, the HUAC took advantage of the routine request to haul him in for questioning, as it was against the law to issue passports to known or suspected communists.
Having nothing to hide, Miller told the committee that he would gladly provide testimony about his own political beliefs and activities, so long as he was not asked to inform on others.
The chairman agreed and promised that he would not have to inform on others. Miller kept his end of the deal and gave the HUAC a detailed account of his own political activities.
The committee then reneged on the chairman's promise and ordered Miller to give them the names of all of his friends and colleagues who shared in his political beliefs and activities.
He refused to comply, so he was charged with contempt of Congress. His case later came to trial, and in May of 1957, a judge found him guilty.
Miller was fined $500, sentenced to thirty days in jail, blacklisted, and of course, denied a renewal of his passport. Fortunately, his conviction was overturned on appeal.
The Court of Appeals found that he had been deliberately deceived by the HUAC chairman and tricked into incriminating himself, which was a violation of the Fifth Amendment.
Arthur Miller's experience with the HUAC would haunt him for the rest of his life. This is why, in the 1970s, he took a personal interest in the famous Barbara Gibbons murder case.
The victim's son, Peter Reilly, was convicted of her murder based on what most people believed was a coerced confession. There was little, if any, actual evidence to prove his guilt.
Miller, believing that Reilly was innocent and had been railroaded by the Connecticut State Police and the state Attorney General who had prosecuted the case, used his celebrity to draw attention to Reilly's plight.
The case reminded Miller of his own railroading by the House Unamerican Activities Committee, which would become the House Committee on Internal Security in 1969 and finally be abolished in 1975.
In December of 1954, by a vote of 67-22, Senator Joseph McCarthy was censured by the Senate for his unethical and illegal conduct. Though he would continue to perform his general duties as a Senator for the next two and a half years, his political career was ruined.
McCarthy was shunned by almost all his fellow Senators. Whenever he gave a speech on the Senate floor, the other Senators would immediately leave the floor rather than listen to him.
Haunted by his fate, McCarthy became a pale shadow of his domineering former self. He drank himself to death, dying in May of 1957 at the age of 48.
Quote Of The Day
"I know that my works are a credit to this nation and I dare say they will endure longer than the McCarran Act." - Arthur Miller
Today's video features a three-part interview with Arthur Miller, where he discusses his classic play The Crucible and his ordeal at the hands of the House Unamerican Activities Committee. Enjoy!