The conventional view shared by observers at the time and film historians since is that this clumsily produced, overtly propagandistic Red-baiting material was deeply unpopular with audiences, and that it may even have hindered rather than helped the anti-communist cause by bluntly depicting fifth-columnists as moronic and easy to spot. In 1953, one notable commentator, Karel Reisz, a leading light in the British New Wave film movement of the early 1960s, warned that such a significant body of work risked having a 'boomerang effect' because its very directness alienated those whom it was intended for. Filmmakers should concentrate less on negative, anti-communist propaganda, Reisz urged, and more on selling the positive aspects of liberal democracy.38 Because so many of these films were shot quickly on low budgets with non-stars, most historians have assumed they were not intended either to make money or to teach the American public anything of real value about subversion. Rather, they were meant to rinse Hollywood of its radical image as rapidly, unequivocally and cheaply as possible.39
While this argument makes good sense, it tends to overlook those movies of the period that were not triggered by political pressure but were officially assisted, that were put together far less crudely, that sought to paint a more realistic portrait of communist subversion, and that met with some success commercially and propagandistically. One such film was an enterprise made jointly by Columbia Pictures, the independent producer Louis de Rochement and J. Edgar Hoover's FBI. It was released in 1952 under the title Walk East on Beacon.
It is hard to overestimate the importance of Hoover and the FBI in helping to create the anti-communist consensus in the United States during the Cold War. Hoover himself largely accepted the fifth-column paradigm which saw the CPUSA as principally a Soviet-sponsored covert-warfare agency, and during the remarkably long period he spent as FBI chief (1924—72) managed to turn the law enforcement agency into one of the most powerful of all state organisations. The strategic position within government which Hoover had established for the FBI by the mid-1940s meant that it dominated Truman's domestic anti-communist apparatus when the Cold War started. In the process, the Bureau infused its own conservative concerns into what otherwise might have been purely a programme of internal security.40
The FBI had instructed Americans on the Red Menace both before and during the Second World War, but largely on an informal, episodic and ad hoc basis. However this changed radically in 1946, when it sought to develop, as agency files put it, 'an informed public opinion' about 'the basically Russian nature of the Communist Party in this country', and thereby to shape the emerging national debate on the domestic communist issue. Assistant Director Louis Nichols acted as the chief architect of this multi-million dollar public relations programme. It was Nichols' standard practice to leak information from FBI files to trustworthy journalists, writers, broadcast executives and film producers, while presenting the Bureau as a disinterested, fact-gathering investigative agency. Simultaneously, with dozens of FBI agents writing his speeches and articles, Hoover became one of the nation's most prolific authors. His magnum opus, Masters of Deceit, published in 1958, had sold over two million copies by 1970.41
During the 1920s, Hoover had assigned Bureau agents to monitor the activities of radical filmmakers and send him extensive summaries of their films. By the middle of the Second World War, the FBI believed that the Communist International (Comintern) was leading a 'worldwide conspiracy' to use movies to deliver subversive messages to the American people.42 Concurrently, the Bureau devised a triangular-shaped film strategy, which it operated formally until the late 1950s. First, the FBI ran a comprehensive surveillance operation in Hollywood, pinpointing communists with the aid of secret informers on the one hand, and identifying those movies which were being used as 'weapon[s] of Communist propaganda' on the other. Second, the Bureau secretly laundered its intelligence through HUAC, thereby helping to pressure the industry into establishing a blacklist. The Bureau also shared its surveillance material with popular gossip columnists in exchange for favourable portraits of the FBI or the exposure of 'Reds' in the film community, and notified film executives of the names of communist suspects via such organs as Red Channels. Finally, the FBI helped produce movies that fostered its image as the protector of the American people. It provided script material, editing expertise, production consultation, and even special agents as actors for at least eight feature films between 1945 and 1959.43
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