Feb 21, 2005
On February 10, the famous playwright, Arthur Miller, died at age 89. While obituary writers lavishly praised this Pulitzer Prize-winning author of plays such as Death of a Salesman and The Crucible, they glossed over or failed to mention entirely that today's esteemed writer was in 1956 hauled before Senator McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Miller was accused of being a Communist, of associating with Communists, and ordered to finger his associates as Communists. Miller stood up to McCarthy and refused all of HUAC's demands. He was given a one-year suspended sentence for contempt of Congress and fined $500.
But the attack on Miller's livelihood – and the livelihoods of others like him – was far more vicious than the legal penalties. In the three years before Miller's subpoena, dozens of personalities in the writing and film industries had actually been jailed for doing as Miller did. Careers by the hundreds were ruined by the "blacklist:" no writer, actor, filmmaker or stage hand could get work if their name was on HUAC's list. The actor, singer and athlete Paul Robeson was blacklisted and his passport revoked so he could not go outside the country when huge audiences around the world were ready to attend his concerts.
Some performers – including Charlie Chaplin – moved to other countries to escape. Directors and producers had already refused to put on Miller's own plays unless he changed them to tell stories that would not offend HUAC. So it was in full knowledge of the consequences that Arthur Miller said NO to Senator McCarthy.
A few others were notable for saying NO. Coleman Young, later mayor of Detroit, Michigan, debated the racists and witch-hunters of HUAC and made fools of them. Tape recordings of Young's appearance circulated widely in the black community and secured his reputation for years to come.
It was also in l952 that union officers of Ford Local 600 were subpoenaed.
The first HUAC hearings, 1947-1951, had only set the stage for its real target: the newly organized and combative labor movement. From l952 through l957, the bosses and their HUAC lead dog attacked the new militant leaders of the CIO. Thousands of workers who had fought the battles to "organize the unorganized," who had led the vast wave of sit-down strikes of the l930s, were removed from union office, jailed, blacklisted, ruined.
A few stood up to the blacklist. When 23 of the UAW's Ford Local 600 officers were subpoenaed, not only did the officers refuse to cooperate, but tens of thousands of Detroit workers rallied in downtown Detroit to demonstrate against the witch-hunt.
One of Miller's most famous plays is The Crucible, written in l953, set during the Salem, Massachusetts, witchcraft trials. Of course it was a condemnation of the witch-hunting anti-Communism of the day, led by HUAC. Arthur Miller said of writing The Crucible: "My basic need was to respond to a phenomenon which, with only small exaggeration, one could say paralyzed a whole generation and in a short time dried up the habits of trust and toleration in public discourse."
His work since then never retreated from this stance. In 1956, Arthur Miller joined the proud company of those who accepted the risk of the blacklist, in order to demand their personal rights, honor and dignity. Those who leave this history out of his obituary are, in their own way, taking the other option.