Sergeant York and the ire of the isolationists

Kevin Brianton

Senior Lecturer, La Trobe University


Sergeant York (1941) was the film which finally raised the ire of the isolationists in Washington.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The 1930s were not an easy time for political players in the left or right. While Roosevelt remained a popular President, the economic carnage of the depression meant that political certainties began to fade. During the 1930s, both liberal and conservative political certainties started to crumble in the face of the Great Depression and the rise of fascism. Communism seemed to offer a solution to many.The tone of films such as Gabriel Over the White House (1933) often verges on the hysterical. There was a faint desperation in the political solutions offered by both the left and the right, verging on despair. A political consensus did emerge in the United States after Pearl Harbor, when it was shaken out of its isolationist stupor and became a reluctant ally of the Soviet Union to fight Nazi Germany. While Fascism appeared rampant in Europe, American cinema was mute on the topic.

The political censorship of the production code meant for a long time almost no anti Nazi or fascist films were made in Hollywood during the 1930s. While fascism rose in Europe, isolationism was a strong and formidable force in the United States. The possibility of a war in Europe or Asia, redoubled the efforts of isolationists to stay out of the war. The isolationists were particularly strong in the Republican Party, which constantly goaded the Roosevelt administration that it was seeking an unnecessary war. The isolationists also had considerable support across the Untied States.

Sergeant York (1941) was the film which finally raised the ire of the isolationists in Washington. It was based on the life of First World War hero Alvin York and was launched with an amazing amount of fanfare, even by Hollywood standards.  The Astor theatre in New York was decorated with 15,000 flashing red, white and blue lights.  York was marched down Broadway with an escort of First World War soldiers to a premiere attended by Roosevelt, General John ‘Black Jack’ Pershing and other dignitaries.  Roosevelt enjoyed the film and welcomed Alvin York to the White House following the screening.  The army used the occasion to give out recruiting material.[1]

The film followed the transformation of a devout Christian pacifist in to a war hero.  York represented the dilemma of America in many ways.  It was a nation which clearly did not want to fight in Europe, but in the end, found it had to do so.  In a key scene, York wrestled with his conscience over the commandment “Thou shalt not kill.’  After failing to register as a conscientious objector, he went to boot camp where he was recognised as a crack shot.  After spending a day and a night debating the conflicting demands of country and God, he read the verse form the Bible about rendering unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar and decided to travel to France.[2]  The film was one of the most popular of the year.[3]

The success of this and other pro-interventionist films, finally sparked the isolationists into action.  On 1 August 1941 Senator Gerald Nye attacked Hollywood for plunging America into war fever.

When you go the movies, you go there to be entertained…And then the picture starts – goes to work on you, all done by trained actors, full of drama cunningly devised…Before you know where you are you have actually listened to a speech designed to make you believe that Hitler is going to get you.[4]

Nye reasoned that the Roosevelt administration wanted to glorify war and British actors and directors wanted to lure America into the war.  With Europe dominated by the Nazis, the major diplomatic issue of the time was whether America should intervene in the European war.  Roosevelt had committed America to the Lend Lease program and the isolationists feared that it would slowly drag the United States into the war.  Time pointed out the Senate investigative committee was ‘stuffed with die-hard isolationists.’  The committee was not even established by any Senatorial vote.[5]

If the isolationists had proven their case, it would have meant the introduction of federal legislation to control Hollywood’s film content.  The industry responded with a forthright defense headed by the former Republican party presidential aspirant Wendell Willkie who fired off a press release where he denounced Nye as un-American and questioned the legality of the hearings.  The committee demanded that Hollywood product films showing both sides of the dispute and Willkie responded:

This, I presume, means that since Chaplin made a laughable caricature of Hitler, the industry should be forced to employ Charles Laughton to do the same on Winston Churchill … the motion picture industry and its executives are opposed to the Hitler regime … we make no pretence of friendliness to Nazi Germany.[6]

Warner bothers studio head Harry Warner was even more blunt.  Sergeant York was: ‘a factual portrayal of one of the great heroes of the last war … If that is propaganda, we plead guilty.’[7]

A remarkable contrast exists between the Senate investigation of 1941 and the HUAC investigations six years later.  The Hollywood industry was vigorous in its defense.  Accusations were not taken lying down and were thrown back at the committee.  Under pressure, the committee bungled by not being thoroughly prepared for the investigation.  While facing tight questioning from Senator Ernest McFarland, Nye admitted that he had not seen some of the films.  Nye also confused the plots and titles of films and could only make weak attacks on the films he could remember.[8]  The hearings became a disaster for the isolationists who were forced to abandon the whole issue after Japan bombed Pearl Harbour on 8 December.


[1] Koppes, Hollywood, pp. 38 – 39.

[2] Ibid. p. 38.

[3] Steinberg, Reel Facts, Vintage, New York, 1982, p. 18.

[4] Gerald Nye, ‘War Propaganda’, Vital Speeches, 15 September 1941, p. 720 quoted in Koppes, p. 40.

[5] Time, 22 September 1941.

[6] Time, 22 September 1941.

[7] Koppes, Hollywood, p. 44.

[8] Koppes, Hollywood, p.45.

Before HUAC came to Hollywood

Kevin Brianton

Senior Lecturer, La Trobe University

Ever since director D. W. Griffith had created “history written with lightning” with his film The Birth of a Nation in 1915, the film industry had to deal with an anxious political leadership in Washington. The way Hollywood could present and deliver ideas was always a source of concern for the political leadership and communism was always a particular focus. According to director William DeMille, he was interviewed by federal agents as early as 1922, after he was invited to attend a lunch with communist leader William Z. Foster at the house of the actor Charles Chaplin. His brother Cecil was able to support his political innocence.

Ever since director D. W. Griffith had created “history written with lightning” with his film The Birth of a Nation in 1915, the film industry had to deal with an anxious political leadership in Washington.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster

The House Committee on Un-American Activities[1] investigation in Hollywood in 1947 was certainly not the first time that conservative political forces had intervened in the film industry.  Hollywood had resisted many attempts from Federal and State bodies for censorship on scenes with sex and violence since the 1920s.  A HUAC investigation in 1938 was the first visible sign, however, that the conservatives wanted to influence the political content of Hollywood’s films.  Committee chairman Texan Democrat Martin Dies and his political allies were alarmed by the development of the Anti-Nazi League in Hollywood which they considered to be a communist front.[2]  Using the testimony of former communist J.B. Matthews, Dies made the ridiculous mistake of accusing child actress Shirley Temple, who was about 10 years old, and other actors’ of serving the communist cause’ because of a message in a French radical newspaper.  His opponents pounced on this and his investigation became a laughing stock.

FBI and HUAC historian Kenneth O’Reilly notes that the Dies Committee reports were only a “supplement” to the Bureau’s own operations. While the FBI did not support the Dies Committee, it had access to and used its extensive reports. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover believed that communists were prevalent throughout the film industry. A report to him said that the communist leadership had “thrown caution to the wind” in its efforts to gain control of the film industry and its intellectual leadership was now visible as a result.The release of Mission to Moscow in 1943, with its pro-Stalin message,confirmed these views and caused an uproar, with the Republicans attacking the film industry for doing the bidding of the Roosevelt administration. The FBI reacted to the release of the film by beginning a comprehensive surveillance of the film industry, ranging from scrutiny of industrial issues and the political activities of directors, actors and writers, through to the content of films. At one point in 1944, Hoover demanded a report by the fifteenth of each month on the infiltration of Hollywood by communist agents and ideas. This grew into a large body of information tracking the activity of real and suspected communists. [3]



The release of Mission to Moscow in 1943, with its pro-Stalin message, confirmed the conservative view that Hollywood – and by extension – was pro-communist and caused an uproar, with the Republicans attacking the film industry for doing the bidding of the Roosevelt administration. The publication of the book Mission to Moscow in 1943 had become part of an internal wrangle within the State Department between those who were suspicious of Stalin’s motives and those such as the author Soviet Ambassador Joseph E. Davies, who believed the Soviet Union could take its place in the world community. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover remained on the side of those who distrusted Stalin and his motives. He regarded the film Mission to Moscow as evidence of communist infiltration of Hollywood.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster .

After Dies’ floundering attack on Hollywood, he turned his attention to other areas.  The Federal Theatre Project has been a staging ground for many radical and liberal plays and was regarded with contempt by the conservatives.  The committee managed to get funding withdrawn.  Despite having no immediate impact, the Dies committee showed a path for the HUAC investigations of later years.  Massive publicity could be generate by an investigation of Hollywood and the committee helped originate the smear tactics that were to succeed so well after the war.[4]

The political content of films did not worry conservatives in the period leading up to 1938.  The work of the Hays Office and the Production Code Administration had ensured that Hollywood would steer clear to dealing directly with political and social issues.[5] 
The Hays Office had been set up in 1922 to self-regulate the industry and to mollify numerous state censorship boards which were slashing films across the country.  The office had initially little impact because it could only advise.  In 1930, after public criticism and threats of federal intervention, the industry introduced a production code with a detailed list of prohibited areas.  The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America created the Production Code Administration to enforce the regulations.  It really developed teeth in 1934 after a campaign by the Catholic Legion of Decency against immoral films.  Without a certificate of approval from the PCA, the studio could be fined $25,000 if the film was released.  The administration aimed to ensure that moral standards were maintained on the screen.  Its disapproval meant that film would be condemned by Catholic bishops and picked up by the Legion of Decency.  While primarily meant to judge films on their moral values, it would often disapprove of films because of their political or social messages. Through the efforts of these bodies and fears of losing the valuable European market, the studios managed to avoid the topic of Europe’s lurch into fascism for many years.

Hollywood gradually began to edge toward supporting a more interventionist stance in Europe from 1938 to 1941.  The first serious attempt to tackle the subject of the rise of fascism was Blockade (1938) which focused on the Spanish Civil War.  The Spanish conflict was the great divisive international issue of the 1930s.  The American left supported the Loyalist government, with 3000 people enlisting in the Abraham Lincoln brigade to fight for Republican Spain.  The right, including the Catholic Church, supported Franco and the fascists.  Germany and Italy poured huge amounts of arms and men into Spain to support Franco and were instrumental to his victory.

Because of the power of the PCA, Blockade never mentioned either Franco or the fascists.  The original publicity for the film carried the disclaimer that care had been taken to prevent any costume of the production from being accurately that of either side in the Spanish Civil War.  It said the story did not attempt to ‘favour any cause in the present conflict.’[6]  This claim was spurious as there were many references to bombers attacking cities, which was a common strategy of the fascist armies.  The disclaimer and the caution with uniforms did not stop the film from being systematically picketed by Catholic organisations throughout the United States.  These pickets wee a forerunner to the those which sprang up during the post-War era.  The film may have been watered down to gain Catholic approval, but it still contained some powerful anti-war scenes.  It focused on the cruel blockade of a Spanish province and the bombing of cities.  At end of the film, an hysterical Henry Fonda, who played a farmer turned soldier, screamed to the audience and demanded to know where was the conscience of the world.[7]  This scene and the bombing of a city and the panic it caused were particularly disturbing.  As a whole the film was more an indictment of total war than just the fascist cause, but this did not stop the protests.


The first serious attempt to tackle the subject of the rise of fascism was Blockade (1938) which focused on the Spanish Civil War.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster .

After failing with Blockade, independent producer Walter Wagner tried to make a film based on the best selling book Personal History by Vincent Sheehan, which also focused on the rose of European fascism, but he dropped the idea for the time being after more opposition from the PCA.  Other studios picked up from there.  Warner Brother’s first major anti-Nazi film was Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939) which was based on a trial of German agents in New York.  It was directed by anti-Nazi émigré Anatole Litvak and depicted Nazi Germany as a direct threat to America with its plans for world domination.  During the film, an FBI agent declared that Germany was at war with the United States.[8]  PCA head Breen attempted to intimidate Warner Brothers by telling them that the film would lead to foreign censorship, but the studio went ahead with it anyway.  As the film had not broken the letter of the production code, Breen could not stop it being produced.  But as Breen had predicted, it was banned across Europe, and the appeasing British demanded that several lines be deleted.[9] 


[1] William deMille, Hollywood Saga (New York: E.P. Dutton & co. Inc., 1939), 195–196. The correct acronym for the House Committee on Un-American Activities is HCUA, but it is conventional to use the acronym HUAC. Report to Director on Communist Infiltration in Motion Picture Industry, 6 September 1942, COMPIC 100–138754. (Hereafter COMPIC.) The FBI has released the COMPIC files on disc. A second set of COMPIC files, containing mostly high-level summaries, were released by BACM Research. The most comprehensive set appears to be J. Edgar Hoover and Radicalism in Hollywood, Part 1, Communist Infiltration in Motion Picture Industry, Primary Source Media, 2007, which includes a useful index. While there is some overlap between the three sets, some documents appear in one set and do not appear in others.

[2] Larry Ceplair and Ken Englund, The Inquisition in Hollywood: Politics in the Film Community 1930 – 1960, Doubleday, New York, 1980. P. 109. Hollywood Reporter, 15 April 1943. The publication of the book Mission to Moscow in 1943 had become part of an internal wrangle within the State Department between those who were suspicious of Stalin’s motives and those such as the author Soviet Ambassador Joseph E. Davies, who believed the Soviet Union could take its place in the world community. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover remained on the side of those who distrusted Stalin and his motives. He regarded the film Mission to Moscow as evidence of communist infiltration of Hollywood. J. Edgar Hoover to SAC Los Angeles, 21 June 1943, COMPIC. For a full account of the politics of Mission to Moscow see David Cuthbert, “Our Awkward Ally: Mission to Moscow,” in John E. O’Connor, and Martin A Jackson, (eds.) American History/American Film: Interpreting the American Image, eds., New expanded edition (New York: Continuum, 1988), 121–146. For the wider debate see Daniel Yergin, Shattered Peace: The Origins of the Cold War and the National Security State (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977).

[3] O’Reilly, Red Menace, 47–48. For example, FBI agent and Los Angeles Special Agent in Charge R. B. Hood used the Dies Report to conclude that the Anti-Nazi League was a “communist front of the worst type” in a report from 1941. FBI report, 1 January 1941, Anti-Nazi League FBI file, http://foia.fbi.gov/foiaindex/hollywoodleague.htm (accessed on 25 January 2009). Nancy Lynn Schwartz, The Hollywood Writer’s Wars, Knopf, New York, 1982, pp. 136 – 137.

[4] Schwartz, Writers, pp. 136 – 139.

[5] The most complete history of the Production Code Administration is Leonard J. Jeff and Jerold L. Simmons, The Dame in the Kimono: Hollywood Censorship and the Production Code from the 1920’s to the 1960’s, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1990.

[6] Halliwell, Film Guide, 5th edition, Paladin, London, 1986, p. 110.

[7] Blockade, (d) William Dietrele, (w) John Howard Lawson

[8] Clayton R. Koopes and Gregory D. Black, Hollywood Goes to War: How Politics, Profits, and Propaganda Shaped World War II Movies, Free Press, New York, 1987, p. 29.

[9] Koppes & Black, Hollywood, p.30 One year later, a full print was shown in the United Kingdom.