Category Archives: Cold War

Pete Seeger Does Not Testify

Pete Seeger Does Not Testify

August 18, 1955

Pete Seeger Does Not Testify


      Despite its importance in the Allied victory in World War II, after the war most  Americans viewed Communist Soviet Union as a dangerous enemy.
                A number of American politicians, most notably Senator Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin, said that many Americans were sympathetic to Communism, worked for Communists, or were  spies for Communists.      

               In February 1950, McCarthy charged that there were over 200 “known communists” in the Department of State. 

House on Un-American Activities

       Established in 1938, the House on Un-American Activities Committee subpoenaed citizens to testify before Congress about possible or imagined Communist sympathies.

      Many felt that HUAC was simply a political tool used by the Republicans. In 1947, HUAC had decided not to investigate the Ku Klux Klan. HUAC’s chief counsel, Ernest Adamson, announced: "The committee has decided that it lacks sufficient data on which to base a probe," HUAC member John Rankin added: "After all, the KKK is an old American institution.” 

      That same year, Ronald Reagan, along with his wife Jane Wyman, provided the FBI with a list of names of Screen Actors Guild members they believed were or had been Communists. 

      On October 20, 1947, HUAC opened hearings into alleged Communist influence in Hollywood. A “friendly” witness included President of Screen Actors Guild Ronald Reagan.

      On November 24, 1947 the House of Representatives issued citations for Contempt of Congress to the so-called Hollywood Ten—John Howard Lawson, Alvah Bessie, Herbert Biberman, Lester Cole, Edward Dmytryk, Ring Lardner Jr., Albert Maltz, Samuel Ornitz, Adrian Scott, and Dalton Trumbo. They had refused to cooperate at hearings dealing with communism in the movie industry. The men were sentenced to one year in jail. The Supreme Court later upheld the contempt charges.

Other artists targeted

      On September 4, 1949  racists injured more than 140 attendees after a benefit for a civil rights group in Peekskill, N.Y.
       The victims were among the 20,000 people leaving a concert featuring African-American Paul Robeson, well-known for his strong pro-unionism, civil rights activism and left-wing affiliations.
              The departing concert-goers had to drive through a miles-long gauntlet of rock-throwing racists and others chanting "go on back to Russia, you niggers" and "white niggers."
                 On February 6, 1952, a former Communist Party member and now an FBI informant,  named members of the popular folk singing group The Weavers as Communists. Pete Seeger was a member of the group.

Pete Seeger Does Not Testify

      On this date, HUAC called Pete Seeger to testify. 

      Seeger refused to invoke the Fifth Amendment, protecting citizens from self-incrimination. Instead he insisted that the Committee had no right to question him regarding his political beliefs or associations. 

      HUAC cited Seeger for contempt of court and in March 1961 he stood trial. The court found him guilty of obstructing HUAC’s work. At his sentencing he asked if he could sing, “Wasn’t That a Time”? The judge refused Seeger’s request and sentenced him to a year and a day in prison.

      A court overturned the verdict in May 1962. The same week Peter, Paul, and Mary's cover of Seeger's "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" hit the top 40 list.

      That same year, Seeger used words from the Book of Ecclesiastes to write "Turn Turn Turn."


      Though the Court had overturned his conviction, TV and other media continued to blacklist Seeger. It would not be until September 10, 1967, on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Show that Pete Seeger appeared for the first time on television. It had been 17 years since blacklisting. He sang Waist Deep in the Big Muddy, but CBS dropped the performance when Seeger refused to edit the obviously the song's anti-Vietnam sentiments. 

      On February 25, 1968, CBS allowed Seeger to return to the show and sing the song among others.

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Blackboard Jungle

Blackboard Jungle

Bill Haley & His Comets singing "Rock Around the Clock"
Blackboard Jungle
L-R: Louis Calhern, Glenn Ford Sidney Poitier in Blackboard Jungle
           In the 1950s many Americans thought they saw Communists in every nook and cranny. And Americans blamed what they defined as social ills on Communism's influence.

Civil Rights? Communism.  

Folk music? Communism. 

Homosexuality? Communism.

The Beat Generation? Communism.

Juvenile delinquency? Communism.

Rock and Roll? Communism.  
           The novel Blackboard Jungle was published in 1954. Ed McBain, using the pseudonym Evan Hunter,  wrote the book.  The following year Richard Brooks directed the film. 

           The film reinforced the popular view that teenagers, particularly those who lived in the cities, were out of control. Disrespectful. Lazy. Intemperate.

           The movie opened with Bill Haley & the Comets "Rock Around the Clock." The song was actually the B-side of a single the band had released in May 1954, "Thirteen Women (and Only One Man in Town)." The single didn't go far on the charts. Not until its now-famous B-side opened the movie.
           On July 9, 1955, "Rock Around the Clock" became the first rock and roll recording to hit the top of Billboard's Pop charts. The song stayed there for eight weeks.

           But it was on this date, May 17, in 1955 that the so-called Princeton Riot occurred. 
Blackboard Jungle
NYT article

Blackboard Jungle

           That Blackboard Jungle was in the news was not new. On March 28, 1955, Memphis, Tennessee's censor board had banned the film. 

           In fact 1955 was a tough year for rock and roll promoters. On May 22,  Bridgeport, Connecticut authorities had cancelled a Fats Domino concert because of the dangers of “Rock and Roll.”  Similar rock and roll concert cancellations due to local officials’ fear of possible violence occurred in Boston, Atlanta, Newark, Asbury Park, New Jersey, and Burbank, California. 

           And remember that the Ed Sullivan Show had presented only the top half of Elvis Presley’s first appearance.

           As for that Princeton riot, the faculty committee suspended four students.
Blackboard Jungle
NYT article
           On August 26,  Blackboard Jungle was removed from consideration at the Venice Film Festival because of objections by the U.S. Ambassador to Italy, Clare Boothe Luce, but the movie received four Oscar nominations (won none). 

           Today considered a landmark film about the 1950s. And though Bill Haley's song was not the first rock and roll song, it is often credited with making rock and roll popular far beyond its 1950 boundaries. 


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Francis Gary Powers

Francis Gary Powers

May 1, 1960
Francis Gary Powers
U-2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers sits in the witness chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington, D.C. on March 6, 1962. This was his first public appearance since his release by the Russians on February. 10, 1962. He is holding a U-2 model plane. (AP Photo)
I think I remember something about Francis Gary Powers at the time, but I don't know when I first heard of him. Not on May 1, 1960 when I was probably outside playing after Sunday dinner and trying not to think about Monday and sitting in Miss Liston's 4th grade class. Did I have homework that weekend? Had I done it?

Francis Gary Powers had taken off from Afghanistan that day in his U2 jet intending to fly over the Soviet Union, take pictures of likely nuclear missile installations, and land in Norway. Flying at 70,000 feet, military experts said he was beyond the reach of Soviet missiles.

In 1955, President Dwight Eisenhower had proposed an “open skies” plan, in which each country would be permitted to make overflights of the other to conduct mutual aerial inspections of nuclear facilities and launchpads. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev refused the proposal.

The US's U2 spy plane program was a secret program aimed at bypassing that refusal. Flying over a country without permission could be considered an act of war. The program began in 1956.
The Soviets did track some flights, but could not prove that the US was conducting them. The Soviets remained silent because announcing their knowledge of the flights would also reveal their inability to shoot them down.

Until May 1, 1960.

Francis Gary Powers

The flight had been normal until explosions suddenly broke off a U2 wing and shut down its controls. To use the automatic bailout system with the plane in freefall would have severed his legs. He tried to bail out manually and was nearly sucked out of the plane when he removed its canopy. He also realized that he couldn't reach the plane's self-destruct button.

When the US government found out about the situation, it assumed that the plane was destroyed and Powers killed. The government released a story that it was not a spy but a weather plane that had gone off course. A "NASA" painted model was used for exhibit. Eisenhower confirmed the story.

Until the Soviets released pictures of the plane, mostly intact, and Powers, alive. A planned summit between Eisenhower and Khrushchev went south.  The Soviets tried Powers on August 17 and found him guilty of espionage two days later. The court sentenced Power to 10 years in prison. 

            Three months later, the US elected John F Kennedy president and Powers became his problem.

On February 10, 1962 James B Donovan completed his successful negotiation for the exchange of Powers, along with American student Frederic Pryor, for Rudolf Abel. Ironically, Donovan had defended Abel five years earlier in American courts and though losing the case, was able to defeat the government's request for the death penalty.

            The exchange took place on the famous Glienicke bridge in Berlin - the "bridge" referred to in the title of the 2015 film Bridge of Spies.
Francis Gary Powers
The Glienicke bridge just after the Powers swap on 10 February 1962
Back from the USSR, Powers underwent the questioning scrutiny of the American media. Why had he co-operated with the Soviets? Why hadn't he committed suicide?

A Senate committee hearing in 1962 gave Powers a chance explain.The committee fully exonerated him and awarded $50,000 in back pay to cover the period of his incarceration in Russia. 

He took a job as a pilot for a television news station and died in a helicopter crash on August 1, 1977.

He is buried in the Arlington National Cemetery where his tombstone includes two honors, both awarded posthumously: the Distinguished Flying Cross, and the Prisoner of War medal.
Francis Gary Powers
photo by Edward (Ted) Tyler

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