Cold War, Cool Medium: Television, McCarthyism and American
Thomas Doherty’s latest publication, Cold War, Cool Medium: Television, McCarthyism and American Culture, has been published at a timely moment. In the midst of recurrent debates on the extent of media influence on the shaping of the grand narrative of History, the author takes us back to the origins of television and analyzes its political role during the Cold War era in the United States. Doherty, who is professor of American Studies, chair of the film studies program at Brandeis University and associate editor of the film journal Cinéaste, has already published other volumes on cinematic history: Projections of War: Hollywood, American Culture, and World War II (1994), Pre Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality and Insurrection in American Cinema, 1930-1934 (1999) and Teenagers and Teenpics: The Juvenilization Of American Movies in the 1950s (2002). It seems to me that Doherty’s decision to turn his attention to the small screen when analyzing McCarthyism is extremely pertinent. In an era which was the heyday of domesticity, television became the spool which both sides of the political fence fought to control in an ideologically turbulent atmosphere.
Notwithstanding, it is precisely one of the strengths of Doherty’s text that he enables the reader to understand the collage of discourses which helped to shape the Cold War era. As the author accurately explains: “All historians are bedeviled by problems of access and imagination” [p. vii]. Indeed, the main drawback which presents itself to those interested in the culture of postwar America is that it is often presented as defined by narrow moral norms and a strict concept of political affiliation. Interestingly, Doherty focuses on the role television had in making postwar America a more open-minded society. As he explains:
In order to achieve his aim, the author conveniently highlights the range of political terminology available at the time to define different degrees of left-wing commitment, that is: “Communist Party member,” “fellow traveler,” “liberal,” “prodigal politico” and “controversial personality” [pp. 29-30]. He also makes a point of deconstructing McCarthy’s all-powerful image as head of the various committees which strove to control “un-American” behavior—an image which he shows to be more of a myth than a reality. Moreover, Doherty also dedicates different sections of his book to the relevance minority groups acquired through media visibility, as was the case of African-Americans or Jews, and to the importance accorded to homosexual orientation in the rise and fall of McCarthyism.
In order to conflate the rise of the television industry with the rise of McCarthyism, Doherty has adopted a helpful chronological structure. Chapter One and Chapter Two provide an introductory background of sorts as they focus on the appearance of television and the “Red Menace” and on the ensuing practice of “blacklisting”—“the practice of refusing to hire or terminating from employment an individual whose associations are deemed politically inconvenient or commercially troublesome” [p. 18]—respectively.
Chapter Three examines the concept of the “controversial personality:” any public figure who had at some point taken a leftwing stand on a social issue and was, consequently, blacklisted. To do this, Doherty focuses on two different individual cases: that of Philip Loeb and Lucille Ball. These two performers were renowned stars in two popular TV shows which touched on minority issues, The Goldbergs and I Love Lucy. Thus, the author reflects on how television became a cultural site during the late 1940s and 1950s which helped to consolidate the concept of the “melting pot”. Labeled by Doherty an “ethnic situation comedy” [p. 37], The Goldbergs chronicled the everyday life of a Jewish-American family. The author traces the events which ultimately led Phillip Loeb, the male protagonist of this early family sitcom, to commit suicide due to his public humiliation and inability to earn a living after he was blacklisted. Lucille Ball, protagonist of the legendary I Love Lucy, is a good counterexample to Loeb. Ball’s success role as wife to Cuban Ricky Ricardo embodied too many dreams of racial integration not to assure investments of millions of dollars. Paradoxically, the “money-makes-the-world-go-round” maxim seems to have been applicable to the HUAC (House Committee on Un-American Activities) too, who spared Ball and even publicly cleared her name.
Turning to the more strictly political arena, Chapter Four, Chapter Five and Chapter Six provide the reader with a detailed account of the role TV had in making a show of political controversy. Chapter Four, which is centered on the establishment of the Television Code and its consequences on programming, seems to be out of place in the essay as a whole. It can however be usefully read as a structural counterpoint to Chapter Five and Chapter Six which focus on the paradoxical use of the small screen as a springboard for politicians, such as Eisenhower or the senators of the anti-crime Kefauver Committee.
In an intelligently structured twist, Doherty explores in Chapter Seven a foil to these camera-beloved figures: FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. Always shunning the flash of the cameras, Hoover became, as Doherty explains, a God-like presence, ever present but invisible. It is no wonder that the author chooses to explore here the significance of the TV series I Led 3 Lives, about an FBI spy infiltrated in the Communist Party. A success to all media purposes, Hoover never gave the show his backing, worried as he was about keeping the anti-Communist fight far from the spotlights.
Subsequently, Chapter Eight, Chapter Nine, Chapter Ten and Chapter Eleven chronicle the decisive role television had in enabling the fall of Senator McCarthy from widespread public favor into oblivion. The same medium which had hoisted the junior senator into a place of privilege resulted in his undoing because, as Doherty writes:
Chapter Eight chronicles the decisive role Edward R. Murrow had in creating and airing the first openly anti-McCarthy program, one of the episodes of the political documentary series See It Now. Shown on March 9, 1954, it was only a foreshadowing of what was to come: the definitive downfall of McCarthy in the televised “Army-McCarthy Hearings” one month later, explained in detail in Chapter Nine. The decisiveness of the cause of McCarthy’s loss of credibility—namely, the public hint at a supposed homosexual affair between two members of McCarthy’s staff, Roy M. Cohn and G. David Schine, televised live—is expanded upon in Chapter Ten. In this brilliantly researched part of his essay, Doherty explores the reason for the rampant homophobia which swept postwar America: in his own words, “a gender contract carved in stone was cracking around the edges” [p. 215], leading to further research on sexuality and to still further repression of the “deviant.” The author also delineates the close link built by McCarthy and his followers between being homosexual and being a Communist, the narrow breach between “a loyalty risk” and “a security risk.” It is thus no wonder that a hint at homosexuality in McCarthy’s ranks could signify the end of the HUAC’s credibility, and gradual ceasing of blacklisting, detailed in Chapter Eleven.
Finally, Doherty includes a chapter which he calls “Exhuming McCarthyism.” In this last section of the book, he traces the representation and final indictment of the McCarthy era through movies such as Fear on Trial (1975), The Front (1976) and the more recent Pleasantville (1998). This section enables Doherty to wrap up his main argument that history is partially shaped by the media. He argues that it is precisely because McCarthyism was central to TV culture throughout the Cold War era that it has remained on the record of image History and been conveniently reproduced and re-assessed.
Cold War, Cool Medium: Television, McCarthyism and American
Culture is a pleasure to read. Although at times Doherty seems
too concerned with perusing every single detail of his subject of
study, it is precisely the sum of those details which adds up to
his elucidating picture of the Cold War era. Besides being thoroughly
documented, insightful and detailed as to TV culture and McCarthyism,
this essay is an invaluable tool for those who wish to understand