J. Parnell Thomas

J. Parnell Thomas

John Parnell Thomas was born in Jersey City on 16th January, 1895. He studied at the University of Pennsylvania and during the First World War served on the Western Front as a second lieutenant. In 1918 he was promoted to the rank of captain and transferred to Regimental Staff Headquarters.

After the war Thomas moved to New York City where he worked in investment securities. A member of the Republican Party, Thomas was elected to Congress in January 1937. Thomas held right-wing views and claimed that Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal policies had "sabotaged the capitalist system". He objected to the idea of the subsidized theatre and led the attack on the Federal Theatre & Writers Project. Thomas claimed that: "Practically every play presented under the auspices of the Project is sheer propaganda for Communism or the New Deal."

Parnell Thomas, a member of the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) called for Hallie Flanagan, the head of the Federal Theatre Project, to answer questions. Flanagan immediately went on the attack arguing that: "Some of the statements reported to have been made by him (Parnell Thomas) are obviously absurd... of course no one need first join or be a member of any organization in order to obtain employment in a theatre project."

On 19th August, 1938, Hazel Huffman, a former employee of the Works Projects Administration (WPA), appeared before the HUAC and claimed that Flanagan was a person who "was known as far back as 1927 for her communistic sympathy, if not membership" and pointed out that 147 pages of her book, Shifting Scenes of the European Theatre, had devoted 147 pages to "eulogizing the Russian theater." Huffman also pointed out that Flanagan had appointed Elmer Rice, "a well-known leftist" as regional director of the Federal Theatre Project in New York City. Another witness, Sallie Saunders, condemned the Federal Theatre because it had performed "pro-union plays, plays referring to Negro discrimination, and anti-Fascist plays." Saunders also complained that the project encouraged racial intergration and that while working for the FTP she had been "telephoned by a Negro for a date".

Martin Dies, the chairman of the House of Un-American Activities Committee, called for the resignations of Harold Ickes, Harry Hopkins and Frances Perkins, as the three had "associates who were Socialists, Communists, and crackpots." Roosevelt refused to sack these three members of his government but did bring the Federal Theatre Project to an end.

The Un-American Activities Committee originally investigated both left-wing and right wing political groups. Some called for the leaders of the Ku Klux Klan to be interrogated by the HUAC. Martin Dies however was a supporter of the Klan and had spoken at several of its rallies. Other members of the HUAC such as John Rankin and John S. Wood were also Klan sympathizers. Wood defended the Klan by arguing that: "The threats and intimidations of the Klan are an old American custom, like illegal whisky-making." Eventually Ernest Adamson, the HUAC's chief counsel, announced that: "The committee has decided that it lacks sufficient data on which to base a probe." Rankin added: "After all, the KKK is an old American institution." Instead, the HUAC concentrated on investigating the possibility that the American Communist Party had infiltrated New Deal projects.

In 1947 Thomas was appointed chairman of the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). On 20th October the HUAC opened its hearings concerning communist infiltration of the motion picture industry. The chief investigator for the committee was Robert E. Stripling. The first people it interviewed included Ronald Reagan, Gary Cooper, Ayn Rand, Jack L. Warner, Robert Taylor, Adolphe Menjou, Robert Montgomery, Walt Disney, Thomas Leo McCarey and George L. Murphy. These people named several possible members of the American Communist Party. Soon afterwards he began an investigation into the Hollywood Motion Picture Industry. The HUAC interviewed 41 people who were working in Hollywood. These people attended voluntarily and became known as "friendly witnesses". During their interviews they named nineteen people who they accused of holding left-wing views.

As a result their investigations, the HUAC announced it wished to interview nineteen members of the film industry that they believed might be members of the American Communist Party. This included Herbert Biberman, Alvah Bessie, Lester Cole, Albert Maltz, Adrian Scott, Dalton Trumbo, Edward Dmytryk, Ring Lardner Jr., Samuel Ornitz, John Howard Lawson, Larry Parks, Waldo Salt, Bertolt Brecht, Richard Collins, Gordon Kahn, Robert Rossen, Lewis Milestone and Irving Pichel.

Robert E. Stripling and J. Parnell Thomas examine films to be shown to the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Robert E. Stripling and J. Parnell Thomas examine films
to be shown to the House Un-American Activities Committee.

The first suspected communist to appear before the HUAC was John Howard Lawson on 27th October, 1947. Lawson requested the right to make an opening statement but this was refused by Parnell Thomas with the words that the "statement is not pertinent to this inquiry." The statement included the following: "As an individual, I am not important. The obvious fact that the Committee is trying to destroy me personally and professionally, to deprive me of my livelihood and what is far dearer to me-my honor as an American - gains significance only because it opens the way to similar destruction of any citizen whom the Committee selects for annihilation... It is not surprising that writers and artists are selected for this indecent smear. Writers, artists, scientists, educators, are always the first victims of attack by those who hate democracy. The writer has a special responsibility to serve democracy, to further the free exchange of ideas. I am proud to be singled out for attack by men who are obviously - by their own admission on the record-out to stifle ideas and censor communication."

Robert E. Stripling asked Lawson if he was a member of the Screen Writers Guild. He refused to answer this question on principal but he did comment that his membership was a matter of public record. His next question was: "Mr. Lawson, are you now, or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party of the United States?" Lawson replied that "the Bill of Rights was established precisely to prevent the operation of any committee which could invade the basic rights of Americans." With this answer Lawson was removed from the room by the guards.

The next person called was Dalton Trumbo who was also denied the right to make an opening statement. In it he wanted to make the point that the HUAC was having a damaging impact on world opinion: "As indicated by news dispatches from foreign countries during the past week, the eyes of the world are focused today upon the House Committee on Un-American Activities. In every capital city these hearings will be reported. From what happens during the proceedings, the peoples of the earth will learn by precept and example precisely what America means when her strong voice calls out to the community of nations for freedom of the press, freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, the civil rights of men standing accused before government agencies, the vitality and strength of private enterprise, the inviolable right of every American to think as he wishes, to organize and assemble as he pleases, to vote in secret as he chooses."

Trumbo was asked by Robert E. Stripling if he was a member of the Screen Writers Guild. He refused to answer the question: "Mr. Stripling, the rights of American labor to inviolably secret membership have been won in this country by a great cost of blood and a great cost in terms of hunger. These rights have become an American tradition. Over the Voice of America we have broadcast to the entire world the freedom of our labor... You asked me a question which would permit you to haul every union member in the United States up here to identify himself as a union member, to subject him to future intimidation and coercion. This, I believe is an unconstitutional question."

Trumbo also refused to admit he was a member of the American Communist Party. Trumbo was removed from the room and HUAC investigator, Louis Russell, now read out a nine page report on his Communist Party affiliations. Parnell Thomas now stated: "The evidence presented before this Committee concerning Dalton Trumbo clearly indicates that he is an active Communist Party member. Also the fact that he followed the usual Communist line of not responding to questions of the Committee is definite proof that he is a member of the Communist Party. Therefore, by unanimous vote of the members present, the subcommittee recommends to the full committee that Dalton Trumbo be cited for contempt of Congress."

The first ten men accused of being communists: Alvah Bessie, Herbert Biberman, Albert Maltz, Adrian Scott, Samuel Ornitz, Dalton Trumbo, Lester Cole, Edward Dmytryk, John Howard Lawson and Ring Lardner Jr, refused to answer any questions about their political and union activities. Known as the Hollywood Ten, they claimed that the 1st Amendment of the United States Constitution gave them the right to do this. The House of Un-American Activities Committee and the courts during appeals disagreed and all were found guilty of contempt of Congress and each was sentenced to between six and twelve months in prison.

J. Parnell Thomas activities while working as chairman of the House of Un-American Activities Committee had upset those with left-wing political views and some reporters began investigating him. His secretary, Helen Campbell, leaked information about his illegal activities to the journalist, Drew Pearson. On 4th August, 1948, Pearson published the story that Thomas had been putting friends on his congressional payroll. They did no work but in return shared their salaries with Thomas.

Called before a grand jury, Thomas availed himself to the 5th Amendment, a strategy that he had been unwilling to accept when dealing with the Hollywood Ten. The journalist Drew Pearson commented: "Parnell Thomas's trial started this morning. Looking at him in the courtroom. I couldn't help but feel sorry for him. I can't relish helping to send a man to jail. Nevertheless, when I figure all the times Thomas has sent other people to jail and all the instances when he has kept men away from combat duty in return for money in his own pocket, to say nothing of salary kickbacks, perhaps I shouldn't be too sorry."

Indicted on charges of conspiracy to defraud the government, Thomas was found guilty and sentenced to 18 months in prison and forced to pay a $10,000 fine. Two of his fellow inmates in Danbury Federal Correctional Institution were Lester Cole and Ring Lardner Jr, who were serving terms as a result of refusing to testify in front of Thomas and the House of Un-American Activities Committee.

Thomas was paroled after serving nine months in Danbury. Attempts to return to Congress ended in failure and so in his final years he worked in publishing and real estate.

John Parnell Thomas died in St. Petersburg, Florida, on 19th November, 1970.

Primary Sources

(1) Jack Anderson, Confessions of a Muckraker (1979)

The leader of the committee was J. Parnell Thomas. In appearance, he was improbable either as hero or villain. He was old - I thought sixty-three was old then and fat, with a bald head and a round face that glowed perpetually in a pink flush. But as it turned out, his flat idiom and disarming corpulence concealed an unsuspected capacity to cultivate unreality, or rather, to parody reality. This was to be his passport to power and fame.

Thomas was moved principally by caricatures. Confronting a world that abounded in real Communist threats, he was obsessed with phantom, even ludicrous slapstick ones. One was his notion that the saccharine movies of that day, produced and monitored as they were by the most conformist capitalists, represented a New Deal conspiracy to Communize the free world.

The bipartisan empathy of the Thomas committee was exemplified by its ranking Democrats: Representative John Wood of Georgia advocated legislation to require that every commentator be identifiable to the public as to ethnic background and political affiliation, and whether he was reporting news or opinion. Representative John Rankin of Mississippi saw the Red Menace as merely a workaday illustration of his larger themes - the evil of Jewry and the inferiority of Negroes. In Rankin's portrayal, Communism was just another Jewish conspiracy, which used the guileless Negroes as dupes, pushing them into unwanted intimacies with whites in order to sow discord.

It is scarcely credible today that such figures could wield the power to dominate the news, eclipse careers and cause whole industries and institutions to grovel in fear. But indeed they did.

The motion picture industry was almost totally intimidated by the rising power of J. Parnell Thomas, and to appease him, instituted the blacklist that would spread to broadcasting and degrade the entertainment world for a decade to come. Under the pressure of the Thomas committee's probe into disloyalty among government employees, President Harry Truman issued a far-reaching Loyalty Order designed to circumvent legal forms in rooting out those suspected of disloyalty.

Under it, grounds for dismissal were broadened to'include "sympathetic association" with a "movement" or with a "group or combination of persons" considered subversive by the Attorney General. Truman's order specified the files of HUAC as a source of information on suspect employees. Meanwhile, the courts were affirming HUAC's powers and prerogatives; the Congress was close to unanimous in whooping through mounting appropriations for its probes; auxiliaries were springing up in states and localities across the country; even elements of the press, such as the Hearst chain,' were bawling for federal censorship.

(2) Robert Vaughn, Only Victims: A Study of Show Business Blacklisting (1972)

In 1938, it was Martin Dies and J. Parnell Thomas who shared the preheating public accusations about Communism in the entertainment world. In 1945, similar charges were leveled by Representative John Rankin of Mississippi, a virulent anti-Semite who opposed the creation of the committee until he was certain it would not be chaired by Samuel Dickstein.

With an inexplicable lack of prudent impartiality, Rankin declared he had information that "one of the most dangerous plots ever instigated for the overthrow of this government has its headquarters in Hollywood." He pursued his melodramatic harangue: "The information we get is that this is the greatest hot bed of subversive activities in the United States. We're on the trail of the tarantula now, and we're going to follow through. The best people in California are helping us."

The committee's policy of accuse, expose, and thereby indict in the eyes of much of the public was even more unjustified and incredible in the hands of the Mississippian than it had been with Dies or Thomas.

(3) Ring Lardner Jr. was interviewed by John Parnell Thomas, chairman of the House of Un-American Activities Committee, on 30th October, 1947.

J. Parnell Thomas: Are you or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?

Ring Larner Jr: I could answer exactly the way you want, Mr. Chairman but I think that is a...

J. Parnell Thomas: It is not a question of our wanted you to answer that. It is a very simple question. Any real American would be proud to answer the question.

Ring Larner Jr: It depends on the circumstances. I could answer it, but if I did I would hate myself in the morning.

J. Parnell Thomas: Leave the witness chair.

Ring Larner Jr: It was a question that would...

J. Parnell Thomas: (pounding gavel) Leave the witness chair.

Ring Larner Jr: I think I am leaving by force.

J. Parnell Thomas: Sergeant, take the witness away.

(4) Ring Lardner Jr., interviewed by Ruth Schultz in 1989.

They were two basic questions they asked: Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Screen Writers Guild? And are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party? We didn't answer either of them directly. We said that the guild had had a tough fight for recognition and that trouble could still come up again, that membership rolls were actually private. It was not any of the committee's business to inquire into membership of a union.

Then they asked me that "sixty-four-dollar question," but I'd hate myself in that morning." He started to scream: "You've been coached like all the others!" He was a small, heavy man, who was sitting on a couple of telephone books in order to be on the same level as the other members of the committee and look better for the pictures. He got very red in the face and finally said, "Remove the witness."

(5) J. Parnell Thomas, interviewing Thomas Leo McCarey (23rd October, 1947)

J. Parnell Thomas: Do you believe the industry should produce anti-Communist films in order to show the American people the dangers and the intrigue of the Communist Party here in the United States?

Thomas Leo McCarey: Well, Mr. Thomas, that is quite a question. I think basically the screen--I like to feel it is an art. I don't think pictures should be made that have much more than what the medium stands for. It is a great art. Pictures should be entertainment. I think that because of the number of people in all lands who see our pictures. I believe it only tends toward causing more enmity if we are partisan and take any sides in our pictures. For instance, Mr. Disney with his Donald Duck. Donald Duck is a great hero. The Three Little Pigs was very successful and the world is trying to tell us they want entertainment on the screen.

J. Parnell Thomas: In other words, you believe we would be doing the same thing?

Thomas Leo McCarey: We would bring on more bitterness, I think.

J. Parnell Thomas: We would be doing the same thing Soviet Russia is doing?

Thomas Leo McCarey: That is right.

J. Parnell Thomas: The other question is with reference to outlawing the Communist Party. We have two bills before our committee, either one of which if passed would outlaw the Communist Party in the United States just the same as it is outlawed in Canada and outlawed in some South American countries.

As one of the leaders or spokesmen of your profession, spokesman for a great many people, do you believe the Congress should outlaw the Communist Party in the United States?

Thomas Leo McCarey: I definitely do because I feel the party is not an American party. I think that within the confines of the United States we can have all the parties we want and have healthy debate on any subject for the betterment of all peoples but I don't think we should align ourselves with any foreign party.

J. Parnell Thomas: In other words, you think an American Communist is the agent of a foreign government?

Thomas Leo McCarey: I definitely do and I hope something is done about it because at this time it is a very dangerous thing. It seems like in a way some people accuse us of being afraid of mentioning names. I would be very happy to mention names if we had a law with some teeth in it so that under the heading of - call it what you will; I am not a legislator and I am not a law maker - but somewhere along the line under the subdivision of "Treason," or something like that, should label these people as truly un-American.

J. Parnell Thomas: So that if there was a law on the books making the Communist Party illegal you would not hesitate to name the persons whom you know and believe to be Communists?

Thomas Leo McCarey: That is right.

(6) Drew Pearson, Washington Merry-Go-Round (4th August, 1948)

One Congressman who has sadly ignored the old adage that those who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones is bouncing Rep. J. Parnell Thomas of New Jersey, Chairman of the UnAmerican Activities Committee.

If some of his own personal operations were scrutinized on the witness stand as carefully as he cross-examines witnesses, they would make headlines of a kind the Congressman doesn't like.

It is not, for instance, considered good "Americanism" to hire a stenographer and have her pay a "kickback." This kind of operation is also likely to get an ordinary American in income tax trouble. However, this hasn't seemed to worry the Chairman of the UnAmerican Activities Committee.

On Jan. 1, 1940, Rep. Thomas placed on his payroll Myra Midkiff as a clerk at $1,200 a year with the arrangement that she would then kick back all her salary to the Congressman. This gave Mr. Thomas a neat annual addition to his own $10,000 salary, and presumably he did not have to worry about paying income taxes in this higher bracket, because he paid Miss Midkiff's taxes for her in the much lower bracket.

The arrangement was quite simple and lasted for four years. Miss Midkiff's salary was merely deposited in the First National Bank of Allendale, N.J., to the Congressman's account. Meanwhile she never came anywhere near his office and did not work for him except addressing envelopes at home for which she got paid $2 per hundred.

This kickback plan worked so well that four years later. Miss Midkiff having got married and left his phantom employ, the Congressman decided to extend it. On Nov. 16, 1944, the House Disbursing Officer was notified to place on Thomas's payroll the name of Arnette Minor at $1,800 a year.

Actually Miss Minor was a day worker who made beds and cleaned the room of Thomas's secretary, Miss Helen Campbell. Miss Minor's salary was remitted to the Congressman. She never got it.

This arrangement lasted only a month and a half, for on Jan. 1, 1945, the name of Grace Wilson appeared on the Congressman's payroll for $2,900.

Miss Wilson turned out to be Mrs. Thomas's aged aunt, and during the year 1945 she drew checks totaling $3,467.45, though she did not come near the office, in fact remained quietly in Allendale, N.J., where she was supported by Mrs. Thomas and her sisters, Mrs. Lawrence Wellington and Mrs. William Quaintance.

In the summer of 1946, however, the Congressman decided to let the county support his wife's aunt, since his son had recently married and he wanted to put his daughter-in-law on the payroll. Thereafter, his daughter-in-law, Lillian, drew Miss Wilson's salary, and the Congressman demanded that his wife's aunt be put on relief.

(7) Drew Pearson, diary entry (28th November, 1949)

Parnell Thomas's trial started this morning. Looking at him in the courtroom. I couldn't help but feel sorry for him. I can't relish helping to send a man to jail. Nevertheless, when I figure all the times Thomas has sent other people to jail and all the instances when he has kept men away from combat duty in return for money in his own pocket, to say nothing of salary kickbacks, perhaps I shouldn't be too sorry.