FDR’s Censorship Regime

Tennessee Johnson (1942) and a Prototype Pressure Campaign

Considerable attention has been paid to the 1950s Red Scare, McCarthy, and the notorious Hollywood Blacklist. But almost nobody is aware of a liberal censorship regime that was in place just a few years earlier. In 1942, President Roosevelt consolidated several government propaganda agencies into a single hub, the Office of War Information (OWI).

OWI enjoyed huge power over what Americans saw in movie theaters. OWI head Elmer Davis said: “The easiest way to inject a propaganda idea into most people’s minds is to let it go through the medium of an entertainment picture when they do not realize they’re being propagandized.” Staffed almost exclusively by progressive New Dealers, the agency reviewed 1,652 film scripts, and “encouraged” the revision or excision of any material that it found portrayed the United States in a negative light, including material that presented Americans as “oblivious to the war or anti-war.” Over time it emerged through intelligence intercepts and the admission of Davis himself that many employees of the OWI were Communist sympathizers or outright Soviet agents.

What kind of material did the OWI censor? Consider the case of Andrew Johnson, one of America’s most unfairly maligned Presidents. Born into poverty in Raleigh, North Carolina in 1808, Johnson didn’t go to school and didn’t learn to read until his teens. His father died when he was just 3, from a heart attack after rescuing three men from drowning. Johnson became a tailor’s apprentice, in part because customers would often read to tailors while they were performing their work. 

When Johnson finally learned himself — taught in part by his wife Eliza – he grew into an avid reader. He moved to Tennessee and opened his own tailor’s shop. As a small business owner, Johnson occupied a unique place in Southern planter society. He established himself as a man of integrity and a brilliant speaker, and was widely supported by small land owners and skilled tradesmen on whose behalf he spoke out against large plantation owners undercutting wages and prices through slavery. 

Johnson became a Congressman in 1843, Governor of Tennessee in 1853, and a Senator in 1857. When the Secession Crisis rolled around, he was an ardent opponent of leaving the Union. But his position had nothing to do with opposition to slavery. Having come from nothing, and risen to high office through his merits, Johnson believed in the American system. He owned eight slaves himself, some of whom would choose to stay with him even after gaining their freedom.

As secession hysteria gripped the South, Johnson stood his ground. He endured heckling and physical assaults as he campaigned against what he thought was sure to be a disaster. He kept a revolver underneath the lectern whenever he spoke so that he could shoot down any assassin who tried to silence him. 

Johnson was the only Senator from a Southern state not to resign after the Confederacy finally declared independence in 1861. He became a close friend of Abraham Lincoln and was appointed Military Governor of Tennessee after the state was partially captured by the Union army one year later.

When Lincoln ran for reelection after the conclusion of the Civil War, Johnson, a Southerner who had remained loyal to the Union, seemed like the perfect Vice President for a campaign based on national unity. This choice (and message) was ardently opposed by the Radical Republicans, a Congressional bloc which was hostile to Lincoln for his conciliatory policy towards the conquered Confederacy. The South, they demanded, must be punished and its pre-war society destroyed.

Although Lincoln and Johnson won the election, vindictiveness towards the South flipped into overdrive after Lincoln was assassinated in 1865. Johnson was sworn in as President and reaffirmed Lincoln’s conciliatory policy. He opposed the implementation of unpopular policies like suffrage for free blacks. The conquered Southern states still hadn’t had their own representation in Congress restored and were effectively under military occupation. Matters of electoral franchise had always been left up to the states. The policy was also controversial in the North: measures to extend the franchise to blacks in Ohio, Connecticut, and Minnesota all failed in this period.

Johnson advocated for the speediest readmission of the Southern states into the Union as possible. He also hoped to transfer regional power from the planter class that had traditionally dominated the South to the small landowners and tradesmen. Several times Congress tried to pass more aggressive Reconstruction legislation, and several times Johnson vetoed it. Congress, however, was able to override each of these vetoes.

Johnson would continue to battle Congress over Reconstruction policy, facing off against an even more powerful Radical Republican bloc following the election of 1866. In 1867, Congress began admitting new states, like Nebraska, which were dominated by Radical Republican legislators. It was at this point that Johnson encountered his greatest challenge yet. 

Having come into office after Lincoln’s assassination, Johnson had inherited members of Lincoln’s cabinet. Some of these cabinet officials attempted to undermine Johnson’s conciliatory Reconstruction policy. Congress, sensing that Johnson may try to fire Cabinet members favorable to its agenda, passed a bill that required Senate approval for Cabinet dismissals. 

Johnson, recognizing that this bill was unconstitutional, ignored it. But when he finally dismissed one of his insubordinate cabinet members, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, Congress moved to impeach him. What followed was the first Presidential impeachment trial in American history. After enduring a sensational kangaroo court, in which Johnson faced all manners of personal smears and slander, Johnson was narrowly acquitted on every Article of Impeachment. Congress amended its act; Several decades later the Supreme Court confirmed that Johnson was correct: the bill as originally written was unconstitutional.

OWI research workers in May 1943.

As with many good stories, Johnson’s life was adapted to film. The film, starring Van Heflin as Johnson, was initially titled ‘The Man on America’s Conscience’ and told the story of Johnson’s life, culminating in his impeachment trial. The script was written by John L. Balderston, who wrote the film Frankenstein in 1930, and directed by Academy Award winner William Dieterle. These were not cranks or radicals. The film had a simple message: without the country united, it would be impossible for the United States to defend itself against foreign enemies. This message was particularly relevant at the time because when production began, the US was on the eve of entering World War II.

News of the film’s production was leaked to the openly Communist newspaper The Daily Worker. Walter White, Secretary of the NAACP, saw the story and requested the script from the OWI Bureau of Motion Pictures head Lowell Mellett. Mellett, in turn, requested that MGM, the studio making the film, provide it. White was outraged by what he read. His main issue was that the film had a different interpretation of Reconstruction than he did. Johnson’s racism and opposition towards black rights in the South were largely unmentioned in the movie. After hearing White’s complaints, Mellett demanded that MGM remove certain scenes, reshoot others, or simply not release the film at all. 

Mellett coached his request in the language of national security. MGM, he said, ought not to put out a film “apt to cause disunity or even bad feeling.” Although some of the controversy was understandable, such as the movie falsely depicting the leader of the Radical Republicans, Senator Thaddeus Stevens (the villain of the film) as personally responsible for an unfortunate series of coincidences that left Johnson very drunk at his Vice Presidential inauguration, other aspects were less reasonable.

MGM objected but eventually gave in. The legal authority of many of these New Deal agencies was ambiguous, but with the war on, nobody wanted to test it. Many scenes were reshot and new dialogue was inserted. It was an expensive process. A new scene was inserted of Senator Stevens doting on Johnson’s children (Stevens was famous for his generosity towards children in real life). Certain period details were muted. A line where Johnson refers to Lincoln as “the old ape,” a common nickname for Lincoln often employed with affection, was cut. Other scenes were also cut. In particular, scenes featuring Senator Stevens’s black mistress, Lydia Hamilton Smith, were removed from the film. These scenes helped explain what was likely a significant motivation behind Stevens’s pursuit of black rights and vindictive attitude towards the Southern states.

The result of these changes was an entirely different film. The title was changed to ‘Tennessee Johnson’, and greater emphasis was placed on Johnson’s rags-to-riches story than his showdown with Congress over punishing the South. The final film bore the scars of censorship, as even the liberal New Republic noticed. In his review for the magazine, Manny Farber wrote: “The picture looks to have been pretty thoroughly censored, so as not to rake up any coals still burning… censorship is a disgrace, whether done by the Hays office and pressure groups, or by liberals and the OWI.”

Despite the changes, the protests did not slow down. The NAACP and communist activists both protested its release. Actor Zero Mostel, who was later revealed to be a Communist Party member and subsequently blacklisted, and a group of other Hollywood celebrities advocated that the film be destroyed. The movie, Mostel explained, “was less liberal-minded than it should be.”

As was with many New Deal agencies, the OWI’s not-so-subtle insertion of government-backed far-left activism into American life began to alarm critics. According to OWI head Davis, 35 OWI employees had to be fired for their communist affiliations in the agency’s brief three-year lifespan. One high-level OWI employee, Owen Lattimore, director of Pacific Operations, was named by a defector as a Soviet spy. Although Congress couldn’t substantiate these allegations, they did discover that he at the very least allowed his sympathies with communism to affect his professional judgment. Another OWI employee, Flora Wovschin, who oversaw the Voice of America radio program, was later revealed by intelligence intercepts to be an outright Soviet agent. The OWI was formally dissolved by Executive Order from President Truman on September 15, 1945.

The entire controversy has passed into history by this point, but adds a great deal of context to the 1950s Red Scare. When liberals were running the show, they did not act with respect for freedom of speech, to say the least. Rather, political radicals with dubious affiliations were given massive government influence over what films could be made and how they were made. Private activists coordinated with public officials to push a political message about history on vague national security grounds. Films were censored because a particular historical interpretation, which at the time was the majority view, was offensive to the radical Left. This was happening in 1942. If you want to see what all the fuss was about, you can watch the entire movie, for free on Youtube. Even with the censorship, it’s still pretty good.

Conundrum Cluster is a Harvard- and Cambridge-educated classical historian. He writes at conundrumcluster.substack.com.

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