The workings and the effects of that newsletter, Counterattack, and its offshoot, the pamphlet Red Channels, receive due attention in a recently published book, A Shadow of Red: Communism and the Blacklist in Radio and Television. The author, David Everitt, is an entertainment journalist who wrote on the early years of television with authority and verve in a previous book, King of the Half Hour, a biography of Nat Hiken, the blacklisted comedy writer and producer best remembered for creating Phil Silvers’s G.I. sitcom, You’ll Never Get Rich (popularly known as Sgt. Bilko). Everitt, with A Shadow of Red, attempts to provide a clear-eyed, nonpolemical narrative history of the broadcast blacklist, and his effort is a significant contribution to the literature on anti-Communism in the popular arts. Important earlier works in this subject area, such as Naming Names (by Victor S. Navasky, cjr’s chairman, 1980), Hide in Plain Sight: The Hollywood Blacklistees in Film and Television, 1950-2002 (Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner, 2003), and Red Star Over Hollywood: The Film Colony’s Long Romance with the Left (Ronald Radosh and Allis Radosh, 2005) stand above A Shadow of Red for their breadth and cogency (Navasky), critical insight (Buhle and Wagner), and revisionist daring (Radosh and Radosh). Still, the odd, unnerving story Everitt tells has been largely untold.
As Everitt explains in lucid detail, Counterattack was published by a trio of enterprising young FBI dropouts: Kenneth M. Bierly, John G. Keenan, and Theodore C. Kirkpatrick, all of whom had joined the bureau in the early forties and were assigned to the FBI’s New York-based “Communist Squad,” a division charged with sniffing out subversion in communications, transportation, and other fields considered vital in a time of war or national crisis. United in a conviction that the postwar expansion of Soviet power represented an immediate crisis as well as an entrepreneurial opportunity, Bierly, Keenan, and Kirkpatrick left the FBI, separately, and later regrouped. Their debut effort was an anti-Communist magazine called Plain Talk. When it failed, as most magazine start-ups do, the former agents switched to a more economical publishing model and set up American Business Consultants.
Counterattack, subtitled The Newsletter of Facts on Communism, was at once a descendant of the earliest American news sources and an ancestor to the personalized, targeted Web journalism of the blog era. Designed for the first mode of mass communication in the New World, the mail, eighteenth-century publications such as The Boston News-Letter informed colonial readers about births and deaths, ship arrivals and departures, and other comings and goings of public interest. After newspapers as we know them took form, newsletters declined in numbers for several decades only to flourish again in the early 1900s, this time providing the near opposite of mass communication: highly specialized information gathered by experts with unique access, relayed in clubby “inside” language, and delivered directly to subscribers by mail. Thousands of newsletters on subjects from gold prospecting to foot care were thriving by the mid-twentieth century. Newsletter publishing was the blogosphere of the cold-war era.
First printed in the spring of 1947, a few months before HUAC opened its hearings on the film industry, Counterattack had two missions: one, ostensibly journalistic, the other vigorously interventionist. First, it set out to expose everyone it could find who had any connection, however dubious or tenuous, to anything or anyone associated with Communism, Socialism, the Soviet Union, or progressive ideology. Then, more significantly, Counterattack sought to rally its subscribers to action against the individuals it targeted. In its assault on performers and production personnel in radio and television, Counterattack exhorted its readers to write protest letters to the corporate sponsors of programs featuring actors with purported links to the left.
Counterattack—like its digital progeny, such as The Drudge Report—flattered its audience with cryptic tidbits of information and pseudo-information obtained by unexplained means. “here’s a secret communist-party document, now in possession of counterattack,” began a typical item, in the capital letters that then, as now, read like a scream. The contents of the document, in its entirety, were these:
Dear Comrade: spring! clean up time is here—Your desks, files, pockets and your homes—all excess baggage to be destroyed.