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Back to The History of American Film: Primary Sources

U.S. Senate Subcommittee Hearings on Motion Picture and Radio Propaganda, 1941

Testimony before a U.S. Senate Subcommittee investigating whether, in the period before the American entry into World War II, Hollywood was inserting pro-war, pro-intervention messages in its films.

[Senator Gerald Nye]

At the outset, I should like to point out that no contention can validly be raised that any investigation of propaganda in the movies, amounts to censorship of freedom of speech or freedom of the press. The fact is, and the law is, that the movies are not part of the press of this country, and are not protected by the first amendment to our Constitution....

I entertain no desire for moving-picture censorship....I do hope, however, that the industry will largely recognize the obligation it owes our country and its people....

Mr. Chairman, I am sure that you and members of your committee are quite aware of the determined effort that has been put forth to convey to the public that the investigation asked is the result of a desire to serve the un-American, narrow cause of anti-Semitism....

I bitterly rest, Mr. Chairman, this effort to misrepresent our purpose and to prejudice the public mind and your mind by dragging this racial issue to the front. I will not consent to its being used to cover the tracks of those who have been pushing our country on the way to war with their propaganda intended to inflame the American mind with hatred for one foreign cause and magnified respect and glorification for another foreign cause, until we shall come to feel that wars elsewhere in the world are really after all our wars....

Those primarily responsible for the propaganda pictures are born abroad. They came to our land and took citizenship here entertaining violent animosities toward certain causes abroad. Quite natural is their feeling and desire to aid those who are at war against the causes which so naturally antagonize them. If they lose sight of what some Americans might call the first interests of America in times like these, I can excuse them. But their prejudices by no means necessitate our closing our eyes to these interests and refraining from any undertaking to correct their error....

If the anti-Semitic issue is now raised for the moment, it is raised by those of the Jewish faith...not by me, not by this committee....

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[Senator D. Worth Clark]

[The motion picture studios] declare that this [investigation] is an attempt to restrain the right of the motion-picture screen to present the problems of contemporary life without restraint from the Government....

I am wiling and eager to meet these gentlemen on that ground. There are a great many naive souls who think that speech is free so long as political authority, particularly the Government, does not shackle it. They overlook the fact that there can be such a thing, particularly in our day, as the denial of speech when one individual or small collection of individuals can band together and get control of the instruments of speech and deny them to everybody but themselves....

Today a hitherto unknown politician or newspaper columnist can go on the radio and in one night talk to four, five, or ten million people....

It comes down to this: That the man who owns that machine now exercises over the freedom of discussion a power which no government could ever exercise. To interfere with a man's speech the Government has to pass oppressive laws, organize a ruthless constabulary, must hound men and prosecute them and put them in jail and incur the difficulties of opposition and the freedom of revolution. But the man who owns the radio machine can cut off from discussion those who disagree with him by the simple expedient of saying "No." And who is this man? He is not a public official; he is not elected to office; he is not an authorized public censor; he is not chosen by the people. He is just a businessman who by virtue of his acquisitive talents has gotten possession of this little microphone.

Now, the same thing is true of the moving-picture machine, save that the moving-picture machine is even more powerful than the microphone. Any man or any group of men who can get control of the screen can reach every week in this country an audience of 80,000,000 people. If there is a great debate before the Nation involving its economic life or even its liberties, no man can get a syllable in the sound pictures save by the grace of the men who control the sound pictures. And I here formally and deliberately charge that a handful of men have gotten possession of both the radio microphone and the moving-picture screen, beside which all other forms of discussion are antique and feeble, and that men and women in America discussing the great problems of America can use these machines or not only by the grace of this small oligarchy....

There are 17,000 moving-picture theaters in the United States. They do not belong to a handful of men, of course, but the pictures that appear on the screens of those theaters are produced by a handful of men and that handful of men can open or close those 17,000 theaters to ideas at their sweet will. They hold the power of life and death over those motion pictures houses because by their block-booking system, blind-selling system, and other devices they can close almost any house that they please on any day and at any time.

At the present time they have opened those 17,000 theaters to the idea of war, to the glorification of war, to the glorification of England's imperialism, to the hatred of the people of Germany and now of France, to the hatred of those in America who disagree with them. Does anyone see a pictorial representation of life in Russia under "Bloody Joe" Stalin? They do not. In other words, they are turning these 17,000 theaters into 17,000 theaters into 17,000 dialy and nightly mass meetings for war....
Dozens of pictures, great features costing--some of them hundreds of thousands of dollars, some of them millions of dollars--are used to infect the minds of their audiences with hatred, to inflame them, to arouse their emotions, and make them clamor for war. And not one word on the side of the argument against war is heard....Unless they are restrained, unless the people of this country are warned about them, they will plunge the country into war....

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[Harry M. Warner, President of Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc.]

The charges against my company are myself are untrue....

I am opposed to nazi-ism. I abhor and detest every principle and practice of the Nazi movement. To me, nazi-ism typifies the very opposite of the kind of life every decent man, woman, and child wants to live. I believe nazi-ism is a world revolution whose ultimate objective is to destroy our democracy, wipe out all religion, and enslave our people--just as Germany has destroyed and enslaved Poland, Belgium, Holland, France, and all the other countries. I am ready to give myself and all my personal resources to aid in the defeat of the Nazi menace to the American people....

Shortly after Hitler came to power in Germany I became convinced that Hitlerism was an evil force designed to destroy free people, whether they were Catholics, Protestants, or Jews. I claim no credit as a prophet. Many appraised the Nazis in their true role, from the very day of Hitler's rise to power.

I have always been in accord with President Roosevelt's foreign policy. In September 1939, when the Second World War began, I believed, and I believe today, that the world struggle for freedom was in its final stage. I said publicly then, and I say today, that the freedom which this country fought England to obtain, we may have to fight with England to retain.

I am unequivocally in favor of giving England and her allies all supplies which our country can spare. I also support the President's doctrine of freedom of the seas, as recently explained to the public by him.

Frankly, I am not certain whether or not this country should enter the war in its own defense at the present time. The President knows the world situation and our country's problems better than any other man. I would follow his recommendation concerning a declaration of war.

If Hitler should be the victor abroad, the United States would be faced with a Nazi-dominated world. I believe--and I am sure that the subcommittee shares my feeling--that this would be a catastrophe for our country. I want to avoid such a catastrophe, as I know you do.

I have given my views to you frankly and honestly. They reduce themselves to my previous statement: I am opposed to nazi-ism. I abhor and detest every principle and practice of the Nazi movement. I am not alone in feeling this. I am sure that the overwhelming majority of our people and our Congress share the same views.

While I am opposed to nazi-ism, I deny that the pictures produced by my company are "propaganda," as has been alleged. Senator Nye has said that our picture Sergeant York is designed to create war hysteria. Senator Clark has added Confessions of a Nazi Spy to the isolationist blacklist. John T. Flynn, in turn, has added Underground. These witnesses have not seen these pictures, so I cannot imagine how they can judge them. On the other hand, millions of average citizens have paid to see these pictures. They have enjoyed wide popularity and have been profitable to our company. In short, these pictures have been judged by the public and the judgment has been favorable.

Sergeant York is a factual portrait of the life of one of the great heroes of the last war. If that is propaganda, we plead guilty. Confessions of a Nazi Spy is a factual portrayal of a Nazi spy ring that actually operated in New York City. If that is propaganda, we plead guilty.

So it is with each of our pictures dealing with the world situation or with the national defense. These pictures are prepared on the basis of factual happenings and they were not twisted to serve any ulterior purpose.

In truth, the only sin of which Warner Bros. is guilty is that of accurately recording on the screen the world as it is or as it has been. Unfortunately, we cannot change the facts in the world today....

I have no apology to make to the committee for the fact that for many years Warner Bros. has been attempting to record history in the making. We discovered early in our career that our patrons wanted to see accurate stories ofthe world in which they lived. I know that I have shown to the satisfaction of the impartial observer that War Bros., long before there was a Nazi Germany, had been making pictures on topical subjects. It was only natural, therefore, with the new political movement, however horrible it may be, that we should make some pictures concerning the Nazis. it was equally logical that we should produce motion pictures concerning national defense....

If Warner Bros. had produced no pictures concerning the Nazi movement, out public would have had good reason to criticize. We would have been living in a dream world. Today 70 percent of the nonfiction books published deal with the Nazi menace. Today 10 percent of the fiction novels are anti Nazi in theme. Today 10 percent of all material submitted to us for consideration is anti Nazi in character. Today the newspapers and radio devote a good portion of their facilities to describing nazi ism. Today there is a war involving all hemispheres except our own and touching the lives of all of us....

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