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Film in Context: I was a Communist for the FBI

Dan Leab looks at a classic Cold War movie and the shadowy figure who inspired it.

The icy moment marking the outbreak of the Cold War after 1945 remains a matter of vigorous debate. Yet, whatever the many controversies about the outbreak of this 'war' and US responsibility for it, there can be no doubt that by the late 1940s the Cold War was being waged fiercely at home and abroad by the Truman administration. Anti-Communist hysteria marred American life. Among the forces heightening the social paranoia were self-appointed vigilante groups such as the American Legion and the Catholic War Veterans, parts of the media including powerful reactionary press lords and journalists, and various federal and state legislative investigating committees, most notably the Un-American Activities Committee of the House of Representatives (HUAC).

The post-Second World War 'Red Scare' hit Pittsburgh hard. Historian, David Caute, has aptly described the hub of life in western Pennsylvania as 'the violent epicenter of the anti- Communist eruption in post-war America'. The city had a minuscule formal Communist presence – of a population of 10 million Pennsylvania in 1950 could claim only 2,875 Communist Party (CP) members, according to J. Edgar Hoover, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. For Hoover, head of the agency then characterised as 'the nation's first line of defence against the Red menace', as well as for other federal, state and local officials, these numbers were deceptive. As Hoover put it, behind 'traitorous Communists' were all too many 'fellow travellers and sympathizers ... ready to do the Communists' bidding'.

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