The HUAC, McCarthyism, and Witch-Hunts Through Captain Marvel Comics

(Excerpt from Captain Marvel Culture by Zorikh Lequidre and Evan Azriliant. In the preceeding paragraphs, the authors set up the beginning of the Kree Skrull war in the pages of The Avengers in 1971.)

The departure of Ronan to fight against the Skrulls left the Avengers feeling that the Kree threat was finally gone. After all, while the Kree and Skrulls were battling each other, when would they have time for Earth? However, a new threat appeared a lot closer to home. Three American technicians who had been at the arctic battle told the government about the “Alien plot to conquer Earth…” and immediately one H. Warren Craddock was named to head the new “Alien Activities Commission.” In his first public announcement, he declared “I have in my possession a list of 153 ‘model citizens’ who are actually alien spies…I intend to ferret them out, no matter where their trail may lead, yes, even to the Avengers Mansion itself!”

How many aliens, Mr. Craddock?

This was a direct paraphrase of the speech by Senator Joe McCarthy that had launched his career as a Communist-hunting demagogue. In a speech given before the Republican Women's Club in Wheeling, West Virginia on February 9, 1950, McCarthy stated that there were a specific number of Communists in the State Department. Unfortunately, the press reports and historians differ on the number that he stated, and in successive speeches and comments even more differing numbers were stated, confusing the issue. This had been lampooned in the film The Manchurian Candidate when an anti-Communist crusader had a hard time remembering the number of Communists he was supposed to say there were in government, until his wife reminded him of the famous number of varieties of Heinz sauces: 57. This recall of the Cold War Communist witch hunt allowed Roy Thomas to play the argument against such activities, reminding the readers (through the voice of the android Vision) that “If first a man of the Kree can be detained for no reason, then detainment of androids will follow…next of mutants…then giants…until, ultimately a left-handed man would fight a right-handed man to the death…for the remains of a bombed out planet!”

Thomas even went so far as to have the Avengers appear at a session of the Alien Activites Commission, where Warren H. Craddock manipulated events to try and make the Avengers look like “aiders and abetters” of alien “enemies of freedom,” of which Captain Marvel, being a Kree, was accused of being.

Warren H. Craddock presiding over the Alien Activities Commission Sen. Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohn

The (Red) Alien Menace

Why would Roy Thomas bring up a subject that was nearly two decades old? Let us look at the original historical events and compare them to what was happening in 1971.

As the end of World War II became a foregone conclusion, the allied powers bickered, bargained, and jockeyed for advantageous positions in the postwar world. Soviet leader Josef Stalin was particularly disingenuous in his methods, taking advantage of a trusting, weakened, and near-death US president Franklin Delano Roosevelt to ensure that the Soviet Union would dominate Eastern Europe. With the eventual capitulation of Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, and the Eastern section of Germany to Soviet domination in the post-war years, the victory of the Communists in China’s Civil War in 1949, and the beginning of the Korean War in 1950, the western democracies perceived a serious threat to their way of life and world peace. Between the incorrigible advance of Communist influence and the various repressive procedures of the Communist governments, this fear was not without basis. America’s atomic bomb was the trump card of democracy, until the Soviet Union developed its own in 1949. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was formed as a defensive alliance against Communist aggression, and the Soviet Union responded by forming the Warsaw Pact, an alliance of the nations under its influence. For a long while it seemed as if a third world war would break out as both the western democracies and the Communist Bloc attempted to defend and expand their areas of control and influence.

This era, known as the “Cold War,” was a period of tension, mistrust, and suspicion. In the US, fear of the Communists approached the level of paranoia. In daily life, schoolchildren were taught to “duck and cover” in the event of an atomic war. Families invested in fallout shelters. Air raid drills shut down entire cities. In Hollywood, the fear of this threat was expressed in a trend of science fiction films usually about Russian or Chinese attacks on America (Invasion USA, Battle Beneath the Earth, Rocket Attack USA), aliens from outer space attacking the Earth (Earth Vs. Flying Saucers, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, War of the Worlds), or survivors struggling after nuclear war (Five, The Day the World Ended, On the Beach). Suspicion among co-workers from every city to New York to Los Angeles was a problem. Whether you worked in the cleaning service industry, as a doctor or truck driver, the fear of the threat of being a Communist or working with a Communist was real. Two of the most significant responses to this fear were Senator Joe McCarthy’s so-called anti-communist witch-hunt and the hearings of the House Un-American Activities Commission.

During the Great Depression of the 1930’s, many Americans in many walks of life joined the American Communist Party or supported the same causes as the Communist Party. Remember, in this period people were starving, unemployment was at record highs. The few “haves” were perceived as making fortunes off of the “have-nots.” With no welfare, Social Security, or unemployment insurance, suffering was widespread and hope for the future was low. Such “message” films as The Grapes of Wrath (adapted from the John Steinbeck novel), Meet John Doe, and My Man Godfrey showed the plight of the “forgotten man,” a victim of the economic circumstances of the time. Even in the first issue of Superman comics, the Man of Steel championed the cause of exploited mine workers. In this environment, a popular movement of farmers and workers that promised a utopia of good jobs and fair pay was very attractive to both down-and-out folks and more successful people with a strong sense of social conscience. Individuals from such diverse segments of society as scholars, laborers, entertainers, and the literary world swelled the ranks of the Communist and Socialist parties.

Later in the decade, many in the Communist movement were among the most active opponents of the rise of Fascism in Germany. While the Soviet Union itself may have opposed Nazi Germany’s rise for reasons of national security, many American Communists were genuinely concerned with the racist overtones of Nazism in particular and the treat to civil liberties that Fascism represented in general. The United States, however, was, as a matter of policy, opposed to the Socialist and Communist movements that had arisen after the end of WWI, and was opposed to the Soviet Union in particular. America’s between-the wars isolationist policy and the admiration certain influential Americans had for Adolf Hitler (Henry Ford was one such admirer, for instance) ensured that the US would play no role in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). This murderous conflict saw a Nationalist uprising, backed by Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, overthrow the Republican, left-leaning government. Many Communists, socialists, liberals, and other romantically minded idealists seized upon this incident as a cause to fight for, and International Brigades totalling as many as 40,000 men, including many from the US, were formed. The presence of such writers as W.H. Auden, George Orwell, Ernest Hemingway, André Malraux, and Simone Weil in Spain among the Republicans and Internationals not only proved the popularity of the cause, but ensured a sympathetic literary voice for the cause for posterity.

International Brigades poster Members of the American Batallion in the Spanish Civil War

By the late 1940’s, the young American Communists had grown and many had taken prominent, successful, and productive positions in American society, especially those in the entertainment industry. Many of them had left the Communist Party, their reasons for joining having been rendered irrelevant by government programs, the end of the Depression, the entry of the US into WWII, or because of personal changes in politics. However, a confluence of Soviet expansion, evidence of Soviet espionage in the US government, and fear and paranoia within the US government led to a massive, divisive, and highly publicized campaign to rid not only the government, but American society of every perceived Communist that could be found.

“Loyalty Oaths” were instituted in many sectors of American life including churches, universities, unions, and even the Democratic Party. Failure or refusal to take the loyalty oath would result in dismissal from a job or other form of censure. Though in many instances the need for these oaths was overturned in court, lives were destroyed and careers ruined by this.

The House Un-American Activites Committee (HUAC) began investigating the Motion Picture industry in 1947. This led to hearings in which people working in Hollywood were asked their affiliation with the Communist Party (phrased in the the now-ominous words “are you or have you ever been…”) and to name their comrades. The first ten who refused, claiming the right of the 5th Amendment to the Constitution to not incriminate themselves (known to history as the “Hollywood 10”) were found in contempt of Congress and thrown in jail. Hollywood executives responded by stating they would “not knowingly employ a Communist or a member of any party or group which advocates the overthrow of the Government of the United States by force, or by any illegal or unconstitutional method” ( The successive 324 motion picture professionals that were called into the hearings were thus blacklisted from working in Hollywood for a decade. This included some well known and highly regarded writers, actors, and directors, such as Dashiell Hammett, Zero Mostel, Pete Seeger, Lionel Stander, Sam Jaffe, John Garfield, Dalton Trumbo, Ruth Gordon, Lillian Hellman, Jose Ferrer, even Charlie Chaplin. Most of them never recovered professionally.

Ms. Marvel faces the choice many Hollywood professionals faced: the governmant may order it, but is it right? Marvel's 'Civil War' The House Un-American Activities Commission in session

The 1952 film High Noon, produced by Stanley Kramer, Directed by Fred Zinneman, and written by the blacklisted writer Carl Foreman was an indictment of the fear in America that led to people doing nothing while brave men stood up for what they believed in, in this case the right not to incriminate themselves by revealing their or their comrades present or former Communist affiliations. By contrast, singer Pete Seeger and singer/actor Paul Robeson protested the hearings on the grounds of the first ammendment, freedom of speech and the right to associate with and believe what one chooses.

Arthur Miller’s 1953 play “The Crucible” used the Salem witch trials of the late 17th century as a parallel of the events of the time, leading to the use of the term “witch-hunt” to describe the almost rabidly enthusiastic pursuit of the government’s domestic anti-communist agenda.

In the midst of this anti-Communist fear, Joseph McCarthy found the mission that would make him a household name, and make that name a synonym for irresponsibly vehement pursuit of perceived Communist enemies.

Joseph McCarthy was a Wisconsin lawyer who entered politics. He ran unscrupulous campaigns that through playing on his constituents’ xenophobias and paranoias, glorifying his own war record, and slandering his opponents, gained him a judge’s seat and then, by 1948, a seat in the US Senate. After a couple of years in the senate, he landed upon the Communist treat as an issue deserving his complete attention that would also make him a major player on the national stage.

His speech before the Republican Women's Club in Wheeling, West Virginia caused a sensation, coming as it did during the HUAC hearings, the trial of Alger Hiss (an American statesman accused of being a communist spy), and mere months after the Communist takeover of China and the development of the Russian atom bomb. Over the next several years, through speeches and by being present in or chairing senate committee hearings, McCarthy became the public poster boy for relentless pursuit of Communist spies in government. Hundreds of people were called before senate committees to be questioned about their affiliations with the Communist Party and many accused of spying for Russia. His influence was so great, both presidents Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower were forced to respond to him. Many Americans, frightened by the expanding sphere of influence of the Soviet Union (described at the time by such lurid terms as the “Communist Menace” or “Red Menace”) supported McCarthy’s actions. Words from him in support of a political candidate could assure his election, while an accusation of Communist sympathy could doom a candidate. As these activities ran concurrently with the HUAC hearings, history has portrayed this period as a time of paranoia and the enterprise of hunting down perceived enemies of the state, real or imagined, as “McCarthyism.”

This level of intensity of popular opinion is hard to maintain in a free society. The respected journalist Edward R. Murrow reported on McCarthy and his tactics on his program See It Now (the story of Murrow’s coverage of McCarthy was recently dramatized in the award-winning film Good Night and Good Luck). This documentary portrayed the senator in an unflattering light, remarkable in that much of what it showed was McCarthy himself in action, making speeches, and questioning and berating witnesses at senate committee hearings. A subsequent appearance by McCarthy in person on the show did not help his image.

Billy Batson and G. Gordon Godfrey face off a la Murrow and McCarthy in 'Shazam: The New Beginning'

McCarthy’s star finally fell at hearings regarding his accusations of Communist agents in the US Army. These hearings were the first televised over the newly-popular medium of television. The Army-McCarthy hearings were a big hit on TV, with movie theaters playing the broadcasts and the proverbial image of passers-by standing outside a store window to watch the proceedings being played all across America. Defending the US Army was attorney Jack Welch, who, through skillful oratory and questioning, was able to frustrate McCarthy and his counsel, Roy H. Cohn. Ultimately, McCarthy wound up accusing a young man in Welch’s firm’s employ of being affiliated with a Communist-backed organization, an accusation that was not germane to the subject of the hearing. This drove Welch to ask of McCarthy "Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?"

Jack Welch and Joe McCarthy

This doomed McCarthy’s credibility. While McCarthy continued to serve on the senate until his death in 1957, he never regained the popularity and effectiveness he had enjoyed from 1950-1954.

His defenders claim that McCarthy was doing a necessary job that no one else had the courage to do, but his bull-in-a-china-shop methods and the lives ruined as a result of the witch hunt that bore his name - "McCarthyism" - he inspired have made him a villain in history. It was this villainy that was represented by the character of H. Warren Craddock in the Kree Skrull War and later, by G. Gordon Godfrey in the DC miniseries Legends.

By 1971, popular opinion regarding the US government was not high. Disillusionment with the Vietnam War, the maturation of the hippie movement, race riots, assassinations of two Kennedys and Martin Luther King had shaken many Americans’ belief in the perfection of the American dream.

Warren H. Craddock riling up the crowd, through the mind's eye of Rick Jones
G. Gordon Godfrey riling up the crowd against super heroes in 'Legends'
Public outrage against super heroes at the beginning of Marvel's 'Civil War'

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