If the strength of dramatization is its ability to exploit in emotional terms the stories of human interaction, on television the Cold War was most poignantly realized in the array of dramas presented through the medium. Whether in feature films, made-for-TV movies, live dramas, or half-hour anthologies, the political clash between Communism and anti-Communism was incorporated into America's electronic entertainment.
The networks and local stations faced a dilemma in dealing with many movies produced during World War II. In that war the Soviet Union and the United States were allies against the Axis powers. Hollywood had frequently paid homage to this alliance, turning out wartime films praising the Russians and their accomplishments. Further, during the probe of Hollywood by the House Committee on Un-American Activities in the late 1940s, many wartime motion pictures were condemned as the products of Communist writers, directors, actors, or producers. Among those criticized during the anti-Communist "witch hunt" were Objective Burma, Northern Pursuit, Back to Bataan, Sahara, Pride of the Marines, Destination Tokyo, and Action in the North Atlantic. In the Cold War, however, any historic warmth toward the Russians was considered potentially subversive. Television stations and networks had to be careful about which wartime pictures they aired.
Films like Mission to Moscow and Song of Russia had questionable content, according to the Cold War mentality: too many heroic Russians fighting the Nazi invaders, too much flattery of the “noble people” and the “efficient state.” Some stations even worried about Ninotchka, the classic Greta Garbo feature from 1939 that actually satirized Soviet dogma. The extent to which anti-Communist fears could carry television was seen in the TV version of The North Star, an RKO production in 1943 written by Lillian Hellman. The original movie was a sympathetic treatment of the bravery of a Russian peasant village in resisting Nazi invaders. Before it came to television, however, it was edited to diminish praise of the Russians and retitled Armored Attack. More strikingly, the film was given a new, contemporary ending—footage of Russian tanks suppressing the Hungarian revolution in 1956, while a narrator reminded viewers that despite the heroism of the Russian peasants, Communist leaders were now as brutal as the Germans had been in World War II.
Dramas produced exclusively for television approached the issue of Communism early but cautiously. This was especially true because the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950 left TV without wartime government guidelines—which had been available in World War II—explaining how to portray Communists and their ideology.
The first TV series to present an editorialized position on Communism was Cameo Theater in "Line of Duty," aired July 26, 1950, on NBC. The play concerned revolt in a European country after twenty years of totalitarian tyranny. At the time of the telecast, however, Variety remarked that the issue was not clear-cut. Many in the television industry were concerned that an attack on Communism might precipitate a demand from the Communist Party of the United States for equal time to rebut the charges. This was an especially sensitive matter in 1950, an election year, for according to Section 315 of the Communications Act of 1934, if one candidate for public office were granted facilities, equal opportunity had to be afforded all candidates.
These concerns did not intimidate all broadcasters. When radio station WLIZ (Bridgeport, Connecticut) refused to sell time to the Communist party in 1950, Senator William Benton announced his support for the action. According to Paul Porter, former head of the Federal Communications Commission, such a ban was justified because "in this particular period...such a broadcast would tend to incite the community," and because Communists were not legitimate candidates—they were most likely exploiting the law "for the purpose of confusion."
The precedent set by Cameo Theater in painting the antagonists as Communists helped to make anti-Communism a popular subject for dramatic production, live and on film, during the "golden age" of TV drama. If one considers the spring and summer of 1953 as typical, the following list of programs establishes clearly that Cold War messages were prevalent:
—"Someday They'll Give Us Guns," The Unexpected (April 21); in an aggressive dictatorship, a youth is trained for a regime of blood and tyranny.
—"F.O.B. Vienna," Suspense (April 28); foreign agents disguised as businessmen try to smuggle vital machinery behind the Iron Curtain.
—"Somewhere in Korea," The Web (May 3); U.N. soldiers escape from North Korean POW camp.
—"The Man Who Cried Wolf," Suspense (June 9); clerk in Russian embassy in Mexico City steals valuable documents, then tries to exchange them for his freedom when he learns he is to be sent back to Russia to be executed.
—"Counterplot," Your Play Time (June 14); American journalist tortured by Reds to get phony confession.
—"Malaya Incident," Ford Theater (June 18); love blooms as landowner fights Red guerrillas in Malaya.
—"Jetfighter," Plymouth Playhouse (June 28); Yank pilot in trouble over Russian zone of Germany.
—"Bilshan and the Thief," General Electric Theater (July 5); refugee learns American patriotism from a thief.
—"The Mascot," Suspense (July 7); American Army deserter plans to become dictator of Mediterranean island.
—"The Traitor," Fireside Theater (September 1); Yank POW spies for Koreans against fellow American prisoners.
—"Two Prisoners," Armstrong Circle Theater (September 8); liberated POW has readjustment problems.
As the decade progressed, anti-Communism became more lavish and more expensive. "The Plot to Kill Stalin," on Playhouse 90 in September 1958, was well received. "Darkness at Noon," on Producers' Showcase in May 1955 and "1984" on Studio One in September 1953, were famous anti-Communist novels dramatized for American audiences. "The Vanished," on Armstrong Circle Theater in April 1958, was based on the less renowned book I Was a Slave in Russia.
The plight of U.S. soldiers in Korean prisoner-of-war camps was treated in two United States Steel Hour productions: "P.O.W." in October 1953 and "The Rack" in April 1955. Rod Serling, who had written "The Rack," again lent his writing talent to the crusade with "Forbidden Area," a Playhouse 90 production in October 1956. This play concerned an Air Force saboteur and a sneak atomic attack on the United States set for Christmas Eve. This was not, however, one of Serling's triumphs; one critic blasted him for carelessly creating an "overall feeling [that] was one of inciting to hysteria by thinking in terms of H-Bombs, B-99s and submarines."
Serling faced criticism for another military drama, "Time Element," which aired on Desilu Playhouse on December 8, 1958. Here, however, complaints came from the sponsor and advertising agency handling the program. The play concerned a man on December 7, 1941, who saw in a dream what was about to happen at Pearl Harbor. When he tried to warn the Army, he was brushed off as being a crackpot. Westinghouse and its ad agency, McCann-Erickson, protested the plot, demanding the play be rewritten so as not to portray the Army in a negative light. Variety reported, moreover, that Westinghouse asked for these changes "because it has a lot of contacts with the Defense Dept.”
In the many filmed showcases and dramatic series, there seemed always to be room for one or more episodes featuring anti-Communist themes. Such themes appeared regularly on TV Reader's Digest, an anthology of 65 half-hour dramas in the mid-1950s. Soldiers of Fortune was a typical adventure series focusing on two Americans who roamed from London to the Far East, solving other people's problems and reaffirming Yankee effectiveness against international mischief. Even Treasury Men in Action, a series treating the exploits of the U.S. Department of the Treasury, dealt with the Cold War in an episode entitled "Iron Curtain." It focused on the illegal export of American-made weapons to Communist countries.
During the 1956-57 TV season, Wire Service was a popular show on ABC relating tales of newspaper foreign correspondents. It was a propitious series for occasional stories about Red treachery. In "Rehearsal for Sabotage," Japanese Communists almost obtained secret Air Force documents that, the program asserted, would have precipitated a third world war and the destruction of civilization. In "Escape to Freedom," an American newsman helped a Hungarian counterpart escape certain death in Budapest during the Hungarian revolution. And in "Atom at Spithead," Communists plotted to detonate an atomic bomb during a prestigious British naval review.
One of the most graphic exploitations of Cold War fear occurred on the medical drama Medic. Hosted by Richard Boone, who often appeared in episodes as Dr. Konrad Styner, this series had already established its reputation as a realistic program willing to dramatize medical issues usually avoided on TV. Among the more controversial topics Medic explored were medical malpractice, childhood leukemia, mastectomy, and postpartum psychosis. But the series was never starker than in the episode entitled "Flash of Darkness," which aired February 14, 1955.
Here the topic was civil defense, and thermonuclear war actually came to the United States in this half-hour show. When Russian hydrogen bombs destroyed the downtown area, Styner and a few recruits were compelled to set up a clinic to treat the wounded in a school building. Flash fires, panic, and radioactive fallout were woven throughout the story. One child who had watched the explosion had his eyes burned out. Not all people seeking medical assistance survived. "Flash of Darkness" gave the nation a horrifying premonition of what the Communist enemy had in store for an unprepared America. But rather than express repulsion at such provocative sensationalism, critics like Jack Gould of the New York Times lauded this program as "genuinely educational.
While dramas specifically treating Cold War issues were effective communicators of an anti-Communist ideology, this message was not always delivered so directly. Often the "truth" of our rectitude and their treachery was propagated through analogies and structural forms inherent in American entertainment genres. Whenever Joe Friday jailed a criminal on Dragnet, TV proclaimed that the legal system was a success and that evildoers would inevitably be apprehended. Whenever average folks won big money on quiz shows like The $64,000 Question, the capitalist promise of material success was popularly reaffirmed.
From situation comedies showing loving middle-class families working out problems using mirth and respect for one another, to daytime soap operas where the good people eventually triumphed over adversity, American popular culture preached the superiority of a social and economic system conceived in opportunity, supported by laws, and operated by a bourgeois citizenry. The genre in which this message was most fully communicated was the Western. And in the Cold War it thrived as in no time before or since.