Sunday, December 21, 2008

J. Parnell Thomas: former HUAC chair fails to set a good example

Photo from

Born in New Jersey in 1895, John Parnell Thomas served overseas with the United States Army both during and after World War I. Returning to the Garden State and a career in the insurance business, Thomas gradually rose through the political spectrum. Starting as a member of the borough council of Allendale, New Jersey, he became mayor of the city in 1926 and served until 1930. He was also elected to the State House in 1935, but soon left those chambers when he was elected in 1936 as the Republican congressman to represent New Jersey's Seventh District.

Though Thomas was brought back to Congress in the six contests following his initial election, he has not aged well in historical retrospect. This opinion is due largely to Thomas's time with the House Un-American Activities Committee, which he chaired from 1947 to 1949. It was under Thomas's chairmanship, in the fervent anti-Communist period following World War II, that the committee launched an investigation into supposed subversive activities in the Hollywood film industry in May of 1947. The Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, which included such prominent members as Walt Disney, John Wayne, and Ronald Reagan (future President of the United States), cooperated with the investigation. The Committee for the First Amendment, whose members included Humphrey Bogart, Gregory Peck, and Katharine Hepburn, was formed to oppose the Alliance. Hepburn personally excoriated Thomas as well as the Alliance at a political rally for Henry Wallace's 1948 presidential bid, saying, "Today J. Parnell Thomas is engaged in a personally conducted smear campaign of the motion picture industry. He is aided and abetted in this effort by a group of super-patriots who call themselves the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. For myself, I want no part of their ideals or those of Mr. Thomas."

Nineteen people in the movie business were subpoenaed to appear before the committee in October. Of those, ten refused to testify under the Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination. The "Hollywood Ten" were charged with contempt and ordered to serve time in prison. A group of studio executives and producers agreed not to employ the Ten or other suspected Communists, and the blacklist was on.

In 1948, the Justice Department began an investigation into allegations, publicized by columnist Drew Pearson, that Thomas had been receiving kickbacks from office employees. Thomas denounced the investigation, calling it "cheap Pendergast politics." Attorney General Tom C. Clark said politics played no part in the matter, noting that the office had been involved in the prosecutions of Democratic congressmen James Curley and Andrew May on unrelated activity. Thomas demanded the right to appear before the grand jury after Election Day (when voters returned him to office) but, citing the Fifth Amendment, refused to testify when he did so.

In November, Thomas and his former secretary, Helen Campbell, were indicted on charges of conspiracy to defraud the government. Thomas was charged with padding his payroll with employees that did no actual work so that the additional funds could go directly to his bank account. Campbell's attorney said she had arranged the scheme under coercion from Thomas, and charges against her were later dropped due to her role in breaking the criminal activity and providing evidence.

Thomas pleaded not guilty. By the third day of his December trial, he had been accused of putting five women on the payroll as ghost employees. At that point, he changed his plea to no contest, ending the trial and sending it to sentencing. Time, referring to Thomas as a "pudgy, petulant man," said he was expected to resign from Congress "to let a better American take his place." The magazine also mocked Thomas for expecting mercy from the courts, saying he had shown none as chair of the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Alexander Holtzoff, the federal judge in the matter, clearly did not feel the same way, saying at Thomas's sentencing, "There is no doubt he did much good as head of the Un-American Activities Committee." Holtzoff denied that this was a mitigating factor, saying that Thomas "had a duty to set an example of upright living" due to his past chairmanship. He sentenced the congressman to serve six to 18 months in prison and pay a $10,000 fine.

Thomas announced his resignation, effective January 2, 1950, and was able to collect his federal pay for the remaining weeks until that date. His wife, Amelia, said Thomas had been "maligned and persecuted" since his time on the committee, and announced her intention to run for the seat to "continue the same struggle against subversive influences." She dropped out within the month, and William B. Widnall, a Republican, was elected in February 1950 in a special election held to fill the vacancy.

Thomas spent eight-and-a-half months in the same federal penitentiary where two of the Hollywood Ten had done time for contempt before he was paroled. Following his release, he edited and published three New Jersey newspapers from 1951 to 1955. President Harry Truman granted him a pardon in 1952. After unsuccessfully challenging his replacement for the Republican nomination in the 1954 election, Thomas worked in real estate and investment securities. He later moved to Florida, where he died in 1970.

Sources: Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, In Capra's Shadow: The Life and Career of Screenwriter Robert Riskin by Ian Scott, Daily Life in the United States, 1940-1959: Shifting Worlds by Eugenia Kaledin, Kate: The Woman who was Hepburn by William J. Mann, Time Magazine, the St. Petersburg Times, The Political Graveyard, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The New York Times, Cinemas of the World: Film and Society from 1895 to the Present by James Chapman

No comments: