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Joe McCarthy Grills Aaron Copland: “As your Communist Party record is extremely long . . . “

“As your Communist Party record is extremely long, I think counsel [i.e., Roy Cohn] will want to ask you some questions. . . . Those who underestimate the work the staff has done in the past end up occasionally before a Grand Jury.”

–Senator Joseph McCarthy, addressing Aaron Copland (May 26, 1953)

This chilling audio re-enactment, with Edward Gero as McCarthy, is an excerpt from “Aaron Copland: American Populist,” a 45-minute NPR documentary to be broadcast as a Labor Day Special this Monday at 10 am ET via the newsmagazine “1A.”

The show derives from a Copland documentary I produced for PostClassical Ensemble – one of six documentary films exploring topics in American music, all of which Naxos will release this Fall in tandem with the publication of my book Dvorak’s Prophecy and the Vexed Fate of Black Classical Music. 

Pressed by McCarthy, Copland denied ever attending “a Communist meeting.” But in fact he was deeply engaged by the Popular Front in the 1930s, even addressing a Communist picnic in Minnesota. His excruciating encounter with the Red Scare broaches topics urgently pertinent today: the suppression of free expression and open-minded dialogue (both on the left and the right); the marginalization of the arts in American culture and society.

My own mantra (as expressed at the end of the Copland broadcast) is that “Americans must claim and refresh a common cultural inheritance – or we are in trouble as a nation.” 


  1. Anthony Princiotti says

    The financial and political incentives to generate conflict are enormous in our current, overcrowded information environment. Painting in bold strokes is seen as the only way to “cut through.” And as technology continues to move us towards actually becoming a global village, the impulse to stake out clearly-defined cultural identities (inevitably?) seems to grow stronger.

    Assuming good faith, we need to be able to discuss multi-layered cultural issues in ways that make ambivalence, complication and nuance allowable. The reduction of human behavior to two dimensions, so suited to cable news, entertainment and social media, is killing us.

  2. Thank you for this. One might also consider the correlations between HUAC and the CIA’s secret program to manipulate the arts through front organizations–especially the Congress for Cultural Freedom. I think the effects of the CIA’s covert program to reshape the arts in the USA have probably been greatly underestimated.

    Frances Stonor’s book provides a very interesting analysis of the CIA’s “cultural” activities during this era:
    Saunders, . _Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War_. Granta, 1999/2000.

    There were other correlated programs that also manipulated US culture such as the CIA programs to manipulate the media. An overview here:

    Here’s a book on the topic, though a bit of a dull read:

    Wilford, Hugh. The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America. Harvard University Press, 2008.

    Also correlated was the COINTELPRO program.

    When one considers the Truman Loyalty Acts, HUAC, the CIA’s Congress for Cultural Freedom, the CIA’s “Mighty Wurlitzer,” and COINTELPRO, a picture is created that is disturbing and which has not been adequately explored by historians, journalists, and cultural theorists.

  3. A little more info: From 1950 to 1966, the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF) had offices in thirty-five countries and published over twenty prestigious magazines. It held art exhibitions, owned a news and features service, organized high-profile international conferences, and rewarded musicians and artists with prizes and public performances. CCF operatives even infiltrated the boards of the Ford Foundation and the Museum of Modern Art. In 1966, it was revealed that the CCF was a CIA front organization designed to undermine the left leaning intellectuals in the arts and humanities and push the community to more conservative views. A principle goal was to deemphasize political art and establish an apolitical abstract expressionism as a universal aesthetic norm. The success of this program shapes the arts world to this day. Historian Frances Stonor Saunders writes (1999): “Whether they liked it or not, whether they knew it or not, there were few writers, poets, artists, historians, scientists, or critics in postwar Europe whose names were not in some way linked to this covert enterprise.” The CCF is a vivid illustration of political philosopher Antonio Gramsci’s theory of cultural hegemony, which describes how the state and ruling class use cultural institutions to maintain power in capitalist societies. I highly recommend Frances Stonor Saunders book about the CCF.

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