The Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, which began after World War II, lasted for more than four decades. One of the most infamous chapters in this war of geopolitical tensions was the Red Scare of the late 1940s through the late 1950s. During this time, fears and paranoia of communist influence and espionage were rampant. McCarthyism, named for U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy, resulted in the investigations, attacks, and blacklisting of people and organizations accused—often unwarrantedly—of being communist or communist sympathizers. Being blacklisted meant more than a damaged reputation: those blacklisted faced loss of work, criminal investigation, and even imprisonment.
On December 5, 1947, U.S. Attorney General Tom C. Clark issued a list of about ninety organizations judged to be “totalitarian, fascist, communist, or subversive.” The Photo League was included on this list.
The League responded immediately with an open letter: “The Photo League repudiates this irresponsible and reckless smearing of its purposes and its membership. . . spearheaded by the [House] Un-American Activities Committee to stifle progressive thought in every walk of life and to intimidate by threat cultural workers in every field.” The League further denied all accusations made by the U.S. Attorney General in press releases, meetings, petitions, letters, articles, and in its exhibition This Is the Photo League, which was mounted to demonstrate that the League was an artistic rather than a political, group.
In fact, the political leanings and allegiances of the members were varied, and some League members were indeed also members of the Communist Party. An important reason for the targeting of the League was, however, the fact that the Workers’ International Relief, the organization from which the League was descended, was a Soviet communist organization.
The situation deteriorated further in 1949 with a shocking betrayal: during a conspiracy trial of communist officials, Angela Calomiris, a League member and paid informant for the FBI, named Sid Grossman as a communist and the League as a front organization. That the League’s loose association with the radical left was now being exploited revealed how thoroughly the political and social consciousness in America had changed since the New Deal. While progressive issues of class and civil rights still mattered at the League, such subject matter was seen as dangerous in the new conservative climate of a triumphant post–World War II America.
The League could not survive in the paranoid era of the Red Scare. It’s blacklisting caused its membership to decline, and in 1951 its activities ceased.