John Parnell Thomas was born in Jersey City on 16th January, 1895. He studied at the University of Pennsylvania and during the First World War served on the Western Front as a second lieutenant. In 1918 he was promoted to the rank of captain and transferred to Regimental Staff Headquarters.
After the war Thomas moved to New York City where he worked in investment securities. A member of the Republican Party, Thomas was elected to Congress in January 1937. Thomas held right-wing views and claimed that Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal policies had "sabotaged the capitalist system". He objected to the idea of the subsidized theatre and led the attack on the Federal Theatre & Writers Project. Thomas claimed that: "Practically every play presented under the auspices of the Project is sheer propaganda for Communism or the New Deal."
Parnell Thomas, a member of the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) called for Hallie Flanagan, the head of the Federal Theatre Project, to answer questions. Flanagan immediately went on the attack arguing that: "Some of the statements reported to have been made by him (Parnell Thomas) are obviously absurd... of course no one need first join or be a member of any organization in order to obtain employment in a theatre project."
On 19th August, 1938, Hazel Huffman, a former employee of the Works Projects Administration (WPA), appeared before the HUAC and claimed that Flanagan was a person who "was known as far back as 1927 for her communistic sympathy, if not membership" and pointed out that 147 pages of her book, Shifting Scenes of the European Theatre, had devoted 147 pages to "eulogizing the Russian theater." Huffman also pointed out that Flanagan had appointed Elmer Rice, "a well-known leftist" as regional director of the Federal Theatre Project in New York City. Another witness, Sallie Saunders, condemned the Federal Theatre because it had performed "pro-union plays, plays referring to Negro discrimination, and anti-Fascist plays." Saunders also complained that the project encouraged racial intergration and that while working for the FTP she had been "telephoned by a Negro for a date".
Martin Dies, the chairman of the House of Un-American Activities Committee, called for the resignations of Harold Ickes, Harry Hopkins and Frances Perkins, as the three had "associates who were Socialists, Communists, and crackpots." Roosevelt refused to sack these three members of his government but did bring the Federal Theatre Project to an end.
The Un-American Activities Committee originally investigated both left-wing and right wing political groups. Some called for the leaders of the Ku Klux Klan to be interrogated by the HUAC. Martin Dies however was a supporter of the Klan and had spoken at several of its rallies. Other members of the HUAC such as John Rankin and John S. Wood were also Klan sympathizers. Wood defended the Klan by arguing that: "The threats and intimidations of the Klan are an old American custom, like illegal whisky-making." Eventually Ernest Adamson, the HUAC's chief counsel, announced that: "The committee has decided that it lacks sufficient data on which to base a probe." Rankin added: "After all, the KKK is an old American institution." Instead, the HUAC concentrated on investigating the possibility that the American Communist Party had infiltrated New Deal projects.
In 1947 Thomas was appointed chairman of the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). On 20th October the HUAC opened its hearings concerning communist infiltration of the motion picture industry. The chief investigator for the committee was Robert E. Stripling. The first people it interviewed included Ronald Reagan, Gary Cooper, Ayn Rand, Jack L. Warner, Robert Taylor, Adolphe Menjou, Robert Montgomery, Walt Disney, Thomas Leo McCarey and George L. Murphy. These people named several possible members of the American Communist Party. Soon afterwards he began an investigation into the Hollywood Motion Picture Industry. The HUAC interviewed 41 people who were working in Hollywood. These people attended voluntarily and became known as "friendly witnesses". During their interviews they named nineteen people who they accused of holding left-wing views.
As a result their investigations, the HUAC announced it wished to interview nineteen members of the film industry that they believed might be members of the American Communist Party. This included Herbert Biberman, Alvah Bessie, Lester Cole, Albert Maltz, Adrian Scott, Dalton Trumbo, Edward Dmytryk, Ring Lardner Jr., Samuel Ornitz, John Howard Lawson, Larry Parks, Waldo Salt, Bertolt Brecht, Richard Collins, Gordon Kahn, Robert Rossen, Lewis Milestone and Irving Pichel.
The first suspected communist to appear before the HUAC was John Howard Lawson on 27th October, 1947. Lawson requested the right to make an opening statement but this was refused by Parnell Thomas with the words that the "statement is not pertinent to this inquiry." The statement included the following: "As an individual, I am not important. The obvious fact that the Committee is trying to destroy me personally and professionally, to deprive me of my livelihood and what is far dearer to me-my honor as an American - gains significance only because it opens the way to similar destruction of any citizen whom the Committee selects for annihilation... It is not surprising that writers and artists are selected for this indecent smear. Writers, artists, scientists, educators, are always the first victims of attack by those who hate democracy. The writer has a special responsibility to serve democracy, to further the free exchange of ideas. I am proud to be singled out for attack by men who are obviously - by their own admission on the record-out to stifle ideas and censor communication."
Robert E. Stripling asked Lawson if he was a member of the Screen Writers Guild. He refused to answer this question on principal but he did comment that his membership was a matter of public record. His next question was: "Mr. Lawson, are you now, or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party of the United States?" Lawson replied that "the Bill of Rights was established precisely to prevent the operation of any committee which could invade the basic rights of Americans." With this answer Lawson was removed from the room by the guards.
The next person called was Dalton Trumbo who was also denied the right to make an opening statement. In it he wanted to make the point that the HUAC was having a damaging impact on world opinion: "As indicated by news dispatches from foreign countries during the past week, the eyes of the world are focused today upon the House Committee on Un-American Activities. In every capital city these hearings will be reported. From what happens during the proceedings, the peoples of the earth will learn by precept and example precisely what America means when her strong voice calls out to the community of nations for freedom of the press, freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, the civil rights of men standing accused before government agencies, the vitality and strength of private enterprise, the inviolable right of every American to think as he wishes, to organize and assemble as he pleases, to vote in secret as he chooses."
Trumbo was asked by Robert E. Stripling if he was a member of the Screen Writers Guild. He refused to answer the question: "Mr. Stripling, the rights of American labor to inviolably secret membership have been won in this country by a great cost of blood and a great cost in terms of hunger. These rights have become an American tradition. Over the Voice of America we have broadcast to the entire world the freedom of our labor... You asked me a question which would permit you to haul every union member in the United States up here to identify himself as a union member, to subject him to future intimidation and coercion. This, I believe is an unconstitutional question."
Trumbo also refused to admit he was a member of the American Communist Party. Trumbo was removed from the room and HUAC investigator, Louis Russell, now read out a nine page report on his Communist Party affiliations. Parnell Thomas now stated: "The evidence presented before this Committee concerning Dalton Trumbo clearly indicates that he is an active Communist Party member. Also the fact that he followed the usual Communist line of not responding to questions of the Committee is definite proof that he is a member of the Communist Party. Therefore, by unanimous vote of the members present, the subcommittee recommends to the full committee that Dalton Trumbo be cited for contempt of Congress."
The first ten men accused of being communists: Alvah Bessie, Herbert Biberman, Albert Maltz, Adrian Scott, Samuel Ornitz, Dalton Trumbo, Lester Cole, Edward Dmytryk, John Howard Lawson and Ring Lardner Jr, refused to answer any questions about their political and union activities. Known as the Hollywood Ten, they claimed that the 1st Amendment of the United States Constitution gave them the right to do this. The House of Un-American Activities Committee and the courts during appeals disagreed and all were found guilty of contempt of Congress and each was sentenced to between six and twelve months in prison.
J. Parnell Thomas activities while working as chairman of the House of Un-American Activities Committee had upset those with left-wing political views and some reporters began investigating him. His secretary, Helen Campbell, leaked information about his illegal activities to the journalist, Drew Pearson. On 4th August, 1948, Pearson published the story that Thomas had been putting friends on his congressional payroll. They did no work but in return shared their salaries with Thomas.
Called before a grand jury, Thomas availed himself to the 5th Amendment, a strategy that he had been unwilling to accept when dealing with the Hollywood Ten. The journalist Drew Pearson commented: "Parnell Thomas's trial started this morning. Looking at him in the courtroom. I couldn't help but feel sorry for him. I can't relish helping to send a man to jail. Nevertheless, when I figure all the times Thomas has sent other people to jail and all the instances when he has kept men away from combat duty in return for money in his own pocket, to say nothing of salary kickbacks, perhaps I shouldn't be too sorry."
Indicted on charges of conspiracy to defraud the government, Thomas was found guilty and sentenced to 18 months in prison and forced to pay a $10,000 fine. Two of his fellow inmates in Danbury Federal Correctional Institution were Lester Cole and Ring Lardner Jr, who were serving terms as a result of refusing to testify in front of Thomas and the House of Un-American Activities Committee.
Thomas was paroled after serving nine months in Danbury. Attempts to return to Congress ended in failure and so in his final years he worked in publishing and real estate.