1919 February 20

“As If I Were Being Tried for Witchcraft:” Louise Bryant, Radical and Wife of Radical and Author John Reed, Grilled by Senate

 

Louise Bryant, political radical and writer, was on this day grilled by a U.S. Senate Committee investigating Communist influence in the U.S. Bryant was the wife of the famous radical and author John Reed, author of Ten Days That Shook the World, an account of the Bolshevik Revolution.

Bryant, Reed and other radicals had requested to appear before the Overman Committee because they and many others had been named as radicals and agents of Bolshevism in hearings before on January 22, 1919. The committee accepted their request and allowed them, including both Bryant and Reed, to testify on this day.

Louise Bryant was the first witness, and she was mercilessly grilled for five hours about her marriages, whether she believed in God, and at times implied that she had been a courier for the Bolshevik government in Russia. She later said that it was “as if I were being tried for witchcraft.”

The 1919 Overman Committee hearings provided a model for the House Un-American Activities, created on May 26, 1938, which conducted an assault on freedom of speech and association for 37 years before it was abolished on January 14, 1975.

Bryant’s statement that it felt like being on trial for witchcraft was prescient. In the 1950s, the famed American playwright Arthur Miller wrote a play, The Crucible (January 22, 1953) about the Salem Witchcraft trials (June 10, 1692), which everyone regarded as an allegory for the hunt for radicals during the Cold War.

Learn more: Mary Dearborn, Queen of Bohemia: The Life of Louise Bryant (1996)

Read: Robert Rosenstone, Romantic Revolutionary: A Biography of John Reed (1975)

Bryant’s account of her work as a reporter in Russia: Louise Bryant, Six Red Months in Russia (orig. 1918; reprinted 1970)

Learn more about John Reed: Jeremy McCarter, Young Radicals in the War for American Ideals (2017)

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