This week Reel Mudd brings you a double feature with Operation Abolition and Operation Correction! Perhaps the term double feature is inaccurate — each film contains the same footage but tells a different story. Operation Abolition describes how Communist infiltrators led riots while the House Un-American Activities Committee convened in San Francisco. Operation Correction, however, talks of misrepresentation by a government agency desperate to remain relevant while its raison d’être faced public scrutiny.
Operation Abolition, a 1960 documentary produced by the House Committee on Un-American Activities (a.k.a House Un-American Activities Committee or HUAC), focused on an incident on May 13, 1960 when the Committee convened in San Francisco’s City Hall. While the committee met, students protested in the hallways and outside the building, leading to clashes with the police and the arrest of 64 students. Operation Abolition shows footage of the incident taken from subpoenaed San Francisco TV station newsreels, using that footage to allege that the students were Communists and/or instigated by Communist agents. The film’s narrators, Representative Francis E. Walter, Chairman of HUAC, and Fulton Lewis III, son of a prominent anti-communist radio commentator, suggest that the protesters were members of and/or “duped” by groups whose ultimate goal was to destroy the committee, weaken the FBI, and reduce the enforcement powers of the Federal government. Despite being a newsreel produced by a government agency, Operation Abolition was surprisingly popular. According to Time Magazine, an estimated 15 million people saw this film.
Operation Correction shows the same footage as Operation Abolition, interspersed with added commentary by Ernest Besig, the Executive Director of the ACLU of Northern California. Through his narration, Besig illustrates what he believes are the film’s inaccuracies, misrepresentations of the incident’s chronology, and propagandistic points. The national ACLU, however, was hesitant to endorse this film. Memoranda within the records of the ACLU call the film “useful” to “raise serious questions” about “what happened in San Francisco,” as well as the underlying civil liberties issues. Despite those qualifications, the same correspondence and memoranda in the ACLU Records, Box 903, Folder 9 warn that films such as Operation Correction must be viewed within a larger civil liberties context, especially as related to the ACLU’s stated goal of abolishing the HUAC.
Operation Correction was not the only film released that tried to debunk or criticize Operation Abolition. A Jesuit group called Impact Films produced Autopsy on Operation Abolition, which presented a debate over the truthfulness of the HUAC’s account while California students Michael and Philip Burton produced Wasn’t That a Time, which examined the cases of three people called to testify before the HUAC.
As with any heated issue, there are two sides to every story. Which film recounts the true events of May 13, 1960? Like ACLU memoranda suggested, we ask you to watch both and determine for yourself.
For more information about these films:
Greenberg, B.S. “Operation Abolition” vs. “Operation Correction.” Audio Visual Communication Review, Vol. 11, No. 3 (1963), pp. 40-46