Lobbyist for a foreign government 1

Pittsburgh, PA, early January 1939

Allegedly, the referenced excerpt of Ross’s American film footage had been made for espionage purposes. It is part of a collection of 13 reels of unedited and unreleased footage that the Ross family shot during their 1938-1939 journey.

This particular footage, sent to Germany before the Ross family sailed from San Francisco to Japan, in March 1939, is discussed in the ‘Report on Colin Ross’, included in vol. 11 of the Dies Committee on Un-American Activities’ Hearings. The report quotes from Ross’s registration  statement  at  the  State  Department   (which  was  required  for  every  lobbyist  for  a  foreign government coming to America)1 that he was making a film for the German production company Tobis Filmkunst (even though the film Tobis eventually released, in 1940, was titled Das neue Asien and only contained footage Ross shot after he had left the US for East Asia).

Federal agents working for the committee had secretly inspected Ross’s material before he picked it up at the Agfa laboratory in Los Angeles. The shots “in detail” of Jersey City and Pittsburgh, “in which factories and bridge sites were indicated”, were adduced to support the committee’s argument that Ross was a “Nazi agent”. Be that as it may, one does wonder, however, how shots of “Negroes living in huts in the South” or “Indians living in small tepees” were construed as relevantly suspect (apart from giving America a bad name).2 Or how the moving image footage of, for example, the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park, in Florida, or a boy scout band marching in front of evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson’s Angelus Temple, in Los Angeles (although not mentioned in the report), would contain specifically relevant information other than cushioning the ‘suspect’ material.

The committee certainly showed an awareness of the possibility of “doctor[ing] the pictures employing the artifice of montage” in order to “depict vile distortions and (...) showing America in the worst possible light” (while forgetting to mention the even viler possibilities opened up by a lecturer’s narration). Yet one wonders, finally, whether the case it tried to make on the basis of the footage alone would have been strong enough to go to court with. Nevertheless, the  committee recommended that Ross would be “prevented from ever again setting foot on American soil.”3

Nico de Klerk

Colin Ross. [Excerpt from] Amerika Reise – Florida. St. Ausgustine; Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh; Virginia. Richmond [archive title]
Germany. Tobis; 1939

35mm | b&w | silent | 275m | 16 fps | 15’

Master: 0003-02-0125_Amerika_Reise_Ostkueste_Pittsburgh_X_OeFM_2016_PR422HQ_3072x2160_24fps.mov; 00:07:06,20–00:09:09,20

Clip: 0003-02-0125_Amerika_Reise_Ostkueste_Pittsburgh_X_OeFM_2016_H264-12Mbits-KFauto-CABAC_1440x1080_16fps_IsFormatOf_ProRes422HQ_3072x2160_24fps_00070620-00090920.mp4

Topic: Propaganda
Case: American journeys


1 This was one of two enacted measures (out of six recommendations) that were proposed by the first Special Committee, of 1930-1935, which focused on investigating communism; see: August Raymond Ogden. The Dies Committee: a study of the Special House Committee for the Investigation of Un-American Activities 1938-1944. Westport, CN: Greenwood Press; 1984 [1945]; 37.

2 In fact, a year later one news report connected the use of Ross’s photographs of “the ‘squalid and disgraceful’ living conditions on Indian reservations” with an Indian fifth columnists’ attempt to stir up “anti-U.S. agitation” in Mexico and South America; see: Drew Pearson, Robert Allen. Washington merry-go-round. Indian fifth columnists. In: The Daily Illini: 1940 June 23; 69 (243); 2, http://idnc.library.illinois.edu/cgi-bin/illinois?a=d&d=DIL19400621.2.28&srpos=2&e=-------en-20--1--txt-txIN-%22colin+ross%22-------. See Library.

3 The quoted phrases come from: Report on Dr. Colin Ross. In:  U.S. Congress, House, 76th Congress, 1st session, Special Committee on Un-American Activities House of Representatives, Hearings, vol. 11. Washington, D.C.; 1939 December 28; 7189-7199, https://archive.org/details/investigationofu11unit (see also Ross un-American). In fact, on July 8, 1939, the State Department had informed all diplomatic and consular representatives to report any attempt by Ross and his wife to obtain a US visa; see: Bodo-Michael Baumunk. Colin Ross. Ein deutscher Revolutionär und Reisender 1885-1945. [unpublished master’s thesis]. rev. edn. Berlin; 2015 [1999]; 112. See Library.

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