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The Truth about the "Hollywood Ten"
By: Art Eckstein
Monday, April 18, 2005


Martyrs and Rebels? No. Party loyalists and stool pigeons? Yes.

In 1947, the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) began a series of official inquiries into the penetration of the Hollywood film industry by the American Communist Party (CPUSA). Major public hearings were held in 1947 and 1951, with smaller hearings throughout the mid-1950s.  In the course of these inquiries, dozens of “friendly” Hollywood witnesses denounced hundreds of people as secret members of the Communist Party, while dozens of “unfriendly” witnesses refused to discuss their politics with the Committee. Those who were either publicly or privately denounced as members of the CPUSA found it almost impossible to get employment in the motion-picture industry for at least for a decade. The most famous victims of the resulting blacklist were the original group of “unfriendly” witnesses, known as the “Unfriendly Ten” or “Hollywood Ten.”  These individuals–mostly screenwriters– refused to give political information about themselves before HUAC in October 1947.1

The blacklist functioned in part officially, as demonstrated by a joint public announcement of the  motion picture firms in November 1947 that henceforth no studio would knowingly employ any member of the Communist Party, or the members of any other group which advocated the overthrow of the United States government by revolution. The blacklist also operated unofficially, through instruments such as the irresponsible red-baiting newsletter Red Channels, which named whole swaths of people as subversives.  This, for example, ruined the career of the left-wing but non-Communist actress Marsha Hunt.2  The blacklist also often functioned in secret: jobs just dried up.  As a result, “fixers” emerged to get people unofficially “pardoned” by anti-Communist organizations and film industry managers, therefore making them employable again.  One famous “fixer” was the fiercely anti-Communist actor Ward Bond.3  “Fronts” arose as well in the form of  people offering scripts ghost-written by blacklisted screenwriters in exchange for official credit for the script and often a cut of the payment.  One famous example of such a “front” was Philip Yordan, himself a quite famous screenwriter.4

Some film careers were totally destroyed as a result of the blacklist system.  For instance, Mickey Knox, “the next John Garfield,” was a rising star of the late 1940s, turning in a star performance in the great gangster film White Heat (1949).  If you have never heard of Mickey Knox, well, that is the point.  Many other careers suffered severe setbacks, such as that of actor Howard Da Silva.5 Actors and directors suffered more severely than screenwriters because they could not act or direct under assumed names, whereas screenwriters could use the “front” system, which allowed the most talented of them to continue to write.  The CPUSA, however, had made its largest inroads in Hollywood among screenwriters, and many screenwriters’ careers suffered greatly or ended.

 

It is generally not a good idea to attack professional writers because they tend to write, and to write well, to get in the last word.  This has certainly been the case with the blacklist.  None of the HUAC committee or staff (which originally included Congressman Richard M. Nixon) has written memorably on the events of 1947 and 1951, let alone on the later, smaller investigations.  A few of those who appeared as “friendly witnesses” before HUAC, such as directors Edward Dmytryk and Elia Kazan, and actor Sterling Hayden. have written important memoirs, often defending their conduct and sometimes expressing self-doubt.6  But such figures are far outnumbered by the self-justifying and bitter memoirs of those who were denounced: Norma Barzman; Walter Bernstein; Alvah Bessie; Herbert Biberman; Conrad Bromberg; Lester Cole; Lillian Hellman; Howard Koch; Ring Lardner, Jr. (and now his daughter Kate); Donald Ogden Stewart; Dalton Trumbo; and Ella Winter.7

 

The publication of these works, and more fundamentally the cultural shift in Hollywood to domination by a bien peasant Left that started around 1960 and accelerated in the 1970s, has led to the lionization of the Unfriendly Ten as American “rebels” and martyred “non-conformists.” Meanwhile, the anger within the current filmmaking elite at those who originally “named names” in the 1940s and 1950s has been unremitting. A now unalterable view of what occurred is held by people who have little knowledge of what it actually meant in the 1940s to be a Communist; that is, a Stalinist. Two examples demonstrate the current political situation. On October 27,1997, on the fiftieth anniversary of the original HUAC hearings, the Hollywood creative elite attended a gala celebration of the Ten, and major stars appeared in a reenactment of parts of the HUAC hearing. The evening was capped by an appearance of some of the surviving Ten themselves, to thunderous applause. Then in 1999 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decided to award a lifetime Oscar to Elia Kazan.  Kazan was the director of outstanding films such as A Streetcar Named Desire, Viva Zapata, On the Waterfront, and East of Eden.  Kazan “taught Marlon Brando how to act,” but he had also “named names.” The award was ferociously opposed by survivors and supporters of the Ten.  In the end, despite being escorted to the podium by Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese, Kazan was greeted with stony silence by many members of the Academy.8

 

A more balanced view from a participant in the terrible events that began in October 1947 came from Patricia Bosworth, the daughter of Bartley Crum, one of the lawyers for the Unfriendly Ten. Crum was one of only two of the seven lawyers on the Ten’s defense team who were not themselves members of the Party.  Bosworth says that her father vigorously defended people as long as he possibly could afford it financially, because of his deep allegiance to the principles of the First Amendment.  But the experience also made him very wary of the American Communists, because they were not in fact independent individuals but were men under stern Party intellectual discipline.  He found them continually deceptive as to their intentions and motives. Crum was repelled by the Communists’ “rude, plodding dogmatism, their habit of secrecy,” and that included the behavior of the Party lawyers assigned to work with him on the case.  It is Bartley Crum’s conundrum which summarizes the issue addressed in this paper.9

 

HUAC and its staff were “very bad people, doing very bad things...The closest thing to Nazis.” That’s the whole story, according to Walter Bernstein in his interview with Paul Buhle in 1997.  With this, Bernstein also condemned as utterly evil anyone who cooperated against the Communists.10  Placement of primary political and moral blame on HUAC for what happened to people during the blacklist is obviously correct. The lawyers defending the original Hollywood Ten made an excellent point that the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of association meant that Congress had no right to investigate Communist Party membership unless it first passed legislation outlawing the Party. Yet despite the apparent unconstitutionally of the procedure, the House of Representatives found the Unfriendly Ten guilty of contempt of Congress for their refusal to answer questions about their political associations and beliefs, and the contempt citation was upheld by the courts. The result was that the Ten were sentenced to serve from six months to a year in Federal prison for failure to answer HUAC’s questions. It seems quite outrageous now, and of course this was only the official punishment.  Unofficial punishment–the blacklisting–lasted far longer and involved far more people.

 

A further dark element in the story arose in the form of J. Parnell Thomas (R-New Jersey), the Congressman who ran the 1947 hearings. Thomas was a ruthless bully who refused “hostile” witnesses the right even to give statements concerning the Constitutional grounds behind their unwillingness to answer questions, yet he gave friendly anti-Communist witnesses unlimited time before the Committee. The tiny Thomas browbeat the “Unfriendlies” unmercifully, yelling at them and banging his gavel.  Ironically, he ended up in the same federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut, as Ring Lardner and Lester Cole, two of his victims.  After the 1947 HUAC hearings, Thomas was convicted of fraud (payroll padding, and taking kickbacks). The situation at Danbury was deservedly uncomfortable for the thuggish and corrupt Thomas, who tried to avoid his fellow prisoners Lardner and Cole. For Lardner and Cole, however, it was a delicious situation, as they made very clear to Thomas.11

 

There were other darkly comic moments associated with the blacklist. Norma Barzman and her husband Ben Barzman, screenwriters and members of the Party, were blacklisted. Yet her recent memoir is charming even about one of the grimmest facts of the blacklistees’ experience: being followed by the FBI and the local police. Shortly after the first HUAC confrontation, a neighbor warned the Barzmans about police surveillance of their house.  The neighbor was Groucho Marx.  Gesticulating with his famous cigar, his eyebrows twiddling, Marx cautioned: “Hot today! But for you, two kinds of heat, know what I mean? But I can only give you ice cubes in support.” Groucho was immediately followed by Marilyn Monroe, getting out of an old white Cadillac convertible and sashaying up the Barzmans’ drive-way to warn them in her famous breathy little-girl voice, “Gosh, did you know there are cops watching your house? Did you guys commit a murder or something? Oh, gimme a gin and tonic!”12

 

Barzman, perhaps unintentionally, also reveals another side of the story; one that has been almost totally lost in the pieties about the Ten which have emerged over the past half-century. It is the main issue I wish to address: the stern intellectual control which the Hollywood Party exercised over its members.  This intellectual control makes the depiction of the Ten as somehow romantic “rebels,” “non-conformists,” or champions of free speech into nonsense. They were often quite the opposite.

 

Two examples come from Barzman herself. In the mid-1940s, while still in Hollywood, she and her husband became fascinated by classic Freudian psychoanalysis.  It was then a big fad among the Hollywood creative community, the Barzmans had a troubled marriage, and they wished to become involved in therapy.  The Party leadership, however, opposed psychoanalysis on ideological grounds, because Party leaders saw it as “the tool of the class enemy to justify inequities of society by attributing them to flaws in personality rather than the system.”13  Barzman also cites a second important reason for the Party’s opposition to psychoanalysis, one adduced as well by the most famous critic of HUAC and the blacklist, Victor Navasky: “since it is a rule of psychoanalysis that the patient reveals everything, the Party’s security as a secret organization would be compro-mised.”14  We are reminded then, that the Party in Hollywood not only attempted to control the minds of its members, but that it was a secret organization.15

 

In another example of the reach of the Party, Barzman remarked that in the 1940s Party couples in Hollywood adopted children from Appalachia. This was done not so much out of humanitarianism as to help prove the theory of Stalin’s favorite geneticist, T. D. Lysenko, that environment and the exercise of will could quickly triumph over heredity. The theory appealed to Stalin because it reinforced his belief that a stern socialist system imposed from above by the government was certain to hasten the emergence of “the new Socialist Man.”  Hollywood Party activists who faithfully followed this ideological line and adopted included the screenwriter Albert Maltz (This Gun for Hire, 1942) and his wife Margaret, and the screenwriter Herbert Biberman and his wife actress Gale Sondergaard.  According to Barzman, there were several others, demonstrating how far the prevailing Party ideology reached into the private lives of Party members.16

 

At this point in the discussion we should also begin to distinguish among the victims of the blacklist.  It is the Unfriendly Ten (and those around the Ten) who Hollywood memory has chosen to canonize as martyrs, making them into admirable American “rebels” and innocent, victimized heroes. In the order of priorities for our sympathy, I think this is the opposite of where sympathy for the blacklist victims should lie.17

 

Many people on the Left in the 1930s and 1940s were attracted to the various positions advocated at one time or another by the Communist Party of the USA. Some merely became involved in the many front groups with nice-sounding names that the Party secretly controlled (e.g. the Progressive Citizens of America, or the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League).  Some actually did join the Party itself. Yet the vast majority of those who joined the Party only lasted a relatively short time before leaving. Why did they leave? Because the Party’s choking atmosphere of intellectual control drove them away, or because the Party’s position on whatever social issue had originally attracted them suddenly reversed on orders from the Soviet Union. Tragically, many of these Leftists were persecuted later by the government, and/or blacklisted in Hollywood.18 The main point I wish to make, however, is that the average length of stay even for those Leftists who did join the Party in the 1930s was only about three years.19

 

The Ten, however, do not and cannot represent the relatively transient population that made up the Party rank and file. The latter were social idealists or radicals loosely tied to the Party and committed to specific issues rather than to the organization itself.  In the heyday of the 1930s and 1940s, they made up the Party’s relatively unstable mass base. The Ten, by contrast, were mostly long-term Party militants, cadres, and functionaries.  Bessie, Biberman, Cole, Lardner, Lawson, and Polonsky had all been in the Party for ten years or more when the first HUAC investigation opened in 1947, and Trumbo only a little bit less. The very fact that they had not wavered at any point, despite the series of radical shifts and reversals in Party policy since 1935, set them apart from the vast majority of Party members, and the vast majority of blacklist victims.

 

Moreover, the radical shifts and reversals in the policy of the CPUSA did not reflect developments on the American socio-economic scene itself, and were not reactions to them. On the contrary, they had their source in a foreign country and its interests, in the specific responses of the government of the USSR to events in Europe. One classic case is of course the American Party’s faithful support of the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939-1941. The alliance was a startling reversal after years of proclaimed Party dedication to ferocious “anti-Fascism.” Instead, the line switched from “anti-Fascism” to “peace,” i.e. a ferocious dedication to keeping the US from aiding the nations fighting Hitler (“The Yanks are NOT coming! We’ll be for peace until the cows come home!” to quote Herbert Biberman). Yet just as the Party’s staunch “anti-Fascism” ended the moment that Stalin became Hitler’s friend, so the Party’s staunch belief in “the peace movement” ended the moment the Soviet Union was attacked by the Nazis on 22 June 1941. Then the war against Hitler finally became justified.20

 

This means that most of the Ten, as long-term Communist Party militants, were people who (to paraphrase Lillian Hellman) were prepared to cut their consciences to fit the political fashions of the moment.  Such obedience to a notoriously changeable political line, such inability to stick to loudly proclaimed principles if the Party suddenly went back on those principles, is a fact.  Another is that there was one thing these men were not, and that was rebels.  It is wrong to see them that way and to give them that honorable appellation.21  Moreover, the political fashions to which they cut their consciences were the needs of the Soviet state, not the American. Thus, the very nature of their long-term Communist Party militancy points to their dependence upon the wishes of a foreign government.22

 

This situation was not unique to the American Party, but rather was a fundamental characteristic of all Communist Parties throughout the Stalin era.  On all major issues the “national” Communist Parties were controlled from Moscow, either directly or via the Comintern.  The subservience of the Communist Party of France to Soviet interests and orders is the classic example of the phenomenon, and it helps to underline the type of politics actually engaged in by the historical (as opposed to the mythical) Ten.  If American historians of the CPUSA were thoroughly trained in foreign languages, they would better be able to discern parallels between the behavior of the American Party and all other “national” Parties around the world, and they could put the CPUSA into its proper international context. American historians would see how closely the sudden and radical policy shifts of the American Party were exactly like those of every other “national” Communist Party, because the policies of all these organizations were dependent upon policy decisions made in Moscow.  But of course, most American historians nowadays are not trained in foreign languages, resulting in a bias toward seeing everything in a purely American context and perspective.23

 

Even Paul Jarrico, one of the Ten, has recently acknowledged that the American Communists were constantly forced into counter-productive politics by virtue of continually having to be the fervent guardians of Soviet (i.e. foreign) interests, and members of a Party whose policy was determined in Europe.  Not that Jarrico ever deviated from the Party line at the time.24  Similar statements have come from another of the Ten, Alvah Bessie, who has ruefully remarked, “It began to be obvious that the Party was not speaking the language of the American people. It took me almost twenty years to find this out...Pretty stupid of me.”25  The opinion of the famous blacklisted director Jules Dassin (Riffifi; Never on Sunday) is the same.  The Party tried very hard to present Communist or Socialist ideas as an advance in America’s development that was in fact rooted in American tradition. Well, they failed in this. The American people couldn’t buy it. The association with the Soviet Union was too powerful.  I remember one slogan, “Defend the Soviet Union.” It was not “Defend the Socialist Idea” or “Defend a Fairer System.”  It was “Defend the Soviet Union.” It was a tough slogan to sell; impossible.      

 

The unbreakable association with the USSR, the subservience to whatever the prevailing line of Stalin’s dictatorship happened to be, the overriding CPUSA purpose to “defend the Soviet Union” under any and all circumstances (including conflict with the United States) were policies dictated to the CPUSA from Moscow, and accepted willingly by Party headquarters in New York.  In what sense was this “rebellion” within the honorable American tradition?26       

 

The Hollywood Ten were not, as it happened, spies for the USSR, but they belonged to a Party that –as even left-wing “revisionists” now acknowledge– planted spies for the Soviet Union throughout the US government as a matter of course. Ellen-Shrecker, the chronicler of the blacklist as it functioned in educational institutions, has admitted that Earl Browder, the leader of the CPUSA during its most “liberal” period (1941-1945: the Second Popular Front), was in fact a key talent scout and recruiter of spies for the Soviet Union, “routing volunteers to the KGB and identifying secret Party members who could be of use.”27

 

Although only one Hollywood Communist (the minor Hollywood producer Boris Morros) is known to have been a long-term NKVD spy, that does not mean that the Hollywood Communists would not have spied for the Soviet Union if they had been asked.  Indeed, the recently decoded “Venona” documents suggest that Walter Bernstein, one of those blacklisted, had offered information to the NKVD more than once.  This should not come as a surprise.  When Arthur Koestler secretly joined the Communist Party of Germany in 1932, he remained a newspaper reporter, but he accepted as a matter of course that he would be asked to spy on his employers in the Ullstein newspaper corporation–the same people who had saved him from penury during the Depression. 29

 

Although not involved in spying, the Hollywood Party organization was nevertheless especially important to CPUSA headquarters in New York.  This was demonstrated by the fact that the Hollywood section was not under the supervision of the Los Angeles or California Party organizations, as one might expect, but reported directly to the Center.30  And in the spring of 1945, when hard-line Stalinist William Z. Foster expelled the “liberal” Browder from the Party and took over as General Secretary at Stalin’s behest, one of the first places he visited was the Hollywood Party.31

 

The reason for the special importance of the Hollywood section is not hard to discern.  The Soviet government had an early understanding of the crucial power of film as propaganda in a mass society.  Communist influence in Hollywood filmmaking was therefore seen as both culturally and politically important in spreading ideas among the masses to prepare for the Revolution, or at least to curb popular opposition to the USSR.  Party members boasted of “sneaking” Marxist dogma into otherwise bland Hollywood films, though they later denounced this suspicion as fascist propaganda.32  The intent was quite clear.  Ring Lardner, Jr., for example, gleefully told the story of his blacklist period in the 1950s when he worked as a secret screenwriter for the British TV series The Adventures of Robin Hood, and slipped frequent anti-capitalist messages into a show set in medieval England. His purpose, he said, was to subvert the younger generation’s beliefs in free enterprise.33  In the Hollywood of the 1930s and 1940s, however, the anti-ideological domination of the studio moguls meant that Communist writers could only slip in a few bits here and there, and such bits could not have much effect. Rather, as Party leader Foster told the Hollywood section of the Party during his visit in 1945, the Party intended its influence on film production in Hollywood at this point to be primarily negative.  Communists were to block and prevent the production of any films with an anti-Communist bent, or with a theme detrimental to the interests of the Soviet Union.34

 

In keeping with this subterfuge, most Party members in Hollywood were secret Party members, operating under noms de guerre.  The strict cell structure of the Hollywood Party, and the secret meetings of the cells, kept many people from knowing more than a dozen fellow Party members. Director Edward Dmytryk, in fact, worked with the producer Adrian Scott for two years before he knew Scott was a fellow Party member.35  The Party was not organized this way by accident, or merely out of a traditional conspiratorial or paranoid mindset, though that mindset obviously existed and was fundamental. There were two specific reasons for secrecy: (1) so that opinions presented during their daily work in the studios by secret Communists could masquerade as independent artistic opinions, since filmmakers dealing with the secret Communists would not know they were dealing with Communists; and (2) so that secret Communist operatives could control the bien pensant front organizations mostly populated by liberals and ordinary leftists.

 

An example of the latter is the Hollywood Citizens Committee on the Arts, Sciences, and Professions (HICCASP).  Most of the HICCASP’s members were liberals and independent leftists, but the crucially influential post of executive secretary of the organization was held by a secret Communist.36  The Communists operated like cuckoos, as Edward Dmytryk said, laying their eggs in other birds’ nests.37  Moreover, there is evidence to suggest that some prominent Hollywood people who wanted to join the Party were forbidden to become members, but were nonetheless trusted to wield influence over Hollywood individuals and organizations on behalf of Party policies all the same–influence all the more effective for coming from people known merely as “leftists.”38

 

Hollywood Ten member Jarrico has given an insightful summary of the impact of the Party’s penchant for secrecy.  In the broadest sense, the political situation of the CPUSA changed dramatically with the coming of the Cold War.  It was one thing to be a Communist in the 1930s, when the USSR was on the distant horizon for most Americans, or during the Second World War, when the USSR and the United States were allies. But after 1945, as the United States became involved in a fierce worldwide struggle directly with the USSR, and Americans were being called upon to give their lives to fight against Communism internationally, Jarrico has admitted the logic of seeing Communists and Communist sympathizers as a potential fifth column.39  This fundamental political situation was made worse, Jarrico has said, by the fact that the CPUSA obviously slavishly followed whatever the political line was from the USSR.  He added:

 

But I think there was another mistake, which was probably special to Hollywood, and that was that our membership was covert. Secret. There are good historical reasons why Party members did not advertise their membership in the Party. But in Hollywood it was a disastrous course.40

 

Jarrico noted that being a secret organization is what laid the Hollywood section of the Party open to informers and denouncers in the first place; after all, there could have been no “naming names” if Party membership had not been kept secret.  By definition, “naming names” was the naming of alleged secret members of the American Communist Party.41 

 

The impact of secrecy extended one step farther, however. It meant that Party members were constantly working in the interests of the USSR, and at the dictates of the USSR, while lying to and manipulating their friends and co-workers about their motives.  They misrepresented their political positions as independent radical opinions when in reality those positions were dictated from elsewhere. It was a cult. Those who denounced the Reds have always been denounced as rats and betrayers, but surely there is a deep betrayal here as well.  Moreover, Communist relations with non-Communists were based on a smug sense of intellectual and political superiority.42

 

Along with the secrecy and manipulation, and with all that entailed in terms of personal behavior toward others, there was “democratic centralism,” i.e. the rule of the Party over its members’ intellectual lives.  I have already referred to this briefly, and here must further emphasize the difference between the transitory rank and file (many of whom left because they could not put up with such discipline) from the long-term Party militants who constituted most of the Ten. Though the Ten were all intellectuals, they accepted as a matter of course that there were books” one was forbidden to read.43  Intellectuals or not, the Ten accepted the principle of Party discipline laid down by the Party’s American cultural commisar, V.J. Jerome: “I asked, ‘Comrade Jerome, what if a Party decision is made that you cannot go along with?’ And he said, ‘When the Party makes a decision it becomes your opinion.’”44

 

Another blacklistee, Leonardo Bercovici, has expressed amazement at John Howard Lawson, the stern and rigid leader of the Hollywood section of the Party.  Here was a man who was a very talented writer, yet he devoted himself “to becoming a commissar; it was a pity ....” Bercovici concluded that Lawson simply had “an authoritarian character.” But a moment later, in discussing the Hollywood Party’s robotic obedience to whatever line came out of New York (i.e. Moscow), Bercovici asked himself, “How could Jack have submitted ... ?”45

 

The degree to which personal intellectual opinion and creativity could be dismissed by Party diktat was most famously demonstrated in the case of Albert Maltz.  In February 1946, Maltz published an article, “What Do We Expect of Writers?” protesting the Party’s iron demands on artists and their work.  Maltz argued that artists could not merely be Party political pamphleteers propounding the position of the moment, but rather they must be allowed to deal with the deepest and most permanent issues of human life, as was natural for them.  Further, works of art should be judged not merely by the politics of their creators–as the CPUSA always did–but rather by the artistic and ethical values and human insights contained in the works themselves.

 

This plea for artistic and critical freedom led to a firestorm of reaction from CPUSA headquarters in New York. Maltz was attacked for “revisionism” in Party publications.  Far worse, in Hollywood he was subjected to a personal inquisitional procedure led by the dour John Howard Lawson. Almost no members of the Hollywood Party section came to Maltz’s defense and those who did were themselves threatened with expulsion.46  It took two brutal sessions of “criticism/self-criticism” in front of a committee of Hollywood Party members to get Maltz to recant his position. Most of those involved in the browbeating of Maltz were writers themselves, including Hollywood Ten Alvah Bessie and Herbert Biberman.  Two months after his first plea for artistic freedom, Maltz published a “self-criticism” and complete recantation of his plea for artistic freedom.47

 

One can hardly imagine a more humiliating experience for an intellectual and “non-conformist” than what Maltz was put through.  He later went to prison rather than testify to the nature of his politics or “name names,” but he told Gerda Lerner that his 1946 CPUSA inquisition was “the most unsettling experience of my life, infinitely worse than going to prison; nothing compared to it.”48 Despite this unsettling experience, Maltz remained a Party stalwart for many years, and faithfully followed every shift in the Party line.  He believed that in June 1950 South Korea had attacked the North. In 1958, in accordance with the Khrushchev thaw, he wrote a positive review of Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago, but when hardliners came back into power in the Kremlin, he issued yet another public recantation of his previously published views, proclaiming that he had re-read the book and found it shallow. Is this man really supposed to be seen as an “American rebel” and a “non-conformist”?49

 

Moreover, it is especially important to remember that Maltz’s experience with a “thought control committee” of the Hollywood Party was not at all unique as John Howard Lawson ran a very tight Stalinist ship.  In 1945, after two sets of similar inquisitions, Edward Dmytryk and Adrian Scott were expelled from the Party for refusing to accept the crude propaganda of Lawson’s hand-picked screenwriter, John Wexley, for their film Cornered.50  Robert Rossen faced a similar inquisition over All the Kings’ Men in 1949.  The Hollywood Party objected to this classic film’s theme of “power corrupts” (too close to Stalin, apparently), and forced Rossen into an excruciating “criticism” session.  Rather than submit and recant his work, Rossen angrily resigned from the Party.  What is stunning is that the savage “jurors” in the Rossen inquisition were the Ten themselves.51  Budd Schulberg had a similar experience earlier with his novel What Makes Sammy Run.  He also later testified in front of HUAC, and like Rossen became subject to continuous vicious attacks for “naming names” and being a “rat” and “stool pigeon.”  In Schulberg’s case the attacks included pop-psychology analyses of his alleged relationship with his father, and they have continued to this day.52 Abraham Polonksy summed up the grim situation in a 1997 interview: “The Party style of Marxism didn’t  have a chance here [in Hollywood]., or in New York either, among intellectuals. The leadership’s behavior violated the whole intellectual life of Marxism.53

 

Despite this fine statement on behalf of intellectual freedom, throughout the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, Polonsky went along faithfully with whatever the prevailing Party line happened to be, including the condemnation of Maltz.  If he had personal predilections toward “liberalism,” as in the Maltz case, he eventually suppressed them in the name of Party “discipline and unity.”54   There is a further disturbing aspect of the behavior of veteran Party members in Hollywood in the 1940s, that contrasts with their reputation as martyred victims–that of “stool pigeons.” The fact is that when the political occasion demanded, these men were perfectly prepared to be “stool pigeons” themselves.  The most notorious case is that of Dalton Trumbo. The Ten and their supporters have castigated those people who in the late 1940s and 1950s were forced by government subpoena to appear before HUAC and “name names.” But in 1944, Trumbo personally invited the FBI to his house to turn over the names of people who had asked him for copies of his novel Johnny Got His Gun.

 

The fiercely anti-war novel, written in early 1939, had of course been a big hit with Communists and their satellites during the period of the Hitler-Stalin Pact (the “peace movement” period), but after June 22, 1941, it became a political embarrassment, and Pearl Harbor only added to the problem. The novel dropped out of circulation, so people who opposed World War II despite Pearl Harbor wrote to Trumbo to find out where they could get copies. Trumbo voluntarily denounced these people to the FBI as “defeatists, pacifists [!], and anti-Semites,” and after meeting with FBI agents at his house, turned over names and correspondence. Needless to say, he did not notify the people whose names he had named of what he had done.55

 

And there is more. A few years later, when the Communists were under pressure, the historian Arthur Schlesinger suggested in print that people such as Trumbo were so ruthless politically that they would never uphold the civil rights of those with whose politics they disagreed, such as Trotskyists on the left and Ku Klux Klansmen on the right.  Trumbo responded with a haughty public denial (filled with sneers at Schlesinger) that he would ever allow the government the right to investigate a person’s political beliefs. But of course we now know this printed rebuttal of Schlesinger was a lie.  Trumbo had already had helped the FBI to do so, and at his own initiative.56  Is such a man to be viewed as a hero of freedom of speech?  Obviously the 1944 incident, and Trumbo’s later lies about it, puts him in a poor moral position to complain about being revealed in 1947 to be a secret Communist.  At least he got to face his accusers at HUAC.  The people who he denounced in 1944 did not even know he had denounced them.   Furthermore, it is clear that Trumbo’s invitation to the FBI to come hear him “name names” was not an isolated act by an individual. On the contrary, it fits into the broader context of the CPUSA policy of informing on political enemies in the early 1940s. This is another fact which has been conveniently forgotten. Once Germany had invaded the Soviet Union and broken the Hitler-Stalin Pact, the Party went no-holds-barred after anyone who opposed the war for whatever reason.  The most famous case involved the Socialist Workers” Party of Minnesota, a Trotskyist group which the federal government brought up on Smith Act charges in mid-1941.  It is not simply that the CPUSA and its propaganda organs loudly supported the prosecution of the Trotskyists on the basis of their political beliefs, though of course they did.  The fact is that Earl Browder, the General Secretary of the Party, actually sent the federal prosecutors a secret 24-page indictment dossier, with advice on how the Trotskyists might be convicted of violent revolutionary intent.57

 

A bit later the Party organs also loudly supported the Smith Act prosecution of anti-Semites; demanded the prosecution of isolationist Congressmen who wished to limit the American war-effort to the protection of American territory (remember “The Yanks Are NOT Coming!”?); and demanded the Smith Act prosecution of Norman Thomas, the Socialist leader, because he opposed the war on grounds of pacifism.58  We must assume that at the time; all these positions were heartily applauded by the Hollywood section of the Party.  Dalton Trumbo’s “naming names” to the FBI in 1944, and indeed the categories of people whose names he gave over, fits perfectly with then-current CPUSA policy.59

 

In 1947, the weapon of government prosecution (or persecution) on the basis of political belief was finally turned upon the Communists themselves, focusing first on the Hollywood section of the Party and its secret membership. The Communists were enraged.  It was a violation of basic Constitutional rights to freedom of opinion!  It did them no good at the time, but neither had the protests of the Trotskyists in 1941, which the CPUSA had disdained. In the long run, those innocent of the Stalinist nature of the Party and innocent of the history of its policies were seduced. They had no way of knowing how much the 1947 prosecutions fitted in with the previous government prosecutions of non-Communist dissenters, prosecutions which the Communists–including one of the most prominent members of the Ten–had applauded and even voluntarily abetted at the time.60

 

All the above incidents and their victims have been forgotten, and thus the Ten have been allowed to emerge center stage as innocent victims of an irrational and oppressive government.  Were the Ten victimized for their beliefs? Yes, of course they were.  Was this an example of oppressive government action?  Yes, of course it was.  And it was led, in the case of J. Parnell Thomas, by a crook and a bully.  Was it a completely irrational action, though?   Here the waters become murky. Once the United States had entered a long-term confrontation with the Soviet Union, it was rational to “see the Communist militants, including those in Hollywood, as presenting something of a fifth column danger.”61

 

The accusation of potential subversion was certainly a charge which Communists had not hesitated to hurl publicly against their political enemies in 1941-1945, nor had they hesitated to inform the FBI in secret about those enemies and to “name names” themselves, on the grounds that they were seeking to protect the country.  But on the other hand, it is unlikely that the foundations of American government were going to be shaken by the doings of a couple of hundred Hollywood screenwriters, directors and actors.  Finally, then, were the Ten nothing more than a batch of persecuted liberals?62  Here surely the answer is “No.”  The Ten were victims of US government oppression, but they were not innocent.  Most were stern Stalinist militants and perfectly capable of unleashing the very same sort of inquisition against anyone who deviated from the Party line.

 

Does that justify the HUAC hearings and the subsequent blacklists, even of the militant Communists who made up the Hollywood Ten?  No, of course not.  Martyrs, they were, but not innocent martyrs.  We should reserve the bulk of our sympathy for those people who were only transient members of the Party, or never joined the Party at all, but ran into trouble for participating in liberal and leftist front groups whose secret control by the Party was unknown to them.  As for the Ten themselves, Dalton Trumbo, in his 1944 “naming names” letter to the FBI, would seem to have written his own fitting epitaph:

 

Idealists are worthy or unworthy people only in relation to what their ideals are. Ignorant or purely emotional idealists frequently bring on great tragedies which culminate in the defeat of the very ends toward which their ardor led them.63

 

Appendix: The Lost Future?

 

Did the destruction of the Communist Party in Hollywood and the expulsion of the screenwriters, directors, and actors associated with the Party result in a cultural Holocaust from which the United States has never recovered?  This is a position that has recently been widely argued by scholars on the Left.64  Though the scripts he managed to get to the screen made him famous, and though he had twice as many scripts that were never produced (in part because of the blacklist), Ring Lardner, Jr. remained dubious about this idea:

 

It is a temptation for a writer to fantasize that his unshot scripts could have made more original and provocative movies than the ones that ran the gauntlet to theater exhibition. A sober review of the files in my case shows that this would be a delusion.

 

Lardner also noted that it was unfair to compare good scripts that were never made into films with the films that actually did get made, because those good scripts remained in a “pure” state, and never undertook the painful journey through the transformative process of studio production.  In that process the writer would be only one partner out of many in the creation of the final outcome, and not usually the most important partner.65  In other words, it is dubious method to make very large cultural claims on the basis of screenwriters’ complaints about what was never produced.

 

Leonardo Bercovici, when pushed by Paul Buhle to agree to the lost future line, also denied its validity.  The problem Bercovici saw regarding the thesis was slightly different, however.  Even rigid Stalinists such as John Howard Lawson ended up–if they were good writers in the Hollywood sense, which Lawson was–writing mostly entertainment pictures.  In fact, the more talented the screenwriter, the bigger the stars he or she worked with, the more money was invested by the studio, and hence the more oversight the studio exercised on the script and film production.  Thus, as long as the production system remained in control, after 1948 the increasing absence of Communist and other radical screenwriters from the production process probably did not make a great deal of difference to what finally emerged.  Maurice Rapf added that the pressures from the Party on Communist screenwriters to do organizing and political work were so severe that it is a wonder that they got any creative artistic work done at all.  He gives this as the reason he left the Party.66  Unless there had been a true revolution in the method of Hollywood film production and in the nature of strict Communist Party oversight, there is little reason to think that the Hollywood blacklist short circuited a renaissance in American Marxist cultural production.67

 

ENDNOTES:

 

1.  For discussion of the entire sequence of HUAC investigations of Hollywood (not only 1947 and 1951, but continuing in 1953 and again in 1955-58), along with the list of the specific denouncers, and the list of the hundreds denounced, see Robert Vaughn, Only Victims: A Study of Show Business Blacklisting (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1973); the lists can be found at 275-292 (the author is the prominent actor; the book is based on his Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Southern California). The original group of “Unfriendlies” in 1947 numbered 19, but only 11 were actually confronted publicly by the Committee.

2. See the 1997 interview with Hunt in Patrick McGilligan and Paul Buhle (eds), Tender Comrades: A Backstory of the Hollywood Blacklist (New York: St Martins Press, 1997), 318-320. The interviews with blacklistees collected in McGilligan and Buhle are an invaluable resource for the history of the period.

3. See Joseph McBride, Searching for John Ford: A Life (New York: St Martins Press, 2001), 475-477.

4. Patrick McGilligan, Backstory 2: Interviews with Screenwriters in the 1940s and 1950s (Berkeley, 1991), 341-343 for the screenplays written by blacklistees for which Yordan originally claimed and received credit.

5. Mickey Knox: see his interview in McGilligan andBuhle: 349-388. On the blacklisting of Da Silva (1951), see briefly Alfred Lewis Levitt interview (1997), in Ibid., 460. Da Silva did not return to the screen until his magnificent performance as the psychiatrist in David and Lisa (Richard Perry, dir;1962).

6. Edward Dmytryk, Odd Man Out: A Memoir of the Blacklist (Carbondale: Southern Illinois Press, 1995; Elia Kazan, A Life (New York: Knopf, 1988); Sterling Hayden, Wanderer (New York: Knopf, 1963.

7. Norma Barzman, The Red and the Blacklist: The Intimate Memoir of a Hollywood Expatriate (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press/Nation Books, 2003); Walter Bernstein, Inside Out: A Memoir of the Blacklist (New York, Knopf, 1996); Alvah Bessie, Inquisition in Eden (NewYork: Macmillan, 1965); Herbert Biberman, Salt of the Earth: The Story of a Film (Boston: Beacon Press, 1965); Lester Cole, Hollywood Red (Palo Alta, CA: Ramparts Press, 1981); Lillian Hellman, Three: An Unfinished Woman. Pentimento. Scoundrel Time, with new commentaries by the author (Boston: Little, Brown, 1979); Howard Koch, As Time Goes By: Memoirs of a Writer (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1979); Ring Lardner, Jr. I’d Hate Myself in the Morning: A Memoir (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press/Nation Books, 2000); Donald Ogden Stewart, By a Stroke of Luck: An Autobiography (New York: Paddington Press, 1975); Dalton Trumbo, The Time of the Toad. A Story of the Inquisition in America, and two related pamphlets (New York: Harper and Row, 1972); Ella Winter, Not to Yield (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1963).  For an account of the fiftieth anniversary attack on HUAC and on those who informed, with Billy Crystal as actor Larry Parks, John Lithgow as Sterling Hayden, Kevin Spacey as Paul Jarrico, and including appearances by the actual Paul Jarrico, Ring Lardner, Jr. and Abraham Polonsky, see Kenneth Lloyd Billingsley, Hollywood Party: How Commission Seduced the American Film Industry in the 1930s and 1940s (Rocklin, CA: Forum/Prime, 1998), 1-10. On the scene at the Academy Awards in March 1999, see conveniently Billingsley, 283-289.  Patrick Bosworth, Anything Your Little Heart Desires: An American Family Story (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997). 224-240 and 376 (the quote). For his role in defending the Ten, Crum from 1947 onward was continually persecuted by the FBI. Though a practicing Catholic, a liberal Republican, and then a, leader for Truman against the Communist-supported Henry Wallace, Crum was spied on for more than six years, and his passport was threatened several times on grounds of his alleged potential for subversion: Bosworth 1997: 323. Bernstein in McGilligan-Buhle, 48. Lardner, 9-10.  Barzman, 96-99. The Barzmans left the US for a rather plush exile in France, where they stayed for 20 years. The best chapter in the book tells how they worked as “script-doctors” on the troubled production of El Cid (Anthony Mann, dir.: 1961), a film which eventually emerged as the most intelligent of all movie epics.

13. Barzman, 85 (quoting her eventual psychiatrist).

14. Ibid.; Victor S. Navasky, Naming Names (New York:The Viking Press, 1980), 131.

15. Paul Jarrico in a 1983 interview noted without much comment that it was a Party rule that no one who was in analysis could be a member of the Party: “It was a security rule.” This comes right after he asserts that the claims of Party thought-control over its membership are greatly exaggerated. See Jarrico in McGilligan and Buhle, 344-345.

16. Barzman, 72. Lysenkoism was only abandoned by the Soviet government as a theory of genetics in 1965. Barzman also notes with amusement the remarkable similarity of furniture, books, toys and (Central American) artwork in the children’s rooms of the houses of herself and her comrades (110).

17. Most of the original 19 Hollywood figures who refused to testify voluntarily to HUAC in 1947 eventually went to jail, but only 11 (including Bertolt Brecht) appeared at the famous public hearing overseen by Parneli Thomas in Washington, DC, in October 1947.  Brecht left the US the very next day, denouncing it as a concentration camp, and settled in Stalin’s East Germany, which he pronounced a most satisfactory environment.

18. The most famous non-Communist Hollywood leftist who was persecuted is probably Edward G. Robinson. Another example is Marsha Hunt (above, n. 2).

19. Thus the Party in the 1930s was experiencing close to a 100 percent turnover in its rank-and-file membership every three or four years. On the average size of the Party in this period (33,000 in the “good year” of 1936), and the short average length of stay, see Harvey Klehr, John Haynes, K.M. Anderson, The Soviet World of American Communism (New Haven:Yale University Press, 1998), 348 (employing information drawn from Soviet files on the American Party).

20. Thus when Ring Lardner, Jr. writes in his autobiography that “I felt any way of helping spread knowledge about the horrors of Nazism was a wartime contribution,” he means he sought any way to do this after 22 June 1941: see Lardner, 107, and compare with Lardner, 101 (the 1939-1941 period of the Hitler-Stalin Pact and “the peace movement”). Similarly, after late 1945, Lardner accepted the new CPUSA position that the primary political task was, once again, to “avoid war,”113-114.  Translation:the United States must be prevented from opposing the expansionist actions of the Soviet Union.

21. As in the title of Peter Hanson’s recent book, Dalton Trumbo, Hollywood Rebel (Jefferson; NC:McFarland, 2001).

22. The fundamental situation was laid out long ago: see Theodore Draper, The Roots of American Communism (New York: The Viking Press, 1957); cf. Harvey Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism: The Depression Decade (New York: Basic Books, 1984). Draper’s conclusions (supported by Klehr) have since been decisively confirmed by the opening of the Soviet archives following the fall of the USSR in 1991, demonstrating how totally controlled the CPUSA was from Moscow: see Harvey Klehr, John Haynes, F.I. Firsov, The Secret World of American Communism (New Haven: Yale University Press,1995) and Klehr, Haynes, Anderson.

23. On life in the French Communist Party, see, e.g. J.Jenson and G.Ross, The View From Inside: A French Communist Cell in Crisis (1985). Thus to point out that American Communists ate hot dogs and enjoyed baseball, as if this meant something “American” at some fundamental political level, is wrong headed. Lots of French Communists enjoyed soccer, but the PCF adhered with total rigidly in its policies to whatever was the current line of the Soviet Union.

24. See Jarrico’s interview in McGilligan and Buhle, 398.

25. Bessie interview (1983) in McGilligan and Buhle, 98.

26. Dassin interview (1983), in McGilligan and Buhle, 209.

27: The number is how at least 300 Party members (Klehr, Haynes, Anderson, 1998). For Browder’s role as a provider of spies for the USSR, see Shrecker’s “The Spies Who Loved Us?,” The Nation, 24 May 1999 (who also now accepts that the use of American Communist spies provided massive amounts of economic, technical and military information to the USSR and accelerated the Soviet development of an atomic bomb by two years).

28. Harvey Klehr and John Haynes, The American Communist Movement: Storming Heaven Itself (Boston, 1999), 238-240. Bernstein, naturally, remembers this incident differently, but it is difficult to disbelieve the obvious meaning of the NKVD agent’s report.

29. See Arthur Koestler, The Invisible Writing (New York: Macmillan, 1954), 20.

30. See, e.g. John Bright interview (1983) in McGilligan and Buhle, 145.

31. See the comments of Barzman, 65 (it is a situation of which she is proud).

32. See Barzman, 104 (Joseph Losey).

33. Lardner, 141 This writer, a child in the 1950s, remembers The Adventures of Robin Hood (starring Richard Greene) very well.

34.Bessie, in McGilligan and Buhle, 103.

35.  Dmytryk, 11.

36. Ibid., 12-14.

37. Ibid., 12.

38. An example is Betsy Blair, the wife of Gene Kelly.  Betsy Blair, The Memory of All That: Love and Politics in New York, Hollywood and Paris (New York, 2003), 132-133. There were also super-secret Party members; prominent people who never even attended cell meetings but who knew what to say.  An example is Dorothy Parker, according to Lardner, 100.

39. Jarrico in McGilligan and Buhle, 345-346.

40. Ibid., 346.

41. Ibid.

42. On manipulation, secrecy and betrayal, see the comments of the Unfriendly Ten’s lawyer Bart Crum, in Bosworth, p. 4.  Similar (covering the same events) is Dmytryk, 36-38. Smugness: John Howard Lawson, Herbert Biberman, and Albert Maltz were the most notorious.

43. For instance, there, was Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, which Adrian Scott, later one of the Ten, warned Edward Dmytryk not to read on pain of denunciation and expulsion from the Party (Dmytryk, 14).

44. Bright, in McGilligan and Buhle, 150.

45. Bercovici interview (1988), in McGilligan and Buhle, 37.

46. See the bitter comments of Jules Dassin (1983) in McGilligan and Buhle 212.

47. The complete texts of Maltz’s article in the Feb. 12, 1946 issue of New Masses, the major attack on Maltz by the Communist functionary Mike Gold in The Daily Worker, and Maltz’s recantation-article in The Worker  in April can be conveniently found in Billingsley, 295-311.

48. Lerner in Barzman, 73.

49. On Maltz and Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago, see Dmytryk, 22-23.

50. Dmytryk, 18-21. Lawson kindly told them that they might perhaps be rehabilitated “when you decide you can accept Party discipline” (21). Dmytryk also claims that it was the treatment of himself and Adrian Scott that led Maltz to write the plea for artistic freedom in The New Masses.

51. Rossen’s response to the thought-control court of 1949 was: “Stick the whole Party up your ass!” (Dmytryk, 115). Rossen himself had run with the wolves against Maltz in the Party inquisition of spring 1946 (Bernstein interview in McGilligan and Buhle, 46). Now he had had enough.

52. Example: Walter Bernstein in McGilligan and Buhle, 45. Dmytryk only denounced the Party after serving his term in Federal prison as one of the Ten for contempt of Congress. As with Rossen and Schulberg, the attacks on his character have been continual: see, e.g. Bernstein in McGilligan and Buhle, 46-47 (Rossen); 53-54 (Dmytryk).

53. Polonsky interview (1997), in McGilligan and Buhle,  494.

54. Polonsky remained an active member of the Party at least into the 1960s. It is unclear when, if ever, he left.

55. See the draft of Trumbo’s letter to the FBI in Dalton Trumbo, Additional Dialogue: Letters of Dalton Trumbo, 1942-1962 (New York: E. Mann, 1970), 26-31. 

56. Schlesinger’s article in Saturday Review of 16 July 1949, and Trumbo’s letters to the editor in response: Trumbo, Additional Dialogue, 124 and 135-136.

57. Part of the CPUSA prosecution dossier, titled “The Fifth Column Role of Trotskyites in the United States,” can be found in Philip Jaffe, The Rise and Fall of American Communism (New York: Horizon Press, 1975), 50-52.

58. See Klehr and Haynes, 127,

59. See Trumbo, Additional Dialogue, 30: “I share with the men of your organization a sincere desire to see the end to all such seditious propaganda as criminal slander of the Commander-in-Chief, defeatism, pacifism, anti-Semitism and strategies designed to assist the German cause. Which, of course, was why I called on you when I possessed evidence of such activity.”

60. John Howard Lawson: “You believe in freedom of speech for Communists because what they say is true. You do not believe in freedom of speech for fascists because what they say is a lie.” Dmytryk, 114.

61. Jarrico in McGillian and Buhle, 345-346. The way some post-modern scholars like to describe this situation is to say, approvingly, that the American Communists “had transcended the nationalist meta-narrative.”

62. This is how the CPUSA sought to depict things (Dmytryk, 36) Over the long term, of course, they were successful.

63. Trumbo, 29 (Trumbo’s emphasis).

64. See Buhle and Wagner, 2001 (a main theme of the book); or Navasky in the introduction to Lardner’s  memoir (Lardner, viii-ix).

65. Lardner, 174. For a more general study of the phenomenon, see Thomas Schatz, The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era (New York: Knopf, 1988),

66. Rapf interview (1986) in McGilligan and Buhle, 527. Lardner, 98, expresses somewhat similar feelings about the amount of political work Communist writers were expected to be doing.

67. This is the negative verdict of Bercovici, in McGilliganand Buhle, 42.

Art Eckstein is a Professor of History at the University of Maryland at College Park.