In 1949, Dalton Trumbo took a brief intermission from screenwriting to pamphleteer when himself and nine other screenwriters were charged with contempt of Congress by the House of Un-American Activities Committee for refusing to admit Communist Party membership. The result of his labors was the “Time of the Toad” (1949), which although failing to activate the public in its goal of keeping Trumbo and company from jail time or destroying HUAC, has nevertheless achieved a more lasting effect as historians of the blacklist (Larry Ceplair, Victor Navasky) have promoted its thesis.
Trumbo’s argument that, by opposing communism abroad, America followed the path of Nazi Germany is hardly original, but it drew from the either/or daily agitprop of the American Communist Party and Politbureau. By labeling Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and the Vital Center fascist, he merely updated a practice the CPUSA had engaged in since the 1930s, with everyone from Norman Thomas to FDR to Robert Taft characterized as Hitlerite.
“The Time of the Toad” is a valuable primary source for histories of the Cold War not for the validity of its thesis, but for how it displays the mindset of American Stalinism. Trumbo leaves much out of his history lesson about the 1940s (block quotes of Hitler speeches, FDR fireside chats, anti-Semitic outbursts from HUAC members, but not one line about Erlich and Alter, Isaac Babel's disappearance or the Gulags then bulging with Jewish inmates while Soviet judges participated in the Nuremberg Tribunals). Such selective editing reveals how Party members were able to fend off troubling reports about the Soviet Union: don't mention specific events, and deal with any doubts by resorting to doctrine.
Trumbo does so by arguing that rhetoric defines practice, and hence the fashionable equation of Nazism with Communism falls apart. “From each according to his need,” he writes, quoting Marx, does not jive with the racially pure and constant war goals of Nazi Germany. But the year Trumbo composed this, 1949, witnessed a massive anti-Semitic purge in the Soviet Union and the speeches radiating out of Moscow foretold a long, world battle with capitalism.
Twenty years later, Trumbo revealed that the passage of time—of Khrushchev’s Secret Speech and the Invasion of Hungary—did little to dent the agitprop of the “Time of the Toad.” In a series of bitter exchanges with liberal actor/activist Steve Allen, Trumbo still resorted to doctrine to defend communism (in this case, the more apolitical Webster’s Dictionary, whose definition he cited to show that communism did not abuse civil liberties) and was still attacking Arthur Schlesinger Jr. (this time, though with a more religious description: Schlesinger Jr. was now, rather than a quisling, a John The Baptist to Joe McCarthy’s Messiah; but the lumping of the vital center with the right remained intact).
When historians use this time capsule document they should be aware that a subheading is in order. With this determination to defend communism and equate any opposition to it with rightists, Trumbo should have an editorial footnote or a counterpamphlet entitled, The Time of the Faith: A Study of Denial and Venom in the American Communist Party.
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