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The blacklist as history
by Ron Radosh
On the fiftieth anniversary of the Hollywood blacklist
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Remembering the martyrs of the 1950s blacklist has become an occasion for annual celebration by the survivors and the sympathizers of that period of turmoil in old Hollywood. But the fiftieth anniversary of the blacklist this October was something special, and Hollywood is going all out to commemorate the event. Frank Tarloff, an eighty-two-year-old blacklisted writer, leads the First Amendment-Blacklist Project, which is funding public art related to the period by Jenny Holzer. Public Radio is airing a drama titled “The Waldorf Conference,” a recreation by the actors Ed Asner, Charles Durning, and Shelley Berman of the meeting at the Waldorf-Astoria in which industry leaders issued an edict that Communists, and those who refused to cooperate with the House Committee, be dismissed from employment. Turner Classic Movies aired films and documentaries on the blacklist, and the industry itself sponsored events. On October 27, the four major guilds hosted “Hollywood Remembers the Blacklist,” an anniversary commemoration at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, featuring film clips, old newsreels, as well as dramatic readings of HUAC testimony performed by Kevin Spacey, James Woods, Alfre Woodard, Billy Crystal, and John Lithgow. And currently, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is offering “Red Hollywood,” a month-long series of the films of blacklisted artists. There are also numerous oral histories, personal memoirs, and even additional television documentaries.
It goes without saying that no dissenting voices are welcome. When the screenwriter Walter Bernstein published his paean to the party line, Inside Out: A Memoir of the Blacklist (Knopf, 1996), it received scores of favorable reviews in the most important book review pages in our country. Sidney Lumet, Arthur Penn, Herbert Mitgang, Hume Cronyn, Arthur Miller, Paul Newman, Woody Allen, Victor Navasky, and other left-wing luminaries supplied obliging blurbs. But when Edward Dmytryk published his dissenting view of the episode, Odd Man Out: A Memoir of the Hollywood Ten (Southern Illinois, 1996), it was either ignored or, in the few places it was reviewed, excoriated. (Nor is it surprising that Bernstein’s book should have been published by the venerable house of Alfred A. Knopf while Dmytryk’s book was published by a small university press.)
For any serious student of the period, however, a comparison of the two volumes makes it clear that Dmytryk’s is by far the better book. Dmytryk shows how the Communist Party apparatus in Hollywood controlled the legal and political response of the Ten after the subpoenas were issued. For example, no one was allowed to talk publicly about his Party membership. Those who were considered insufficiently “progressive”—including Dmytryk—were excluded from the Party’s secret strategy sessions. Dmytryk also exposes the double-dealing and corrupt behavior that the Hollywood Reds regularly engaged in.
Having become disillusioned with Communism and the Party, and having served most of his term in prison, Dmytryk decided to release a public statement detailing his changed views. His 1950 statement said simply that “I was not a Communist or a Communist sympathizer and that I had not been a Communist at the time of the congressional hearings. It did not mention my earlier Party membership … and I hoped it would take me off the blacklist.”
It might have, Dmytryk reports, were it not for the machinations of his comrade Herbert Biberman, who also had been released from prison. Eight of the Ten were still serving their sentences and were in the process of applying for parole. Although he was trying to distance himself from the Party when Biberman appeared unannounced at his door, Dmytryk agreed to sign a statement, but only if his words were given to the official parole board. Under no circumstances, he told Biberman, was his act of solidarity with the others to be linked to the Party or to the Hollywood Ten and its defense apparatus. Biberman readily agreed. But two days later, the Hollywood trade papers published Dmytryk’s statement on their front pages, and his impending contract negotiations with studios were immediately cancelled. The message now was clear as far as Dmytryk was concerned. No longer would he act as if there was “a possibility of a decent world through Stalinism.” Having been betrayed by his erstwhile comrades, Dmytryk took the next step—he consented to give names to the committee at new hearings.
Dmytryk was hardly the only one to suffer from the Party’s efforts to control its writers. In 1946, the screenwriter (and future Hollywood Ten member) Albert Maltz made the mistake of opposing the Zhadanov policy of using art as a “weapon” and—even worse—of praising in print the novelist James T. Farrell. The problem was that Farrell was a Trotskyist at the time, and Maltz had argued that “writers must be judged by their work, not by the committees they join.” Such displays of independence were anathema. As both Dmytryk and Bernstein recall, the Party’s top literary and political figures openly and savagely attacked Maltz. Its East Coast leaders even descended on Hollywood and held two stormy meetings to condemn him. Supported by screenwriters Alvah Bessie and Hebert Biberman, the New York Party chieftains forced Maltz to recant. As Bernstein writes, Maltz “might as well have attacked Stalin. The Party fell on him like the wolf on the fold.” The Party’s chairman, Eugene Dennis, described Maltz’s article as a “bourgeois-intellectual and semi-Trotskyist” piece. Irwin Shaw, Bernstein recalls, “asked me how I could take orders from such idiots.” It is a good question, and one Bernstein fails to answer satisfactorily.
Dmytryk gives many other examples of the Party’s dictatorial efforts to control its members. A case in point was the Party’s treatment of Robert Rossen, a talented writer and director. Rossen had produced, written, and directed a film that is now regarded as one of the classic works of American cinema, the Oscar-winning All the King’s Men, based on the novel by Robert Penn Warren. A noted Communist, Rossen had gained fame for his direction of John Garfield in Body and Soul. As Walter Bernstein acknowledges, Rossen “knew the kinetic nature of the art, the fluidity and combination of images that drove a story.”
What, then, led Rossen to decide to become a friendly witness and join the ranks of those naming names? Bernstein has an easy answer. Rossen, he writes, “had no real belief larger than his ego.” Dmytryk’s answer is more persuasive, reminding us of the Party’s brutal assault on Rossen for All the King’s Men. Warren’s novel is based on the personal dictatorship created in Louisiana by the Kingfish, Governor Huey Long. No one who has seen the film will have forgotten the frightening images of Willie Stark, the character based on Long. Promising the world to the poor, he created a fierce personal rule enforced by terror and bribery. Why would the Communist Party object to a film that revealed this process, especially since the Left had regularly (and incorrectly) condemned Long as an American fascist? The theme of All the King’s Men is “power corrupts,” and Dmytryk shows that Party leaders felt that Rossen’s film would be seen not as an exposé of Huey Long but as a parable of Stalin’s dictatorship. Rossen was exposing one-man rule, and as the Cold War was changing Americans’ image of Uncle Joe, such a film could be dangerous.
As for Bernstein’s Inside Out: A Memoir of the Blacklist, it is among other things a splendid example of retrospective literary exculpation. Bernstein’s first coup as a journalist was to land an interview with Josip Broz Tito, the Yugoslav Communist leader. Upon returning to New York, Bernstein reported what he had learned to top Party leaders. Indeed, he acknowledges that he was later approached by a representative of the Soviet Embassy who asked him to file a report with them. Bernstein says he declined, but felt “guilty” about declining. The recently released Venona files include a cable dated October 21, 1944, from the New York KGB stating that Bernstein had met with an agent code-named “Kahn”—most likely Avrom Landy, a liaison of the American Party between the KGB and agents connected to the CP’s ethnic-group apparatus. The cable states that Bernstein “welcomed the reestablishment of liaison with him and promised to write a report on his trip by the first of November.” The Venona cable does not necessarily conflict with the story Bernstein tells. As Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes write in their forthcoming book on Venona from Yale University Press, tentatively scheduled for 1999, “a more likely explanation is that Walter Bernstein … had provided assistance to the KGB in the past and was willing to help them in the future.”
It is striking that despite years with which to recollect the past, Bernstein has learned very little. This is particularly ironic since he tells us that he has finally learned the truth about Stalinism from an old friend who recently came back into his life, the eminent historian of Stalin’s terror, Robert Conquest. But what Bernstein—like so many others—has learned is only half of the truth. His book, although it now acknowledges the horrors and crimes of Communism, still reflects the views of a 1930s fellow traveler. Communists did not openly declare their views, because if they did, they would “be ostracized, certainly marginalized; you could lose your job … be condemned to the fringe.” But as far as Bernstein was concerned, the Communists were good American patriots. They may have toed the line and rationalized everything going on in the Soviet Union, but “we believed in this America … we cherished its values … we believed ourselves good Americans.” At the same time, Bernstein can write that
we were not quite stupid enough to believe the Soviet Union was perfect, but we believed that with all its faults it still stood for a better world. It had fought and suffered beyond human reason trying to create that world… . Russia was strong and committed to peace. My feelings about the Soviet Union were firm, derived from Stalingrad, where the war was won, not from the gulag, where socialism was lost.
If Bernstein viewed the Soviet Union through the rose-colored glasses of sentimental socialism, he judged the United States with the harshness of a dogmatic left-wing ideologue. It was clear, he said, that “the United States had started the cold war, needed it for imperial purposes, needed the terror of a blacklist to make that war seem necessary.” That such nonsense can be written today shows the limit of Mr. Bernstein’s ability to look at the past with any real understanding.
A similar debility affects the writer James Lardner, son of the Hollywood Ten screenwriter Ring Lardner, Jr. Writing in The Washington Post on November 2, Lardner commented that “it is easy now to revere the ‘unfriendly’ witnesses who refused to testify,” and he adds that at the Hollywood ceremonies honoring the blacklisted artists, “there was not a lot of talk about Stalin or Brezhnev.” How, he asks, could his father and his wonderful friends “have overlooked all the ghastliness that communism was inflicting in the part of the world where it was an actual … working experiment?” How, he asks, could they have not understood the dangers that would occur when “a minority of sectarian zealots took power by violence, and then set out to impose their doctrine on a vast population with habits and attitudes that the doctrine deemed retrograde?”
For once, Lardner asks the right questions. But he continues to explain away the political foolishness of his father’s generation. According to Lardner, Stalinism operated only in Russia; in the United States, the Communist Party did only good: “it helped create the movie unions, organized support for the loyalists in the Spanish Civil War and … [supported] the rights of women and blacks.” With such statements, Lardner, like other red-diaper babies, provides a total whitewash of the Communist movement in America. Any responsible study of American Communism reveals a long and sordid history of its betrayal of liberalism. As Philip Murray told the Congress of Industrial Organizations convention in 1948, he opposed the Communists “because they have subverted every decent movement into which they have infiltrated themselves in the course of their unholy career.” Even the socialist intellectual Irving Howe acknowledged that those loyal to the Communist Party in the heyday of Stalinism—like Mr. Lardner’s father and the Ten—“helped befoul the cultural atmosphere, helped bring totalitarian methods into trade unions, [and] helped perpetuate one of the great lies of the century.”
In any event, Lardner does understand that the blacklist ultimately allowed some of the Ten to free themselves from the Party’s control. It is to the senior Lardner’s credit, his son reveals, that unlike others of his group, his father was in favor of giving the great director Elia Kazan “one of those lifetime-achievement-type awards that have repeatedly been denied him by young Hollywood whippersnappers who weren’t even alive when he knuckled under to HUAC.”
Nevertheless, Lardner is wrong to suggest that it is only a new generation that continues to revile the “friendly” witnesses before HUAC. Here one only has to read the important new collection of oral history interviews of those blacklisted in Hollywood, Tender Comrades: A Backstory of the Hollywood Blacklist, by Patrick McGilligan and Paul Buhle. Lardner’s father may now be more forgiving, but that is not the case with the majority of his once blacklisted colleagues. (Bernstein, for example, reiterates the standard argument of the Left that Elia Kazan deserves no such achievement award, because, Bernstein says, “you can’t separate Kazan’s work from what he did as a friendly witness.”)
As for the workings of the Party in Hollywood, some of those interviewed manage to let the cat out of the bag, sometimes with hilarious results. There is Robert Lees, a screenwriter who successfully broke into TV after the blacklist hit Hollywood, informing us how he managed to bring socialist content into the series “Lassie.” “I … almost always had to demonstrate a lesson,” Lees tells Paul Buhle and David Wagner. “Lassie finds a bone… . So the idea is, Lassie finally realizes … that the museum needs the [dinosaur] bone, and she has to learn how to share. Another dog steals the bone, and Lassie has to get it back and turn it over.” To which his interviewers respond, quoting the famous line uttered by Ginger Rogers in the film Tender Comrade, “Or ‘Share and share alike—that’s democracy,’ at least for Lassie.”
On a more serious level, some of the writers interviewed give candid details of how the Party moved to control the Hollywood unions, through classic Stalinist tactics. The editors explain in their introduction that their volume gives “the deserved opportunity, after five decades, to rebuke the ‘friendly testimony’ of the left-wing turncoats and anti-Communist zealots who identified them to HUAC. Their group testimony provides a vital counterpoint to those lies and assertions.”
They do not seem to realize, however, to what extent those they interview provide examples that prove precisely the opposite. The editors write that the Party in Hollywood numbered “at its peak only several hundred official members,” and they go on to attribute its success among the film elite to its “umbrella program” that, according to them, had “widespread appeal.” They somehow fail to acknowledge the point made by one of the people who conducted interviews for the volume, historian Larry Ceplair. With Steven Englund, Ceplair wrote the definitive study of the blacklist era, The Inquisition in Hollywood. Virtually all the Hollywood Communists, they noted, “defended the Stalinist regime, accepted the Comintern’s policies and about-faces, and criticized enemies and allies alike with infuriating self-righteousness, superiority, and selective memory which eventually alienated all but the staunchest fellow travelers.”
Ceplair and Englund give many examples of just how the tenuous alliance the Reds tried to forge with honest liberals came apart. In the early Thirties, the CP had formed a broad anti-fascist coalition, which shared the support of liberals such as the actor Melvyn Douglas. It broke apart the moment the Nazi-Soviet Pact was signed in 1939; when the Reds insisted that their erstwhile liberal allies support American neutrality. That was too much for Douglas. When he introduced a resolution at their Popular Front organization denouncing both “Nazi aggression” and “Soviet perfidy,” the Party allowed their organization to collapse rather than have it turn against Stalin. Douglas, of course, was roundly condemned as a fascist. The liberal community had glimpsed the real face of Stalinism.
The editors of Tender Comrades, it seems, are still oblivious. Their book is full of wonderful gems that reveal the phoniness and pretentiousness of so many of their subjects. One finds Allen Boretz condemning the Social Democrats “as soft on capitalism and hard on Socialism,” yet boasting nevertheless that he was accepted because he had a front table at Chasen’s and the Brown Derby. He also still defends the Nazi-Soviet Pact, although he notes he was “very sad” about the Moscow Purge trials. And the writer John Bright notes with pride his condemnation of Earl Browder, the former Communist Party head, for being “a reformist liberal who talked in Marxist phraseology.”
Looking back, the writer Paul Jarrico notes his preposterous belief that there was no contradiction between “the interests of the Soviet Union and the interests of the United States.” Calling that view an illusion, he admits that “it made me a fool.” There are also candid revelations about Party tactics in the union. Abe Polonsky tells of how while working for the CIO, he offered jobs in return for votes in order to defeat the right-wing faction, and how CP leaders deluded themselves into thinking they had won because the rank and file agreed with their policies.
Maurice Rapf explains how his memoir can’t be published because it tells “exactly how the party operated in Hollywood, which people don’t like to hear.” Rapf gives some of the story in his interview. When the Screen Writers Guild was recognized by the industry after its National Labor Relations Board victory in 1937, Rapf was made secretary of the Guild, although he was a relatively new, young, and inexperienced writer. Why? Rapf states frankly: “The Party could control an election, you know. Otherwise, people like me and Harold Buchman and even Ring [Lardner, Jr.] would not have been elected … we didn’t deserve to be on the board.” In that capacity, Rapf was put in charge of negotiating with producers for a contract, with all of his producer father’s friends. “The Party,” he says, “was using me as a front.” And, later, the Party sent him into the Democratic Party, where he notes that he got elected to the County Committee.
There are other themes that emerge from the various interviews. Scores of the blacklisted maintain that their films were superb examples of art, whereas those who became friendly witnesses produced only puerile mass entertainment films of little substance. The reverse, of course, is nearer the mark. Alvah Bessie, upon leaving The New Masses and the New York Communist writers for Hollywood, wrote the fans of his theater column “if you see any exceptionally bad moving pictures in the future, it will be reasonably certain that I’ve had a hand in them.” In his forthcoming new history of the Left in California, From West to East: California and the Making of the American Mind (The Free Press, 1998), Stephen Schwartz writes that “this self-revelation was also extremely prescient, for the very great bulk of the war films produced by Bessie and his Communist colleagues were truly wretched.” Schwartz notes in particular the work of Lester Cole, one of the most prominent Hollywood Reds. Cole’s film Blood on the Sun (1945), Schwartz tells us, was “one of the most racist and dishonest motion pictures ever made in the United States,” filled with what he calls “every known cliché of American anti-Japanese prejudice.” As one might expect, there is no discussion of this film anywhere in the McGilligan and Buhle book.
The Communists, then, were persistently dishonest, and hardly the heroes portrayed today in films such as The Front, The House on Carroll Street, Fellow Traveler, and especially Irwin Winkler’s 1991 film, Guilty by Suspicion. When the HUAC hearings first took place, the liberal community in Hollywood rushed to the Ten’s defense. But the Ten’s insistence upon hiding their true political beliefs and affiliations, their belligerence before HUAC, and their spurious claim that their main goal was simply to defend the right of any American to his private political views isolated them from their allies, who chafed at the propaganda claim that they were fighting an America on the verge of going Fascist.
After the indictment of the Ten, the Reds invoked the Fifth Amendment. Instead of proudly admitting their Communist views and affiliations—and facing the consequences of doing so—they denied they were Communists and argued they were being persecuted because of their fight for peace and democracy. They avoided going to jail, but their mendacity was so obvious that they wound up suffering an even more serious political penalty.
Thus the Ten denied their own beliefs, lest their enemies be proven correct. When they were called Communists, they countered with the charge of redbaiting—the ultimate sin. The great irony, of course, is that, while they were vociferously denouncing the Hollywood blacklist, they were busy putting their own blacklist into action, working hard to isolate those within their own ranks who showed any signs of ideological wavering. In fact, what one had in Hollywood was a concerted attempt to prevent the airing of any negative views about the Communists or Communism. For an intellectual, it was more dangerous to speak up against Stalinists than to keep silent before HUAC: the latter might lead to a temporary loss of income; the former would once and forever lead to the loss of longtime friends and one’s entire affinity group. “Unfriendly witnesses,” Schwartz notes, “were hailed as heroes of unfettered thought, while those whose testimony reflected a real attempt to understand Communism were defamed as liars.” A snitch meant something to the average American; a Stalinist meant little outside the ranks of the beleaguered group of anti-Stalinists. In her mendacious memoir, Lillian Hellman referred to the 1950s as a “scoundrel time.” Is it not time to look back and gain some judgment about who the real scoundrels were, and to hold them accountable?
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 16 December 1997, on page 12
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