[This is the fourth essay in the book The Dispossession of the American Indian – And Other Key Issues in American History (Washington, D.C.: Scott-Townsend Publishers, 1995). It also appeared in The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, Fall 1993; in the British journal of opinion RightNOW, July/Sept. 1996, pp. 8-9, in an abbreviated version; also in a shortened version in Conservative Review, March/April 1994, pp. 24-31; and was reprinted in The St. Croix Review . ]
THE "HOLLYWOOD BLACKLIST"
In November 1947 the leading executives of the American film industry met at New York City's Waldorf-Astoria hotel and issued the "Waldorf Statement," which declared that they would not knowingly employ a Communist or a member of any group that advocated the violent overthrow of the United States government.
It is almost half a century since that beginning of what is known as "the Hollywood blacklist." There ensued a period of years during which most American film studios shunned, sometimes completely and sometimes just in part, a number of screenwriters, directors, screen personalities, and assorted industry personnel who had been actively involved in the Communist movement, usually as Communist Party members and almost always as participants in the many "front organizations" controlled by the Party.
The action by the film-industry executives followed in the wake of the October 1947 hearings of the House Committee on Un-American Activities inquiring into Communism in the motion picture industry. What is today best known about those hearings is that ten witnesses refused to testify, citing the First Amendment, and were sent to prison for up to a year for contempt of Congress. This group is known as "the Hollywood Ten."
Today, as then, America's intellectual culture is overwhelmingly to the left. It is a central fact about American life that the articulation of ideas from the media and other main sources of opinion continually indoctrinates us in the mythology of the Left. In that context, "the Hollywood Ten" have been made into martyrs and "the Hollywood blacklist" has become a catchphrase illustrating the alleged bigotry and hysteria that the Left has so long argued are inherent in American life. The public has been deluged with documentaries such as Hollywood on Trial and Legacy of the Hollywood Blacklist; and with films such as Julia, Woody Allen's The Front, and Robert de Niro's Guilty by Suspicion; with university symposia, such things as an American Civil Liberties Union commemorative dinner toasting the Hollywood Ten and their lawyers, and a fortieth-anniversary editorial in The Nation.
The most significant fact: an inversion of values
What may be most important to notice about the "blacklist" is that the Left has managed a startling inversion. (At least it should be startling; the fact that it is not, but rather is taken for granted as expressing an accepted truth, illustrates just how much we have absorbed the Left's outlook.)
This inverted view pictures the devotees of a totalitarian ideology as well-meaning idealists and innocents even years after it became apparent to all who cared that the ideology's leaders were killing millions. Simultaneously, it portrays those who sought to protect a society based on individual freedom as, what?--intolerant, fanatical, self-serving, authoritarian, and contemptuous of the life of the mind. Through the inversion, the totalitarians become the martyrs and heroes; the elected representatives of a free people and the executives of the film industry who sided with them become a personification of narrow and pinched intolerance.
If this inversion were corrected, we would see the "Hollywood Blacklist" in a far different light. We have undergone a warping of perception through years of partisan propaganda.
This warping could hardly have come about without the double standard that the world Left has so long applied to Nazism and Communism--a double standard that was for many years used to protect one of the totalitarian systems. It does more than affect our general perception of modern history;1 it continues by having a role in the "culture war" precisely with regard to specific issues such as the "blacklist," where even today we are induced to take a benign view of those who took part in the Communist movement. We would entertain no such view of people who participated in, say, the Nazi Bund.
With regard to Nazism and Hitler's Germany, we are accustomed to shudder at the memory of its brutalities and to recognize it as pure evil. But with regard to Communism and its embodiments in Stalin's U.S.S.R., Mao's China, or Pol Pot's Cambodia, we have no such visceral reaction. There are no Holocaust Museums to remind us of the tens of millions of its victims. We see no photos of the emaciated millions starved to death as a matter of state policy in the Ukraine famine and entertain no indelible images of the tragically faceless inmates of the vast Gulag Archipelago.
The fact is that both Nazism and Communism had their "idealistic" features and were not perceived by their supporters, at least at first, as evil. One involved a secular religion of nation and blood; the other a like religion of class hatred and dreams of emancipation. Both swore eternal enmity to the "classical liberal" ideals of personal and familial autonomy, representative government, the Rule of Law, and toleration of diverse opinion. Both supported and justified the use of brutality as an essential means. It makes no sense to think of the Nazi as a jack-booted trooper while picturing the Communist in softer, more accepting pastels. Secret police and executions-- if it weren't for the double standard, these would be as much a part of our image of Communism as of Nazism.
What I will do in this essay
The subject of this essay is actually much broader than the simple facts of the "blacklist." Those can be told simply enough--and I will do that early on. But what is most important is to place those facts in their context, both before and after the late-1940s and 1950s. This requires a broader view, and most certainly more patience, than modern readers are accustomed to bringing to a subject. There can be no proper understanding of the "blacklist," however, without this continuity of attention.
Here, in a quick preview, is what we will do:
First, note the fact of inversion, remind ourselves as forcefully as we can of the totalitarian nature of Communism, and realize the existence of the double standard that has muddied our consciousness of its brutality. I have just spoken about these, but they deserve much more attention than I can give them here.
Second, recount the facts about the "Hollywood Ten" and the "Blacklist" as a specific episode in American history.
Third, understand the events of the 1940s and 1950s in the context of the long-standing domination of American culture by the Left, which has included but has by no means been limited to members of the Communist Party. We need to grasp this context as it existed before and at the time of the "blacklist," but most especially during the 1960s, 1970s and beyond--a period during which the literary and artistic Left has reigned victorious. The hegemonic vision of the Left--the very opposite of a suppression of leftist ideas--is the principal legacy that has come down to us. We see this in the leftist content of so many films in recent years.
Fourth, grasp Communist ideology as just part of a much more extensive intellectual culture of alienation. The Communist Party members of that day, including the "Hollywood Ten," were the tip of a vastly larger iceberg. The problem was so much bigger than "Communists in the film industry" that a certain distortion occurs, by way of diminution, in focusing on that.
Fifth, understand that the Communists of the late 1940s and early 1950s were the hardcore Stalinists who remained loyal to Stalin (who was still alive and ruling through terror) years after many on the Left had "heard the screams" and abandoned their pro-Soviet stance. The idea that they were naive innocents (as reflected in the title of one of the books on the subject of the blacklist, Radical Innocence) has no substance; they had stayed with Stalin even while countless others had seen through to the horror. Sixth, see that all of this has continuing relevance as part of the "culture war" that has been raging over control of America's self-image, memory and future direction. How we understanding the past--including such things as the "blacklist"--is pivotal to how we see ourselves, the generations before us, and the generations that are still to come.
Details of the "Blacklist"
The 1947 hearings.
During the second half of October 1947, the House Committee on Un-American Activities held two weeks of hearings into the issue of Communism in the film industry in the Caucus Room of the Old House Office Building in Washington, D.C.
In all, forty-one witnesses were subpoenaed. These included a number of Hollywood personalities who told of Communist penetration of the industry. These witnesses, dubbed "the friendly witnesses" in the literature because of their cooperation with the committee, included the likes of Howard Rushmore (a former film critic for the Communist Daily Worker), Ayn Rand (the novelist and philosopher who started her writing career as a screenwriter shortly after arriving in this country as an emigre fleeing Soviet Russia), Gary Cooper, Robert Montgomery, Ronald Reagan (who combined film acting with leadership of the Screen Actors Guild, of which he was a president), Robert Montgomery, George Murphy, and Walt Disney.
Nineteen "unfriendly" witnesses were subpoenaed, of which eleven were actually called to testify. Of those eleven, ten refused to answer questions about Communist Party membership, asserting that the First Amendment protection of "freedom of speech" shielded them from testifying. (It wasn't entirely clear in 1947 whether the Fifth Amendment provision against self- incrimination would provide a legal basis for refusal to testify. If these witnesses had "taken the Fifth," as many did later, it is likely that the courts would have accepted that, and that accordingly they would not have gone to prison for "contempt of Congress.") The eleventh, the German Communist Bertolt Brecht, who had been in this country, "got off the hook" by dissimulation, if not by downright lying: he told the Committee that he wasn't a Communist--and then, as soon as the hearings were over, left the country for Communist East Germany.
The ten who refused to testify have since been known as "the Hollywood Ten," the original nineteen who were subpoenaed as "the Hollywood Nineteen." The ten consisted of Alvah Bessie, Herbert Biberman, Lester Cole, Edward Dmytryk, Ring Lardner, Jr., John Howard Lawson, Albert Maltz, Samuel Ornitz, Robert Adrian Scott, and Dalton Trumbo. All ten were or had been members of the Communist Party, although Lester Cole says that at least three of the original nineteen were not.2 After each of the ten refused to testify, an investigator for the Committee, Louis J. Russell, provided the Committee with a copy of the witness's Communist Party registration card.
Vote in the House; contempt proceedings.
Within days, the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly--by 346 to 17--to charge the ten with "contempt of Congress." The ten were tried in the courts, found guilty, lost an appeal by one of them to the United States Supreme Court, and sent to prison.
The Waldorf Statement.
Also shortly after the hearings were over, on November 24, 1947, fifty representatives of the Association of Motion Picture Producers, the Motion Picture Association of America, and the Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers met at the Waldorf-Astoria. The ensuing declaration stated that they would not knowingly employ a Communist. It committed the producers to discharge or suspend the "Hollywood Ten," and not to rehire them until they had declared under oath that they were no longer Communists. The statement voiced its awareness of a potential for an "atmosphere of fear," and pledged the industry not to carry out the anti-Communist policy in a way that would hurt innocent people.3
The House Committee on Un-American Activities conducted additional hearings between 1951 and 1954, during which 212 people in the motion picture industry were named as Communist Party members.4 Some of these, such as Larry Parks and Richard Collins, renounced the Communist Party and testified about CP activities and personnel. Others--such as Lillian Hellman, who had for several years lived with the Communist mystery writer Dashiell Hammett--took the position, which the Left praises as sensitive and heroic, that they were honor-bound not to name names. (If these had been hearings into the Ku Klux Klan or the German-American Bund, we would scoff at such a "commitment to associates" as most certainly not praiseworthy; again, it is only the double standard that causes people to accept the Left's perception.)
Objectives of the Communist Party in the film industry.
The most obvious purpose for the CP in Hollywood was to influence the content of motion pictures. It has become commonplace to say that no "Communist propaganda" ever got into a film because movies were worked over by many diverse people before a picture was released.5
But this denial is a sophistry. For purposes of the argument, "Communist propaganda" is defined as limited to the unique positions taken by the Soviet Union during periods when the "Communist line" differed from the pro-Stalinist attitudes of the West's predominant intellectual culture. It is not considered enough for a Communist to have succeeded in interjecting a strongly anti-business or anti-bourgeois message-- that wasn't "Communist propaganda," the argument goes, because leftists in general, not just Communists, were advancing those doctrines.6
For example, from 1929 until August 1935, the Soviet Union denounced all democratic socialist and welfare-statist movements, along with its denunciation of everything pro-capitalist, as "social fascist." So it was possible during that period to display a "Communist" point of view that was distinguishable from that of the rest of the world Left. It wasn't possible to do so, however, during the "Popular Front" period that lasted from August 1935 until the announcement of the Hitler-Stalin Pact in August 1939, since the Soviet Union was then full of praise for everybody except Nazis; it even praised "free enterprise." This was followed by almost two years of Soviet hostility while the Hitler-Stalin Pact lasted, and again it was possible to appear uniquely "Communist." When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, though, Communists again became "as one" with social democrats. This lasted during the war, but in May 1945 a leading French Communist, Jacques Duclos, signaled another abrupt about- face of the Communist line by writing a letter, the famous "Duclos letter," that again took a strident line and ushered in the Cold War.7
Those who say that the Hollywood Communists never affected film content are, upon examination, saying no more than that the uniquely Soviet attitudes that existed during periods of Soviet hostility to the democratic Left or to the nations opposing Hitler didn't find their way onto the screen. They could hardly deny, though, if they bothered to mention it, that the Communist screenwriters, etc., in conjunction with other members of the Left whom they tended to lead, succeeded in getting a large amount of intensely leftist bias into films.
One impact on content was to veto anti-Communist film efforts. This veto found ready support in the "anti-anti- Communist" attitudes of so many "liberals" and social democrats.
Other purposes served by the Hollywood branch of the Communist Party, according to John Cogley in his book on the blacklist, included putting the party into a favorable light by taking advantage of the glamor of Hollywood celebrities, raising money, assisting in the organizational work of the Communist Party within labor groups on the West Coast, and creating a pool of talent to help in the party's own media work.8 Communists in the film industry were, of course, in a favorable position to secure employment for others. And, certainly not least, members whose participation in the party remained undisclosed were valuable as leaders of Communist front organizations.9
So important was the Hollywood branch to the party that it was placed under the direct supervision of the party's national office in New York City rather than under regional or state direction.
Who were they? -- the Hollywood Ten.
Within the supportive literature itself, there seems no dispute about the fact that each of the Hollywood Ten was, or recently had been, a member of the Communist Party--a fact worth remembering.
Alvah Bessie, screenwriter, was nominated for an Oscar for his part in formulating the story for "Operation--Burma" in 1945. He had served as the drama and film editor for New Masses between 1939 and 1943. Before that, he was a volunteer in the leftist International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. It wasn't until 1954 that he quit the Communist Party.10
Herbert Biberman, director, joined the Communist Party in 1934. When the Hitler-Stalin Pact convulsed the world Left in 1939, Biberman was among those who defended Stalin, claiming the Pact was a fascist lie. He is said to have made his place in motion picture history as director of "Salt of the Earth" (1954), a radical film made by blacklistees about a Mexican-American miners' strike.11
Lester Cole died in 1985 while still an active Communist and the film critic for The People's World. He, too, had joined the party in 1934 (at the time Stalin was starving millions to death to suppress Ukrainian nationalism and to force the collectivization of agriculture). Cole mostly did scripts for 'B' movies, but wrote "Born Free" and other film scripts under pseudonyms after he served his term in prison. His father, a Jewish immigrant from Poland, had been a militant socialist; and Lester said in this autobiography that he (Lester) had been greatly inspired in 1925 by a revolutionary novel by Maxim Gorky. In the late 1930s he defended the Hitler-Stalin Pact and the Soviet Union's invasion of Finland. (If he cared at all about the U.S.S.R.'s attack during the same period on Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, his autobiography doesn't show it.) He said about Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, executed for atomic espionage, that they died for a "just cause." Late in life, he attended various film festivals in Moscow and was enthralled by what he saw there.12
Edward Dmytryk, a film director whose two best-known movies were "Murder, My Sweet" and "Crossfire," joined the Communist Party in 1944. He renounced the party in 1951 after serving six months for contempt, and testified about twenty-six others who had been in the party.13
Ring Lardner, Jr., son of the great humorist, joined the party in 1936, two years after he travelled to the Soviet Union. "We did play a part, I think, in most everything that was going on in the Hollywood scene. Organizations such as the Motion Picture Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy, the Hollywood Anti- Nazi League, and the League of American Writers would not really have functioned anywhere near to the extent that they did," he said, "without the very active participation of Communists in their forefront." In the 1930s he defended Stalin's purge trials (the great show trials that accompanied Stalin's killing of so many of the original leaders of the Bolshevik Revolution), and the Hitler-Stalin Pact. Otto Preminger ended the blacklist for Lardner in 1960, and he won an Oscar (his second) for his writing of "M*A*S*H*." In the late 1980s, as Communism fell apart in the Soviet Union, Lardner finally joined the train of disillusioned former Communists. Note, however, the odd lack of emotion: "I think I have come to see that we were quite wrong in our image of Stalin. The mere fact that no society has as yet successfully worked on a socialist basis without impinging on a lot of important freedoms makes me wonder about the basis of it all."14
John Howard Lawson was in 1933 the first president of the Screen Writers Guild. He had written radical plays for the New York stage before he moved to Hollywood in 1928, but in 1934 Mike Gold, writing in New Masses, accused him of indecisiveness. This stung him into formally aligning with the Communist Party. Over the years, he wrote prolifically for such Marxist organs as the Daily Worker and New Masses, took part in a large number of front organizations, and was one of those who organized the Hollywood branch of the Communist Party in the late 1930s. In 1938, Lawson was among the signers of a manifesto defending the purge trials. The Hitler-Stalin Pact caused him some trouble, but he got over it when Hitler invaded the U.S.S.R. in June 1941. During the blacklist, he managed to keep busy writing motion picture and television scripts under an assumed name. In fact, he wrote the screenplay for "Cry, the Beloved Country" while in prison.15
Albert Maltz, screenwriter, wrote several plays in the 1930s that Bernard F. Dick, in Radical Innocence, says "reflect the era's preoccupation with political corruption, social injustice, capitalism, union-busting, the munitions industry, and profiteering" [i.e., with the themes of the militant Left]. It was Maltz's novels, however, that were most heavily Marxist. He was active in the Communist Party and wrote for New Masses. Maltz served ten months for contempt.16
Samuel Ornitz, screenwriter, born in 1890, became a socialist when he was twelve, giving speeches from a soapbox on the lower east side of New York City. In 1919 he wrote a proletarian play under an assumed name for the People's Playhouse in New York City. Later in Hollywood he was active in the Communist Party, helped found the Screen Writers Guild, and was prominent in front organizations. He defended the Hitler-Stalin Pact, but became disillusioned with Communism in 1953, the year Stalin died.17
Adrian Scott, screenwriter and producer, is spoken of by Larry Ceplair and Steven Englund in The Inquisition in Hollywood as a Communist, but I have not found reference to when he joined or left the party. With the assistance of collaborators, he managed to write prolifically for films and television during the blacklist.18
Dalton Trumbo, screenwriter, joined the Communist Party in 1943 and remained a member until 1948. He too managed to stay busy during the blacklist, winning an Oscar under an assumed name in 1956 for "The Brave One." (In 1975 the Oscar was presented to him in person by the president of the Academy, in line with the celebration of the Hollywood Ten by the film culture after the late 1960s.)19
Others who were blacklisted.
The Waldorf Statement's expression of intent not to hire Communists led to a large number of other people's being included in the ban, especially after the hearings of 1951-54. Without attempting more than a sample, here are some of them:
Martin Berkeley was a Communist screenwriter who first denied being a Communist but later became a friendly witness, testifying in 1951 about 162 others who were active in the party. He became a leader in the anti-Communist Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals.20
Richard Collins was one of the Hollywood Nineteen but in 1950 offered the FBI his full cooperation and testified about twenty-three who had been active in the party with him.21
Lillian Hellman, said to be the first internationally- recognized woman playwright, first became active in radicalism in film-industry trade unionism. Although she always denied being a Communist Party member, there is speculation in the literature about whether she joined, and more than one admitted Communist testified that she was active in the party. It is clear that in 1930 she met Dashiell Hammett, the Communist mystery writer, and that she lived with him for several years. She wrote the movie "North Star" in 1942 that idealized a Soviet collective farm. In 1938 she had signed a New Masses advertisement supporting Stalin's purge trials, and she endorsed the Soviet invasion of Finland. She is a hero to the Left for the letter she wrote to the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952 claiming that as a matter of conscience she could not name others who had been party members. When she appeared before the committee, she invoked the Fifth Amendment provision against self-incrimination to avoid answering about herself or others. Since the 1960s she has been considered one of the celebrities of the period; and she was honored for her play "Toys in the Attic" and with a National Book Award. She died in 1984. Paul Johnson, in his book Intellectuals, acknowledges her talent, but otherwise has little good to say about her, summarizing that "disregard for the truth" was "central to her life."22
Arthur Miller, playwright, repeated Lillian Hellman's arguments almost verbatim when he refused to testify.23
Paul Jarrico wrote "Song of Russia" and was the producer of "Salt of the Earth," described as a "militant verite labor film." An article in Film Comment says that he was "reputedly second-in- command to John Howard Lawson of the Hollywood section of the Communist Party."24
Larry Parks, the actor who played Al Jolson in "The Jolson Story," was the first of the "unfriendly witnesses" to admit he was a Communist and to testify cooperatively.25
Although the "blacklisting" is made the central issue in the literature, what also seems striking is the media support for the Communists and the extent that the ban was broken by behind-the- scenes collaboration by leftists and "liberals" in the industry.
Lillian Hellman said in her autobiography that "the press was, in general, very good."26 Lester Cole tells in his autobiography about the editorial support he received from the Washington Post, Chicago Times, and New York Times during the 1947 hearings. "The press didn't let us down."27
This same phenomenon in the 1960s was a key to the tactical successes of the New Left: a virtual monopoly of intellectual and moral articulation on the left, putting the militants in a favorable light, while the "silent majority" of the country had very little voice. It all turned on the dominance of the alienated intellectual culture.
The condonation by "liberals" and other leftists was apparent in many ways. In 1941 the Daily Worker serialized Dalton Trumbo's anti-war novel, but this overt Communist connection didn't keep him from becoming one of the highest paid writers in the film industry. In 1947 MGM signed a contract with Lester Cole one day after he received his subpoena. In 1956 a vice president of the Screen Writers Guild accepted an Oscar for Trumbo under the pseudonym he had used, fabricating a story that the author was with his wife, who had supposedly just given birth.28 And John Howard Lawson's being in jail didn't keep a friend from securing him the job of adapting "Cry, the Beloved Country" to the screen.29
A "liberal" friend arranged television assignments for Ring Lardner, Jr., in Britain while the blacklist was on. And Adrian Scott became executive assistant to the head of the British division of MGM.30
The anti-Communists in Hollywood
There were a number of people in Hollywood--such as Gary Cooper, Walt Disney, Adolphe Menjou, Ronald Reagan, Robert Taylor, John Wayne and Sam Woods--who opposed Communist penetration of the industry. These came eventually to include several who originally were Communists themselves.
Blacklist against anti-Communists.
In her book The Passion of Ayn Rand, Barbara Branden tells how "considerable pressure was brought to bear on the anti- Communist witnesses to prevent them from testifying. Many of them were told, tacitly or openly, that cooperation with the committee would be professionally damaging to them." She says that "everyone who had testified for the committee--not the big stars, but the lesser-known actors and writers...lost their jobs."31
John Cogley's book Report on Blacklisting says "the 'blacklisting of anti-Communists' was highly informal." He adds that "there seems little doubt that Communist Party members in Hollywood, during this period,...exploited their close relationship to, and influence over, producers to discourage them from hiring anti-Communists."32
Don Feder, writing in the conservative journal Human Events, says that "Morrie Ryskind, screenwriter for several Marx brothers movies, told how the Reds smeared such anti-Communist actors as Adolphe Menjou, accusing them of being anti-Semites or Nazis. There were death threats against those who opposed them...Ronald Reagan...took to wearing a gun in self-defense."33
Joseph Farah has written in National Review that "it was the Communists themselves who first instituted censorship and blacklisting in the movie industry. Lardner, for instance, was among a group that circulated a petition at MGM to halt production on a film whose political content they disagreed with. Trumbo once boasted in a bylined article in the Communist Worker that agents within the industry were able to spike 'reactionary' and anti-Soviet scripts."34
This blacklist continues even today, long after the leftists have returned to the industry. Harold Johnson, a writer for the Orange County Register, told in early 1993 about how an interviewer made actress Shannen Doherty "sweat BB's" because she led the Pledge of Allegiance at the 1992 Republican national convention. When Michael Medved was about to write his book on leftist domination of today's film industry he was sternly warned of the consequences: "You're going to become the most hated man in Hollywood."35
I wouldn't want to be understood as posing a moral equivalency between shutting out anti-Communists and closing the doors to Communists--any more than I would between anti-Nazis and Nazis. An equivalence would again be based on the moral inversion and on the double standard that embraces a benign view of Communism.
Victory by the Left: its eventual domination of film and of American culture
Despite the denials based on the sophistry I have mentioned, Communist propaganda made its way into many films in the 1930s and 1940s. Talking in his autobiography about the movie "Liberty" in 1936, Lester Cole says "I saw an opportunity for a politically oriented subtext, which eventually took over...The desperate farmers and cannery workers get together, form a cooperative, illegally take over the cannery, and start production on their own. The conflict, of course, is with the big corporation...." He says that Herbert Yates at Republic reacted by ordering, "put that Communist sh*t on the shelf. We're not releasing it." Nevertheless, the film was later put into distribution to the "high praise" of the trade papers.36
Cole says that "in 1937, a truly revolutionary film appeared: a Warner Brothers production of 'The Life of Zola'...It held nothing back. The power elite and the military were mercilessly exposed as corrupt tyrants, immoral, deceitful and willing to go to the most inhuman lengths to preserve the power of the explicity described ruling class."37
He tells how two top films--"Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" and "You Can't Take It With You"--were satires about "the corporate control of the country." And he adds that "'The House of the Seven Gables,' in 1940-41, showed Northern capitalists of 1850 engaged in illegal slave trade; it was a radical bombshell." Examples could be cited at length.38
Far more important, however, has been the leftist domination of American media, and most especially of Hollywood, since the 1960s. This has not amounted to a specifically "Communist" domination, but to a heavy preponderance by the alienated Left in general. (I remember watching a television panel in Chicago in 1968, made up of representatives of radical groups, in which the Communist on the panel was described by the others as the least militantly radical among them.)
By the 1960s the American Left had itself gone through a significant transition. Right after World War II, the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) was established by "liberals" who did not want to continue the collaboration with Communists that had existed during the war and earlier during the Popular Front. They favored a clear delineation between "liberals" and Communists. Those who didn't support this threw themselves into the Progressive Citizens of America (PCA), in which Communists played a major role, and backed Henry Wallace for president in 1948.
Although an anti-Communist wing of the Democratic Party and of "liberalism" remained, as represented by Senator "Scoop" Jackson, any principled unwillingness to collaborate with Communists tended to disappear in the second half of the 1960s. Communist representatives were welcome at the "New Politics Convention," held in Chicago and keynoted by Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1967. For most of the American Left, a philosophy again took hold of "no enemies on the Left."39
Now, for at least twenty-five years, films have been produced in great numbers presenting a more and more extreme leftist worldview. Probably the best account of the several dimensions of this assault is given by Hollywood film critic Michael Medved in his 1992 book Hollywood Vs. America: Popular Culture and the War on Traditional Values.40 "Americans are passionately patriotic, and consider themselves lucky to live here," Medved says, "but Hollywood conveys a view of the nation's history, future, and major institutions that is dark, cynical, and often nightmarish." Films emphasize "every possible failing of America and its institutions."41 He devotes sections of his book to the cynicism and depravity, the attack on religion, the assault on the family, and the glorification of ugliness. In addition, he tells of the countless alienated sub-themes portraying the likes of abusive husbands, corrupt parents, criminal capitalists, hypocritical priests, and venal cops.
In fact, the dominant film culture has been carried beyond cynicism and alienation, and into depravity, becoming nothing short of pathological. The 1960s Berkeley "filthy speech" movement led directly to obscene language in most movies, including, Medved says, "in 'family fare' where it is least expected."42 An example of the pathology is the acclaimed film "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover" in 1990: "...thugs tear the clothes off a struggling, terrified victim in order to smear his naked body with excrement. They force filth into his mouth and rub it in his eyes, then pin him to the ground while the leader of the band proceeds to urinate, gleefully, all over him. The 'fun' proceeds in much the same spirit, for two all- but-unbearable hours. We see sex in a toilet stall, deep kisses and tender embraces administered to a bloody and mutilated cadaver...Naturally, the critics loved it."43 Sado-masochism, and a recent celebration of cannibalism in several films, attest to the pathology.
The anti-Christian aspect is well illustrated by the Martin Scorsese remake of "Cape Fear." Medved says "there is a new twist: the released convict is not just an ordinary maniac [as in the original version of the movie], but a 'Killer Christian from Hell.' To prevent anyone from missing the point, his muscular back has a gigantic cross tattooed on it, and he has Biblical verses tattooed on both arms. When he is about to rape the attorney's wife, played by Jessica Lange, he says, 'Are you ready to be born again?'"44
Many of today's films build on the "politically correct" themes insisted on by the Left. For example, "At Play in the Fields of the Lord" is, Medved says, a "rainforest spectacle about natives and their wholesome primitive ways and the sick, disgusting missionaries who try to ruin their lives."45
There is no substitute for reading Medved's book in full, although that will be more important for members of future generations than it is for our contemporaries who can readily think of examples from the films they've seen. Those who are unaware of the propaganda assault and the pathology are those who wish not to see it; many Americans live in a state of denial and are conditioned not to acknowledge that anything (other than conservatism) is "ideological." They let the propaganda wash over them, becoming the ideational medium within which they live.
Their silence, though, doesn't tell the whole story. Many Americans act toward films in the same way the "silent majority" acts toward many things, which is by avoidance rather than by confrontation (just as with "white flight" they left the inner cities and are now leaving California). American film viewers have been "voting with their feet" during all of this period of ideological excess. Medved points out that the depravity is not a response to public demand, but just the opposite. Films would make far more money if they were wholesome, not depraved. He analyzes the statistics about film attendance, and shows that such variables as television, home video, and cable account for only part of the enormous drop in film attendance. A major decline coincided with the New Left takeover in the late 1960s: "Weekly attendance figures plummeted from 44 million in 1965 to a pathetic 17.5 million in 1969"--and the viewers have never returned. "Between 1965 and 1969 the values of the entertainment industry changed, and audiences fled from the theaters in horror and disgust."46 It is commonplace to say that the public demands 'R rated' movies, but in fact attendance figures show that it is the 'G' and 'PG' films, with far less cynicism and depravity, that succeed at the box office. The Hollywood Left is, as the saying goes, "cutting off its nose [at least financially] to spite its face." Ideology, and acceptance by ones peers in the intellectual-cultural community, are far more important to it than money.
A profoundly alienated intellectual culture: for several decades far more pervasive than "Communism."
A central fact about western civilization since 1820 has been the alienation of its predominant intellectual-artistic culture from mainstream society, which has been middle class and primarily oriented toward "classical liberal" values and a market economy. The eventual rise of Nazism and Communism as secular religions during the twentieth century related closely to this alienation, and would have been impossible without it. As large as the Communist movement was, it was merely a subset of the more pervasive phenomenon of alienation within the intellectual and artistic community.
The alienation was expressed in literature and the arts well before the twentieth century, but anyone wishing to understand the condition of American culture since the mid-1960s should pay particular attention to the Dadaist movement that occurred immediately after World War I. Better than anything else, it shows the use of art and culture by the Left for extremity and demolition.
Kenneth Coutts-Smith, in his book Dada, quotes Tzara, one of the founders of Dadaism, as saying that the movement's beginnings "were not the beginnings of art, but of disgust." "The most obvious aspects of Dada, particularly in its early days," Coutts- Smith says, "was a savage anarchism, a deliberate programme devised to undermine the moral and social assumptions of existing middleclass society." He refers to "a week of concerts at the London Coliseum, which performances were a great success in avant-garde terms, bewildering and provoking a hostile audience." He tells also of a 1920 exhibition in which "a great deal of planning went into the arrangement of the exhibition in order to produce the maximum amount of shock, scandal and social consternation. A site was found...in a covered courtyard behind a cafe. The only entrance was through a public lavatory, and the audience...was confronted by a room full of bizarre objects...The exhibition was opened by a young girl dressed as for her first communion who suddenly began to recite obscene verses."47
There is a direct link between this and the 1960s New Left antics of an Abbie Hoffman and a Jerry Rubin. It was the precursor of the type of "art" in the 1980s that involved a crucifix submerged in a jar of urine, and of the extreme cynicism and depravity of today's film. All are related. They stem from an intellectual-artistic culture that takes pleasure in extremity and demolition--and in offending the middle class.
From this we see that when the House Committee on Un- American Activities sought contempt proceedings against ten Hollywood screenwriters in the late 1940s, the event "barely scratched the surface" of the larger phenomenon.
"Liberals" have long argued that the real target of the House Committee, of Senator Joseph McCarthy later, and of other "anti-Communists," was "liberalism" itself. Such a charge isn't true; it was Communists, specifically defined as members of the party, that in fact were the targets. Conservatives and "anti- Communists" went far out of their way to differentiate. This was partly because they feared recriminations if they failed to, and partly because our Constitutional protection of "freedom of speech," in which they fully believed, allows someone to hate our way of life and to say so.
As we look back, however, there is no reason for us to limit our understanding. The reason the Left has been able to dominate American culture, including film, since the 1960s is rooted in the fact that American intellectual culture was profoundly leftist from early in the century, and even, to a high degree, for a century before that. There was an enormous wave of alienation, especially during the "Red Decade" of the 1930s, and those who actually went so far as to join the Communist Party were just a fraction of the flood.
The problem has been, and remains, a civilizational one: how can a society of free individuals come to have an intellectual culture, including an art and a literature, suitable to itself? Throughout the modern age, this has been lacking, as the intellectual culture has festered in its envy and resentment.
The Hollywood Communists were the hard-core
Let's shift now from a very broad arena to one that is far more narrow, and ask just how much sympathy the Hollywood Communists, including the "Hollywood Ten," deserve."
I have already suggested that they deserve none,and that they would receive none if it were not for the double standard that has for so many decades induced a sanguine view of Communism. But I have covered that, and what remains is for us to note that American Communists of the late 1940s and early 1950s weren't even typical of the intellectuals who felt so strong an infatuation with the Soviet Union during the 1920s and 1930s. Instead, they were the "hard core" of devotees who remained loyal to a totalitarian system long after its totalitarian nature and gross brutality became clear. They, especially, deserve no sympathy. Most assuredly they do not deserve to be considered heroes.
Many felt qualms about Communism at the beginning of the Stalin purge trials, as one after another of the old Bolsheviks were paraded before a farce of a trial and then shot. These were people who were known to the many American "liberals" who had made pilgrimages to Soviet Russia.
A few allowed themselves to hear of the slaughter of the "kulaks" (originally defined as "the more prosperous peasants," but who, as the slaughter went on, came to include all peasants) in the Ukraine and elsewhere--and began to feel a shudder. Successive shudders came with later Stalinist liquidations, such as the late-1930s purge of the generals.
Many on the left began to have doubts when Stalin exiled Leon Trotsky, one of the heroes of the Bolshevik Revolution. The world Left set up international tribunals to inquire into this in-house conflict. The philosopher John Dewey headed the American subcommission. The final chapter of this drama came when Stalin had Trotsky murdered with an ice pick in Mexico City in 1940.
Others left with great bitterness when they found that in Spain during the Spanish Civil War the Communists were killing the anarchists--at a time when both were thought to be allied together against General Franco. This is what turned John Dos Passos around; he lost a friend to the liquidation.
Most jolting was the Hitler-Stalin Pact of August 1939, which marked an abrupt about-face after years of Popular Front activity against Hitler. This prompted many people to leave the Communist Party. Defections continued as the Soviet Union joined Germany in the attack on Poland, and within a few months attacked Finland and the Baltic states, swallowing the latter.
Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 and America's subsequent alliance with Stalin helped anesthetize these grounds for defection. But the Duclos Letter in May 1945 made it clear that Soviet respectability was temporary.
The fall of the Iron Curtain was followed in quick succession by the Soviet devouring of Eastern Europe, the Communist attempt to conquer Greece, the Berlin Blockade, the "Lysenko Affair" in which the Soviet Union scandalized the scientific world by trying to impose an ideological straight- jacket onto genetics, the Hiss-Chambers case, the Klaus Fuchs and Judith Coplon cases, the fall of China to Mao, the North Korean attack on South Korea and the intervention of Red China into the war, the Rosenberg case, Krushchev's "secret speech" revealing Stalin's crimes...and on and on.
Anyone who has read the journals of that period is aware that those who still remained Communists in the late 1940s and early 1950s were in no sense naive and innocent. They were the people with cast-iron stomachs.
The "Culture War" -- today's context for the struggle
Why does the "Hollywood Blacklist" matter today? Because it has become part of the folklore of the Left, which promotes its own demonology. From such allegations as "the brutal slaughter of Native Americans at Wounded Knee, the [so-called] internment of the Japanese-Americans during World War II, the Hollywood Blacklist, and the killings at Kent State," we are encouraged to form a cynical, demoralized memory of America's past.
1. See my discussion of this double standard in Liberalism in Contemporary America (McLean, VA: Council for Social & Economic Studies, 1992), 240-42.
2. Lester Cole, Hollywood Red: The Autobiography of Lester Cole (Palo Alto, CA: Ramparts Press, 1981), 267.
3. The Waldorf Statement is quoted in full in John Cogley, Report on Blacklisting--I: Movies (New York: Arno Press & The New York Times, 1972), 22-23.
4. Ibid., 110.
5. Such denials of impact on film content can be found, for example, in Cole, Hollywood Red, 159; in Larry Ceplair and Steven Englund, The Inquisition in Hollywood: Politics in the Film Community, 1930-1960 (Garden City, NY: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1980), 324; and in Cogley Report, 42.
6. This approach, looking for distinctively "Communist" content reflecting the "party line" at points at which it differed from the views of leftists in general, was taken by Dorothy B. Jones in her "Communism and the Movies: A Study in Film Content," which is included in Cogley, Report, as an appendix, pages 196-233.
7. The phases through which the "party line" passed are summarized by Dorothy B. Jones in Cogley, Report, at 205. The history relating to the Duclos Letter is set out by Ceplair and Englund in the Inquisition in Hollywood, 232.
8. Cogley, Report, 24.
9. Cole, Hollywood Red, 249; Cogley, Report, 28.
10. Bernard F. Dick, Radical Innocence: A Critical Study of the Hollywood Ten (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1989), 230-31.
11. Ibid., 70, 71, 73, 75, 77.
12. Ibid., 29, 233; Cole, Hollywood Red, 14, 25, 37, 137-38, 171, 349, 364, 407.
13. Dick, Radical Innocence, 149.
14. Interview with Lardner in Film Comment, October 1988, 60-61; Dick, Radical Innocence, 166-68; Film Comment interview, 69.
15. Dick, Radical Innocence, 45, 58, 238; Gary Carr, The Left Side of Paradise: The Screenwriting of John Howard Lawson (Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1984), 63, 70, 82, x.
16. Dick, Radical Innocence, 82, 86, 103.
17. Ibid., 12, 25.
18. Ceplair and Englund, Inquisition, 73; Dick, Radical Innocence, 243.
19. Dick, Radical Innocence, 205, 244-45.
20. Cogley, Report, 96.
21. Ibid., 83; Dick, Radical Innocence, 151.
22. Paul Johnson, Intellectuals (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1988), 288, 290, 294, 296, 299, 300; Lillian Hellman, Scoundrel Time (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1976), 43, 99.
23. Hellman, Scoundrel Time, 33.
24. Article by Pat McGilligan, "Tender Comrades," Film Comment, December 1987, 45.
25. Cogley, Report, 77.
26. Hellman, Scoundrel Time, 112.
27. Cole, Hollywood Red, 279, 282.
28. Ibid., 201, 269; Dick, Radical Innocence, 205.
29. Carr, Left Side, 89.
30. Dick, Radical Innocence, 177.
31. Barbara Branden, The Passion of Ayn Rand (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1986), 200, 202.
32. Cogley, Report, 32, 33.
33. Don Feder, "'Guilty By Suspicion' Rewrites History of Hollywood Subversion," Human Events, April 20, 1991, 10.
34. Joseph Farah, "The Real Blacklist," National Review, October 27, 1989, 43.
35. The article by Harold Johnson of the Orange County Register appeared in the Wichita Eagle on March 15, 1993.
36. Cole, Hollywood Red, 147-49.
37. Ibid., 164.
38. Ibid., 165-66, 172.
39. For a discussion of the New Politics Convention and the role of Communists in it, see my article "Martin Luther King, Jr.: Time for a Sobering Reassessment," Conservative Review, February 1991, 18-22.
40. Michael Medved, Hollywood Vs. America: Popular Culture and the War on Traditional Values (New York: HarperCollins, 1992).
41. Ibid., 10, 29.
42. Ibid., 10.
43. Ibid., 19.
44. Michael Medved, "Hollywood's Poison Factory: Making It the Dream Factory Again," Imprimus, November 1992.
46. Medved, Hollywood Vs. America, 277, 279.
47. Kenneth Coutts-Smith, Dada (New York: E. P. Dutton and Co., Inc., 1970), 21, 22, 48, 116-17.