I thought Lillian Hellman was dead. It must be her ghost, then, that’s haunting—and writing—at History.com. How else does one explain this “This Day in History” post this week?
On October 20, 1947, the notorious Red Scare kicks into high gear in Washington, as a Congressional committee begins investigating Communist influence in one of the world’s richest and most glamorous communities: Hollywood. […]
In Washington, conservative watchdogs worked to out communists in government before setting their sights on alleged “Reds” in the famously liberal movie industry. In an investigation that began in October 1947, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) grilled a number of prominent witnesses, asking bluntly “Are you or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” Whether out of patriotism or fear, some witnesses—including director Elia Kazan, actors Gary Cooper and Robert Taylor and studio honchos Walt Disney and Jack Warner—gave the committee names of colleagues they suspected of being communists.
A small group known as the “Hollywood Ten” resisted, complaining that the hearings were illegal and violated their First Amendment rights. They were all convicted of obstructing the investigation and served jail terms. Pressured by Congress, the Hollywood establishment started a blacklist policy. […] Those blacklisted included composer Aaron Copland, writers Dashiell Hammett, Lillian Hellman and Dorothy Parker, playwright Arthur Miller and actor and filmmaker Orson Welles. […]
Starting in the early 1960s, after the downfall of Senator Joseph McCarthy, the most public face of anti-communism, the ban began to lift slowly. In 1997, the Writers’ Guild of America unanimously voted to change the writing credits of 23 films made during the blacklist period, reversing—but not erasing—some of the damage done during the Red Scare.
This is incredibly frustrating. It’s maddening. As one historian friend emailed me, “What an idiotic piece.” Another wrote, “at least they didn’t imply that Joe McCarthy was in HUAC.” I suppose so.
The History.com entry revives old leftist canards that historians of this period (such as myself) hoped had been vanquished. Apparently not. The left still dominates the media and academia, and continues to perpetuate its ideologically driven caricatures. No matter what we write, I guess it doesn’t impact certain quarters. And this quarter, History.com, is an influential one. A check of its Alexa ranking lists it at 1,700 among American websites. That’s high.
So what’s wrong with this particular “This Day in History” post? Adequately answering that here is impossible. As quick recommendations for in-depth reading, I suggest readers consult my book Dupes, specifically the chapters on Hollywood, the superb Red Star Over Hollywood by Ron and Allis Radosh, Kenneth Lloyd Billingsley’s Hollywood Party, and the lesser-known Communism in Hollywood by Alan Casty. That said, here are a few observations.
The formal name of “HUAC” wasn’t “HUAC.” “HUAC” was a mis-ordered acronym cooked up by Communist Party USA, the Daily Worker, and the left generally, intended to frame the congressional committee itself as “un-American.” The committee was actually called the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HCUAA), because it investigated activities that were unquestionably un-American. More than that, it investigated not so much “un-American” activities as pro-Soviet, pro-Stalin activities. And it was staffed not by extremist “conservatives” pushing a “Red Scare” and “setting their sights” upon innocent “liberals,” but by Democrats and Republicans alike. In fact, HCUAA was founded by and chaired throughout most of its existence by Democrats. There was a bipartisan awareness that domestic communism, led by the Soviet-directed and funded Communist Party USA (CPUSA), was a clear concern. The forces who attempted to argue otherwise were CPUSA members publicly masquerading as “progressives.” These members, who were hardened and active Soviet patriots, sought to mislead and dupe the wider liberal left and general public.
As to some of the specific individuals named in the History.com piece, Arthur Miller was once a small “c” communist and almost certainly a Party member. Congress secured and published a copy of his CPUSA membership application card (which I republished in Dupes). Miller wrote for and was prominent in publications like New Masses and the Daily Worker, which adored his work and gave away his books as special gift offerings in exchange for subscription purchases. The Daily Worker wrote a gushing review of Miller’s hysterical left-wing morality play, The Crucible, an allegory of the “HUAC” hearings, painting congressmen investigating American Stalinists as “witch-hunters.”
As for Dashiell Hammett, the mystery writer doubled as Lillian Hellman’s “lover.” The two were an item on the intellectual left. CPUSA recently finally admitted that Hammett in fact had been a Party member. It was hardly a surprise.
As for Elia Kazan, he had been a former Party member, and realized it was a grave mistake. He wanted the world to know that communist penetration in Hollywood was real and that Party members were committed to a horrific system that was murdering people by the millions. As they privately professed and battled for such a system, Hollywood’s communists publicly proclaimed that they were just good-hearted “progressives” being viciously harassed by the “fascists” at “HUAC.”
As to Arthur Miller’s invoking the Salem witch trials, Kazan’s wife, Molly, a liberal anti-communist, objected: “Those witches did not exist. Communists do. Here, and everywhere in the world. It’s a false parallel. Witch hunt! No one who was in the Party … uses that phrase. They know better.”
Lillian and Dashiell knew better. Elia Kazan described Lillian as a “coiled snake.”
Kazan, like so many ex-communists, knew intimately well what a bunch of brutal smear-mongers these people were. Some were not only Stalinists in loyalty and ideology, but in temperament, tactics, and their ruthless enforcement of Party discipline. They had no compunction about destroying the reputations of colleagues who weren’t communists but who they could cynically exploit.
Speaking of whom, as to History.com’s small group of resistance fighters who comprised the Hollywood Ten, here’s what actually happened 66 years ago this week.
By October 1947, Congress finally woke up and smelled the obvious: communists had infiltrated the motion-picture industry. Among the ringleaders were screenwriters John Howard Lawson, Dalton Trumbo, Alvah Bessie, and Albert Maltz—four of History.com’s “alleged Reds” in the Hollywood Ten. All four were, in fact, guilty as charged, but they assured their liberal friends that they weren’t.
Trumbo and Lawson were especially militant in their Party work. In 1946, Trumbo had declared that “every screenwriter worth his salt wages the battle in his own way—a kind of literary guerrilla warfare.” Spearheading the warfare was Lawson, a plainly miserable and mean individual known as “Hollywood’s commissar.” In his book Film in the Battle of Ideas, published by the communist house Masses & Mainstream, Lawson ordered his comrades: “As a writer do not try to write an entire Communist picture, [but] try to get five minutes of communist doctrine, five minutes of the party line in every script that you write.” “It is your duty,” he instructed his fellow Soviet patriots, “to further the class struggle by your performance.”
This was precisely the advice that the Soviet Comintern and CPUSA had given to American communists to best deliver propaganda. The goal was to exploit a legitimate medium, a reputable non-communist one (i.e., Hollywood movies), as a platform to disseminate a communist message.
Such work was firmly in keeping with the loyalty oath that CPUSA members had sworn to Stalin’s Soviet Union. The oath went like this: “I pledge myself to rally the masses to defend the Soviet Union, the land of victorious socialism. I pledge myself to remain at all times a vigilant and firm defender of the Leninist line of the Party, the only line that insures the triumph of Soviet Power in the United States.”
That was what Hollywood communists had sworn to fight for: victory for Stalin’s Russia. They wanted a “Soviet America,” or “United Soviet States of America” (USSA).
Thus, the U.S. Congress, which also swore a loyalty oath—that is, to protect and serve the United States of America, not Stalin’s Russia—figured maybe it ought to ask Hollywood’s Stalinists some questions.
And when that happened in October 1947, all hell broke loose. The political left went nuts, prodded by the closet communists. They publicly attacked and vilified the congressmen as “fascists,” as heirs to Hitler, as “Nazis,” as “bigots,” as “racists.” The trusting liberals had faith in their accused “progressive” friends; they believed them, just as History.com seems to today.
The accused screenwriters rallied genuine Hollywood liberals/progressives to their side in a PR campaign that framed the congressmen as literal Nazi storm troopers and, on the flip side, painted themselves as the living embodiment of Madison and Jefferson. Appealing to good old-fashioned American civil liberties, they wrapped themselves not in the Soviet flag but the American flag.
For the record, among the communists who pushed that Party line was Frank Marshall Davis, a card-carrying CPUSA member (card no. 47544) and later mentor to the current president of the United States of America, Barack Obama. Davis advanced this propaganda in the pages of his communist Chicago Star, of which he was the founding editor-in-chief.
But back to what happened: This week 66 years ago, in late October 1947, a group of high-profile liberal/progressive actors, writers, and producers organized a major public-relations trip to Washington to defend the accused, who had been summoned to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. After consulting with the accused, they called their group the “Committee for the First Amendment.” It was shrewd PR. Right on cue, the Constitution lovers at the Daily Worker jumped on board, with page-one headlines touting Hollywood’s noble “Bill-of-Rights Tour.”
The liberal/progressive stars who enlisted in the communists’ campaign ran into the hundreds, from Katherine Hepburn to Henry Fonda to Gregory Peck. Making the trip all the way to Washington were huge faces from Hollywood’s Golden Age: Danny Kaye, Ira Gershwin, Judy Garland, John Garfield, Sterling Hayden, Gene Kelly, Burt Lancaster, John Huston, Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart.
When the celebrities got to the nation’s capital, however, they got quite a surprise. Congress wasn’t imagining witches that didn’t exist. Congressional investigators presented literal stacks of evidence again the Hollywood Ten: CPUSA registration rolls, Daily Worker articles, New Masses bylines, front group memberships, party applications, forms, cards, checks. For each of these poor, embattled “progressives,” Congress shared not only membership in dozens of notorious front groups but CPUSA membership numbers: John Howard Lawson, no. 47275; Dalton Trumbo, no. 47187; Alvah Bessie, no. 46836; Albert Maltz, no. 47196.
They were guilty as hell. At least nine of the 10 (if not all of them) were or had been Party members. They had sworn the loyalty oath to Uncle Joe and Mother Russia.
The non-communist liberal members of the Committee for the First Amendment were stunned and betrayed. They realized they had been lied to, with no concern by the communists for their reputation or well-being. A furious Humphrey Bogart snapped: “You f—ers sold me out!”
They sure had. And it was a big-time Hollywood sell-out performance that communists would perform again and again, always game for an encore—and always with more liberal suckers ready and willing to swallow their lies. There’s a new sucker born every minute.
That brings me back to History.com and its “notorious Red Scare.” What happened was notorious all right, but not for the reasons the left still is not correctly educated about. If liberals today peddle the Lillian Hellman version of the story, shame on them.
The British historian Paul Johnson unforgettably said of Ms. Hellman, “There are lies, damned lies, and Lillian Hellman.” Indeed, the growling, scowling Stalin apologist advanced some whoppers in her time. I trust that the folks at History.com are not so angry and dishonest. I’m sure they want to get things right—not always a high priority of Madam Hellman, her “mystery” lover, and their comrades. The History.com folks might want to initiate an exorcism.
Let’s get this history right. Let’s see History.com get this history right.