Swans Commentary » swans.com August 1, 2005  



Defenders Of The Witch Hunt
R. & A. Radosh's Red Star Over Hollywood


by Charles Marowitz


Book Review



Radosh, Ronald and Allis; Red Star Over Hollywood: The Film Colony's Long Romance With The Left, Encounter Books, 2005, ISBN: 1-893-55496-1, 292 pages (hardcover), $25.95


(Swans - August 1, 2005)   A few years back, when I was being interviewed for a position at The New School in New York, the conversation drifted around to the McCarthy years. My interviewer asked whether during that troubled period I had ever been "investigated by the Committee." Had I been able to answer in the affirmative, he implied, it would haven been a strong mark in my favor. Had I been forced into exile, unemployment, and penury as a result of having my political convictions publicly put into question, it would have been a glowing qualification.

As it happens, I was too young to have been sucked into the moral quicksand of those times but I was forcibly struck by the fact that victimization would have considerably increased my chances of getting the job. Whether I had been a Communist spy working in the employ of the Kremlin or just a bleeding heart liberal didn't really matter. Just having been roughed up by aggressive members of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), would have conferred distinction. The victims of the past, it was suddenly made clear to me, had become the martyrs of the present. The cloud of distrust that once hovered over their heads had turned into halos.

In the 1950s, having been a friendly witness before HUAC was tantamount to being a traitor to the working class. Those that were coerced into "naming names" were permanently scarred. When, in 1999, Elia Kazan, the most notorious of all the "cooperative witnesses" was awarded a Lifetime Achievement award by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, he was given the stony, silent treatment by many in that audience and outraged articles followed in the wake of the event. Nothing in Kazan's astonishing artistic achievements, not On The Waterfront, A Streetcar Named Desire, nor the staging of Death of a Salesman could possibly counteract the label of "traitor" which stalwarts of the Left had pinned on him.

Ronald and Allis Radosh's book Red Star Over Hollywood forces us to reassess some of the passionate judgments meted out during and after the period of The Great Witch Hunt. The authors charitably point out that Kazan, who had been awakened to the dogmatic, even fascistic methods of the Communist Party, was in a genuine moral quandary since he had come to loathe the totalitarian character of the Party but was conscious that by naming names, he would be committing an unforgivable ethical breach. Dalton Trumbo, in many ways the most contemplative and self-searching of the Hollywood Ten, realized that playing the martyr only gave vigor and purpose to the blacklist and he rationalized his way out of Communist dogma and into a stance that was both discerning and pragmatic. For a long time, he beat the blacklist by furnishing scripts under various pseudonyms and was eventually "outed" when Otto Preminger in Exodus and Kirk Douglas in Spartacus acknowledged him as the screenwriter of both those films.

The inference smoldering beneath a good deal of the Radoshes' Red Star Over Hollywood is that, far from being dupes, misguided liberals, naïve utopians or compassionate idealists, most of the people hauled up before the House Un-American Activities Committee were staunch, clear-eyed, conspiratorial Communists bent on realizing the agenda of Joseph Stalin, furthering the goals of the Soviet Union and insinuating Red propaganda in the films into which they had cleverly inveigled themselves. HUAC, they would contend, was a necessary protective device in the 1940s and '50s to root out the moral rot of Marxist and Stalinist subversion. The notion that some or perhaps most of these people were motivated by a desire to enhance the conditions of working men and women, dismantle racism, and cleanse a democracy which was clearly tilted against fair play and humanist sympathy is cavalierly shrugged off.

The evidence that there were committed Communists working against the interests of the United States during World War II and afterwards is incontestable and no one can defend espionage agents or Communist moles pretending to be red-white-and-blue American patriots, but a justification of those aggressive congressional investigations, which hobbled thousands of victims through bureaucratic bungling and misplaced vigilance turning them into "Enemies of the State," is about as convincing as the fanciful idea that FDR colluded with the Emperor Hirohito to start World War II to salvage the American economy from the scourges of the Depression.

The book doesn't even begin to calculate, or try to atone for, the damage done to the innocent victims of the witch hunts whose lives were routinely destroyed, nor evaluate the repressive atmosphere the hearings generated in a democracy founded on precepts of free speech, pluralistic belief and fair play. Since we are dealing here with the consequences of "guilt by association," let me play that game with the Radoshes themselves.

Ronald Radosh is an adjunct Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute, a right-wing think tank created by Herman Kahn, the so-called "father of the hydrogen bomb" who went on to develop the Doomsday Machine. The Hudson Institute recently awarded one of its highest honors, the John Sherman Award, to Robert H. Bork, the archconservative judge and enemy of libertarianism, whose nomination to the Supreme Court was rejected by the Senate in 1987. Some of The Institute's staunchest advocates include Donald Rumsfeld, who is widely viewed as the facilitator of the Abu Ghraib torture scandals, and Elliot Abrams, who as assistant secretary under Ronald Reagan pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of lying in regard to the Iran-Contra scandal of which he was one of the major architects.

Do I therefore conclude that author Radosh is a neoconic ghoul who has a vested interest in whitewashing the evils of the House Un-American Activities Committee? A government apparatchik trying to convince us that those persons seduced by Communist doctrine in the 1930s, '40s and '50s deserve all the ignominy we can heap upon their heads? No, I do not conclude that but, reading his book, I am inescapably drawn to the conclusion that the authors have written one of the most tendentious, vindictive and equivocating accounts of a shameful period in American history; a period in which the bruising behavior of congressional vigilantes was itself part of the corruption the government ostensibly sought to expose.

In trying to prove their case about Communist infiltration in the film industry, the Radoshes trot out four or five films from the period in which, after the Nazi-Soviet Pact fell apart, Russia had become one of America's allies in the war against Hitler. He rightly describes as "risible," instances of subversion such as Lionel Stander, an avowed Communist, walking into an elevator casually whistling a few strains of The Internationale in the fluffy and forgettable 1938 comedy No Time To Marry. But he condemns the Bertolt Brecht-John Wexley film Hangmen Also Die (about the assassination of Nazi pro-consul Reynard Heydrich) for depicting members of the resistance reporting to what is referred to in the movie as "The Central Committee." A phrase which implies, writes Radosh, "that the virtuous and selfless leaders are all Communists" -- without acknowledging A) that "central committee" is a generic term and not necessarily Communist-specific, and B) that Communists were in fact very active in the Resistance movement against the Nazi occupation in Czechoslovakia. He also condemns the Warner Brothers-Humphrey Bogart film Action In the North Atlantic because it "implies that in every sense the Soviet Union was America's most notable and worthy ally." But the fact is that at the time it was government policy, encouraged by FDR himself, to create a bonding between the USA and the Soviet Union, which (incongruously) had become our ally in he war. The alliance can certainly be criticized as a contemptible, self-serving move on America's part, which, we have to remember, was fighting for its life, but to accuse "pinko" screenwriters of furthering Communist objectives that were already being promulgated in the highest echelons of the US government is an arrant and specious argument.

The most extreme distortions engendered by wartime propaganda were certainly, as Radosh rightly states, to be found in Mission To Moscow, a film dramatization of a popular memoir by Joseph Davies who was US ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1936 to 1938. But Davies personally supervised this project and approved every frame Michael Curtiz (director of Casablanca) and screenwriter Howard Koch (also of Casablanca) produced. It was unquestionably a fictionalized view of the Soviet Union intended to glorify a nation whose leader had already created the Gulag and who was responsible for exterminating hundreds of thousands of his political enemies. But it was a faithful rendition of Davies's naïve perception of the Soviet Union, which, despite being posted there for three years, he seemed to understand very little about. But it cannot be viewed as consciously-manipulated Communist propaganda since its prime mover was Davies himself -- and not the Hollywood functionaries who turned it into a movie. The main point of the pro-Soviet films of the war years was not that that they were subversive, but that they were awful -- as blatant propaganda films of any period are. To construe jerry-rigged pictures of this kind as examples of "communist infiltration" is to accept uncritically the bugaboo widely disseminated in the McCarthyite era that "there was a Red under every bed."

The most cogent, and in my view accurate, verdict on these torturous years was to be found in Dalton Trumbo's speech on March 3rd, 1970, when he received the Screen Writers' Guild highly coveted Laurel Award. He said in part: "It will do no good to search for villains or heroes or saints or devils because there were none; there were only victims. Some suffered less than others, some grew and some diminished, but in the final tally we were all victims because almost without exception each of us felt compelled to say things he did not want to say, to do things he did not want to do, to deliver and receive wounds he truly did not want to exchange. That is why none of us -- right, left, or center -- emerged from that long nightmare without sin."

Trumbo's merciful attitude to both the informers and the vigilantes who persecuted them is not one that appealed to the diehards. He was bitterly attacked by many of those whose careers had suffered from being "named" and those others, still so enthralled with Communist doctrine they interpreted anything but bitter denunciation of HUAC as an act of betrayal. But curiously, although Radosh commends Trumbo as someone who was able to look beyond the old recriminations and accept there was more ambiguity than absolutism in those issues, his book effectively scants the wounds of the witch hunts and palliates the oppression by refusing to accept that, in many cases, the so-called "crimes of the guilty" were motivated by idealism rather than treason.

The snarling, self-righteous, gavel-thumping spirit of J. Parnell Thomas, the vindictive Chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee who himself wound up serving time for misappropriation of funds and defrauding the government, is bristlingly alive in Red Star Over Hollywood.


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Radosh, Ronald and Allis; Red Star Over Hollywood: The Film Colony's Long Romance With The Left, Encounter Books, 2005, ISBN: 1-893-55496-1, 292 pages (hardcover), $25.95

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Published August 1, 2005