From the October 24, 2007 New York Sun
October 30, 2007
by Ronald Radosh
On Friday, Hollywood will once again celebrate the supposed legacy and heroism of the Hollywood Ten. In 1947, the House Committee on Un-American Activities began its hearings on the infiltration of communists in the film industry by subpoenaing a group of accused communist screenwriters. The so-called Ten — Dalton Trumbo, Ring Lardner Jr., and their less well-known colleagues — refused to testify about their affiliations and beliefs, invoking the First Amendment. The courts ruled against these "unfriendly witnesses," and all were sentenced to prison.
Since that time, Hollywood has told the story of the Ten's heroism over and over. A decade ago, Tinseltown held a gala 50th anniversary event along with a museum exhibit that in essence was the film industry's apologia to those it had deprived of livelihoods decades earlier. The events planned this year seek once again to give the old myths new life. Today's sponsors are taking the name of the Committee for the First Amendment, originally used in 1947 by a naïve and short-lived group of liberals who, not realizing the Ten were actually communists, came to their defense. Now they are adding '47/'07 to the group's name. At the Skirball Center in Los Angeles, they will re-enact a radio program first aired 60 years ago, "Hollywood Fights Back," in which Judy Garland, Humphrey Bogart, Danny Kaye, and others warned about the coming of repression. This Friday, the script will be read by Ed Asner, Larry Gelbart, Camryn Manheim, Christopher Trumbo (Trumbo's son), James Whitmore, and others.
It is not enough for them that Hollywood and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences formally asked forgiveness a decade ago. Now they want Congress to offer a formal apology, and in Los Angeles, they want a star honoring the Ten added to Hollywood's Walk of Fame at the old Grauman's Chinese Theater. Finally, they want a special Oscar to be handed out at next year's Academy Awards honoring all those who were blacklisted.
Throughout, the Ten have been depicted as valiant fighters for freedom and democracy who martyred themselves on behalf of basic American principles. The bad guys were the Hollywood studios who fired them and the congressmen who investigated them. Worst of all were those in the industry who broke ranks and testified against them before HUAC as "friendly witnesses," naming the names of their old associates as communists. As always, a simple black-and-white fairy tale.
Most certainly the blacklist harmed the careers of many in Hollywood, some of them talented, others less so. Billy Wilder once joked that of the "unfriendly witnesses," only two were talented; the rest were just unfriendly. They all suffered, some more than others. But for the Ten, the blacklist was a godsend. HUAC, with its crude anti-communism, gave the communists a new life. Without HUAC, they never would have been able to cast themselves as defenders of democracy.
It allowed them to reinvent themselves not just as victims but as heroes, for refusing to cooperate with HUAC rather than revealing what they really were: the most committed of the Communist Party faithful, die-hard defenders of one of the great totalitarian regimes of the last century. As the critic Richard Schickel puts it, "the unapologetic defenders of a deadly doctrine have been transformed into martyrs to liberal belief — which none of them embraced in their day." Throughout their active years in Hollywood, the Ten defended every twist and turn of the party line, going from anti-fascists to peace activists overnight when the Nazi-Soviet Pact was announced. They also supported the Soviet invasion of Finland and were silent about, or approved, the Great Purge trials of the 1930s.
The Ten swore their allegiance to Stalin and justified and supported the worst murders and crimes committed by the Soviet Union. As Trumbo himself acknowledged, he was not shocked by Khrushchev's revelations, at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party in 1956, of Stalin's crimes over the decades. Trumbo knew the truth years earlier. His own library had the works of Koestler, Orwell, Gide, even Whittaker Chambers. Yet he never said a word about the truth, and defended what he knew was indefensible. The Ten regarded the real enemy as America and its "fascist" foreign policy; Stalin may have been evil, but they considered him on the right side of history.
By the time HUAC got to them, the communists and fellow travelers in Hollywood had actually been collapsing; their once warm welcome had dried up. Liberals such as Melvyn Douglas and Ronald Reagan knew them for what they were, and led an effective fight against them within the industry. Stars like Olivia de Havilland broke with the party's main wartime front group, and spoke out publicly about the Soviet-created Cold War and about the need for liberals to have nothing to do with communists. There could be no unity, she said, with those "who are more interested in taking orders from Moscow and following the so-called Party line."
Many of the "friendly witnesses" who cooperated with HUAC, men such as Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg, had learned from their own life experience that if the communists succeeded, America could end up like the Soviet Union. They knew how communist commissars kept their members in line, denying them their freedom of speech and keeping them from supporting any position not approved by Moscow.
In the 1950s the Hollywood communists argued that the Soviet threat was merely an excuse for the Truman administration to militarize America and gain hegemony in Europe, and that it was time to mobilize for "peace" and to appease the Soviets. Today's celebrants of the Ten mean, as one of their supporters has written, to show the Ten's "relevance vis-à-vis repression in our own age; the Patriot Act … mass detentions, preventive war, and other 'homeland security' measures."
Then and now, their message is the same: The threat is at home from our own government. Decades ago they saw communism as benign; today, Islamofascism is a myth created by our own government to oppress the rest of the world.
When will today's Hollywood get it?
Ronald Radosh is an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute; Prof. Emeritus of History at the City University of New York, and the author of many books, including "The Rosenberg File;" "Divided They Fell: The Demise of the Democratic Party, 1964-1996," and most recently, "Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left."
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