The Blacklist & the Cold War Revisited

by Hilton Kramer

A reprinting of Mr. Kramer’s 1976 article published in The New York Times.

I. Introduction.

Few among the intellectuals in the Party realized at the time that their mentality was a caricature of the revolutionary spirit; that within the short span of three generations the Communist movement had travelled from the era of the Apostles to that of the Borgias. But the process of degeneration had been gradual and continuous, and the seeds of corruption had already been present in the work of Marx: in the vitriolic tone of his polemics, the abuse heaped on his opponents, the denunciation of rivals and dissenters as traitors to the working class and agents of the bourgeoisie. —Arthur Koestler, The Invisible Writing

Fifty years ago this fall, the House Committee on Un-American Activities in Washington opened its famous hearings into Communist influence in Hollywood. To mark this anniversary occasion, the current Left-liberal establishment in Hollywood has thrown itself into a frenzy of commemorative events. These events are designed to honor the “victims” of the blacklist that resulted from those hearings, and reaffirm the “innocence” of the Communists and fellow travelers who remained abject in their loyalty to Stalin while refusing to acknowledge their political affiliations and beliefs. They are also designed, of course, to vilify the ex-Communists in their ranks who committed the unforgivable “crime” of telling the truth about this shameful allegiance to one of the most bloodthirsty tyrannies in this terrible century. As Patrick Goldstein wrote in an article called “Hollywood’s Blackest Hour” in the Los Angeles Times of October 9, “In today’s Hollywood, honors are given only to those who were blacklisted.”

Needless to say, in this very long article in the Los Angeles Times there was no acknowledgment of what it meant to be under Communist Party discipline in the 1930s and 1940s, and no reference, either, to the political terror and the horrors of the Gulag that Hollywood money and influence helped to support during the worst years of Stalin’s murderous reign. That it might be considered an even blacker hour in Hollywood’s history when so many of its well-heeled talents threw their support to the enemies of American democracy—the enemies, indeed, of the very freedoms that enabled Hollywood itself to prosper—was also nowhere acknowledged. Today it is openly admitted that a good many of the once famous names that were blacklisted in Hollywood half a century ago were Communists, and were thus under Party discipline when they put on their ritual show of innocence and victimhood before the House Un-American Activities Committee. But fifty years later, the actualities of the Communist movement in America have disappeared from all discussion of the blacklist.

This climate of denial is not new, of course. For at least a quarter of a century it has been a flourishing enterprise in this country, and it is to remind our readers of its earlier history and bring them up to date on the mystifications and misrepresentations now rampant in the current literature on the subject that we are reprinting here the article I wrote for The New York Times on “The Blacklist and the Cold War” on October 3, 1976, and will next month publish an article on “The Blacklist as History” by the historian Ronald Radosh.

At the time that “The Blacklist and the Cold War” was written, I was working at The New York Times as the paper’s chief art critic and art news editor. I had also served a brief stint in 1972 as the cultural news editor on the daily Times, and occasionally wrote on a broad range of other subjects for the paper. Soon after I returned from my summer vacation in 1976, one of the editors I worked with asked me to attend an advance screening of a movie called The Front, which starred Woody Allen. My editor had already seen the movie, and thought it might be something I would want to write about. When I saw the film, I understood why. It was about the blacklist, of course, and came at a time when Lillian Hellman’s Scoundrel Time was enjoying immense acclaim. No sooner had I seen The Front then I attended a screening of another film, the documentary called Hollywood on Trial about the so-called Hollywood Ten who had turned the hearings of the House Committee on Un-American Activities into even more of a circus than they already were. It was left to me, however, to write about the subject in my own way. No editor ever told me what could or could not be said in such a piece, and the article appeared exactly as I wrote it—and as it appears below.

When it was published on the front page of the Sunday Arts & Leisure section of the Times, the article caused considerable uproar. The revisionist history of the Cold War, which attributed all evil intent to President Truman—and sometimes even to Winston Churchill—and portrayed Stalin as their innocent victim, was in full flower. The radical movement of the 1960s had also brought in its wake a revisionist history of the Communist movement that had flourished in this country from the 1930s until well into the 1940s and even the 1950s. I knew several people who didn’t finally break with the Party until the Communist crackdown in Hungary in 1956. The immense power and influence on American cultural life that had been exerted by the Communist Party in the era of the Popular Front had been conveniently forgotten. It was considered bad taste to remind people of Stalin’s crimes—or, indeed, of the immense role played by Stalinism in this country’s politics and culture. It was still firmly believed by most liberals—the folks that wrote for The New Yorker, The Nation, and The New Republic, for example—that Alger Hiss was innocent. Many of those people also worked for the Times, and one of them tried to get me fired for writing “The Blacklist and the Cold War.” It was bad luck for him, however, that the editor he appealed to for my dismissal happened to be the editor who had commissioned me to write the article in the first place.

Letters pro and con poured into the Times offices for weeks, some of them quite amazing. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., for example, wrote to say that “The Blacklist and the Cold War” should be required reading for everyone under the age of forty. Alfred Kazin also wrote a letter praising the piece. But there was no shortage of letters denouncing the article, and there were a few veteran reporters in the Times newsroom who never spoke to me again. For a certain liberal mindset, to be anti-Communist was the only truly unforgivable crime.

What caused especial consternation was the reference the article makes to what I called the “other” blacklist—the blacklist drawn up by Communists in Hollywood, Broadway, book publishing, and journalism that prohibited certain anti-Communists, many of them former Party members, who had broken with the Party, from working in their industries. Everyone who worked in those fields was well aware of this phenomenon, but I may have been the first to call it a blacklist—which is what it was, of course. But then, it was in the nature of Stalinism for its followers to lie about everything that impinged upon their political allegiance. We now know, for example, that Lillian Hellman lied when she denied her own membership in the Communist Party. And those denials had a very corrupting effect on the liberals who had been induced to embrace the Stalinist view of the Cold War—Garry Wills, for an egregious example, who, as far as I know, has yet to repudiate the mendacious account of the Cold War he contributed to the Introduction to Scoundrel Time.

II. The Blacklist & the Cold War

Who would ever have dreamed, a generation ago, that the blacklist and the Hollywood Ten, the sordid proceedings of the House Un-American Activities Committee, and the political vagaries of Joe McCarthy, would one day reemerge as a form of cultural chic? But this unlikely vicissitude, which would have strained the credulity of the Truman and Eisenhower era, is now decisively upon us.

Suddenly, a revisionist history is “in,” and not only among the academic historians who, for a decade, have been laboring to persuade us that the Cold War was somehow a malevolent conspiracy of the Western democracies to undermine the benign intentions of the Soviet Union, but among filmmakers, writers, and producers. A new wave of movies, books, and television shows is assiduously turning the terrors and controversies of the late 1940s into the entertainments and bestsellers of the 1970s.

From what we have seen so far, the trend is unmistakable. The past week has brought us the opening of the new Woody Allen movie, The Front, which takes as its sometimes comic, sometimes serious theme the blacklisting of writers and actors in the television industry. Even before its release, The Front had itself become part of the “history” recounted in an ambitious new documentary movie, Hollywood on Trial, to be released later this month. We have already had a volume of letters, Additional Dialogue, by the late Dalton Trumbo, one of the Ten heroes of Hollywood on Trial, and we shall soon have a Trumbo biography by Bruce Cook. Three weeks ago, Channel 5 in New York broadcast a BBC documentary on the career of Edward R. Murrow that had as its climax the latter’s 1954 “See It Now” program on Senator McCarthy, and a new three-hour television movie about a McCarthy-like figure, directed by Jud Taylor, will be broadcast on the NBCnetwork in the spring.

Meanwhile, Lillian Hellman’s much-praised memoir of the McCarthy period, Scoundrel Time, holds a firm place on the bestseller list for the twenty-first week, and publishers have signed up Murray Kempton, Nora Sayre, Victor Navasky, David Caute, and others for more books on the period. The well-known critic Eric Bentley has already used the transcripts of the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings as the basis of both a play, Are You Now or Have You Ever Been, and a thick documentary volume, Thirty Years of Treason. How long, one wonders, will it be before some jolly spirit mounts a Broadway musical about J. Parnell Thomas and the Hollywood Ten, or we are given a rock version of the Army-McCarthy hearings?

It is a phenomenon, all right—this wave of revisionist accounts, fictional and nonfictional, historical and mythological, of events that occurred a quarter-century ago —but what is it all about? And why now?

One thing it is about, certainly, is the present. The relation of the 1970s—of social, political and cultural attitudes today— to the 1960s bears a close resemblance to the relation in which the late 1940s and early 1950s stood to the 1930s. And just as the crises of the 1930s—and the values generated by those crises—were reenacted in the investigations and controversies of the late 1940s and 1950s, so the crises of the 1960s—and the values and beliefs generated by them—are now under serious scrutiny and debate.

The Front and Scoundrel Time and Hollywood on Trial—to judge from the most recent works at hand—are thus as much a part of this reexamination of the 1960s, and especially the radicalism of the 1960s, as they are an attempt to redraw the history of an earlier era along lines—often, alas, fictional lines—that are sympathetic to the present climate of liberal opinion. The point, it seems, is to acquit 1960s radicalism of all malevolent consequence, and to do so by portraying 1930s radicalism as similarly innocent, a phenomenon wholly benign, altruistic, and admirable. Lillian Hellman puts the matter baldly in the last pages of Scoundrel Time. Of writers like herself, who for so long defended every Communist shibboleth and falsehood, she says: “Whatever our mistakes, I do not believe we did our country any harm.” And of the writers who were anti-Communist she says: “I think they did.” They gave us, in her view, the Vietnam War and Nixon.

Another thing these works are about, then, is the Cold War and détente—and very explicitly. The Front opens, even before Woody Allen’s archetypal schlep-hero is drawn into a scheme to act as a front for a blacklisted writer, with a quick-cut patchwork of old newsreel footage. We are given glimpses of the war in Korea, General MacArthur, President Truman, the Rosenberg prosecution, civilian bomb shelters, the Vietnam War, etc., toward all of which we are expected to take an attitude of complete and unquestioned disapproval. Scoundrel Time is similarly prefaced—in this case, by Garry Wills’s long essay in historical mystification that depicts “Truman’s aggressiveness” as a form of premeditated political villainy and omits all reference to that distant and obscure figure, obviously considered irrelevant to the discussion—Josef Stalin. Which is rather unfair to Stalin, considering the role that his political influence once played in Miss Hellman’s life.

If, for Mr. Wills (and, one must assume, Miss Hellman), it was President Truman who “launched the Cold War in the spring of 1947,” then for Arnie Reisman, the author of Hollywood on Trial, it was Winston Churchill, and even earlier. Reactions will differ, of course, to the experience of hearing the voice of John Huston, the narrator of Hollywood on Trial, mouthing in all solemnity the judgment of Mr. Reisman that in 1946 “Winston Churchill drew an iron curtain across Eastern Europe.” Again, it seems awfully unfair to Stalin to deny him proper credit for one of his most distinctive achievements—but that is the way things often are in the fantasy world of revisionist history. The imagery of perfect (Communist) innocence must be upheld, and the historical record adjusted accordingly.

It must be said, in this respect, that the Congressional investigations of Communist influence in the entertainment industry and the blacklisting that resulted from them— the common theme of The Front, Scoundrel Time, and Hollywood on Trial—are subjects almost ideally suited to buttressing this (false) imagery of innocence. The scenario abounds with easily recognized villains, from Congressmen out to grab a headline at any cost, to craven industry executives solely concerned to protect their careers and investments, to former comrades out to save their own necks. The investigations and the hearings were often conducted in an appalling manner. Their very nature created a situation in which informing became a career in itself, and innocent people were smeared and even destroyed by false accusations.

From which it does not follow, however, that all the accusations were false. Less easily recognized, from the current perspective anyway, are the other villains of the tale— the many wealthy dedicated Communists in the industry who—both because it was the Party line to do so and in the hope of saving their necks—denied their true commitments and beliefs, and thereby created an atmosphere of havoc and hazard for the truly innocent. Writing about the Hollywood Ten in A Generation on Trial (1952), a book generally sympathetic to Alger Hiss, Alistair Cooke observed that “they refused to say if they were Communists, in a series of hearings that the witnesses, just as much as the Committee, were responsible for turning into a squalid and rowdy parody of a court of law.” Despite the best efforts of Mr. Reisman and the director of Hollywood on Trial, David Helpern, Jr., to have us think otherwise, the contribution of the Hollywood Ten to this “squalid and rowdy parody” comes through loud and clear in the old film clips of the hearings.

Still, the myth of total innocence must be upheld even where it is contravened by the acknowledged facts. When Dalton Trumbo died last month, The New York Timesmatter-of-factly reported in his obituary that he admitted in 1970, when he was securely restored to Hollywood clover, to having been a member of the Communist Party from 1943 to 1948, and again briefly in 1954—a fact conveniently omitted from the voluble interview with Trumbo that is part of Hollywood on Trial. Nor, in its earnest effort to portray the Hollywood Ten as champions of democracy and the underdog, does the film quote Trumbo’s own contemptible comment on this commitment: “I never considered the working class anything other than something to get out of.”

As for the industry, about which The Front and Hollywood on Trial are so pious, it responded as industry always responds to any manifest threat to its profits—with whatever mixture of caution, cowardice, prudence, hypocrisy, dissembling, and emergency planning it deemed necessary to its prosperity and survival. This was the ethic of the industry when the Hollywood Ten —and Lillian Hellman, too—were counted among its loyal, pampered, high-priced hacks. It was the ethic of the industry when it put its blacklists into effect. And is the ethic of the industry any different today, I wonder, when many of the former blacklistees are once again pleased to be the beneficiaries of its huge salaries and specious glamour?

The history of this period, dubbed Scoundrel Time by Miss Hellman, is anything but simple, but that is precisely what The Front and Hollywood on Trial urge us to believe— that the issues were all very simple, a matter of good guys versus bad guys, with all virtue accruing to the people who, in principle, denied the government the right to investigate what it judged to be threats to its security, and defied any government process that might illuminate such threats. In The Front, with its cartoon characterizations, the character played by Woody Allen gets the girl by defying the committee looking into his connection with the Communist or fellow-traveling writers he has been fronting for. The schlep becomes a moral hero, and the good guys win. In this scenario, as in Hollywood on Trial, the only real threat is the government itself, and those opportunists who exploited a climate of fear.

The climate now is very different, of course. Radicals are chic, the FBI is under a cloud, and the old blacklist has become a roll of honor. It is conveniently forgotten that once there were other blacklists. In Hollywood on Trial, only the director Edward Dmytryk—one of the Hollywood Ten~dash\alludes to the lists of anti-Communists who were denied work when Stalinist influence was at its height. Unmentioned, too, are the vicious attacks that anti-Communist liberals and radicals were obliged to endure whenever they attempted to reveal the bloody truth about what Miss Hellman delicately describes now as the “sins” of the Stalinist regime. Who could guess, reading the soignéprose of Scoundrel Time, that Miss Hellman was once one of the most vigorous public defenders of those “sins,” which even Krushchev did not hesitate to call crimes involving the murder of hundreds of thousands, eventually millions, of innocent victims? Perhaps she has forgotten that she had joined in attacking the philosopher John Dewey, a pillar of the liberal establishment, for convening a commission of inquiry into the truth about the Moscow Trials. The climate now is indeed very different—it is a climate of amnesia.

So we are treated, in the course of Hollywood on Trial, to a glimpse of the most notorious of Hollywood’s pro-Communist films, the egregious Mission to Moscow, with its scene of these same Moscow Trials showing us one of the old Bolsheviks “confessing” to being a paid German agent and a sweet-faced Stalin beaming with confidence and wisdom, and we are clearly expected to approve. We are treated to a lecture, in Scoundrel Time, on the alleged failure of “the good magazines, the ones that published the most serious writing … to come to the aid of those who were persecuted.”

William Phillips, the editor of one of the magazines so described, Partisan Review, has written an interesting reply to Scoundrel Time in the current issue of that journal. He points out, in a reference to the other blacklist, the one that nobody talks about and that Woody Allen will certainly never make a movie about, that “I and other writers who had broken with Communism were kept from writing for various journals and prevented from getting not-so-lucrative university jobs because of the pressure and machinations of the Communists.”

“Lillian Hellman’s questions as to why we did not come to the defense of those who had been attacked by McCarthy is not as simple as it appears,” Mr. Phillips continues.

First of all, some were Communists and what one was asked to defend was their right to lie about it… . Another consideration was the feeling … that Communists did not have a divine right to a job in the government or in Hollywood… . Furthermore, it was not just a case of disagreeing with the Communists. They had branded us as the enemy. They were under orders not to speak to us. Their press called us every dirty name in and out of the political lexicon. And, of course, they were apologists for the arrest and torture of countless dissident writers in the Soviet Union and in other Communist countries … how could Lillian Hellman not know these things?

Such questions were seldom raised in the heyday of the radical movement in the 1960s, which is probably one reason why the myth of Communist innocence in the 1930s can now be propagated with such evident ease. What has been swamped in the new wave of revisionism about both the 1960s and the 1930s is the liberal view that regarded both Stalinism and the blacklists as threats to democracy—the view that looked upon the conduct of the House Un-American Activities Committee and the values of the Communist Party as plagues to be resisted.

Sitting through The Front and Hollywood on Trial and turning the pages of Scoundrel Time and reading the endless reviews that lavished it with so much praise, one is haunted by the question once posed, albeit in another context, by William Hazlitt: “Were we fools then, or are we dishonest now?”

Hilton Kramer (1928-2012) was the founding editor of The New Criterion, which he started with the late Samuel Lipman in 1982.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 16 Number 3, on page 11
Copyright © 2017 The New Criterion |

Photo: Charged with contempt of Congress, nine Hollywood men give themselves up to law enforcement officials

See also Whittaker Chambers at Conservapedia and Alger Hiss

Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin