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Blacklist Whitewash

The real story of the Hollywood Ten.

On October 28, 82-year-old screenwriter Paul Jarrico was driving to his home in Ojai, east of Santa Barbara, when his car veered off the Pacific Coast Highway and crashed into a tree. Jarrico was killed. "tragedy," read the headline in The Los Angeles Times. "crash kills hollywood blacklist victim paul jarrico the day after historic apology was made."

Almost 50 years ago, Jarrico refused to tell the House Committee on Un- American Activities (huac) whether he had ever been a member of the Communist Party. Jarrico was, in fact, a party member, from the early '30s until 1958. Jarrico paid for his refusal by being banned from writing movie scripts under his own name for 17 years. But on the day before his death, Jarrico received a standing ovation at the Academy of Motion Picture Art and Sciences, where the four major entertainment guilds had gathered to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Hollywood blacklist and to apologize for it. Once a pariah, Jarrico--like his surviving comrades--died a hero, a man celebrated as a courageous crusader who refused to compromise his principles and who devoted his last years to helping blacklisted writers gain credit for scripts they wrote under pseudonyms.

The media have been full of stories like Jarrico's of late; 1997 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the confrontation between huac and the group of Communist film industry figures known as the Hollywood Ten. Most of the coverage has followed the story line laid out at the Jarrico testimonial. In books, film festivals, television documentaries, radio dramatizations, and news articles--not to mention Hollywood's own self-flagellating extravaganza-- the Hollywood Ten and other Communist writers and directors who refused to admit their party membership have been described as a small band of progressives who sacrificed their careers to defend the Constitution from a repressive government and a craven entertainment industry feverish with anti- communism.

The fact that the Hollywood Ten were all current or former members of the Communist Party, a fact which, for most of them, meant working on behalf of Joseph Stalin's regime, has been given short shrift. For example, the coauthor of Jarrico's obituary was Patrick Goldstein, who has written extensively on the blacklist for the Times. Indeed, a little over a week before Jarrico's death, Goldstein published two long anniversary pieces. The stories added up to almost 5,400 words, but Goldstein found space for only two oblique references to the character of the Communist Party: "dogmatic and sanctimonious," Goldstein allowed, "whose blustery speechifying cast them as ill-mannered ideologues." The cold war, which formed the bleak background for the blacklist saga, received even less attention.

To compound the distortion, the only rebuttals have come from the ideological right. "It's revolting to see the blacklisted' Communist writers portrayed as idealistic victims," Michael Berliner, director of the Ayn Rand Institute, complained to the Times. "These pathetic apologists for Stalin deserved much worse than they received. They were propagandizing for a Soviet regime that was enslaving and murdering millions of people and, for a time, engaging in a pact with Adolf Hitler."

As a result, a great opportunity for sober historical understanding has been squandered. But it's not too late to explore a more nuanced view of those long-ago events. What's needed is an analysis in the spirit of liberal anti-communism. For the liberal anti-Communists of that era, the blacklist was a nightmare, too. But their agony had nothing to do with a Hollywood morality tale in which a group of American dissidents became martyrs for free speech. Rather, it was a wrenching time when legitimate concerns about internal security squared off against the principled liberal belief in individual rights.

In the end, no satisfactory resolution to this dilemma was ever found. The House Un-American Activities Committee was a collection of clumsy extremists who were as interested in discrediting the New Deal and liberalism as they were in ferreting out real subversion. But the government's effort to bolster internal security--however horrendously flawed--was a response to a genuine Soviet threat. Yes, most of the original blacklistees did suffer. But they did so in support of a cause that was neither benign nor remotely " progressive." It is in on-balance judgments such as these, not in moral absolutes retailed by today's ostentatiously repentant Hollywood, or by the media, that the real lessons of the blacklist are to be found.

"I was pretty well-known as left of center, considerably left of center," Jarrico told PBS's "NewsHour" a few days before the October anniversary event. "There was no secret about my political orientation." Jarrico's self- description went unchallenged by "NewsHour" interviewer Elizabeth Farnsworth. But it was, at best, half true. According to his own account in Tender Comrades, a recently published oral history of the Hollywood Communists by Patrick McGilligan and Paul Buhle, Jarrico joined the Young Communist League during the 1933-1934 academic year while he was a sophomore at ucla. At the time, the American Communists--previously a squabbling band of inept revolutionaries controlled by Moscow--were showing signs of strength, thanks mainly to the frustration sowed by the Great Depression. Many Americans believed capitalism's death was imminent--and that communism was a viable alternative. Jarrico was one of them. In Tender Comrades he recalls: "The Communist Party was not a revolutionary organization, not in the period when I was in it. It was a reformist organization, and for most of the years I was in it, it was the tail to the liberal-Democratic kite."

The party led marches, demanded unemployment insurance, and organized strikes. It also violently disrupted the meetings of rival socialists, dismissed the New Deal as American fascism, and demanded rigid doctrinal adherence from its members. It was only during August 1935, by which time Jarrico had already joined the party proper, that Moscow allowed U.S. Communists to ally themselves with other non-Communist left-wing groups.

This Popular Front strategy, as it was known, sparked dramatic growth: many liberals joined front groups dedicated to fighting fascism and racial discrimination, and even a windbag like party chief Earl Browder could sell out Madison Square Garden. But party members still had to wear ideological blinders: they ignored Stalin's show trials and the mass executions of old Bolsheviks just as they obediently opposed U.S. intervention against Hitler once Stalin signed the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact. Party members even attacked Lillian Hellman's play, Watch on the Rhine, in 1940 because of its anti-Nazi theme; they started praising it once Hitler invaded Russia and Moscow became a U.S. ally against Germany. This second Popular Front period lasted no longer than the first. In 1945, Moscow deposed Browder for attempting to liberalize the party, and the FBI began learning about a Soviet espionage network in the U.S. which included American Communists.

For a free nation fighting a cold war, the dual nature of American communism posed a genuine, and probably insoluble, dilemma: the party was both a totalitarian organization in the thrall of a foreign enemy power and a political organization whose existence as such was protected by the Constitution. To ban or repress the party would have been illiberal and undemocratic; to blithely tolerate it, imprudent. Truman and many liberal anti-Communists believed the best answer was to let the FBI monitor the party and prosecute its members if they broke laws against subversion or espionage; conservatives, however, believed that the party needed to be crippled and exposed before Moscow's minions launched a revolution.

The conservatives won. In March 1947, President Truman issued Executive Order 9835, which created a government loyalty program to investigate all two million federal employees. (The anniversary of this much more significant event, by the way, has gone largely unmarked.) The order went far beyond merely inquiring into the trustworthiness of employees in sensitive positions. It cast a drift net through which few personal associations or beliefs could pass unexamined.

To many historians, Truman's loyalty order was a watershed event in the development of McCarthyism (although it would take another three years for the Wisconsin senator to lend his name to the phenomenon), a signal to the rest of the country that only eternal vigilance could save the nation from the potential wreckers within its midst. It's one of the sad ironies and messy complications of the period that Truman didn't believe this, that he realized the true scale of the internal threat--worrisome, not mortal--but was goaded into appeasing the right, only to find his administration accused later of being soft on communism.

It was in this context that huac Chairman J. Parnell Thomas called to the stand the first of the witnesses who would become known as the Hollywood Ten. The date was October 27, 1947. John Howard Lawson, the arch-Stalinist commissar of the Hollywood party, set the tone for the rest of the hearing. " For a week this committee has conducted an illegal and indecent trial of American citizens," Lawson began, in a written statement that Thomas refused to let him read. (It was soon released to the press.)

Lawson refused to answer questions about whether he belonged to the Screen Writers Guild or the Communist Party, claiming a First Amendment right to silence rather than the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination which would have been more stigmatizing. "I am not on trial here, Mr. Chairman," he barked. "This committee is on trial." Thomas had Lawson physically thrown off the stand; the rest of the Ten followed the same script, refusing to talk about the party, but comparing the committee to the Nazis, warning that its hearings were a threat to the rights of everyone, from Protestants to Republicans, and predicting the opening of American concentration camps.

This performance earned the Ten their present status as martyrs who suffered so that all Americans could be free from a government bent on prying into their beliefs. "Moral exemplars," Victor Navasky called them in Naming Names: "They taught us how to act, and as a result appear to have made it more difficult to happen again." In fact, however, these very same Hollywood Communists were ruthless in suppressing dissent within their own ranks. Hollywood Communists were quick to savage their comrades for writing scripts, or even reading books, that were at odds with the party's prescriptions; sometimes even the same work would be viewed differently as the party line changed.

In 1946, Hollywood Ten member Albert Maltz published an article in the communist journal New Masses called "What Shall We Ask of Writers?" wherein he suggested that artists must put art above politics. His friends in the party attacked him viciously for doctrinal heresy; two months later, Maltz recanted his impermissible views in another New Masses piece. More than a decade later, Maltz did a similar, less celebrated, somersault over Doctor Zhivago. He wrote a praising review of Pasternak's classic during the Krushchev thaw, then criticized it after Krushchev's downfall.

One of the great distortions of the blacklist anniversary is that the Hollywood Communists put conscience above comfort. The reality is that, in the main, they spent their workweek as Hollywood writers, turning out product for big bucks, benefiting immensely from a system they supposedly despised. Outside of the office, they were party hacks, whose fealty to principle never quite equaled their fealty to the party line.

Lionel Stander, who never joined the party because he considered himself to the left of it, helped to raise money for striking farm workers in the 1930s; when he was blacklisted in the 1950s, he went to work on Wall Street because it was the only kind of job he could find that paid as well as Hollywood did. In 1983, at the time when he gave an interview to the authors of Tender Comrades, he was playing Max the chauffeur on TV's "Hart to Hart" and still explaining why Stalin's crimes never bothered him.

Another fashionable misconception about the Hollywood Communists is that they obeyed their consciences rather than yield to the threats of authority. But this, too, is debatable. In the first place, the decision not to cooperate was a collective one reached before the hearings began. A few suggested that the group honestly declare and defend its beliefs as Communists. "Let us at least be as brave as the people we write about," Sam Ornitz, who wrote some two dozen minor films, once said. Edward Dmytryk, who received a nomination for the "best director" Oscar for The Caine Mutiny, maintains in his recent memoir, Odd Man Out, that the hardcore Communists in the group--he suspects at Moscow's behest--pressured the lukewarm and disaffected former members into a united front of noncooperation and confrontation. Which would mean that in defying Washington's authority, the Ten were obeying Stalin's.

The decision, in any event, served both the interests of the Ten and the party. Even if their politics were not exactly a secret, no one publicly pledging his alliance to the party could expect much work in an industry predicated on not offending middle America. An avowal of their true politics would also have ruined their efficacy as Communists. Party members were most effective when they could operate as political chameleons, organizing or infiltrating unions or front groups that could attract large numbers of people who would have shied away from any such groups openly dominated by Communists. Admitting their party membership would have been ruinous to both their careers and their cause.

The First Amendment stratagem promised to elide these difficulties. It also promised a propaganda windfall for the Soviet Union by exposing the U.S. as repressive and hypocritical. By all accounts, the Ten expected the Supreme Court to overturn their contempt citations. Unfortunately for the Ten--and probably for the country as well--their hypocritical faith in at least one pillar of liberal democracy was misplaced. The court refused to hear the case and the Ten went to prison, two for six months, the rest for a year. "We didn't know how hot the water was," Dalton Trumbo admitted to Navasky.

By the time huac resumed its hearings on Hollywood in early 1951, the world had become a lot more scary: Alger Hiss had been convicted of perjury, the party leadership had been convicted of advocating the violent overthrow of the U.S. government, China had gone Communist, the Soviets had exploded an atomic bomb, the Rosenbergs had been arrested for stealing atomic secrets, Joe McCarthy had become a household name, and the Korean War had broken out.

Against this darkling backdrop, the blacklist began in earnest. Hundreds were called before huac. Those who talked openly about themselves and their comrades were able to save their careers; those who took the Fifth Amendment could escape a contempt citation but found themselves on the blacklist. "If you were named, whether falsely or not, you had two choices and only two," Jarrico said. "You could accept or pretend to accept the basic assumption of McCarthyism--that Communists were traitors--and plead that you were a dupe or a dope, and clear yourself by naming others. Or you could stand on the constitutional amendments that give you the right to speak out, the right to remain silent, and the right to believe any damn thing you want to believe. For those who were genuinely pissed off at the party but reluctant to name others, the choice must've been difficult. For a person like me, a true-blue red, the choice was easy."

But for most non-Stalinists, the choice was not so easy. Careers were at stake, and many disaffected Communists saw no reason to suffer as defenders of a party that in practice debased everything it stood for in theory. " Defending the Communist Party was something worse than naming the names," said Dmytryk, who cooperated with the committee after serving his sentence for contempt. "I did not want to remain a martyr to something that I absolutely believed was immoral and wrong."

In many ways, the committee was the mirror image of the party it was out to break: in enforcing its own rigid political orthodoxy, huac insisted that a cooperative witness prove his commitment to democracy by exposing his former comrades, who in some cases were not die-hard Stalinists, but mere dilettantes. If a witness took the Fifth Amendment, whether to protect himself or others, the committee's purpose was still served; groups like the American Legion would hound the presumed Communist, and no studio would touch him. Thrust into this conundrum, some--notably Lillian Hellman and Arthur Miller--tried to steer a middle course, offering to talk about their waltz with the party but refusing to discuss others, which still left them open to prosecution for contempt.

Hollywood has actually managed to get this much of the blacklist story right: it was an awful and degrading time. And huac opened a great moral wound on the country--one on a par with the wound inflicted by the Communists themselves. As Richard Rovere put it: "The investigators and the investigated have seemed richly to deserve each other."

Paul Jarrico left the party two years after Khrushchev upended the communist world by revealing Stalin's crimes in his 1956 secret speech--which was sort of like waiting for the verdict in the Nuremberg trials before deciding to quit the Nazi Party. At the 1997 blacklist event the day before his fatal accident, Jarrico gave a speech denouncing America's history of Indian genocide, racial bigotry, and political intolerance, as well as Hollywood's own craven past. "Our brutal history defines patriotism as: My country right or wrong,'" he concluded. "Our noble history defines it as: My country: right the wrong.' Right the wrong. It may take another fifty years, but we shall overcome. The good guys will win."

Meanwhile, Hollywood has its own blacklist, and it consists of those who broke ranks and named names. Consider Elia Kazan, one of the industry's undisputed titans, the director of A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront, the winner of three Oscars, and the great film auteur who discovered James Dean and Marlon Brando. In 1952, he cooperated with huac and even took out a page in The New York Times to explain why. "Secrecy serves the Communists," he wrote. " W e must never let the Communists get away with the pretense that they stand for the very things which they kill in their own countries."

Today's Hollywood cannot forgive him. In January, the American Film Institute and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association denied Kazan a lifetime achievement award--one of several times he's been denied such honors. But, in August, Cinecon, a well-respected national organization of film buffs, flew in Hitler's favorite filmmaker, 95-year-old Leni Riefenstahl, to receive its annual film achievement award. Riefenstahl, best known for her 1934 cinematic celebration of the Third Reich, The Triumph of the Will, was greeted with applause by a crowd of 1,000 people. She signed autographs and posed for pictures. "It's too much honor," she said.

The same could easily be said of the blacklist anniversary. In spite of their own doctrinal contempt for bourgeois liberties, the Hollywood Communists may have defended important constitutional rights. They did not, however, do it with much dignity, and their motives appeared as self-serving as those of anyone who named names later. To treat the Hollywood Communists as freedom fighters is to mistake their subterfuge for principle, to view an accidental alignment of ethics and expediency as a sign of a deeper commitment to liberty. Today, Hollywood honors its Communists who brought little honor to themselves, while it ostracizes anyone who acted on behalf of different convictions. Perhaps it is time for silence once again.

This article originally appeared in the January 5 & 12, 1998, issue of the magazine. J. Ybarra is writing a book about Senator Pat McCarran and the transformation of American politics from the New Deal to McCarthyism.