“Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been . . . ?”
By Victor Navasky
Reviewed by Alvah Bessie
San Francisco Review of Books, January-February 1981
. . . Perhaps they did it because it was the right thing to do. By risking in some cases their careers and in other cases their freedom as well, by doing their time (in prison and in career-purgatory), they have emerged in the culture as moral exemplars; they have taught us how to act, and as a result appear to have made it more difficult to happen again . . . ”
Victor Navasky’s tribute here to Lillian Hellman, Dalton Trumbo, Albert Maltz “and their comrades (who) resisted” the assault on the entertainment industry in 1947-1952 by the defunct House Committee on Un-American Activities, is slightly fudged by what preceeds it in the same paragraph” “Perhaps they behaved as they did out of status-anxiety. Perhaps they were salivating in response to the bell of Party discipline. Perhaps they did it for the rest of us . . . ” etc.
Despite this sort of snide humor (if that is what it is) Navasky’s examination in depth of the informers who appeared before HUAC joins the recent book by Larry Ceplair and Steven Englund, The Inquisition in Hollywood, to form a body of work that examines The Cold War in Hollywood in such a way that the job will probably not have to be done again.
Where Ceplair and Englund recreated the history and development of the various American drives toward conformity, from the earliest witch-hunts following World War I through the Depression and World War II, down to the imprisonment in 1950 of The Hollywood 10 and the emergence of the Junior Senator from Wisconsin, Navasky, the new editor of The Nation, has concentrated less on those who resisted the inquisition than on the relatively few “friendly” witnesses who sent their colleagues into ostracism, blacklist, divorce, alcoholism, prison, and ultimately death.
While Ceplair and Englund are both trained in the disciplines of the historian, Navasky is not only a solid investigative reporter (who makes occasional small errors of fact), but is also a graduate attorney and something of a philosopher and metaphysician.
He has created here what he calls a “moral detective story” to solve the mystery: “How did it come to pass that scores of otherwise decent individuals were compelled to betray a moral presumption? What are the conditions under which good men do things they know to be wrong? What are the consequences of betrayal and collaboration?” His answers fill the 482 pages of this heavily researched and often brilliant book.
What made the stools and betrayers do their dirty work? Navasky divides their rationales into four general headings:
- “I didn’t hurt anybody.” I.e., the names I gave had all been named before;
- “They deserved what they got.” That is, they were enemies of our country;
- “I wasn’t responsible for my actions. ” I.e., I was out of my skull with worry about my health, my job, my wife and kids;
- “I was acting in obedience to a higher authority.” My country, right or wrong.
Perhaps the most contemptible informer of our time, Whittaker Chambers (you may prefer to give the accolade to Elia Kazan or even to Clifford Odets, who managed to put the finger on his dead friend, the actor J. Edward Bromberg), told a friend one time, “You know that the day I walk out of the Communist Party, I walk into the police station.”
This was a valid insight into the mentality of the stool-pigeon but with most of the Hollywood informers, there was a time-lapse: their “patriotism” waited upon the service of a subpoena from the House Committee; then they sang. And Navasky’s penetrating examination of their “reasons” for their behavior destroys each and every one of their arguments.
“The case for distinguishing among motives (for betrayal),” he says, “seems both compelling and appropriately compassionate. And yet it cannot be forgotten that for each informer there were two resisters, some in virtually identical circumstances, who refused to go along.” (There were far more than two. — A.B.)
“But the example of the Hollywood Ten,” the author continues, “of (Sidney) Buchman, Arthur Miller, Lillian Hellman, Pete Seeger and others are there to be reckoned with. There is no evidence that the informers as a class were subjected to greater pressure — by the state, vigilantes, or personal problems — than the resisters. . . ”
In fact, the pressure on the informers to name names, Navasky demonstrates, had no evidentiary purpose whatsoever. It was, however, an integral part of what he calls a “degradation ceremony” that established —for the witch-hunters and presumably the American public — the bona fides (or should we say the bad faith) of the stools.
His proof: the first 10 men to be blacklisted had not been named by any of the informers; their names were supplied to HUAC by the FBI and the House Committee announced they would be “unfriendly witnesses” months before a single question was propounded to them.
On the tortured trail Navasky must follow to explain and understand the contemptible human beings he is dealing with, he sometimes becomes the victim of his own virtues. For example: trained in the law, he permits himself to be thrown by the legal device The 10 utilized in 1947, at their lawyers’ instance, that they were not refusing to answer the Committee’s questions, but were trying to answer them in their own way. He calls that fudging.
Outright refusal guaranteed a peremptory demand for an answer and further refusal meant an automatic citation for contempt. But witness after witness stated this in his own way: “I am trying to tell you that I do not believe you have the right to ask that question;” “. . . either the Bill of Rights means what it says, or it does not. . . “; “The First Amendment prohibits Congress from making any law respecting belief, association or the right to speak or write freely; it is therefore obvious that you cannot investigate in those areas. . . ”
As an attorney, the author should have recognized the simple fact that The 10 intended to make an outright attack on the constitutionality of the HUAC and hoped thereby to put it out of business. Not wishing to invoke the Fifth Amendment, which had invidious connotations in the public mind that are not written into the Amendment at all, they relied on the First (which had been upheld by the Supreme Court as recently as 1943 in West Virginia Board of Education vs Barnette). The courts’ refusal to accept that as an argument or an issue ultimately affirmed their conviction for “contempt.”
Again, Navasky comes to close for comfort to the disgusting position set forth by Eric Bentley (Thirty Years of Treason), who, he says, “joined the issue most directly.” In effect, Bentley had said that: a. the Committee was contemptible, but so were those who refused to answer its questions; they deserved each other; b. any “radical” — and he stated that he was a radical, himself — should be proud to stand up and say what he believed in and if you don’t like it, Go fuck yourself.
How The 10 yearned to do just that! (Just like Woody Allen in the penultimate scene of The Front). But: 1. that was not the issue; the issue was the right of any governmental agency to ask any American any question about his associations or beliefs under penalty of ostracism, unemployment, and worse if he did not give the answer it required. And: 2. If you say, “Yes I am and what the hell business is it of yours?” the next question will be, “What about your friend Victor Navasky? Is he a member too? And if you say, “I never asked him,” they will produce a friendly witness who will swear “Of course he knows; we were all in the same ‘cell’ together.”
For granting HUAC the right to ask the question — and answering it — you were open, not to a misdemeanor called “Contempt of Congress” (one month to one year in a common jail and $100 to $1000 in fines), but you were charged with a felony — perjury (because the stool’s word is as good as yours), which brings a minimum of five years and who knows how many thousands of dollars.
But again, that was not the issue and never has been. The moralist-philosopher in Navasky feels real compassion both for the victims and the informers who made them pariahs in our society for as long as 20 years. Some of these stools had the gall to weep on Navasky’s shoulder because they were not understood by their fellow men and women, and Navasky sometimes gets bogged down in semantic arguments about candor, responsibility, vengeance and forgiveness.
“Why semantic? Because Dalton Trumbo was dead wrong when he made the cockeyed formulation — on receiving the highest award his fellow screenwriters can confer on their peers — that in that Time of the Toad (his own felicitous phrase) there were no “villains or heros or saints or devils. . . there were only victims.”
There were plenty of heros (and Dalton was one of them) and plenty of villains and there still are. Because the purpose of the “degradation ceremony” (and the resisters were degraded by HUAC and its allies far more than any stool), was to establish in the public mind that there actually existed an international conspiracy, activated by the “Godless Communism” of the USSR, to subvert, not merely the motion picture industry, but our government and our nation itself. Navasky knows this well and states it candidly.
The existence of such a conspiracy, of course, was the rationale used by Mussolini, Hitler, Tojo and Franco to save Italy, Germany, Japan and Spain from communism — and by all the Axis powers in concert, to save the entire world, and they nearly did.
The fact that there never was such a conspiracy goes no way at all to prevent its non-existence being used again in an American crusade to save us all over again — and any other country that shows signs of moving out of the orbit of American imperialism and the multi-national corporations that control it.
This fact, of course, is the link between the stunning Ceplair-Englund-Navasky examination of Cold War America in Hollywood, and the way the world could go today, if we do not exercise the eternal vigilance that is the guarantee of our liberty.
For it is scarcely an accident that one of the friendly witnesses before HUAC in 1947 was a man who hailed its victory (1n 1951) in these words:
“For many years the Red propagandists and conspirators concentrated their big guns on Hollywood. They threatened to throw acid in the faces of myself and some other stars, so we would never appear on screen again. I packed a gun for some time. Policemen lived at my home to guard my kids. But that was more than five years ago. Those days are gone forever.”
Here is the same man, interviewed in the Los Angeles Times on 6 March, 1980:
“. . . But the reason for the godlessness with regard to communism — here is a direct teaching of the child from the beginning of its life that it is a human being whose only importance is its contribution to the state. . . and that there is no God, they are just an accident of nature. . . The result is, this is why they have no respect for human life. . . And I remember one night, a long time ago, in a rally in Los Angeles, 16,000 people in the auditorium, and this was at the time when the local Communists. . . and this is all well-documented — was actually trying, had secured domination of several unions in the picture business, and was trying to take over the motion picture industry. . . believe me, the persecutors were the Communists who had gotten into positions where they could destroy careers, and did destroy them. There was no blacklist of Hollywood. The blacklist in Hollywood, if there was one, was provided by the Communists. . . ”
Please pay no attention to the man’s splendid command of the English language, his grammar, syntax and felicitous prose. Or to the fact that every statement in that paragraph is a blatant lie. What is important is that the international conspiracy of Godless Communism is still the bedrock of his Weltpolitikik and his “vision” of a new America.
In 1947 he was merely the president of the Screen Actors’ Guild. Barring some accident before 20 January of this coming year, he will be the President of the United States of America.
Marx was correct when he chided Hegal for saying that history repeated itself, but did not also add: “The first time as tragedy. . . the second as farce.” (Or should it be the other way around?)