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The Conservative Curmudgeon
February 13, 2015

Hollywood Traitors:
Screenwriters Promoted Both Stalin and Hitler as World War II Approached

by Allan C. Brownfeld
fitzgerald griffin foundation

ALEXANDRIA, VA — For many years, we have been told that Congressional investigations of subversion in Hollywood in the years leading up to World War II, during the war, and in the early years of the Cold War, represented an assault upon civil liberties and freedom of speech — as did the resulting blacklist of writers who refused to answer questions posed by the House Un-American Activities Committee. The implication, of course, was that the idea that Communism in any way threatened the integrity of the motion picture industry was a myth promoted by a right-wing intent upon pursuing an American form of Fascism.

The reality was quite different.  In an important new book, the most thorough ever written about this subject and period, Allan Ryskind tells a story that brings alive a historical period now largely forgotten. In Hollywood Traitors: Blacklisted Screenwriters: Agents of Stalin, Allies of Hitler (Regnery Publishing, 2015), he shows how the alleged “victims” of the Hollywood blacklist were actually ideological Stalinists, committed to bringing Communism to America. During the years of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, 1939-41, they became enthusiastic allies of Nazism as well.

 

In an important new book, the most thorough ever written about this subject and period, Allan Ryskind tells a story that brings alive a historical period now largely forgotten.

 

      Allan Ryskind, a respected journalist and long-time editor of Human Events, is certainly an authoritative source. As the son of Morrie Ryskind , a renowned screenwriter who, among other things, wrote a number of Marx Brothers films, Allan grew up in Hollywood and knew many of the key players in this real-life drama.

       The Soviet Union, in pursuit of its goal of world domination, recognized the importance of propaganda and sought to use Hollywood movies to spread its ideological message. As early as 1925, the Communist Daily Worker had published an article by Willi Munzenberg, a member of the Communist International (Comintern) who was in charge of the group’s cultural affairs department. “We must,” said Munzenberg, “develop the tremendous cultural possibilities in a revolutionary sense. One of the most pressing tasks confronting the Communist Party in the field of propaganda is the conquest of this supremely important propaganda, until now the monopoly of the ruling class. We must wrest it from them and turn it against them.”

       The “Hollywood Ten,” who were brought before Congress and were eventually sent to prison for contempt of Congress, were both prominent screenwriters and dedicated Communists who did their best to promote their ideas through their films. Among the most prominent was Dalton Trumbo, who wrote many well-known films including “Roman Holiday,” “Spartacus,” and “Papillon.” His role as a supporter of Stalinist Russia and Kim Il-sung’s North Korea and an apologist for Nazi German is typical.

      During the Hitler-Stalin pact, Ryskind points out, Trumbo “... was excusing Hitler's conquests. ‘To the vanquished,’ he airily dismissed the critics of Nazi brutality, ‘all conquerors are inhuman.’ For good measure, he demonized Hitler’s major enemy, Great Britain, insisting that England was not a democracy because it had a king, and he accused FDR of  ‘treason’ and ‘black treason’ for attempting to assist the British in their life and death struggle against the despot in Berlin. Stalin, Hitler, Kim Il-sung. This is the trifecta of barbarous dictators, all supported by Trumbo...”

      Particularly difficult to understand is how so many screenwriters would simply stop thinking for themselves but would join a political party that dictated their positions. “Nothing the Communist Party in America ever did was without direction from the Kremlin,” writes Ryskind. “Nothing. When Hitler initially threatened Russia, Hollywood’s Party members, under Moscow’s orders by way of Party headquarters in New York, were passionately anti-Nazi; when Hitler turned his guns against the West — enabled by his 1939 Pact with Stalin — they devoted the whole of their lives to crippling the capacity of the anti-Nazi nations to survive. Only when the Nazis double-crossed Stalin with their ‘surprise’ invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 did Hollywood's Reds — with Moscow still cracking the whip — renew their rage against Hitler. They were not honorable anti-fascists or patriotic Americans, as their defenders argue, but loyal Soviet apparatchiks, a fifth column working for Stalin….”

       In 1936, the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League became one of the leading anti-fascist groups in the country. Among its sponsors were such Hollywood notables as actor Frederic March, entertainer Eddie Cantor, lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, and humorist Robert Benchley. The Catholic Archbishop of Los Angeles, the Rev. John J. Cantwell, wrote the group, “I am very glad to be associated with the Hollywood League Against Nazism, or with any organization opposing the wicked pretensions of Nazism.” Slowly, Communists, such as screenwriters Ring Lardner, Jr., Robert Rossen, and John Bright, came to dominate the group.

   

Allan Ryskind, a respected journalist and long-time editor of Human Events, is certainly an authoritative source. As the son of Morrie Ryskind, a renowned screenwriter who, among other things, wrote a number of Marx Brothers films, Allan grew up in Hollywood and knew many of the key players in this real-life drama.

 

      After the Hitler-Stalin Pact was signed, Ryskind reports, “... the Anti-Nazi League’s campaign against fascism, Hitler and Nazi aggression was suddenly shelved. ‘Overnight,’ notes the Fund (for the Republic) study, the Anti-Nazi League ‘became the Hollywood League for Democratic Action... no longer in favor of ‘concerted action’ as ‘the only effective measure against fascist aggression.’ Its New Year’s card for 1940 denounced ‘the war to lead America to war.’ The fervent Hollywood anti-Nazis had suddenly become appeasers — simply because opposing Hitler no longer served Stalin’s purposes. At the September 1939 meeting of the former Anti-Nazi League... a plenipotentiary from Communist headquarters in New York explained to attendees that the alliance between Russia and Germany was a magnificent contribution to world peace.”

    Most of the original “Hollywood Ten” have said that they were initially drawn to Communism because of the Soviet stand against fascism. “If that claim is true,” writes Ryskind, “it’s something of a mystery why they chose to stick with the Party after the Hitler-Stalin Pact. For the shrill voices emanating from the June 1941 Fourth American Writers’ Congress carried a message stunningly different from the urgent anti-fascist theme that had prevailed at previous Congresses. The speakers and the delegates... called for a policy of total isolationism, harshly condemned Great Britain and the West as ‘imperialists’ (Hitler was barely a secondary target), and frantically urged a massive campaign to disarm the United States and cripple its ability to aid any nation threatened by the fascist powers that had now conquered virtually all of Europe.”

    The writers involved in promoting Communism were among the most prominent in Hollywood, including Lillian Hellman, Donald Ogden Stewart, Langston Hughes, Dashiell Hammett, and Erskine Caldwell. Theodore Dreiser, who became a Communist Party member in 1945 and was well-known for his anti-Semitism, received the Communist-supported Randolph Bourne Memorial Award for “distinguished service to the cause of culture and peace.” In Ryskind's view, “His most conspicuous ‘distinguished service’ consisted of nearly twenty-two months of venomous attacks against England during the pact period.”

      Playwright Lillian Hellman visited Russia in October 1937, when Stalin’s purge trials were at their height. On her return, she said she knew nothing about them. In 1938, she was among the signatories to an ad in the Communist publication New Masses, which approved the trials. She supported the 1939 Soviet invasion of Finland, stating: “I don't believe in that fine, lovable little Republic of Finland that everybody gets so weepy about. I’ve been there, and it looks like a pro-Nazi little republic to me.” There is no evidence that Hellman ever visited Finland, and her biographer says it is highly improbable.

       When Hitler invaded Russia, Hollywood’s Communist screenwriters rediscovered the evils of Nazism. The League of American Writers, through its president, Dashiell Hammett, issued an urgent call to all writers for “immediate and necessary steps in support of Great Britain and the Soviet Union to insure the defeat of the fascist aggressors.” As Ryskind notes, “Hollywood's Communist writers had proved themselves Stalinists to the core.... They were Hitler’s enemy when Stalin felt threatened by the rising power of the Third Reich. When Stalin embraced the Fuhrer, they gave a warm hug to the Nazi warlord. When Hitler invaded Russia, the American writers cast off their pacifist pose and began frantically beating the drums for massive aid to England, a policy that they had just weeks before proclaimed would shove America into a bloody and senseless war. Now that their beloved Soviet Union was under attack, they didn’t mind a bit if American soldiers were to be tossed onto foreign battlefields — not to defend their own country, but to rescue the Soviet despot they worshipped.”

         During the war years, Communist screenwriters did their best to put as much propaganda into their films as possible. Alvah Bessie, a “Hollywood Ten” screenwriter, bragged about inserting pro-Soviet propaganda that was “subversive as hell” into the 1943 film, “Action in the North Atlantic.” In 1935, Clifford Odets wrote the screenplay for “The General Died At Dawn,” which portrayed Mao and the Chinese Ccommunists as the “people’s movement” and General Wang, the stand-in for Chiang Kai-shek as the “warlord.” “Communists,” Ryskind writes, “were determined to sprinkle — and sometimes soak (as in ‘The General Dies At Dawn’ and ‘Blockade’) their scripts with propaganda. As screenwriter David Lang would testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee on March 24, 1953, he had belonged to a select group of Communist writers in Hollywood ‘interested in creating a strong writers’ front, so that the content of the motion pictures from their point of view could be approved and that many of their ideals could be worked into the motion pictures.”

          There is much in this book worthy of serious study by those who would like to understand the role played by writers who saw it as their duty to promote the interests of a foreign government and its ideology. We also meet many Hollywood figures who did their best to resist these efforts, among them Ronald Reagan; Allan Ryskind’s father Morrie Ryskind; and Ayn Rand, a Russian emigre who became an ardent anti-Communist because of her experience growing up in the Soviet Union. The author of We The Living, The Fountainhead, and Atlas Shrugged, Rand testified before Congress about the propaganda-soaked movie “Song of Russia,” written by two devout Communists, Richard Collins and Paul Jarrico.

 

This book explodes many myths about the true role of Communists in Hollywood. Anyone who wishes to understand what was really happening during these years should consult this book, which is encyclopedic in its scope.

 

         The Congressional hearings about communism in Hollywood have become the subject of much controversy. Whatever one thinks about the Congressional role in this instance, it is hard to understand why the Communist writers who refused to testify and were later blacklisted became heroes to many liberals. Can we really respect men and women who told us that Hitler was evil one day and then virtually embraced him the next, following Stalin’s lead, as they did in all things?   

       These writers, Ryskind declares, “... concede that they joined the Party, conspired to take over the movie industry, salted films with propaganda, recruited comrades into Hollywood, and were completely in the tank for the murderous Stalin. Some have said post-Stalin that they still hungered for revolutionary Communism.... The Soviet Union had embraced the view of cultural ‘theorist’ Andre Zhdanov, whose intent was to compel artists to serve political needs of the moment rather than dwell on side issues such as poverty and the creation of great works of art.”

            This book explodes many myths about the true role of Communists in Hollywood. Anyone who wishes to understand what was really happening during these years should consult this book, which is encyclopedic in its scope. Allan Ryskind has performed a notable service in providing us with an important and largely unknown part of the history of the Cold War.

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The Conservative Curmudgeon is copyright © 2015 by Allan C. Brownfeld and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved. Editors may use this column if this copyright information is included.

Allan C. Brownfeld is the author of five books, the latest of which is The Revolution Lobby (Council for Inter-American Security). He has been a staff aide to a U.S. Vice President, Members of Congress, and the U.S. Senate Internal Subcommittee.

He is associate editor of The Lincoln Reveiw and a contributing editor to such publications as Human Events, The St. Croix Review, and The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.

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