Tue. November 20
The “Hollywood Holocaust” and Other Cold War Myths
Howard Kurtz calls our attention to the Hollywood Reporter where the current publisher issued an apology for what he termed the “Hollywood Holocaust,” in which the industry magazine, “Hollywood Reporter,” led by his father, Billy Wilkerson, led a “crusade” against the Communist Party in Hollywood. Kurtz describes the effort as “odious” and an “appalling chapter of the publication’s history.” Kirk Douglas said that the period was “the most sinful period in Hollywood’s history.”The five page apology rounds up those who felt wronged, but treats the Soviet Union as if it were never a threat. Strange.
This way of looking at anti-Communist efforts in tinseltown flatly denies the nature of the American Communist Party, which sought to overtake American institutions and subjugate them to the Kremlin. No big deal, I guess, but worth clarifying: A holocaust is a slaughter on a mass scale. The blacklist made it hard for Kremlin-connected Hollywood actors (sympathetic to Soviet victory in the Cold War) to find work. Not similar.
We know from the Soviet archives and reams of testimony that Communism wasn’t a mere set of opinions or some marginalized activist political third party. It was a calculated underground effort, organized in cells, to expand the power of the Kremlin to America. It wasn’t a group of silly idealists who weren’t taken seriously, but a collection of elites who had become quite taken with Stalin and his ilk. All those secret meetings weren’t secret because they were living in fear of the Red Scare and mean ol’ Amuricans who wouldn’t tolerate dissent.Those secret meetings were secret because they were figuring out how to fight for International Communism in America, just as the Baader Meinhoff gang would later attempt in West Germany.
Elia Kazan, probably the greatest director in Hollywood during that period, testified to the House Committee on Un-American Activities and was himself blacklisted by others in the industry who felt he should have a stronger allegiance to the Party than to his country. Speaking to a friend about his decision to appear as a friendly witness to the committee, he said:
To defend a secrecy I don’t think right and to defend people who have already been named or soon would be by someone else . . . I hate the Communists and have for many years, and don’t feel right about giving up my career to defend them. I will give up my film career if it is in the interests of defending something I believe in, but not this.
The group he would testify against was a group he had called his first family, the Globe Theater. At the time he was a member of the Communist Party, as were his colleagues, and they were engaged in the act of taking the thing over for the party.
The Group Theatre said that we shouldn’t be committed to any fixed political program set by other people outside the organisation. I was behaving treacherously to the Group when I met downtown at CP [Communist Party] headquarters, to decide among the Communists what we should do in the Group, and then come back and present a united front, pretending we had not been in caucus . . .
This was typical of American Communists during this period: Find an organization, steadily take it over, report back all information gathered. Convicted spy Alger Hiss would use the same tactics to climb to the top of the State Department. But the reason that Kazan had come to loathe the Communists was because he had already crossed them while at the Globe–he had decided against holding the united front in the group and sided with non-Communists. There were consequences.
I was tried by the Party and that was one of the reasons I became so embittered later. The trial was on the issue of my refusal to follow instructions, that we should strike in the Group Theatre, and insist that the membership have control of its organisation. I said it was an artistic organisation, and I backed up Clurman and Strasberg who were not Communists . . . The trial left an indelible impression on me . . . Everybody else voted against me and they stigmatised me and condemned my acts and attitude. They were asking for confession and self-humbling. I went home that night and told my wife “I am resigning.” But for years after I resigned, I was still faithful to their way of thinking. I still believed in it. But not in the American Communists. I used to make a difference and think: “These people here are damned fools but in Russia they have got the real thing,” until I learned about the Hitler-Stalin pact, and gave up on the USSR.
This “trial” was a punishment for refusing to “follow instructions.” This is the story of other Communist cells during the period too–it was quite common for members of the Party to have pangs of conscience when conspiring in backrooms, and so they’d act against the Party. The Party would then find a way to punish them. That’s kind of how collectivism works, but it is interesting to note that the Communists were themselves pretty fond of blacklisting. That is, in fact, the subtext of Kazan’s On the Waterfront, a gritty film in which the Longshoreman’s union holds absolute power to determine who does and does not get to work on the docks based on who holds favor.
This modus operandi was in force when Ronald Reagan, then an actor, was a part of the Screen Actors Guild. Reagan, who was no corporate sympathizer at the time having characterized studio bosses as being unfair to actors, had come to regard a strike by the guild as phony. He received an anonymous call when word of his disapproval got around:
The caller would not identify himself and said that if Reagan made a speech against the strike at an upcoming meeting of the full membership of the Screen Actors Guild a squad of people would be waiting for him. According to Reagan the caller said, “Your face will never be in pictures again.”
He and other actors would resign from another association that refused to put out a statement in defense of free enterprise and democracy. His stand against Communist takeover continued to reverberate, to the point where he had to carry a pistol for protection.
Reagan went to a meeting of the board of the veterans’ organization he had joined, a meeting being held in an abandoned store that had been lent to the group. He sat on one of the folding chairs. “As soon as I sat down,” he writes, “every member on the board who had been sitting on that side of the aisle got up and moved across to the other side, leaving me to sit alone. Shortly after that, I learned the group had become another front for the Communist Party in Hollywood.”
So, if making life difficult for professionals in an industry because of where they stood on Communism is really like a Holocaust, why don’t we hear about what the Communists were doing?
Anyway, when Whittaker Chambers, the editor of Time magazine, testified against Alger Hiss, a high adviser to FDR who gave secrets to Stalin, he blew the lid off of the American Soviet apparatus. Apologists like Susan Jacoby continue to defend Hiss’s innocence, while conveniently neglecting to describe the existence of any kind of threat to the U.S. posed by the Soviet Union period. Chambers himself had been a Communist for years, which is how he had come to be Hiss’s courier for American secrets, and when he decided to leave the Party, he had to go into hiding because the Communists did not tolerate traitors and would have had him killed. In other words, when Howard Kurtz suggests America carried out a metaphorical murder spree among Communists, it’s actually the case that the Communists were fine with committing actual murders.
While the damage wrought by the Hollywood Reporter’s blacklist was no doubt painful, calling it the “Hollywood Holocaust” continues a long tradition of historical denials that there ever was a Communist threat in Hollywood. It existed. We have the evidence of it. We even elected a president who was famous for fighting it. Not all methods of exposing that influence were just, but that doesn’t mean we should deny it existed. The Hollywood Reporter’s apology is wrong for denying that reality.
J.P. Freire is a writer in Washington, D.C. He is formerly the managing editor of the American Spectator and associate editorial page editor of the Washington Examiner. Follow him at twitter.com/jpfreire.