Review: “American Traitors: Blacklisted Screenwriters” by Ryskind

Review: “American Traitors: Blacklisted Screenwriters” by Ryskind

Ryskind's book is covers an important and largely unknown part of American history and, in particular, the history of the Cold War.

Hollywood Traitors by Allan Ryskand
Hollywood Traitors by Allan Ryskand

WASHINGTON, February 6, 2015 — Congressional investigations into Hollywood subversives in the years leading up to World War II and into the early years of the Cold War supposedly represented an assault on civil liberties and freedom of speech.

The resulting blacklist of writers who refused to answer questions posed by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) is likewise viewed as an assault on liberty. Critics assume that Communism was no threat to the integrity of the motion picture industry; the threat was a myth promoted by a right-wing intent on pursuing  an American form of fascism.

The reality was different. In an important new book, the most thorough ever written on the subject, Allan Ryskind tells a story which brings alive an historical period now largely forgotten.

In “Hollywood Traitors: Blacklisted Screenwriters — Agents of Stalin, Allies of Hitler” (Regnery), Ryskind shows that the alleged victims of the Hollywood blacklist were, in fact, 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.

Ryskind, a respected journalist and long-time editor of Human Events, is an authoritative source. 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 Hollywood drama.

The Soviet Union recognized the importance of propaganda to further its goal of world domination 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 Comintern’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 so-called “Hollywood Ten,” who were brought before Congress and eventually sent to prison for contempt of Congress, were prominent screenwriters and dedicated Communists who did their best to promote their Marxist 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 Stalin’s Soviet Union and Kim Il-sung’s North Korea and as an apologist for Nazi Germany are typical examples of his far-left orientation.

According to Ryskind, during the years of the Hitler-Stalin pact, 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 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 why so many screenwriters simply stopped thinking for themselves to 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.

After the Hitler-Stalin Pact was signed in 1939, 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.’

“Hollywood’s fervent 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” 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 that 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 once again discovered 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, one of the “Hollywood Ten” screenwriters, 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 Communists 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. In this book’s pages, we also meet many Hollywood figures who did their best to resist these Communist 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” testified before Congress about the propaganda-soaked movie “Song of Russia,” written by two devout Communists, Richard Collins and Paul Jarrico.

The Congressional hearings on Communism in Hollywood have been and remain the subject of much controversy. Whatever one thinks about Congress’s role, it is hard to understand how Communist writers who worked so hard for another nation and against their own country’s interests have become heroes to many liberals.

How do they respect men and women who claimed that Hitler was evil one day and embraced him the next, not out of any genuine conviction, but out of their ingrained habit of 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.”

Ryskind’s book explodes many myths about the real role of Communists in Hollywood. It is encyclopedic in scope, and anyone who wishes to understand what was really happening during those years should read it. In researching and writing it, Allan Ryskind has performed a notable service by bravely illuminating an important and largely unknown part of American history and the history of the Cold War.

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Allan C. Brownfeld
Received B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary, and M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen's Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonweal and The Christian Century. His essays have been reprinted in a number of text books for university courses in Government and Politics. For many years, his column appeared several times a week in papers such as The Washington Times, The Phoenix Gazette and the Orange County Register. He served as a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, as Assistant to the research director of the House Republican Conference and as a consultant to members of the U.S. Congress and to the Vice President. He is the author of five books and currently serves as Contributing Editor of The St. Croix Review, Associate Editor of The Lincoln Review and editor of Issues.