Looking Back on the Blacklisted
By Stephen S. Rosenfeld
Friday, November 28, 1997; Page A27
The Washington Post
Coming of age right after World War II, a teenager could be forgiven for the confusion verging on blankness with which he encountered the Hollywood "blacklist." To find the Soviet Union being converted from wartime comrade to peacetime adversary was difficult enough for a politically impressionable but fact-free student to grasp. To have it suggested that the people who made the movies were somehow guilty of smuggling a now-subversive Russian potion into our Saturday afternoon film fare -- into "Gilda"?! -- was positively mind-boggling.
But this is how our postwar generation came in its fashion to cope with the early Cold War persecution of the American movie industry by reason of the supposed Communist affiliation of many of its members. We came to know of the "Hollywood Ten," the screenwriters and others jailed for contempt of Congress for refusing to tell the House Un-American Activities Committee who else was a Communist. A studio blacklist denied employment to admitted and suspected party members. The creative guilds demanded loyalty oaths of their frightened rosters: McCarthyism even before Sen. Joseph McCarthy came aboard full-time.
Hollywood used the recent 50th anniversary of the blacklist to apologize to those victimized by it, to hail the few survivors and to add impetus to the drive to restore their personal credits to movie workers who had been forced to conceal their identity in order to put bread on the table. "There is no place in a free society for the blacklisting and censorship that took place 50 years ago," an industry spokesman said.
Fifty years later, it is certainly much harder to find someone who would not agree that it is un-American to penalize a person for his (known or suspected) thoughts and words rather than for his criminal deeds. If we have not become a more tolerant nation in that time, then at the least the demise of the Cold War has lowered the temperature in which such a basic issue of free speech could be discussed. Complaints of the alleged liberal bias of the movies are a fixture of our political debate but not a matter for official investigations, oaths and courts.
The issue that was the subtext of the blacklisting phase is something else -- telling the authorities under pressure who else might be involved or, as it was called, naming names. Aversion to snitching comes from many sources in our culture and is found across the whole political spectrum.
For me and perhaps a good many others, however, Hollywood's 50th anniversary reminiscences and the studio and guild apologies do not constitute the last word. What is missing from the discussion is an evaluation of the substance of the political views many of the movie people held. Their views were in the range stretching from mistaken to despicable. These people were members of Stalin's party. They bowed to a tyrant. In whatever small way, wittingly or unwittingly, they gave aid and comfort to a historical force representing everything that a free society does not.
This is not to say they should have been persecuted, deprived of their work and harassed into an underground existence or into exile, as tens or even hundreds of them were. The society of law for which they were implicitly expressing their contempt by joining the party still should have provided them their rights. The damage they suffered must be written into any comprehensive account of the costs the Cold War inflicted on our domestic accounts.
But an obligation falls on the ranks of the blacklisted, too. They or, in their dying or aging, those who speak for them should be prepared to re-examine the faith in a Soviet utopia that led them to overlook for years, some of them even for decades, the parade of ugly facts about what Stalin was actually doing to the peoples he repressed, including his own. They are responsible for these views. Sentiment and forgetfulness should not be allowed to wipe the slate clean.
Some of the blacklisted evidently are still not of a mind to review their past political judgments. Others found their beliefs "complicated," as one reporter carefully put it -- not rendered insupportable but merely complicated -- by such later events of the 1950s as Nikita Khrushchev's revelations of Stalin's terror and the Soviet invasion of Hungary. Not that anyone with his eyes only half open needed to wait for Khrushchev and Budapest to take Stalin's measure. To those hurt by the Hollywood "Red Scare," the very notion of apologizing, rather than being apologized to, has seemed foreign. They seem comfortable in the role of victims -- and, of course, to an extent they were victims. They do not demand of themselves the interior grappling that made honorable hard-won ex-Communists out of other, more serious people in their time.
For many of the rest of us, it is a good time to question the unconditioned sympathy for the blacklisted that was for decades an article of the American liberal faith. A conditioned sympathy will do.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company
Last modified: Thursday, 31-May-2007 09:42:45 EDT