Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Don't believe what Hollywood tells you - HUAC was a force for good

As we now know, the House Un-American Activities Committee was the most evil organisation in history – worse by far than the Gestapo, the KGB and the Inquisition put together. The infamous Nazi senator, Joe McCarthy, led a cabal of vicious, Far Right lunatics in smearing the reputations of thousands of innocent, humane liberal actors, film directors and government officials – all lovers of American democracy – ensuring they never worked again.

Most of their victims died in poverty or committed suicide or spent years in prison for wanting to help poor people, blacks, and poor black people. The HUAC hearings were no different from the show trials that took place in Germany and the USSR during the 1930s – in fact, because America was supposed to be a democracy, they were morally worse.

Well, that’s the version we all grew up with, fostered by any number of Hollywood movies which tell the story from an unrelentingly left-wing viewpoint – including Gulity by SuspicionThe FrontGood Night and Good Luck and, of course, The Crucible (yes, I know it was a play first). 

Inevitably, just as infamous pro-Communist wartime films, Mission to Moscow and Song of Russia, and others of their ilk, painted a ludicrously false picture of Soviet Russia, the version of HUAC up there on the big screen is almost entirely false.

Let’s get Joe McCarthy out of the way for a start. The Senator from Wisconsin had nothing whatsoever to do with the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was an organ of Congress (as it were), not the Senate. McCarthy’s red-baiting activities tainted the whole US anti-communist movement in general, and the Republican Party in particular. The fact that he was eventually officially censured by his Senate colleagues suggests that democracy was still fully functioning in 1950s America. Equating HUAC’s activities with those of McCarthy represents the same lefty device of smearing anyone who voices concerns about multiculturalism these days as a fellow-traveller of the BNP.

My first inkling that HUAC might not have been a positive force for evil came when, in my late teens, I read Inquisition in Eden by Alvah Bessie, an Academy Award-nominated screenwriter who was one of the Hollywood Ten, imprisoned after refusing to answer the committee’s questions. Bessie’s an engaging writer, sounds like a decent man, and his career was genuinely destroyed by his refusal to co-operate.

But three things worried me about the book. First was the amount of space Bessie devoted to telling us that Errol Flynn was a rotten actor: this struck me as a mean bit of score-settling. Second, I couldn’t quite understand why he was so unwilling to co-operate with the Committee: communists don’t believe in democracy or the rule of law, so why had he and his fellow-leftists attempted to hide behind their interpretation of democratic laws (inevitably, some of their lawyers were communists as well)? Third, I couldn’t believe that anyone as bright and as seemingly decent as Alvah Bessie could allow themselves to be so blinded by their obsession with the various motes in America’s eye that
they couldn’t bear to acknowledge the sodding great beam in Russia’s. Had he never noticed that the USSR’s state emblem as a hammer and sickle imposed on a globe?

A few years later, after Solzhenitsyn’s ’s The Gulag Archipelago had completed the work of Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror by revealing once and for all the USSR to be the most monstrous tyranny in history, I bought a second-hand copy of Thirty Years of Treason: Excerpts from Hearings before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, 1938-1968, a 991-page monster of a book edited by Eric Bentley, first published in 1972.

These raw clumps of dialogue, featuring everyone from Ronald Reagan (then a liberal), Adolphe Menjou and Gary Cooper to Bertolt Brecht, Arthur Miller and Lillian Hellman – with Edward G. Robinson, Lionel Stander, Sterling Hayden and Lee J. Cobb in between – are as compelling as any to be found in drama.  Mid-West Republican conservatives and West Coast liberal intellectuals battle it out over hundreds of pages. There are committed totalitarians like John Howard Lawson (a truly horrible shit) who tried to turn the Screenwriters’ Guild into a machine for churning out pro-Soviet propaganda. There are former Communist party members like the actor Larry Parks, twisting and turning, desperately trying to save their careers. There are ant-Communist campaigners like Ayn Rand filleting the rampant communist propaganda peddled in some 1940s Hollywood films (she really gave one hell of a performance!).

Ever single part of the political spectrum between hard-line totalitarianism at one end, through liberalism and conservatism in the middle, and on to right-wingery and rampant libertarianism at the other is represented. There are fiercely bright people – and a few dumb ones. There are the morally insane and the decent and upstanding. It is endlessly fascinating!

What comes across is that there’s some truth in the standard liberal view of these events. Quite a few creative types suffered unnecessarily because they’d been suckered by hard-line commies into joining the Party in the early part of their career, or, more commonly, convinced to publicly support various trendy, feelgood liberal causes without realising that the aim of the organisers was to subvert belief in Western democracy. And some of the committee members’ pronouncements sound like paranoid “reds under the bed” ravings.

But the truth is that there were many committed communists in Hollywood (and the New York theatre) supporting a party which thought the sun shone of out Stalin’s freckle, and which was committed to undermining and overthrowing America’s democratic institutions. They were traitors to their country: their motives and levels of intelligence and gullibility are beside the point – they were serving a foreign power. 

In Hollywood, communists organised ruinous strikes designed to bring the studios to heel, formed a whole series of cuddly-sounding front organisations, and did their best to shoe-horn anti-American messages into as many films as possible. At the very moment when the United States was busy saving the world from one form of tyranny, these fifth columnists were busy preparing the way for their own country to be taken over by another. Their strategy was to make Americans question their faith in their own country and its institutions so they’d eventually be ready to accept a Moscow-run communist government.

Of course, they got their way eventually, the communists, insofar as sizable segments  of America’s film and TV industries have worked tirelessly for decades to make Americans feel bad about themselves. But HUAC held them up long enough so that by the time leftists had gained near-total control of Hollywood and terrestrial TV, the Soviet Union didn’t exist exist any more and China would be too busy buying America to bother trying to impose its political philosophy on its new bitch.

HUAC finally bit the dust in 1975, but the main work of saving America from the genuine menace of communist infiltration (and, let’s be honest, the far more pressing threat of Eleanor Roosevelt-style left-liberalism) was conducted in the late 1940s and early 1950s. A number of anti-communist films were produced in Hollywood at that time in order to redress all the bad publicity HUAC was causing. 

It would be nice to think that the film industry might one day honour the committee’s work – but let’s face it, that’s not going to happen, because Eleanor Roosevelt-style left-liberalism has finally won the day.


  1. For anyone who's the slightest bit interested in HUAC, there's an excellent 1970s documentary about their activties available on YouTube, made by John Huston - "Hollywood on Trial" url:

    It's biased in favour of The Ten, of course - there's only one former committee member interviewed, and there's little attempt to examine the activities of communist agitators in Hollywood. But the original footage is fascinating.

  2. Much enjoyed this post. I had not seen "Hollywood on Trial" and it's an excellent documentary. Many interesting aspects, not least of which is J. Parnell Thomas' furious ranting and gavel bashing when the defendants refused to ive him straight answers. It is a little reminiscent of "Raving" Roland Freisler, the Nazi judge who conducted the proceedings after the July 1944 attempt to assassinate Hitler three years earlier. Also rivetting, but also sickening [you will recall the superb portrayal of Freisler in "Alone in Berlin"]. There was a documentary about about Bernie Madoff on More4 [look to your laurels, BBC4] last week which showed a Senate committee tear into four stuttering officials from the Securities and Exchange Commission after they had been warned for years about Madoff's nefarious activities [two of them got fired immediately after the hearing.] Why weren't members of the Financial Services Authority dragged in front of a Select Committee and given a similar public drubbing? The Americans have always done these things superbly well. We are useless: soft soap and no results and comic interludes [see the recent News International enquiry - the best they achieved was some old man blurting out "Oi've never been so 'umbled in all moi loif!"]

    I am now trying to track down a documentary about Joe McCarthy and Roy Cohn which ended up with the former's complete humiliation [which I have seen at some stage]. Mc Carthy died of alcoholism and Parnell Thomas ended up in prison after helping himself to the public purse. What is it about politicians helping themselves to tax-payers money?

    The other thing that fascinated me was Dalton Trumbo's pet parakeet walking all over him in the interview [it reminded me of W.Churchill's insistence that his two budgies were always allowed to fly around the back of his official car while he dictated to two secretaries who were duly covered in crap by the end of the journey while the great man remained untouched. Two class acts.]