Lillian Hellman Haunts History.com

Oct 26, 2013 by

The popular website regurgitates the liberal spin on communists in Hollywood.

I thought Lillian Hellman was dead. It must be her ghost, then, that’s haunting—and writing—at History.com. How else does one explain this “This Day in History” post this week?

On October 20, 1947, the notorious Red Scare kicks into high gear in Washington, as a Congressional committee begins investigating Communist influence in one of the world’s richest and most glamorous communities: Hollywood. […]

In Washington, conservative watchdogs worked to out communists in government before setting their sights on alleged “Reds” in the famously liberal movie industry. In an investigation that began in October 1947, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) grilled a number of prominent witnesses, asking bluntly “Are you or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” Whether out of patriotism or fear, some witnesses—including director Elia Kazan, actors Gary Cooper and Robert Taylor and studio honchos Walt Disney and Jack Warner—gave the committee names of colleagues they suspected of being communists.

A small group known as the “Hollywood Ten” resisted, complaining that the hearings were illegal and violated their First Amendment rights. They were all convicted of obstructing the investigation and served jail terms. Pressured by Congress, the Hollywood establishment started a blacklist policy. […] Those blacklisted included composer Aaron Copland, writers Dashiell Hammett, Lillian Hellman and Dorothy Parker, playwright Arthur Miller and actor and filmmaker Orson Welles. […]

Starting in the early 1960s, after the downfall of Senator Joseph McCarthy, the most public face of anti-communism, the ban began to lift slowly. In 1997, the Writers’ Guild of America unanimously voted to change the writing credits of 23 films made during the blacklist period, reversing—but not erasing—some of the damage done during the Red Scare.

This is incredibly frustrating. It’s maddening. As one historian friend emailed me, “What an idiotic piece.” Another wrote, “at least they didn’t imply that Joe McCarthy was in HUAC.” I suppose so.

The History.com entry revives old leftist canards that historians of this period (such as myself) hoped had been vanquished. Apparently not. The left still dominates the media and academia, and continues to perpetuate its ideologically driven caricatures. No matter what we write, I guess it doesn’t impact certain quarters. And this quarter, History.com, is an influential one. A check of its Alexa ranking lists it at 1,700 among American websites. That’s high.

So what’s wrong with this particular “This Day in History” post? Adequately answering that here is impossible. As quick recommendations for in-depth reading, I suggest readers consult my book Dupes, specifically the chapters on Hollywood, the superb Red Star Over Hollywood by Ron and Allis Radosh, Kenneth Lloyd Billingsley’s Hollywood Party, and the lesser-known Communism in Hollywood by Alan Casty. That said, here are a few observations.

The formal name of “HUAC” wasn’t “HUAC.” “HUAC” was a mis-ordered acronym cooked up by Communist Party USA, the Daily Worker, and the left generally, intended to frame the congressional committee itself as “un-American.” The committee was actually called the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HCUAA), because it investigated activities that were unquestionably un-American. More than that, it investigated not so much “un-American” activities as pro-Soviet, pro-Stalin activities. And it was staffed not by extremist “conservatives” pushing a “Red Scare” and “setting their sights” upon innocent “liberals,” but by Democrats and Republicans alike. In fact, HCUAA was founded by and chaired throughout most of its existence by Democrats. There was a bipartisan awareness that domestic communism, led by the Soviet-directed and funded Communist Party USA (CPUSA), was a clear concern. The forces who attempted to argue otherwise were CPUSA members publicly masquerading as “progressives.” These members, who were hardened and active Soviet patriots, sought to mislead and dupe the wider liberal left and general public.

As to some of the specific individuals named in the History.com piece, Arthur Miller was once a small “c” communist and almost certainly a Party member. Congress secured and published a copy of his CPUSA membership application card (which I republished in Dupes). Miller wrote for and was prominent in publications like New Masses and the Daily Worker, which adored his work and gave away his books as special gift offerings in exchange for subscription purchases. The Daily Worker wrote a gushing review of Miller’s hysterical left-wing morality play, The Crucible, an allegory of the “HUAC” hearings, painting congressmen investigating American Stalinists as “witch-hunters.”

As for Dashiell Hammett, the mystery writer doubled as Lillian Hellman’s “lover.” The two were an item on the intellectual left. CPUSA recently finally admitted that Hammett in fact had been a Party member. It was hardly a surprise.

As for Elia Kazan, he had been a former Party member, and realized it was a grave mistake. He wanted the world to know that communist penetration in Hollywood was real and that Party members were committed to a horrific system that was murdering people by the millions. As they privately professed and battled for such a system, Hollywood’s communists publicly proclaimed that they were just good-hearted “progressives” being viciously harassed by the “fascists” at “HUAC.”

As to Arthur Miller’s invoking the Salem witch trials, Kazan’s wife, Molly, a liberal anti-communist, objected: “Those witches did not exist. Communists do. Here, and everywhere in the world. It’s a false parallel. Witch hunt! No one who was in the Party … uses that phrase. They know better.”

Lillian and Dashiell knew better. Elia Kazan described Lillian as a “coiled snake.”

Kazan, like so many ex-communists, knew intimately well what a bunch of brutal smear-mongers these people were. Some were not only Stalinists in loyalty and ideology, but in temperament, tactics, and their ruthless enforcement of Party discipline. They had no compunction about destroying the reputations of colleagues who weren’t communists but who they could cynically exploit.

The American Spectator : Lillian Hellman Haunts History.com.

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