Hollywood’s Despicable Hero Dalton Trumbo
Cliff Kincaid, director of the AIM Center for Investigative Journalism, interviewed Allan H. Ryskind, author of the book, Hollywood Traitors, and long-time editor of the newspaper Human Events, about the life and beliefs of Dalton Trumbo, a major Hollywood screenwriter and the subject of the film “Trumbo.” Trumbo supported Lenin, Stalin, Hitler and North Korea’s Kim Il-Sung. He condemned Martin Luther King, Jr., for not being a true revolutionary. Yet, he is depicted in the film as just a family-friendly socialist and defender of the First Amendment in the film.
Ryskind’s father, the famous Hollywood screenwriter Morrie Ryskind, worked with Ronald Reagan, John Wayne, Walt Disney and others against communist domination of Hollywood. Reagan considered Human Events as his favorite newspaper when he was president.
In addition to being honored by Hollywood, Trumbo’s star, Bryan Cranston, and director Jay Roach, were given an “exclusive private tour” of the Newseum, the privately-funded museum in Washington, D.C. dedicated to the First Amendment.
Q: Much of Hollywood has given a major send-off to the movie, “Trumbo,” which celebrates the famous Communist screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. Bryan Cranston, who plays Trumbo in the movie, has just been nominated “best actor in a leading role” by the Screen Actors Guild. SAG had even pushed for the entire cast to get an Oscar. Many Hollywood organizations, like the Broadcast Film Critics Association and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, have wholeheartedly embraced the movie’s message of Dalton as a First Amendment hero and Cranston as a best actor nominee. And this is only part of the story. The Hollywood Reporter, the industry’s well-known trade publication, and the SAG’s influential magazine, Written By, have devoted loads of publicity to the supposed importance of the film and the wonders of Dalton himself. You’ve seen the film, so what do you make of it as an accurate picture of the times?
A: Look, if you didn’t know anything about the effort by serious Communists—and Dalton was a very serious Communist—to capture the movie industry for the purpose of serving our deadly enemy, the Soviet Union, you’d think this was a pleasant movie and that Dalton was an avuncular idealist whose guiding political philosophy was not communism but helping the underdog and preserving the First Amendment. He is portrayed as something of a saintly socialist who not only defied the Hollywood blacklist, but defeated it and struck a major blow for freedom and patriotic progressives. To the extent it is conceded that he had some theoretical beliefs that could be considered Marxist, he is depicted as more Pope Francis than Vladimir Lenin.
Q: In what way does the movie hide or gloss over Trumbo’s Red record?
A: All of his heavy-duty propaganda and activities on behalf of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin and the Communist Party are omitted. So is his vigorous support of Lenin, Adolph Hitler (during the Hitler-Stalin pact) and North Korea’s Kim Il-sung after his aggressive attack against South Korea in 1950. Even his membership in the American CP, which he eventually bragged about, is ignored. Dalton was on Stalin’s side virtually all of his adult life—in important ways—but those unfamiliar with the titanic battle between the Sovieteers and the anti-Communists in Hollywood wouldn’t have a clue as to what that fight in the movie colony was all about and Trumbo’s deep involvement on the Soviet side.
The villains in the movie, incidentally, are not the party members who worked covertly—and relentlessly—to turn Hollywood over to Moscow but the anti-Communist community who fought the Red conspiracy in the film industry—and won, at least for a time. Columnist Hedda Hopper, John Wayne, labor leader Roy Brewer, the House Un-American Activities Committee, the Motion Picture Alliance and other opponents of the Communists come in for a severe beating. And while the picture blasts the blacklist, which banned Communist Party members from the industry, the average viewer would have virtually no idea as to what it meant to be a party member and why the blacklist was imposed.
Q: How did this movie come about?
A: The film’s screenwriter, John McNamara, who has done a number of TV shows, was inspired by Bruce Cook’s 1977 friendly biography of Trumbo. McNamara, who worked on the script for years, is plainly a big admirer of the screenwriter who wrote a number of excellent movies, including “Spartacus” and “Roman Holiday.” Director Jay Roach, who directed the “Austin Powers” movies, is another Trumbo fan. The star who plays Dalton, Bryan Cranston, the meth dealer in the hit TV show, “Breaking Bad,” has been touring the nation singing the praises of Dalton as a fighter for freedom.
Q: You say he was a “Stalinist” and a member of the Communist Party, facts that you argue are fundamentally ignored by the movie. But how do we know he was a party member?
A: There is no question about his CP membership. In those famous 1947 hearings, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) submitted material proving beyond a doubt that he was a party member, though Trumbo and nine other screenwriters and directors refused to respond to questions about party membership, accusing HUAC of violating their First Amendment rights. Trumbo and the other nine, soon to be dubbed The Hollywood Ten, served time in prison for contempt of Congress and were blacklisted because the Hollywood studios laid down the rule that no one could work in Hollywood if he or she belonged to the Soviet-controlled Communist Party or refused to tell Congress they were party members. (Each of the Ten, by the way, was a party member and their Communist cards were produced at the ’47 hearings.)
Years later, however, Trumbo finally admitted to his biographer, Bruce Cook, that he joined the party in 1943, and that “I might as well have been a Communist ten years earlier. But I’ve never regretted it. As a matter of fact, it’s possible to say I would have regretted not having done it.” (Bruce Cook’s Dalton Trumbo, pp. 146-148) No regrets about being a tool of a party controlled by the Caligula in the Kremlin? Apparently not.
In an unpublished memo among his papers at the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison (a copy of which is in my possession), Trumbo writes, after his prison term and a lengthy sojourn to Mexico, that he “re-affiliated with the party in 1954” and that “in the spring of 1956, I left the party for good.” His papers in Madison also revealed he remained a Stalin apologist until Trumbo’s death in 1976, insisting that whatever his defects, the Kremlin dictator’s most important historical contribution was to have advanced the cause of socialism worldwide.
Q: But is it really fair to call him a Stalinist, rather than a man who frequently followed the party line?
A: Though he says he joined the party in 1943, Trumbo never publicly deviated from the Stalinist line since the late 1930s and never publicly displayed a bit of remorse for that evil man’s malevolent rule. In a sympathetic portrayal of the Hollywood Communists in their classic [book], The Inquisition in Hollywood, authors Larry Ceplair and Steven Englund ask: “Were the Hollywood Communists ‘Stalinist?’ The initial answer must be ‘yes.’ Communist screenwriters defended the Stalinist regime, accepted the Comintern’s policies and about-faces, and criticized enemies and allies alike with an infuriating self-righteousness, superiority and selective memory, which eventually alienated all but the staunchest fellow travelers.” (p. 239)
“As defenders of the Soviet regime,” they added, “the screen artists Reds became known apologists for crimes of monstrous dimensions, though they claimed to have known nothing about such crimes, and, indeed, shouted down, or ignored those who did.” Ceplair and Englund also stress that they “defended that regime unflinchingly, uncritically, inflexibly—and therefore left themselves open to the justifiable suspicion that they not only approved of everything they were defending, but would themselves act in the same way if they were in the same position.” (emphasis added) (p. 241)
Trumbo fits that description to a tee.
Q: Both the liberals and the Left continue to say that there never was a genuine Red “threat” in Hollywood to begin with. Yes, there were some folks who might have mouthed the Soviet line once in a while or “flirted with Communist ideas,” as industry representative Jack Valenti put it, but they weren’t really subversive and had no real influence over the movie colony to begin with. So why did HUAC feel compelled to hold those 1947 hearings on the Communist influence in the movie industry?
A: By 1944, a number of important Hollywood writers, directors, labor union officials and studio executives, alarmed by the Red infiltration of the industry, formed the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (the MPA). Among the founders and members were Morrie Ryskind (my dad), Walt Disney, Russian émigré Ayn Rand, labor union officials and executives from various studios. Actors Robert Taylor and John Wayne were leaders in the group, (which, incidentally, is walloped by the Trumbo movie). They were of various political persuasions, but they all despised the Communists, whom they viewed as enemies of America.
The group was formed because in 1944 it looked as if committed Stalinists had taken control of Hollywood. Hard-core party members had major influence in the powerful guilds and unions, with the very influential Screen Writers Guild picking party members Dalton Trumbo and Gordon Kahn in June 1945 to run the guild’s flagship publication, The Screen Writer. Under Trumbo and Kahn, the publication became a tool of the CP, celebrating important screenwriter Reds and advertising lectures on history, economics and foreign policy from a Marxist and Soviet point of view. Trumbo also used it as a platform to attack the Hollywood anti-Communist community. Communist screenwriters, moreover, had major influence on Hollywood scripts and were turning out films hailing the Soviet economic and political system and even the murderous Joseph Stalin himself.
By 1947, you also have to remember, the Cold War, which Stalin had initiated by seizing Eastern Europe and a portion of Central Europe through force and threats of force, was already under way. And the overwhelming majority of Americans had come to realize that Stalin was a deadly enemy. Even the cream of the liberal community, such as FDR’s widow, Eleanor Roosevelt, liberal lawyer Joseph Rauh and union leaders Walter Reuther and David Dubinsky had deliberately split with the Communists, forming in January of 1947 the Americans for Democratic Action which banned, or should I say blacklisted, anyone who was a Communist. But Hollywood Communists, through party fronts, books, essays, movies, political activities and pots full of money, deliberately allied themselves with Moscow against America and the rest of the Free World.
Q: You say that Trumbo sided with Hitler at one point, but didn’t the Communists in Hollywood lead the fight against fascism and Naziism?
A: Early on, they opposed Hitler, whom they rightly viewed as a major threat to the Soviet Union, the country they had embraced as their own. They formed the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, called on the country to boycott German goods and urged the U.S. to aid the “anti-fascist forces” in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. John Howard Lawson, who became the chief enforcer of the Stalinist line in Hollywood, even wrote a movie, “Blockade,” to help persuade FDR to assist the Soviet side.
What is customarily omitted in so much of the “history” is that the Soviet Union and the Communist parties around the globe switched sides on August 23, 1939, when Hitler and Stalin formed the Hitler-Stalin pact. The Hollywood Reds now supported Hitler when he invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939—the immediate cause of World War II—and backed him the next year when he conquered Norway, Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg and then put down the Nazi flag in France. Stalin’s key aide, V. Molotov, even sent Hitler a congratulatory note when France fell to German forces. And the Red screenwriters, Trumbo especially, backed Hitler when he began raining death and destruction on London.
Trumbo, in fact, led the fight to ease Hitler’s burden of conquest. He did this by demonizing all of Hitler’s enemies and accusing Great Britain of being deceptive, dishonorable and unworthy of American assistance. England, he noted, was a monarchy, not a democracy, and had declared war against Hitler, not the other way around. He also accused FDR, previously a Communist Party favorite, of being guilty of “treason” and “black treason” for giving weapons to the British in their hour of peril. Trumbo enthusiastically presented his views in speeches and in writing and laid out the case most explicitly in his 1941 novel, The Remarkable Andrew.
The Hollywood Communists, including Trumbo, quickly turned against Hitler after the Fuehrer double-crossed Stalin and launched a massive invasion of the Soviet Union in June of 1941. Then, and only then, did the radical screenwriters switch sides again, now demanding America give major military and economic assistance to Moscow to help it survive the Nazi onslaught. Only after Hitler invaded the USSR did the Red screenwriters become “patriotic,” since they believed U.S. assistance was crucial to the Soviet Union’s survival. Their patriotic feelings were for Stalin’s Russia, not their country of birth.
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