The recent film Trumbo, which focuses on the trials and tribulations of writer Dalton Trumbo, got me thinking about that era of American history known as the Blacklist. Trumbo and a number of other artists were the focus of government investigations into their political affiliations with the Communist Party.
We look back on that time now as one of America’s darkest hours, when it turned on its own for the sake of security and political expediency, motivated by fear and misunderstanding. Frankly, I look at the news today, and I don’t see how much has changed, right or left. Our tolerance for ideas that challenge our own is at an all-time low. But that’s another conversation.
Right now, I would like to share some thoughts on the Blacklist from my book, The Cold War, now available on Amazon.
In its fervor to uncover communist subversion in Cold War America, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) focused much of its energies on the entertainment industry. It was believed that communist infiltration in motion pictures could greatly influence public opinion because of the America’s love of the movies. During the height of the HUAC investigations from 1947 to 1951 many of Hollywood’s top producers, directors, and stars were called before the committee.
Nine screenwriters and one director who refused to comply with HUAC’s questioning (and were in fact previously or currently members of the Communist Party) went to jail for Contempt of Congress. They were Alvah Bessie, Herbert Biberman, Lester Cole, Edward Dmytryk, Ring Lardner Jr., John Howard Lawson, Albert Maltz, Samuel Ornitz, Adrian Scott, and Dalton Trumbo. This Hollywood Ten, as they came to be know, were officially banned from working in Hollywood for many years, but some continued to work under pseudonyms.
Other Hollywood figures would face scorn in later years for naming these artists and others, among them director Elia Kazan, actor Sterling Hayden, and choreographer Jerome Robbins.
It is easy in hindsight for us to label one group or another as subversive, misunderstood, fearful, antagonist, or what have you. But it is important to put oneself in the context of the time. There was a battle for supremacy taking place in the 1950s between the United States and the Soviet Union. The stakes were enormously high, and governments and their proxies were playing for keeps. There were innocent people caught in the crossfire, to be sure. Like it or not, just who those innocent people are is subject to conjecture.
There are real historic lessons to be learned from the Blacklist and the Hollywood Ten, but it looks like those lessons have yet to be fully absorbed. The work continues.
Learn more about the Blacklist and other Cold War topics by checking out my book The Cold War, available now on Amazon.