Red-phobia is once again all the rage. Today, the question asked by the media and politicians is whether Russia had a hand in turning the U.S. election in Donald Trump’s favor. Decades ago, Mother Russia was the source of much consternation and breast beating following both World Wars – the First and Second Red Scares, respectively, where communist conspiracies were exposed and prosecuted while others were merely speculations of the tin-foil hat variety (watch out for that fluoridated water!).
The difference between then and now is that Russia today isn’t exactly Communist, yet it’s alleged there exists a contemporary conspiracy masterminded by Vladimir Putin to place a Republican candidate in the Oval Office. Sound like a setup for an Oliver Stone flick? Wait…it actually is – a four-hour interview conducted by Stone with Putin is scheduled to air on Showtime beginning June 12. Yup, the director of 2012’s acid flashback, fever-dream documentary The Untold History of the United States, is going to expose the REAL story. Or something. It’s time to block that tin-foil hat!
Regardless the outcome of the investigation announced yesterday of the current presidential administration by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, it’s a certainty Hollywood will gin up its agitprop apparatus. But, rest assured, it’s not the first time Hollywood deliberately skewed or, more charitably, misunderstood the history of the past century. However, the last time has been completely transformed into a commonly accepted narrative that transformed Sen. Joseph McCarthy as well as the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) into villains while martyring any celebrity suspected of ties with the Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA).
Mention Soviet Union infiltration of the U.S. literary-entertainment industrial complex to certain uninformed “intellectuals” and it’s certain you’ll hear about ignominious blacklists, the Hollywood Ten, HUAC, and McCarthy. Press the issue further, and you’re bound to hear about witch hunts, The Crucible, The Front, Goodnight and Good Luck and Elia Kazan’s 1952 “betrayal” of his Fellow Travelers in the CPUSA in the 1930s. It’s all-too predictable and goes something along the lines that the careers of innocent, creative men and women were “destroyed” because they exercised the personal freedom to advocate the systematic dismantling of democratic freedoms in a capitalist society.
It was all so benign, you see, and all those kind-hearted, angelic scribblers, actors, directors and producers were simply patsies to begin with and subsequently done extremely wrong by their peers and the American legal and political system. The battle raged until the collapse of the Soviet Empire in 1989, when it was softly resolved by academia and other intellectuals that Hollywood swells were, to a person, persecuted wrongly.
Never readers mind that Soviet spooks – called the NKVD prior to the renamed KGB – were actively recruiting U.S. writers both in- and outside the entertainment industry throughout the 1930s and 1940s. Among the writers approached was Ernest Hemingway, the subject of a new biography by Nicholas Reynolds: Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy: Ernest Hemingway’s Secret Adventures, 1935-1961 [HarperCollins, 2017, 357 pp., $27.95]. To anyone familiar with Hemingway’s biography, it’s not surprising he accepted the NKVD’s offer. Reynolds assures readers that Hemingway subsequently did little or nothing to advance Soviet ends in the United States or elsewhere. The author should know as he held several positions in the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, and had access to smuggled NKFD files:
A reference at CIA pointed to a declassified OSS [Office of Strategic Services; the forerunner of today’s CIA] file, now in the National Archives at College Park, Maryland, outside Washington DC. … In the end a friendly Hemingway scholar shared a copy of the OSS file that he had unearthed in 1983. Along the way, I found other tantalizing traces of once-secret OSS, FBI, and State Department files….
I stumbled on the NKVD connection when checking to see if I had covered all the bases in my research. I looked in unusual places for any references to Hemingway and intelligence. On a fateful day I pulled off the shelf a 2009 book cowritten by an estranged KGB officer, Alexander Vassiliev. The work featured a subchapter that incorporated verbatim excerpts from Ernest Hemingway’s official Soviet file that Vassiliev had smuggled out of Russia. Vassiliev’s evidence was solid. The records of Hemingway’s relationship with the NKVD showed that a Soviet operative had recruited Hemingway ‘for our work on ideological grounds’ around December 1940, at a time when Stalin ruled the Soviet Union with an iron hand was aligned with Hitler under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact – to say nothing of the bloody purges that had started in 1934 and were continuing with no end in sight.
The truth, of course, is complex. It’s well-known that Hemingway rubbed shoulders with shady characters over the course of his public life, and it comes as no surprise he was suspicious of the Federal Bureau of Investigation to the point of paranoia – he was, after all, an outspoken advocate of Fidel Castro’s overthrow of Fulgencia Batista’s U.S.-backed and extremely corrupt Cuban government at the outset of the revolution before Castro’s own evil metastasized. Furthermore, Hemingway’s essays for the Marxist New Masses magazine during the 1930s displayed a decidedly left-of-center bent. His antifascist activities during the Spanish Civil War provided fodder for his best war novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and helped peg him as soft on Stalin (he was and for quite some time). While the activities of NKVD apparatchiks in Spain forced Hemingway’s friend John Dos Passos to rethink his allegiance to Soviet ideology, Hemingway himself continued to accept significant aspects of the Soviet dialectic.
Yet, on the other hand, Hemingway also blurred the lines between embedded reporter and active Allied combatant, serving bravely in heated battles during the waning years of World War II. Hemingway wasn’t a full-borne Communist, Reynolds reminds readers, inasmuch he was a lifelong antifascist. A decidedly leftist antifascist, to be sure – one who outfitted his boat Pilar to patrol for German U-boats but later used it to stash weaponry for anti-Batista revolutionaries.
Whereas Hemingway mostly steered clear of actively serving the Russian Bear, his cohorts in Hollywood were laying down the Red carpet by disseminating Communist propaganda and actively fundraising for the Soviet cause. When these “oppressed” individuals weren’t engaged in directing such films as Tender Comrade – directed by Edward Dmytryk, who, despite eventually turning against his fellow travelers, maintained he never considered that film a paean to Communism (it most certainly is) – were actively engaged in preventing anti-Communist messaging throughout the entertainment industry. For example, Reynolds repeats the well-known fact that Hollywood apparatchiks maintained their own blacklist.
Arthur Koestler’s novel, Darkness at Noon, a scathing indictment of Stalin’s Show Trials, was but one work forbidden perusal by CPUSA members. Dmytryk recounted the following experience in Odd Man Out: A Memoir of the Hollywood Ten:
Some time after I had joined the party, [Hollywood producer Adrian] Scott and I were walking across the lot at RKO when I happened to mention that I was reading an extremely interesting book.
‘What book,’ asked Scott.
‘Koestler’s Darkness at Noon,’ I replied.
Adrian stopped short, and as I turned to face him, he spoke in a subdued voice. ‘Good God!’ he said. ‘Don’t ever mention that to anyone in the group!’
‘Why not?’ I was honestly puzzled.
‘It’s on the list!’ he breathed, looking a little embarrassed.‘Koestler is corrupt – a liar. He is an ex-communist, and no member of the Party is allowed to read him….
I had not known the Party maintained an index of its own. I was naïve, but not totally stupid. I learned two things from that brief, half-whispered exchange; first, that Scott was also a member of the Party and, second, that to a communist, nobody is as low as an excommunist – nobody! Defection cannot be forgiven nor forgotten.
Reynolds adds in his Hemingway biography that none other than Hollywood Ten poster-child Dalton Trumbo bragged repeatedly about having a hand in scuttling a cinematic adaptation of Koestler’s novel. As noted previously in this space, Trumbo’s public return from his blacklist exile was as screenwriter for Stanley Kubrik’s sword-and-sandal epic, Spartacus. Rather than using Koestler’s superior The Gladiators as source material, Trumbo opted to adapt Howard Fast’s Spartacus instead. Not surprisingly, Fast also was a prominent member of the CPUSA.
In his 1998 book Hollywood Party: How Communism Seduced the American Film Industry in the 1930s and 1940s, Kenneth Lloyd Billingsley describes “the Communist fatwa against Koestler” in Hollywood. He also recounts the horrible treatment of former members of the CPUSA – Dmytryk’s experience tellingly, but nothing stands out for this writer more than the actors who refused to stand for the Special Lifetime Achievement Award presented to legendary film director Elia Kazan at the 1999 Academy Awards. In their holier than thou haste to punish Kazan and Dmytryk for naming names, Hollywood Communists and those sympathetic to that cause continue their futile attempts to bury the reputations of two of the finest film directors of the 1950s. It’s hard to imagine any honest Top 100 All-Time American movie list without inclusion of Kazan’s On the Waterfront and Dmytryk’s The Caine Mutiny. It’s still not too late to adapt Darkness at Noon for the silver screen! What a tonic such a film would be for our increasingly contemporary collectivist era.