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Trumbo: Hollywood’s Anti-Communist Tribute to Itself

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Trumbo, produced and written by John McNamara and Bruce Cook and starring Bryan Cranston, is billed as a courageous defense of Dalton Trumbo, a well-meaning communist writer. According to the film, Trumbo was little more than a courageous democrat who was Black-listed by Hollywood, went to prison, spent a decade in screenplay exile, and triumphantly returned through his own true grit and talent—as the good guys in Hollywood, Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger, finally got him re-instated. His life is portrayed as a story of how truth, justice, and the American way win out over narrow mindedness and knee jerk anti-communism. It vilifies and caricatures those like Senator Joseph McCarthy, gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, actor John Wayne, and the heads of the Hollywood studios as those who sullied our wonderful first amendment. It’s enough to make you sing America the Beautiful and sign up for the U.S. army on the way out of the theater.

Not surprisingly, we can’t expect Hollywood to tell the true story of Dalton Trumbo the radical communist or to expose capitalism or itself. It does not have the courage to present U.S. communists in any of their toughminded, courageous splendor—as the leaders of the fight against fascism, “the Party of the Negro,” the driving force for trade unionism, the defenders of the foreign born, the party that challenged the Democrats, the passionate friends and defenders of the Soviet Union, the true victors of World War II, and the best and the brightest of their generation.

There is a pathetic scene in which Trumbo’s daughter asks him, “Dad are you a communist?” He answers, “Would you share your sandwich with someone who did not have one?” to which she dutifully replies, “Of course” and he answers, “So that makes you a communist too.” If only communists were people who just wanted to share their sandwiches the entire witch hunt against them would truly be bizarre and unjust. But what if he said, “Honey, if you want to share your sandwich, seize the means of production, and smash the capitalist state yes, that would make you a communist.”

After all, do we really expect Hollywood to urge people to become communists or to challenge the Democratic Party and capitalism itself? Hell no, they want to re-package the fight against the Hollywood Blacklist as a feel-good story that would be better run on the Hallmark Channel. A film the presents the real Dalton Trumbo and other hard-assed communist writers like Richard Wright, Howard Fast, Langston Hughes as socialist revolutionaries who had great influence on their fellow travelers, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, John Steinbeck, and many others is crying out to be made.

Let’s look at how Hollywood and capitalism use a film about communism to foster anti-communism at a time when people are once again seeing through and challenging the system itself.

Dalton Trumbo was a fine writer and screenwriter. In 1938, he wrote a great anti-war novel, Johnny Got His Gun that challenged all forms of capitalist wars. During World War II he faced his own dilemma when his own true anti-war sentiments came in conflict with his support for the great anti-fascist war and yes, a war to defend the Soviet Union. That would have been worth exploring but of course it would require some explanation of the great attraction of Trumbo to the Soviet Union.

During the 1930s the Soviet Union, having learned from its errors in under-estimating Hitler in Germany, tried to organize an international “united front against fascism.” The United States, England, and France refused and instead conciliated with the Nazis—and urged them to march east to overthrow the Soviet Union if they could. In 1938 the British signed a non-aggression pact with the Germans in Munich and boasted they had bought “peace in our time.” In response, the Soviets correctly understood they had no choice but to do the same. They signed a non-aggression pact with the Germans in 1939 to buy time to arm themselves until the inevitable Nazi invasion and put pressure on the Western pro-Nazi “democracies.”

As everyone kept switching sides in the war, the US., French, and British finally reached the conclusion that a tactical alliance with the Soviet Union was necessary to defeat Hitler. This brought the world communist parties, including the CPUSA, back into the United Front Against Fascism that they had tried to initiate and into the leadership of the anti-Nazi front. Communists lead the anti-fascist resistance in China, Vietnam, Algeria, and virtually all of what would later be called Third World with the promise from the Western imperialists that they would be granted independence in return. Communists in France, Italy, and Eastern Europe also lead the anti-fascist resistance and hoped to build socialist revolutions after the conclusion of the war or at least broad anti-capitalist, anti-fascist coalition governments.

But the United States had no such plans. In fact, as early as 1945, with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the United States, England, and France double crossed their Soviet Allies who had been by far the most courageous and effective military opponents of the Nazis. They threatened the newly victorious Soviet Union with nuclear bombs and moved against communists and friends of communists in government, the arts, culture, and the Black movement. By 1947 Churchill issued his Iron Curtain speech in which the West rehabilitated Nazis in Germany, Japan, and Italy and focused on crushing a post-war socialist threat. The United States went to war against the Soviet Union and the communist Parties all over the world.

In the U.S. the Democratic and Republican Parties passed the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 that smashed communist leadership in the trade unions. The act prohibited members of the CPUSA from holding elected office as the Democrats and trade union bureaucrats turned against the courageous communists who had led the building of the Congress of Industrial Organizations. Many social democratic sell-outs in the unions reaped the benefits—taking over offices of unions, collaborating with the Democratic Party, setting up the American Institute for Free Labor Development as warriors in the cold war and allies of the corporations and the capitalist system. The U.S. moved against great Black leaders in politics and the arts such as Paul Robeson and W.E.B. DuBois, branding them as foreign agents, seizing their passports, and confining them as political prisoners in, as DuBois called it, “The land of the thief and the home of the slave.” The Democratic Party continued to be the party of the Southern Dixiecrats—the most virulent southern racists were Democrats.

The attacks on the Hollywood Ten and pro-communist artists and writers was situated in a world anti-communist Cold War carried out by the capitalist class and the leaders of both parties. There is where the term “bi-partisan” was coined. Democrats and Republicans all agreed that the enemy was communism and the Communist Party and agreed to become two wings of one pro-capitalist party to advance the interests of U.S. imperialism internationally. It is funny that leftists who say that the U.S. has “one capitalist party with two wings” are called dogmatists when after World War II it was the Democrats and Republicans who boasted that such was the case in the war against communism.

The true story of Dalton Trumbo and the Hollywood Ten would require a tough-minded film that explained the meritorious motivations of communists and the Communist Party in the United States. It would explore the true political beliefs that led people to become communists and join the Party. It would show the great role of the CPUSA in building the trade unions, fighting for the Negro, and yes, its active support of the Soviet Union and the enormous sacrifices made by tens of thousands of communist cadre. It would show how many communists joined the U.S. army to fight the fascists and were among the bravest and most courageous in battle.

It would show Dalton Trumbo, Ring Lardner Jr., John Howard Lawson, and so many others risking their careers, refusing to name names, refusing to snitch, because they were fighters for socialism not do-good liberals. It would show how they went to prison, lost jobs, risked and lost their mental and physical health. The true Trumbo film would situate his life among the lives of so many Black and white working class people who also were red-baited from their jobs, driven out of high schools, colleges, unions, and often were driven into poverty.

I remember, in 1965, meeting Irving and Skippy Riskin, two former communists who were active in the anti-war movement and whose lives still inspire me today. They were very proud of their Communist Party past. They told me about how, during the 1950s, they had gone underground, under false names, gotten “normal” jobs and tried to lead normal lives. Then they woke up one morning to read in a local New Jersey newspaper, “Irving and Skippy Riskin, Soviet spies, are underground in our community” and had to run out of town with their children with only the clothing on their backs. There are no such characters in the film.

The real Trumbo would allow real anti-capitalist dialogue that would challenge the pro-capitalist ideology of today’s audiences. This level of communist ideological discourse was often the butt of anti-communist jokes at the time. Most communists did talk about “the capitalist system, fascism, the party of the working class, the labor fakers, the fascist bastards, the Negro revolution, the wonders of the Soviet Union, the beauty of the working class, and the march forward of the proletariat” from morning to night. Sometimes they did so without much modulation, humor, and subtlety but virtually none were mealy-mouthed liberals the way Trumbo portrays its name sake

The film goes out of its way to portray Dalton Trumbo and his compatriots in the CP as simply good people who wanted jobs and justice and had nothing to do with the Soviet Union. This is an anti-communist lie. Joining the CPUSA had everything to do with the Soviet Union. Communist cadre would tell Black and white working people and yes, writers and intellectuals, “The Soviet Union is the first workers state. They tell you socialism and revolution are not possible but look, the Soviet workers did it, we can do it too? And look. The U.S. does not want the Soviet Union to last and will not really fight to defend the Soviet Union They want the Nazis to defeat the socialist experiment which is why they won’t open up a second front in World War II. Join the party. Defend the Soviet Union. Demand that the Democrats and Roosevelt open up that second front.”

The real Dalton Trumbo defended the Soviet-Nazi pact and was aggressively pro-Soviet. As Gerald Horne recounts, “Dalton Trumbo recounts with typical sarcasm and precision that in the welter of attention devoted to the Soviet-German non-aggression pact of 1939, lost in the discussion were the French-Italian agreement of 1935, the Anglo-Nazi treaty of 1935, the British Italian accord of 1938, and the Anglo-Nazi and French Nazi non-aggression pacts of 1938—all if which preceded and considerably affected the one pact they cherish and recall.” If only Bryan Cranston delivered those lines instead of his pathetic share your sandwich communism.

And what if the film explained that under this pressure of communist power, Franklin Delano Roosevelt publicly called Joseph Stalin, his new dear friend, “Uncle Joe” and the Hollywood film industry, always doing what the ruling class told it to do, make a film, Mission to Moscow in 1943 that glorified the Soviet Union to create support for the alliance.

Again, the real Dalton Trumbo was an aggressive defender of the Soviet Union and that was why he was black listed. In a 1946 article titled “The Russian Menace” Trumbo wrote from the perspective of a post-World War II Russian citizen. He stated, “If I were a Russian…I would be alarmed [by the U.S. nuclear threat] and I would petition my government to take measures at once against what would seem an almost certain blow aimed at my existence. This is how it must appear in Russia today.” Paul Robeson, the great Black artist and organizer said that Black people in the U.S. would not fight against the Soviet Union. Dalton Trumbo said that the United States was threatening the Soviet Union. The U.S. government moved against them precisely because they were friends of the Soviet Union.

The trailer that says Trumbo had nothing to do with the Soviet Union is a lie. A film built on a lie is a lie.

The film Trumbo creates an all-white world—there are no Black figures in the film and Trumbo appears to have no Black friends or pro-Black politics. But Trumbo, like most white communists, was very pro-Negro and spoke out strongly for civil rights and Black Liberation. The Communist Party was very pro-Black and part of its attraction was the multi-racial political, cultural, friendship, and social relations among its members and friends—the racial equality, including sexual relationships, that was at the heart of the racist fears. The film’s portrayal as Trumbo as a cigarette holding white privileged man of lame wit and little passion with no discussion of Black people or civil rights is a racist misrepresentation.

Gerald Horn in his essential The Final Victim of the Blacklist: John Howard Lawson, Dean of the Hollywood Ten documents Trumbo’s and the CP’s passionate and radical demands for Negro rights. Horne describes a meeting in 1947 involving producer Dore Shary, and future Hollywood Ten communist writers John Howard Lawson, Ring Lardner Jr. and Dalton Trumbo. “They discussed dramatically the recent lynchings in Georgia and other outrageous violations of civil liberties as evidence of the growth of Fascism.” They voted to offer a $100,000 reward for the capture of those responsible, placed ads in trade and Negro papers announcing their activities and sent wires of protest to President Truman. They urged CBS to produce a show similar to the Detroit riots to “improve race relations”. Black actor Canada Lee joined with Groucho and Harpo Marx, Edward G. Robinson, and George Burns demanding the repeal of the poll tax.

When the Hollywood Ten was indicted pro-Communist Black icon Paul Robeson mentioned Dalton Trumbo by name as a friend of the Negro people and talked about the Blacklist in the context of the racist capitalist system attack on Black people. In 1951, William L. Patterson, a leading Communist Party attorney and public figure, with the support of Paul Robeson and W.E.B. DuBois, presented an historic “We Charge Genocide: The Historic Petition to the United Nations for Relief of a Crime of the United States Government Against the Negro.” It was signed by more than 40 prominent public figures all close to the Communist Party including Howard Fast, by then a member of the Hollywood Ten. Fast and Trumbo were friends, comrades, often competitive but fully in agreement in 1951 on The Negro Question.

Why does the film make no mention of lynching, poll taxes or trace to the Democratic Party as Trumbo and Fast did? Why not mention genocide against Black people? Answer, cause #hollywoodsowhite! But also because Hollywood can’t admit that the communists were the only group trying to make Hollywood deal with the Black movement, thus #hollywoodsoanti-comunistandsowhite

Trumbo makes it appear that gossip columnist Hedda Hopper was the ringleader of the Hollywood Blacklist. That is ridiculous. U.S. Presidents Harry Truman and later Dwight D. Eisenhower were in charge. A film showing how the so called “bi-partisan” anti-communist alliance in the United States organized the Cold War and the Hollywood Black list is badly needed.

I just saw a far better film, Bridge of Spies, by Stephen Spielberg, with Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance. Spies, ironically, portrayed the Soviet spy Rudolph Abel in a far more sympathetic light than Trumbo—as a man of his principles, tough, and clear he is at war. The film portrayed the U.S. state department as a ruthless Cold War machine, sending spy planes over the Soviet Union, using its pilots, including Francis Gary Powers, as human sacrifices equipped with cyanide tablets for instant suicide before capture. It showed the hypocrisy of the U.S. acting outraged about Soviet spies when the U.S. spying apparatus was run by U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and President Dwight Eisenhower. Stephen Spielberg showed far more courage than the makers of Trumbo in showing the Cold War as a real war—a war that Trumbo the film pretends never happened. Once again the Hollywood Dream Machine spreads the big lie, and make a real U.S. initiated World War against communism into a big misunderstanding.

In the film, Dalton Trumbo is finally rehabilitated, given back his Oscar that he earned under an assumed name, and given adulation and even apology by Hollywood. The film acknowledges with irony that the film “Spartacus” was based on the book by communist Howard Fast and the screenplay by communist Dalton Trumbo. (Apparently, Fast later argued that he “rescued” the film from Trumbo’s poor screen-writing and had to re-write most of the scenes. That in itself would have been a complex scene worth telling from both points of view—yes comrades, there is competition and ego among communists in Hollywood and elsewhere, as long as it also explained they are real, dangerous communists.)

In the film’s final scene, Trumbo gives a lame speech in which he goes out of his way to blame no one—with a pathetic “we are all to blame and thus, no one is to blame” rap. No capitalism, no imperialism, no Cold War, no fascism, no Democratic Party treachery. The Blacklist and the Hollywood Ten and even his time in prison was just a big misunderstanding in which we all have did not find our better selves.

How wonderful if the film would have ended with Trumbo’s actual words in front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities in Washington, D.C.

“You have produced a capital city on the eve of its Reichstag fire. For those who remember German history in the autumn of 1932 there is the smell of smoke in this very room. This is the beginning of an American concentration camp!”

Trumbo fosters rather than challenges the very anti-communism of its audience. Anti-communism is alive and well in the United States—and not just among right-wing Republicans, liberal Democrats, and well-meaning activists. Many of today’s “social movement organizers” openly express contempt for and superiority to the Soviet and Chinese revolutions and socialist experiments. They distance themselves from the Cuban and Venezuelan revolutions—offering “critical support” as if anyone wants to hear their U.S. criticisms or receive such half-hearted support. They put themselves forth as “democratic” when in fact they are at best “social democrats” and do not have the courage of their own weak convictions.

In 1989, at a forum in which some were celebrating the “fall of communism,” Cornel West, who saw himself as a radical social democrat, observed, “Before we gloat over the problems of communism we have to ask ourselves why it was that the communists attracted the most militant people and were the only socialists to attract Black people.” That challenge remains today. The real Trumbo could have pushed the envelope for that discussion and debate about the great contributions of communism.

Tender Comrades: A Backstory of the Hollywood Blacklist by Patrick McGilligan and Paul Buhle, The Final Victim of the Black List: John Howard Lawson by Gerald Horne, and Here I Stand by Paul Robeson can help us continue this conversation.

Eric Mann is a veteran of the Congress of Racial Equality, Students for a Democratic Society, and the United Auto Workers and the author of Katrina’s Legacy: White Racism and Black Reconstruction in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. He can be reached at eric@voicesfromthefrontlines.com

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