Kazan: Who Betrayed Whom?

Those who condemn the betrayals of the witch-hunt era need to look now at their own.

Published March 29, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

It is just a little over two years ago that I wrote my first column for Salon, a piece about Elia Kazan in which I called for an end to America's "longest blacklist." I did not say so at the time, but I felt a kinship with Kazan in the fact that the invitation to write for Salon had ended my own long exile from the literary culture, the result of a kind of graylist in force for ex-radicals like myself.

My timing was off (as has frequently been the case in my life). I had no idea the shunning of Hollywood's greatest living film legend would come to an end only two years later, or that it would come as a result of an honor bestowed on him by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences itself. At the time I wrote my first Salon column, I was significantly ahead of the curve. Now, as a result of the iron law of Salon deadlines, I find myself behind it. I will try to use the fact that the pressing issues of the controversy are over to analyze the passions behind it, and see what they reveal.

Ostensibly, the anti-Kazan anger was over the informal blacklist of Communists that was introduced into the film industry by the Hollywood studio heads some 50 years ago. Abe Polonsky and Bernard Gordon, two minor film professionals who organized the anti-Kazan protest, had been among those blacklisted at the time. The protesters' charges against Kazan were that he had been an "informer" for the blacklisters, had collaborated with witch hunters and had betrayed colleagues and friends. For these crimes, they argued, the film community should have continued to shun him, should not have given him an award.

Let me begin by making my own views of congressional investigations like the one Kazan cooperated with clear. The purpose of such investigations is to determine whether there should be legislation to deal with certain problems and how that legislation should be designed. It was legitimate for Congress to hold hearings inquiring into the influence of an organization like the Communist Party in an important American industry like film, as it was previously for legislators to inquire into the influence of organized crime in the union movement and other areas of American life. The Communist Party was conspiratorial by nature and set out to control unsuspecting organizations that it infiltrated. Its purposes were determined by the fact that it was financed and directed by a foreign power, one that its members worshiped. Kazan deeply resented the way the Communist Party had infiltrated and taken control of the Group Theater, where he was an actor and director, and used it for its own political ends.

What was not legitimate was for congressmen to use such hearings to attempt to expose the influence of Communists or gangsters to the public at large. Such public hearings were, in effect, trials without the due process protections afforded in a court of law. By opening the testimony and questioning to the public, this in effect, was to try all uncooperative witnesses who were called before committees acting as juries, judges and executioners. The mere charge of being a gangster or a Communist was enough to ensure a public judgment that was punitive.

By this standard, all congressional investigations that are open, whether they are of organized crime or Communists or executive misdeeds, such as the Iran-contra hearings, are equally illegitimate and also qualify as witch hunts. Oliver North, when he appeared before the Iran-contra committee and had to sit in the dock while senators and congressmen who enjoyed legal immunity denounced him as a liar and traitor to the entire nation, had no more constitutional protections than did the Communists. On the other hand, I don't remember protests issuing from liberals over the attempted public hanging of North and the other Iran-contra figures. Perhaps that's because the political shoe was on the other foot. Yet the only way to avoid such abuses of congressional power is to require that all congressional hearings be closed.

There were other aspects of the Hollywood witch hunt (and of Kazan's role) that were blurred in the Academy Award controversy. Every one of the Communists Kazan named, for example, had already been identified as a Communist by other witnesses. None of the Communists he named even worked in the film industry but were theater professionals in New York. Kazan's testimony destroyed no Hollywood careers. Moreover, it was not Congress that imposed the blacklist but Hollywood itself. This little fact, now forgotten, was dramatized by the way the blacklist finally came to an end. This was accomplished through the act of one man, and not one of the studio heads who had initiated the process either. This entire unhappy episode in American life was put to an end by Kirk Douglas when he decided to give Dalton Trumbo a screen credit for the film "Spartacus," in which Douglas starred. By putting Trumbo's name on the credits, he legitimized those who had been hitherto banished, and opened the doors to their return. What made the blacklist possible, in other words, was Hollywood itself, the collusion of all those actors, writers and directors who went to work day in and day out during the blacklist years while friends and colleagues languished out in the cold.

The anti-Kazan protest, in short, was entirely symbolic and contained large doses of hypocrisy and amnesia. Ultimately, it was an attempt to re-fight the Cold War. And that is why the anti-Kazan forces lost.

Suppose the studio heads who met in 1951 to ban Communists in Hollywood had instead announced that they were not going to employ Nazis and racists, or members of the Ku Klux Klan. Would Abe Polonsky and Bernard Gordon and the other progressives who tried to deny Kazan his honor have come out to protest this blacklist? Would they have regarded friendly witnesses against the Nazis and racists as betrayers of "friends"? Or would they have welcomed them as men who had come to their senses and done the right thing?

Many of those who defended the Kazan award, invoked the quality of his art to overlook what he did politically. Director Paul Schrader was typical. Artistically, he told the LA Weekly, "Kazan is a giant. [But] that does not mitigate the fact that he did wrong things. I think evil things. But at the end of the day, he's an artist, and his work towers over that." Schrader explained that to say Kazan shouldn't get an honorary Oscar was like saying that Leni Riefenstahl shouldn't be acknowledged because she worked under the heel of Hitler's propaganda machine. What Schrader (and others) conveniently overlooked was that it was Kazan's antagonists who volunteered to work for Stalin's propaganda machine, while Kazan went to the mat for America, for the democracy that had given him refuge, freedom and unbounded opportunity.

I had the occasion to raise this issue, on a talk show, with Victor Navasky, editor of the Nation and author of a book on the McCarthy period that established him in the controversy as the most articulate defender of the Old Left. When I asked Navasky if he would have similar objections to a blacklist of Nazis, he said, "The difference is the Nazi Party was illegal. The Communist Party was legal."

This was an odd position for a New Left radical. Would it have been all right to inform on members of the civil rights movement because they broke laws? Should the Communist Party have been outlawed to make the hearings legitimate? (In fact, one of the purposes of the congressional hearings, as Navasky well knows, was to see if such legislation was warranted.) If Congress had decided to outlaw the Communist Party, wouldn't Victor Navasky and other progressives be pointing to this as an example of witch hunting, evidence of an incipient American fascism at the time? Of course they would.

In fact, Navasky draws a sharp distinction between Communists and Nazis that has nothing to do with legalities. In a Newsweek column, he wrote that unlike Nazis, "the actors, writers and directors who joined the Communist Party ... in the '30s started out as social idealists who believed that the party was the best place to fight fascism abroad and racism at home." But this is not a plausible argument for anyone familiar with the political realities of the time, let alone a lifelong partisan of the left like Victor Navasky. There were many organizations other than the Communist Party where one could fight fascism abroad and racism at home if one so desired. Indeed, during the Nazi-Soviet pact, the Communist Party was hardly the place to fight fascism abroad at all.

What made the Communist Party distinctive for those who joined was its belief that the Soviet Union was the future of mankind, and that preparation for a Bolshevik-style revolution in the United States was the appropriate politics for anyone interested in a liberated future. People who joined the party were given secret names so they could function in the underground when the time came for such tactics, and were introduced into an organization that was conspiratorial in nature because it fully intended to conduct illegal operations. That was what the revolution required, as they understood it. It was not for nothing that they thought of themselves as Leninists.

One of the famous incidents of the blacklist period was the Peekskill riot, where anti-Communists broke up a public concert by Paul Robeson, at the time the most famous figure associated with the party. The pretext of the riot was a recent public statement Robeson had made that blurted out what every Communist secretly felt: In the Cold War with Stalin's Russia, he or she was actively pulling for the other side. What Robeson said (and I paraphrase) was that American Negroes would not fight in a war between the United States and the Soviet Union. This was a crude exploitation of black Americans, but it accurately reflected the sentiments in Robeson's own heart and in the hearts of his comrades.

This is the missing self-perception that underlies the odd postures of the left during the Kazan affair, and indeed the postures of many post-Communist leftists when they reflect on the Cold War years.

One such oddity is the way in which those who protested the Kazan honor were actually the aggressors in the affair, yet presented themselves as victims. Imagine what would have happened if a group of Hollywood figures had organized a protest over the honorary Oscar that the academy gave to Charlie Chaplin some years ago. Suppose they had done so because 40 years earlier Chaplin was a Communist fellow-traveler and gave money and support to the Stalinist cause. Can it be doubted that cries of "red-baiting" and "witch hunting" would issue from the left? Why was Kazan's case any different? Why didn't they see their own protest as a witch hunt to deny an honor to someone who was on the other side of the political battle 50 years ago? Their only possible answer to this question would be: Who did Chaplin betray?

The centrality of this issue in all the responses of the anti-Kazan forces was brought home to me by a recently published book I have been reading called "Red Atlantis," by the film critic for the Village Voice, J. Hoberman. The concluding chapter of "Red Atlantis" is a compilation of two pieces Hoberman wrote years ago on the controversy over the Rosenberg case. Like the Kazan affair, the passions over the Rosenbergs still ran high at the time, despite the fact that here too the historical record is closed. Just as there is no secret anymore that virtually all the victims of the blacklist were also defenders of a monster regime that was America's sworn enemy, so it is clear that the Rosenbergs were actual spies for Stalin's Russia. Hoberman does not deny either fact, but so minimizes them that they become insignificant to his argument. The climactic passage of his text contains these judgments:





"How could the Rosenbergs be traitors? Traitors! To whom? ... The Rosenbergs never betrayed their beliefs, their friends. They kept the faith. They sacrificed everything -- even their children. In a time when turning state's witness was touted as the greatest of civic virtues, the Roenbergs went to their deaths without implicating a soul."

Here is the mentality that explains the oddities of the Kazan protest, and the left's defense of itself during the Cold War era. For the argument proposed by Hoberman is absurd to anyone not committed to the progressive faith. Isn't it the case that even Nazis think of themselves as wanting a better world? Don't we all? In other words, if Hoberman's proposition is true, doesn't wanting a better world become a license to tell any lie, perpetrate any crime, commit any betrayal? And how could he have overlooked the betrayals that the Rosenbergs did commit? If they sacrificed their children, as they did, surely this was a betrayal. If they maintained their innocence to friends and comrades, as they did, surely this was a betrayal. If they pledged their faith to Stalin's evil regime, they betrayed their own ideals. If they spied for the Soviet government, as Hoberman concedes they did, is there any question that they betrayed their country?

It is their country and its citizens who are the missing elements in the consciousness of progressives like Hoberman, Navasky and the anti-Kazan protesters. For them, collaborating with their own democratic government as it tried to defend itself against a mortal Communist threat made people more culpable than serving a totalitarian state and aiding an enemy power.

What is missing from these progressive hearts, after all is said and done, is a proper love of country, and therefore a sense of the friends, neighbors and countrymen they betrayed. A proper love of country does not mean the abandonment of one's principles or the surrender of one's critical senses. It means valuing what you have been given, of what you have, and sharing the responsibility for nurturing and defending those gifts, even when you dissent. The Old Left, the Stalinists, the people whom Kazan named, betrayed their country and the real people who live in it, their friends, their neighbors and ultimately themselves. They may have betrayed out of ignorance, or misplaced ideals, or because they were blinded by faith. But they did it, and they need to acknowledge that now by showing humility toward those, like Kazan, who did not.

By David Horowitz

David Horowitz is a conservative writer and activist.

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