The news of a movie about the blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo has poked a stick into the nest of right-wing wasps, who have responded with their usual venomous inaccuracies, distortions and half-truths.
Ann Coulter decided to attack the lead actor in the movie (“Bryan Cranston: From Meth Cook to Hitler Apologist),” while at the same time promoting fellow anti-Communist Allan H. Ryskind’s book-length diatribe on the same subject ("Hollywood Traitors: Blacklisted Screenwriters – Agents of Stalin, Allies of Hitler"). Coulter rapturously describes Ryskind’s book, calling it “magnificent,” “amazing, hilarious.” And he would undoubtedly return the compliment. The rub is that they are both hilariously wrong about so much. As Jesus said of Satan in "Paradise Regained":
That hath been thy craft,
By mixing somewhat true to vent more lies.
But what have been thy answers, what but dark,
Ambiguous and with double sense deluding (I, 432-35).
Dalton Trumbo, perhaps because of his success in breaking the blacklist and the favorable treatment he has received from left-wing historians (including me), is a regular target of anti-Communist mythomaniacs. They attack him on five grounds: He was opposed to the United States going to war against Germany, from 1939-1941; he wrote, to suit his Communist overlords, an antiwar novel that was published just before the nonaggression treaty; he was an “agent” of Josef Stalin; he gave to the FBI letters he had received during the war from people who did not want Germany defeated; and he waffled during his testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1947.
Coulter is especially virulent about Trumbo’s 1939 novel, "Johnny Got His Gun." She inaccurately labels an artfully conceived antiwar novel, intended to warn its readers about supporting a war bedecked with slogans, such a making the world safe for democracy, as “a pure propaganda piece designed to squelch American ardor for helping Hitler’s victims.” She also criticizes Trumbo’s subsequent novel, "The Remarkable Andrew," as an example of his “aggressive effort to prevent America from joining the fight against Hitler.” In fact, "Andrew" was an attempt to counsel its readers to think for themselves about supporting any war. Coulter does not seem to know that her heroic, anti-Hitler countries, England and France, were desperately trying to stay out of a war with Germany. Prior to the nonaggression treaty, they refused to sign an alliance with the Soviet Union, and, when they did declare war on Germany, in September 1939, they did nothing, engaging in what the French called “la drôle de guerre” (the joke of a war). Only in the spring of 1940, when German armed forces launched an attack against the countries of western Europe, did they respond militarily. They were, that is, anti-Hitler by force of circumstances, not by ideals. In such a world of realpolitik, Trumbo wanted more clarity about who was fighting whom and why. He received that clarity in December 1941, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, not, as Coulter states, the German invasion of the Soviet Union (June 1941).
She then claims that as soon as Trumbo decided to support the war, he “withdrew” "Johnny" from distribution. In fact, the publisher (Lippincott) decided, with the United States at war, not to print any more copies of an antiwar novel, and Trumbo did not dissent. And she labels “snitching” Trumbo’s decision to send to the FBI the letters he received from several people asking for copies of "Johnny." He did not, however, snitch (turn on his friends). Rather he provided the FBI with evidence that a national network of German sympathizers might be forming in the United States.
But Coulter’s real target is Trumbo’s testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. She wants to demean his refusal to answer questions about his political affiliations in order to demonstrate that he and the other members of the Hollywood Ten were not defenders of the First Amendment. The Ten did commit a tactical blunder by not specifically stating that they were standing behind the First Amendment, but anyone who cares to read their speeches, letters, legal briefs and memoirs can have no doubt about the centrality of the First Amendment to their resistance. Further, contra Coulter, Trumbo never once “screamed” during his testimony.
The most egregious lie of the anti-Communists is their oft-repeated charge that Trumbo was a “Hitler apologist” or one of Hitler’s allies. My dictionary defines an apologist as one who argues in defense or justification of another person or cause and an ally as one who is formally connected to another. Not once did Trumbo apologize for Hitler; not once did he defend or justify Hitler or the Nazis or German activity. He criticized the United States, Great Britain and France for not supporting the democracies being destroyed by Germany, Italy and Japan. That is, he criticized the validity of their anti-fascism. Had those countries been more actively opposed to Germany and Italy when it mattered, 1935-39, he noted, there might not have been a war.
Ryskind refers to Trumbo as a “hard-core Party member” (albeit Trumbo was not a hard-core believer in any political institution), and a “fervent supporter of Stalinist Russian and Kim Il-sung’s North Korea.” Though there are instances of uncritical statements about the Soviet Union in the Trumbo archive, there is no fervency (which my dictionary defines as “showing great emotion or warmth; ardent”). As far as North Korea goes, Ryskind has distorted a commentary on one of Trumbo’s scripts made by another, better, researcher into the Trumbo archives. Trumbo did oppose the Korean War, because he saw it as yet another example of the United States defending one dictator against another.
But complexity of the sort I have described above is an unwelcome intruder in the nest of the mythomaniacs. Simplification and reductionism are their weapons of choice in their ongoing battle with anyone who dared opposed the policies and acts of the domestic cold war, which, according to my calculations, ended twenty-five years ago.