Whitewashing a defender of Stalin's brutal crimes.
The late Soviet dictator Josef Stalin made a name for himself by murdering millions, as Nikita Khrushchev and other Soviet bosses acknowledged. In The Untold History of the United States, co-author and Academy Award-winning filmmaker Oliver Stone lists only two atrocities for Stalin. So it should come as no surprise that an American Stalinist screenwriter should be the subject of a movie such as Trumbo, currently making the rounds.
Dalton Trumbo made a name for himself, and a lot of money, by churning out screenplays based on producers’ ideas. For decades he has been cast as a noble artist, a victim of McCarthyism, and a champion of free speech and constitutional rights. None of that is true but there’s more to the man than anyone will find in Hollywood legend. In a famous speech, Trumbo claimed that Hollywood’s political wars yielded “only victims.” In Trumbo’s heyday victims did indeed abound, but they don’t show up in the movies.
In August 1939 Stalin and Hitler signed a pact that divided up Europe and effectively started World War II. Many German Jewish Communists had fled to the Soviet Union but during the Pact Stalin handed those Jews over to the Gestapo. The Stalin-Hitler Pact prompted many to abandon the Communist Party, never to return, but Dalton Trumbo was not one of those. Trumbo joined the Communist Party during the Pact and worked like Stakhanov for the cause.
In Communist Party doctrine, art is a weapon and writers were “artists in uniform” serving a political purpose. Trumbo, who aspired to be a novelist, was comfortable with that concept. In 1940, when Britain stood alone against Nazi attack, Trumbo wrote The Remarkable Andrew in which the ghost of General Andrew Jackson argues against American military aid to Britain because “there’s no point in cooking up an alliance with a country that’s already licked.”
After Hitler broke the Pact and invaded his ally, the Party scribes became patriotic pro-war militants. Trumbo wrote scripts for A Guy Named Joe and Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo. He also cooperated with the FBI investigating writers who might be anti-war. This was the heyday of Soviet adulation and Communist writers played a major role.
The film Mission to Moscow, which some dubbed “Submission to Moscow,” appeared in 1943. That year the first Soviet Jewish delegation to the United States assured Americans that tales of anti-Semitism in the USSR were no more than malicious rumors. Samuel Ornitz, who would later join Trumbo in the Hollywood Ten, organized a reception for Soviet actor-director Solomon Mikoels and writer Itzak Feffer.
After the war the USSR occupied half of Europe and proclaimed the USA the main enemy. Stalin swung the USSR back to its traditional anti-semitism, deriding Jews as “rootless cosmopolitans.” In 1948, Stalin had Mikoels murdered, his mutilated body signaling the dictator’s personal touch. Three years later an executioner’s bullet claimed Itzak Feffer. Many more Jews would have been killed had not Stalin died in 1953.
That year screenwriter and director Robert Rossen (All the King’s Men), previously an uncooperative witness at the House Committee on Un-American Activities, had second thoughts. Rossen willingly testified about the Communists during the Nazi-Soviet Pact and the murders of Mikoels and Feffer. The victims of the recent show trials in Czechoslovakia, Rossen told the Committee were “all hung, in my opinion, for being Jews, and nothing else.”
Dalton Trumbo knew full well what was happening but chose to deny or defend Stalin’s crimes. Trumbo’s antics before the Committee in 1947 had nothing to do with free speech. As John Huston learned some years later, Trumbo and the others had already testified to a California committee that they were not Communists. To admit that now would have left them open to perjury charges. “When I believed them to have engaged to defend the individual,” Huston wrote to a colleague on August 23, 1952, “they were really looking after their own skins.”
Before the 1947 hearings studio bosses defied the Committee and said they would hire whom they pleased. After the hearings, the moguls caved and said they would not hire Communists, but Trumbo and other writers continued to work under fake names. By the 1960s the so-called blacklist collapsed and Trumbo emerged as a hero. He talked about victims but the American film industry has shown little interest in Stalin’s victims.
Feature films about those victims would concede that the Hollywood Communists were servile Stalinists, not defenders of free speech and constitutional rights. That’s why Trumbo is in the theatres. That’s why true victims Solomon Mikoels, Itzak Feffer and countless others are forgotten.
Lloyd Billingsley is the author of Hollywood Party: Stalinist Adventures in the American Movie Industry and the new crime book Shotgun Weddings.