I wish every American would see the movie Trumbo, starring Bryan Cranston, which was released last November. The movie is based on a true story. It depicts how the U.S. anti-communist crusade during the Cold War damaged or ruined the lives of many innocent people, including Hollywood screen-writer Dalton Trumbo and nine others, who became known as the Hollywood Ten.
Up until the 1950s, Trumbo had been one of Hollywood’s most successful screenwriters. Films that he worked on included Thirty Seconds over Tokyo (1944) and Kitty Foyle (1940), for which he received an Academy Award nomination.
Like many other leftists during the 1930s, Trumbo had become attracted to communism. One reason is the obvious one: Like many Americans today, he believed that government should play a paternalistic role in society, by taking care of people, regulating economic activity, and managing the economy. Another reason is that Trumbo viewed communism as a counterweight to fascism and Nazism, which were rising in prominence in Italy and Germany.
Trumbo joined the U.S. Communist Party in 1943, when the United States and the Communist Soviet Union were in partnership to defeat the Nazis in World War II. He remained a member of the party until 1948.
After the war ended, Trumbo questioned the premise that U.S. officials were using to justify the Cold War and the rise of the U.S. national-security establishment. From Wikipedia:
In a 1946 article … Trumbo writes from the perspective of a post–World War II Russian citizen. He argued that Russians were likely fearful of the mass of US military power that surrounded them on all sides at a time when any sympathetic view towards communist countries was viewed with suspicion. He ended the articles [sic] by stating, “If I were a Russian … I would be alarmed, 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.” His argument that the US was a “menace” to Russia, rather than the more popular American view of Russia as the “red menace….”
As Wikipedia points out, that article “did little to help Trumbo eleven months later when he would be called to explain himself to the House Un-American Activities Committee.”
By that time, the fear of communism had gripped the hearts and minds of the American people. Although the United States and the Soviet Union had worked together during the war, the U.S. government furnishing vast amounts of armaments to the Soviets, as soon as the war was over, U.S. officials switched gears and began exhorting Americans to view the Soviet Union and international communism as a grave threat to the United States.
Never mind that the Soviets had suffered an estimated 20 million deaths during the war while U.S. deaths numbered in the hundreds of thousands … or that the Soviet industrial base was effectively destroyed as a result of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union while the United States had suffered no war damage to its industrial base … or that the U.S. government had embarked on a rebuilding campaign for Germany, the nation that had gone to war against the Soviet Union in both World War I and World War II. And perhaps most important, never mind that the U.S. government possessed nuclear weapons and had shown no reluctance to use them against major cities, while the Soviet Union had none.
Despite all that, U.S. officials convinced the American people that they were in grave danger of being attacked and conquered by the Soviet Union, America’s World War II partner and ally.
That was the start of what became known as the Cold War, which became the most dangerous era in U.S. history.
The national-security state
The most notable aspect of the Cold War was the conversion of the U.S. government to a national-security state, a type of government that is inherent to totalitarian regimes. In fact, both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union provided perfect models for a national-security state: a vast permanent military establishment and super-secret intelligence agencies with omnipotent powers, such as the Gestapo and the KGB.
Central to national-security establishments is the concept of fear. In order to maintain their hold on power, it is essential that the citizenry be subjected to an ongoing series of threats and crises, so that people will remain perpetually in fear and always eager rally to the state, which presents itself as the defender and savior of the nation, especially in time of crisis.
In previous wars, U.S. troops had been brought home and discharged, a policy based on America’s antipathy toward standing armies, a tradition that stretched back to the founding of the government.
That tradition was abandoned after World War II. Harry Truman and many others believed that it was necessary to graft the national-security state totalitarian apparatus onto America’s federal governmental structure in order to combat the Soviet national-security state totalitarian regime. To garner the support of the American people for this fundamental structural change in the federal government, one that was done without a constitutional amendment, Truman knew that he had to do what Sen. Arthur Vandenberg exhorted him to do: “scare the hell out of the American people.”
And that’s precisely what national-security state officials did and continued to do for the next 45 years. Iran. Guatemala. Berlin. Cuba. The Congo. Korea. Vietnam. Chile. The list of countries where the communists were threatening U.S. national security was endless. There were crises everywhere because supposedly there were communists everywhere, which officials claimed necessitated a vast national-security establishment and foreign interventionism.
In 1947, the CIA joined the Pentagon as another central feature of the national-security state. While Truman intended the CIA to be a strictly intelligence-gathering agency, someone slipped some nebulous phraseology into the law that the CIA construed as giving it virtually omnipotent powers in foreign countries, as part of its mission to protect “national security,” the two-word term that became the most important phrase in the lexicon of the American people, even though no one has ever been able to define what it means.
The anti-communist crusade became a central element in the rise of the U.S. national-security state. As part of the crusade, U.S. officials embarked on a vicious witch-hunt, one in which U.S. officials, together with the American right wing, embarked on a campaign to ferret out communists in American society and do their best to destroy or ruin them.
That’s what they did to Dalton Trumbo and the Hollywood Ten.
Keep in mind that it wasn’t a crime to believe in communism or to join the Communist Party. In fact, that’s one of the bedrock principles of a free society, one that our American ancestors enshrined in the First Amendment — the right to believe in whatever you want to believe in, even if it goes against everyone else’s beliefs, and to join any organization you would like to join.
That’s what all too many Americans forgot in the Cold War anti-communist hysteria that enveloped the nation. In the name of protecting the freedom of the American people from communism, the U.S. national-security state ended up doing some of the same things to Communists here in the United States that the Soviets were doing to anti-communists within the Soviet Union. One of the best examples of that phenomenon was Dalton Trumbo and the Hollywood Ten.
Trumbo was subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, an Orwellian name if there ever was one. The purpose of the hearings was to determine the extent of communist propaganda within the U.S. motion picture industry, with the aim of ferreting out communist subversives who were supposedly using Hollywood-produced movies to influence Americans into siding with the Soviet Union and against the United States during the Cold War. The committee’s investigation, which specifically targeted people who were or had been members of the U.S. Communist Party (which, again, was legal), wasn’t exactly a vote of confidence in the millions of public-schooled-educated Americans who had the choice of attending movies or not and accepting or rejecting whatever message the movies contained.
Trumbo complied with the subpoena and was asked the now-famous question: Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?
Trumbo refused to answer the question. And he had every right to refuse to answer, not because of the Fifth Amendment but because it was none of Congress’s business what people believed in and didn’t believe in. Congress had no legitimate authority to be conducting hearings into what was influencing Hollywood and what wasn’t.
Trumbo’s testimony is worth reading for the entertainment value alone. (See the full text of the proceedings, which includes Trumbo’s testimony, here.) Among the most amusing exchanges, which was depicted in the film, was the following:
Mr. Stripling: Mr. Trumbo, I shall ask various questions, all of which can be answered “Yes” or “No.” If you want to give an explanation after you have made that answer, I feel sure that the committee will agree to that. However, in order to conduct this hearing in an orderly fashion, it is necessary that you be responsive to the question, without making a speech in response to each question.
Mr. Trumbo: I understand, Mr. Stripling. However, your job is to ask questions and mine is to answer them. I shall answer “Yes” or “No,” if I please to answer. I shall answer in my own words. Very many questions can be answered “Yes” or “No” only by a moron or a slave.
I only wish that during his testimony, Trumbo had addressed the following question to the committee: Were you then and are you now a supporter of the U.S. government’s partnership with the Soviet Union from 1941 to 1945?
After Trumbo was released from the committee hearings, the committee introduced into evidence an extensive account of his communist activities and affiliations.
But even that wasn’t good enough for the committee. It brought criminal charges against Trumbo and the Hollywood Ten, not for communism, because that wasn’t against the law, but rather for “contempt of Congress” for refusing to answer the committee’s questions.
Dalton and others of the Hollywood Ten were convicted. When the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, it was not surprising that the Court, in what would become a permanent policy of deference to the rising power and influence of the national-security branch of the government, upheld the convictions. Trumbo served 11 months in jail, during which time his family was having an extremely difficult time making ends meet.
Under severe pressure from the anti-communist segment of American society, Trumbo and the others in the Hollywood Ten were blacklisted, meaning that no Hollywood studio would hire them for fear of being accused of being communist sympathizers.
To avoid the blacklist, however, Trumbo organized an effort by which he and other blacklisted writers would write movie scripts under false names. That’s how they were able to continue putting food on their families’ tables.
One of the funniest aspects to this sordid story came when the Academy Award was awarded to Hollywood screenwriter Robert Rich, which was a totally fake name for Dalton Trumbo. The film captures the awkwardness at Oscar night when it came to awarding that particular Oscar.
In 1960 two courageous people broke the back of the backlist. The noted director Otto Preminger publicly announced that Trumbo had written the screenplay for Exodus and the noted actor Kirk Douglas did the same with respect to his new movie, Spartacus.
A fascinating side note to Spartacus involved John Kennedy. According to Wikipedia, two weeks after he was inaugurated, the president walked into a Washington, D.C., movie theater to watch the movie. The reason that was so notable was that he intentionally crossed American Legion picket lines, where U.S. military veterans were exhorting people to boycott the film.
Another reason that episode is so fascinating is that Kennedy ultimately became one of only three presidents in the post–World War II era who came to question and challenge the dominant role that the national-security establishment had come to play in America’s federal governmental structure.
The first was Dwight Eisenhower, who had served as Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during World War II. In what is without a doubt the most shocking Farewell Address in U.S. history, Eisenhower pointed out that the national-security state — or what he termed the “military-industrial complex” — was alien to America’s way of life and constituted a grave threat to the liberties and democratic processes of the American people.
The second was former President Truman, who observed in an op-ed published in the Washington Post thirty days after the assassination of Kennedy that the CIA had become a sinister force in American life and that Truman’s original intention had been to limit the CIA to intelligence-gathering only.
By the time Kennedy had experienced the CIA’s disaster at the Bay of Pigs, the ongoing crisis over Berlin, the Pentagon’s plans for a first-strike nuclear attack on the Soviet Union, the infamous plan proposed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff known as Operation Northwoods, and then the Cuban Missile Crisis, he had clearly achieved the same breakthrough as Eisenhower and Truman. After the Bay of Pigs disaster, Kennedy vowed to tear the CIA into a thousand pieces and scatter them to the winds and, more important, to bring an end to the Cold War, which obviously would have posed a grave threat to the continued existence and never-ending growth of the national-security establishment.
Some 25 years after Trumbo’s incarceration, an estimated 30,000 Chileans were rounded up, brutally tortured or raped, and incarcerated in military concentration camps, all without judicially issued warrants, due process of law, and trial. Some 3,000 of them were executed or “disappeared.”
There are several important things to note about the 1973 coup by which the democratically elected president of Chile, Salvador Allende, was ejected from office in a violent coup and replaced with a brutal military general, Augusto Pinochet, who would serve as Chile’s unelected dictator for the next 17 years.
First, it is a virtual certainty that the coup would never have happened if it hadn’t been for the U.S. government, especially the U.S. national-security branch of the government — i.e., the military and the CIA. It was the national-security establishment that began orchestrating the coup three years before it occurred, constantly cajoling Chilean military officials into believing that it is the solemn duty of a national-security establishment to violently remove a president from office if his policies are threatening national security. It was the CIA that intentionally aggravated the economic situation in Chile with the aim of bringing greater chaos and crisis to the country, thereby ensuring wider support for the coup from the citizenry. And it was the CIA that orchestrated the violent kidnapping (and resulting murder) of the commander of the Chilean armed forces, Gen. Rene Schneider, who was an insurmountable obstacle to the coup, given his steadfast allegiance to the Chilean constitution.
Second, what was done to 30,000 Chileans by the Chilean national-security establishment was driven by the same anti-communist mindset that motivated the persecution of Dalton Trumbo, the Hollywood Ten, and other Americans who believed in communism or who had had communist affiliations in their past or present.
Keep in mind, after all, that the 30,000 victims of Pinochet’s brutality were in the same intellectual or political position as Trumbo and other victims of the U.S. anti-communist crusade. Like Trumbo, all that the Chileans had done was believe in communism, affiliate with people who believed in communism, or support communists, including Allende, for public office.
That is, they hadn’t murdered anyone, raped anyone, or robbed anyone. They had simply exercised what Thomas Jefferson called the fundamental rights of freedom of speech, freedom of belief, and freedom of association. At the risk of belaboring the obvious, if a person isn’t free to believe in unpopular ideas or to associate with unpopular people or organizations, how can he truly be considered free?
Third, the U.S. military, which had been training Chilean officials at the School of the Americas, and the CIA had to know what was going to happen when they conspired to oust Allende from power and replace him with a brutal military dictator.
In fact, during the coup U.S. officials in Vina del Mar, near where the coup began, expressed tremendous excitement and glee over what the coup leaders were doing. They expressed those sentiments to a young American citizen named Charles Horman, as recounted in the book Missing, on which the movie of that same title, starring Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek, was based. We also know that U.S. officials began flooding the Pinochet regime with U.S. taxpayer money to enable him to cleanse Chile of communists, socialists, and leftists.
The Horman story is instructive because it reflects what U.S. officials would have done to Trumbo and other believers in communism had the right crisis presented itself here in the United States. In fact, it turns out that Horman himself, along with another young American Frank Teruggi, were executed after U.S. officials gave the nod to Chilean officials to kill them. The reason? Horman and Teruggi were leftists who supported Allende and also opposed the U.S. national-security state’s war against the communists in Vietnam. To make matters worse for Horman, he had discovered U.S. complicity in the coup at Vina del Mar, something that U.S. officials wanted to be kept secret. By acquiring that information, Horman, who was a journalist, became a threat to national security. (See my article “The U.S. Executions of Charles Horman and Frank Teruggi.”)
Fourth, for the past several years the Chilean people have been facing their dark and sordid history with extensive investigations and criminal prosecutions of members of the Chilean national-security establishment. Unfortunately, however, the American people have chosen not to go down that road, obviously believing that it’s better to let sleeping dogs lie. We still do not know the full extent of U.S. involvement in the Chilean coup, the details on the Horman and Teruggi murders, the role that U.S. officials might have played in the torture sessions of 30,000 Chileans, and the precise role that the military and the CIA played in Operation Condor, the international assassination operation that killed tens of thousands of people who were suspected of nothing more than holding leftist beliefs, including former Allende official Orlando Letelier, who was assassinated on the streets of Washington, D.C.
While Dalton Trumbo and the other victims of the U.S. anti-communist crusade were made to suffer mightily for their unpopular beliefs, they were the lucky ones. Just ask the family members of Rene Schneider, Orlando Letelier, Charles Horman, Frank Teruggi, and the other victims of the anti-communist crusade.
This article was originally published in the February 2016 edition of Future of Freedom.