Lucky is the institution that can mythologize its own past.
Like Hollywood, for instance.
Hollywood produces movies about everything — war, sports, medieval history, space aliens, you name it. Crucially, it also makes movies about itself, which, in the case of the movie industry’s infiltration by Soviet-sympathizing communists in the 1930s and ‘40s, has come in very handy over the years.
Quick: What’s your impression of Hollywood at the outset of the Cold War — the days of the “blacklist” and the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC)? Do words such as “witch hunt” and “paranoia” free-associatively spring to mind?
If so, then Hollywood has done its job. Movies such as “The Majestic” (2001), “Guilty by Suspicion” (1991) and “The Way We Were” (1973) have propagated the myth that Hollywood communists were “liberals in a hurry,” naive idealists who were interested only in expanding civil rights, defeating fascism and demanding economic justice.
“It’s the left’s last great myth,” says historian Ronald Radosh, who co-wrote, with his wife, Allis, “Red Star Over Hollywood: The Film Colony’s Long Romance With the Left.”
The left can no longer rally to executed atomic-secret spies Ethel and Julius Rosenberg — no one today seriously doubts their guilt.
Nor to Alger Hiss. The same Soviet intercepts that conclusively fingered the Rosenbergs also implicated Mr. Hiss, who was accused of spying for the Soviet Union while working in the State Department.
And they no longer have Spain. It’s now clear that, had the country’s republican government survived the civil war against fascist Gen. Francisco Franco in the late ‘30s, it would have done so as one of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s puppet regimes.
What remains, Mr. Radosh says, is the experience of the so-called Hollywood Ten, the producers and screenwriters (and one director, Edward Dmytryk) who, in 1947, refused to cooperate with the HUAC investigation of the Communist Party’s inroads into Hollywood.
Communists may not have threatened the foundations of the republic but, according to the Radoshes, card-carrying members successfully inserted bona fide Soviet propaganda into wartime productions. The authors cite examples such as the Lillian Hellman-penned “North Star,” which depicted a “thriving collective farm of happy, healthy Soviet peasants,” and “Song of Russia,” in which “musicians happily labor alongside peasants in the fields.”
HUAC held the Hollywood Ten in contempt; some served up to a year in prison, and all, with the exception of Mr. Dmytryk, who later chose to cooperate, were blacklisted by Hollywood studios, forcing them to work under pseudonyms. (Dalton Trumbo, aka “Robert Rich,” won a best-screenplay Oscar for “The Brave One” in 1957.)
The Radoshes don’t applaud Congress’ and the industry’s treatment of the Hollywood Ten. “The blacklist harmed the careers of some of Hollywood’s finest talents. … Its damage extended not only to Hollywood’s communists but to the well-meaning ‘innocents’ and fellow travelers who joined the party’s many popular front causes and organizations,” they write.
Indeed, in the context of the Great Depression, which seemed to confirm the direst predictions of Marxism-Leninism, and the march of Hitlerian fascism through Europe, the American Communist Party managed to ensnare reform-minded liberals such as the actor Melvyn Douglas into front groups including the Anti-Nazi League, the American Veterans Committee and the Hollywood Peace Forum.
What the Radoshes dispute is that they acted bravely.