The death of the great film director Elia Kazan a week ago, at the age of 94, briefly reignited the controversy that surrounded his lifetime achievement Oscar in 1999: the questions about Kazan's role as a former communist who "named names" before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952. Four years ago, some people at the award ceremony refused to join the applause for Kazan. Last week, one article briefly surveying his life and work ran under the title "Kazan Rated R for Rat, G for Genius." Obituaries spoke of the filmmaker's "scarred" and "flawed" legacy.
Yet others see Kazan as an unfairly maligned patriot. He was lauded in an editorial in the conservative Manchester Union Leader. In the Web-based Front Page Magazine, Robert Tracinski of the Ayn Rand Institute blames Kazan's image as a sell-out (rather than a courageous whistle-blower) on apologists for communism. "Almost fifty years later," writes Tracinski, "the sympathizers of leftist dictatorships still want to cover up the fact that the real defenders of freedom were not the "martyred" Hollywood Reds but the courageous men who acted to expose them."
"Rat" or hero? The discussion may be especially relevant today, when many Americans feel that, as in the 1950s, a foreign threat may lead to the abridgement of our civil liberties at home. To Kazan's conservative supporters, the communists of that era were not legitimate dissenters but subversives working for a hostile power, just like terrorists today; thus, exposing them was not an issue of suppressing freedom of thought or expression but an issue of protecting national security. Kazan's critics, these days, generally acknowledge that there was a real communist threat in the 1950s—but they see anticommunist paranoia, like antiterrorist paranoia today, as a bigger danger.
Recently published historical documents furnish ample evidence that the Communist Party USA was little more than a Soviet puppet, and that Soviet infiltration of American government institutions was a serious problem. But that doesn't mean the McCarthy-era witch-hunts were justified. Many people who were caught in the net and had their careers and lives ruined were completely innocent; others were guilty of no greater sin than having attended some bohemian left-wing gathering. Even bona fide communists in Hollywood can hardly be seen as a serious security threat: The worst they could do was try to sneak—apparently very clumsily—procommunist or leftist messages into movies. These were the kinds of people Kazan named.
Defending the investigation and blacklisting of communists in Hollywood, Tracinski writes that private employers have a right to refuse to hire people whose views they find repugnant. Sure enough. But in the 1950s, this was not a decision made voluntarily by the studios; it was a response to a congressional investigation, i.e., to pressure from the government. And that has to bother anyone who holds freedom dear.
Indeed, the questioning of Kazan by the committee shows that it was interested not only in obtaining valuable information about Soviet infiltration in the United States, but also in exacting public demonstrations of obedience. Kazan gave the committee the names of Communist Party members who were already known to them. Thus, Jacob Weisberg wrote in Slate in 1999, "naming names was a loyalty test and humiliation ritual, not part of a real investigation."
And yet, as we rightly deplore the excesses of McCarthyism (whether we see Kazan as a collaborator or a victim), it is only fair to acknowledge another side of the story. In 1952, when Kazan testified before the committee, American communists and leftists with communist sympathies were supporting Stalin's bloody reign in the Soviet Union—a regime that had killed, tortured, and enslaved millions of innocent people. In 1999, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., a noted historian and no right-winger, had this to say on the subject: "If the Academy's occasion calls for apologies, let Mr. Kazan's denouncers apologize for the aid and comfort they gave to Stalinism."
In the 1950s, and to this day, the very real abuses by the US government led many well-meaning people to turn a blind eye to the horrific reality of Stalinism. Today, the danger is different, but the pitfalls are the same. We may justly deplore the encroachments on civil rights that result from the "war on terrorism." However, we should never lose sight of the far greater threat represented by terrorism itself.