The McCarthy era, and particularly the persecution of leftists in Hollywood in the 1950s, is evergreen in our cultural memory. It has been the subject of numerous books, documentaries, and movies, usually following the same basic template: Brave dissenters standing up for the right to espouse unpopular beliefs, right-wing bullies leading a witch-hunt against "un-American activities," victimized political innocents, despicable sellouts who "named names" to save their careers.
A different, far more complicated story is told in the new book, Red Star Over Hollywood: The Film Colony's Long Romance with the Left, by the husband-and-wife team of historian Ronald Radosh and writer Allis Radosh. Unlike ultra-right diva Ann Coulter, the Radoshes make no apologies for McCarthyism. But their book, based on much previously unavailable material from interviews and archives, serves as a welcome antidote to the glamorization of the Hollywood Left.
The American Communist Party, the Radoshes remind us, was not merely a progressive organization that stood for workers' rights and social justice. It was an arm of Stalinist Soviet Russia, an organization that replicated Soviet-style totalitarian control in its own ranks as best it could without the power to incarcerate and shoot people. Party members often faced severe pressure to toe the party line in their work and could be chastised for "reactionary habits of thought" such as "individualism." While most of the Hollywood communists' work in film was nonpolitical, the U.S. wartime alliance with the Soviet Union gave them the opportunity to produce several films that were out-and-out Soviet propaganda vehicles, such as Song of Russia and Mission to Moscow.
The Communist Party's complete subservience to the Soviet diktat became evident in 1939, when the Nazi-Soviet nonaggression pact turned American communists overnight from zealous antifascists into staunch opponents of war with Hitler. This prompted pro–New Deal liberal Democrats such as actor Melvyn Douglas, who had previously allied themselves with communists in anti-Nazi groups, to cut those ties.
Red Star Over Hollywood meticulously documents the ways in which some blacklist victims put a cosmetic gloss on their own history. However, if the communists aren't cut any slack in this book, neither are the anticommunist bullies on the House Un-American Activities Committee. The committee ruined quite a few people who had at most a tenuous connection to left-wing causes and posed no security risk. Perhaps worst of all, it demanded that witnesses "name names," including friends and family members—names the investigators already had—to prove their loyalty. While it's absurd to treat the blacklist as somehow equivalent to the Soviet purges (as did, for instance, the 1998 CNN series Cold War), this insistence on a ritual sacrifice of the personal to the political did have an odiously Soviet whiff about it.
But the iniquities of McCarthyism are well known and much deplored; those of the Hollywood Left still tend to be shrouded in a veil of romanticized respect for rebels. Responding to an excerpt from the Radoshes' book in The Los Angeles Times, screenwriter Michael Sloane, whose 2001 movie The Majestic dealt with the blacklist, waxed poetic about artists who were simply "having opinions and expressing ideas" (in support of a state that allowed none). In 2003, writing about the death of film director Elia Kazan, who agreed—primarily out of conviction—to testify before Congress about communism in Hollywood, once-blacklisted screenwriter Bernard Gordon fulminated that Kazan "helped to support an oppressive regime." As a heroic contrast, Gordon held up playwright Lillian Hellman—a lifelong champion of a regime that murdered millions.
In The New York Times Book Review, reviewer Stefan Kanfer acknowledges the factual accuracy of Red Star Over Hollywood only to dismiss it as a pointless inquiry into an episode that will forever remain grist for "fantasists" on both sides. But setting the record straight is important. There is a reason the Hollywood Left clings to what the Radoshes call the "fable of innocence destroyed by malice." This fable props up its moral authority to this day. From the height of this authority, today's celebrity radicals blast American policies while ignoring the evil of a Saddam Hussein.
It is often said that McCarthyism provides a cautionary tale for our own era, when dissent once again risks being branded as unpatriotic. That is a real danger. But the Radoshes' book gives us the other side of that cautionary tale: Some people who cloak themselves in the banner of "dissent" stand for things that are truly reprehensible.