The Magazine

In Search of Trumbo

You won't find him in The Movie.

Jul 21, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 42 • By RONALD RADOSH
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As for defense of the First Amendment-which, we are repeatedly told, was Trumbo's great cause-the film ignores an example that proves this to be a lie. There is a lengthy sequence in which Donald Sutherland reads from Trumbo's 1939 antiwar novel, Johnny Got His Gun. Nowhere do we learn that Johnny, touted by the Communists during the years of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, and serialized in their newspaper, was withdrawn from circulation by Trumbo when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. Literally overnight, the Communist party's peace campaign ended and was replaced by calls for intervention against Hitler.

Accordingly, Trumbo censored his own book, took the plates from the publisher, and let it go out of print. But the novel, which had gotten good reviews, was still popular, and readers wrote to Trumbo to find out where it could be found. Not satisfied that his book was no longer available, Trumbo-fearing, undoubtedly correctly, that many of those letter-writers were isolationists, and some even pro-fascist-invited the FBI to visit him at home in 1944, and turned the letters over to the agents. He informed on Americans who only wanted to read his own novel! It was the right wing, he explained, that was trying to make censorship of Johnny Got His Gun into "a civil liberties issue," so he had no compunction about informing on these people. After all, he told the agents, some of them were "organizing politically" and others had called Franklin Roosevelt a "criminal incendiary."

Trumbo also bragged about his role in keeping anti-Communist films from being made. He had defended Stalin as "one of the democratic leaders of the world," and was proud to have helped keep Hollywood from filming Trotsky's "so-called" biography of Stalin, as well as books by James T. Farrell, Victor Kravchenko, and Arthur Koestler-all of which he called "untrue" and "reactionary." In 1954 he wrote a fellow blacklisted writer of the Communist party's "fine tradition .  .  . that whenever a book or play or film is produced which is harmful to the best interests of the working class, that work and its author should and must be attacked in the sharpest possible terms."

And so he did.

Yet in 1956, when many Communists were shocked by Khrushchev's revelations about Stalin, Trumbo explained that his own library contained books he had read by Arthur Koestler, George Orwell, James Burnham, Eugene Lyons, Isaac Don Levine, and other anti-Communist writers.

"I was not surprised" by Khrushchev's revelations, he said. And yet somehow, Peter Askin and Christopher Trumbo felt that this revelation was not worth including. Perhaps it would have interfered with their hagiographic treatment of Trumbo since it showed that, while he regularly denounced anti-Communists and defended Stalin in public, he took a secret pride in knowing the real truth about the Communist reality.

Also missing is the fact that Trumbo did not consider himself, or the others who comprised the Hollywood Ten, heroic. They did not seek to "perform historic deeds," he wrote to screenwriter Albert Maltz; they appeared before HUAC unwillingly and took the advice of Communist lawyers to make their appearance a circus. All they sought was "to save [themselves] from punishment."

Some wondered later in the decade: Why did they not get work? It was not because they were Reds, Trumbo believed, but because many of his comrades were "mediocrities" who failed to show "competence, ability [and] craftsmanship."

As for the blacklist, Trumbo came to believe that it was not the fault of either cowardly studio bosses or the members of HUAC. It was as much their own fault, he concluded, because the Ten had belonged to a secret Leninist organization. "The question of a secret Communist Party," he wrote in an unpublished 1958 article, "lies at the very heart of the Hollywood blacklist," and it was that feature that caused most Americans to assume the Reds had something to hide. They were not living in Stalin's Soviet Union, Trumbo told his former comrades, but in democratic America, where it was possible to work for change openly in the political marketplace. In Hollywood, he and the others "should have all been open Communists, or .  .  . not have been members at all." Secrecy meant that they, as well as those who informed against them, had "no realistic moment of choice."

Dalton Trumbo, far more complicated and nuanced than this film which claims to honor him, condemned the Communist party for exploiting the Ten "for every left-wing cause that came down the pike." They had become adornments for the Communist party: "noble losers."