No other blacklisted Hollywood person stirs the nest of right-wing wasps as much as Dalton Trumbo. So, it is not surprising that they have swarmed against Trumbo, a movie honestly portraying him and his fight against the motion-picture blacklist. Months before the movie opened, queen wasp Ann Coulter attacked the lead actor in the movie ("Bryan Cranston: From Meth Cook to Hitler Apologist)," while at the same time promoting fellow anti-Communist Allan H. Ryskind's book-length diatribe on the same subject (Hollywood Traitors: Blacklisted Screenwriters - Agents of Stalin, Allies of Hitler). The movie opened during the first week of November, followed by more of the same from Ryskind (New York Post), Paul Kengor (Investors.com), and Sonny Bunch (The Daily Beast). One could say of them what Jesus said of Satan in Milton's Paradise Regained:
That hath been thy craft,
By mixing somewhat true to vent more lies.
But what have been thy answers, what but dark,
Ambiguous and with double sense deluding (I, 432-35).
Trumbo, perhaps because of his outsized personality, his flair for publicity, his success in undermining the blacklist, and the favorable treatment he has received from left-wing historians (including me), is a regular target of anti-Communist mythomaniacs. They attack him on four grounds: He was opposed to the United States going to war against Germany, from 1939-1941; he wrote, to suit his Communist overlords, an antiwar novel that was published just before the Soviet-German nonaggression treaty was signed; he was an "agent" of Josef Stalin; and he waffled during his testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1947.
All of these attacks are rife with polemics and barren of facts. For example, Coulter inaccurately labeled Trumbo's 1939 novel, Johnny Got His Gun, "a pure propaganda piece designed to squelch American ardor for helping Hitler's victims." She also criticized Trumbo's subsequent novel, The Remarkable Andrew, as an example of his "aggressive effort to prevent America from joining the fight against Hitler." In fact, most Americans were ardently opposed to a war with Germany, and the leaders of the United States, England and France, were desperately trying to stay out of such a war. The novels were not pro-German. They were, rather, antiwar. They admonished readers not to be swayed by jingoist or nationalist slogans, to think for themselves about supporting any war. In fact, it was the world's Communists who were, through their various fronts, urging the democratic countries to challenge Germany aggressively. So, it is absurd to claim that Trumbo, who was not a Party member and was a long-standing antiwar advocate, wrote Johnny to support the Party line.
The most egregious misstatement of the anti-Communists is their oft-repeated charge that Trumbo was a "Hitler apologist" or "Hitler-enabler" or one of Hitler's allies. My dictionary defines an apologist as one who argues in defense or justification of another person or cause and an ally as one who is formally connected to another. Not once did Trumbo apologize for Hitler; not once did he defend or justify Hitler or the Nazis or German activity. Nothing he said or did enabled (made feasible or possible) Hitler's actions. Trumbo criticized the United States, Great Britain, and France for not supporting the democracies being destroyed by Germany, Italy, and Japan. That is, he criticized the validity of their anti-fascism. Had those countries been more actively opposed to Germany and Italy when it mattered, between1935 and 1939, he noted, there might not have been a war.
Almost on a par in falsity with the above charge is the claim of the anti-Communist wasps that Trumbo was a"Stalinist" (whatever that is), an "unrepentant commie," a "hard-core Party member," and a "fervent supporter of Stalinist Russian and Kim Il-sung's North Korea." They continually misstate his length of membership (he joined in 1943 and left in early 1948), the strength of his commitment to the Communist Party, and they overstate the instances of his uncritical statements about the Soviet Union and Stalin. In the Trumbo archive, there is no fervency (which my dictionary defines as "showing great emotion or warmth; ardent"), and, as far as North Korea goes, Ryskind has distorted a commentary on one of Trumbo's scripts made by another, better, researcher into the Trumbo archives. Trumbo did oppose the Korean War, because he saw it as yet another example of the United States defending one dictator against another.
"Unrepentant" is the key term. Anti-Communists loath Trumbo because he did not get down on his hands and knees before the FBI and the Committee on Un-American Activities and forsake his entire political past, confess he had been duped, and inform on his friends and colleagues, none of whom represented a danger to the national security of the United States. Trumbo's refusal to answer two key questions posed by committee members - are you a member of the Screen Writers Guild? Are you a member of the Communist Party? - is regularly demeaned by the wasps. There is no question but that Trumbo did commit a tactical blunder by not specifically stating that he was standing behind the First Amendment, but anyone who cares to read their speeches, letters, legal briefs, and memoirs can have no doubt about the centrality of the First Amendment to their resistance.
But complexity of the sort I have described above is an unwelcome intruder in the nest of the mythomaniacs. Simplification and reductionism are their weapons of choice in their ongoing battle with anyone who dared opposed the policies and acts of the domestic cold war. The words "fervent" and "slavish" better describe their defense of the cold-war national security state, the members of the congressional investigating committees, and the thousands of lives that were damaged by their version of patriotism.
Larry Ceplair is the author of Dalton Trumbo: Blacklisted Hollywood Radical (University Press of Kentucky)