Lillian Hellman, in Scoundrel Time1 tells the story of her appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952, and tells something, in flashbacks, of her political life, insofar as it involved dealings with Communists or persons she thought were Communists. In the process, she challenges those of us who did not come to her defense and the defense of others who were pilloried by the Committee and subsequently lost their jobs or, more seriously, were jailed for refusing to answer questions before congressional committees and did not defend themselves by pleading the Fifth Amendment. One of these was the writer Dashiell Hammett, with whom she lived. He had already gone to jail and been released, sick and in debt to the Internal Revenue Service, when Lillian Hellman was subpoenaed, at a moment when Clifford Odets, Elia Kazan, and others were also being questioned, principally it appears about Hollywood.
Lillian Hellman cannot understand how intellectuals like Lionel and Diana Trilling could have believed Whittaker Chambers. She does not understand how magazines like Partisan Review and COMMENTARY could have taken the positions they did in the 1950’s:
Partisan Review, although through the years it has published many, many pieces protesting the punishment of dissidents in Eastern Europe, made no protest when people in this country were jailed or ruined. . . . COMMENTARY didn’t do anything. No editor or contributor ever protested against McCarthy. . . .
There were many thoughtful and distinguished men and women on both magazines. None of them, as far as I know, has yet found it a part of conscience to admit that their coldwar anti-Communism was perverted, possibly against their wishes, in the Vietnam war and then into the reign of Nixon, their unwanted but inevitable leader.
It is not Lillian Hellman alone who is calling some of us to task—those of us who believed then (and believe now) that the Rosenbergs and Hiss were guilty, that people forced to appear before the congressional committees investigating Communism should have told the truth, and that witnesses who told the truth deserved more sympathy than witnesses who remained silent and pleaded the Fifth Amendment. Many young people who were scarcely born at the time and have now become historians of what they conceive of as the dread and gray 1950’s, are also calling us to account. Those of us who said, yes, the Rosenbergs are guilty, Hiss is lying, and Communism is a more serious threat to liberty than the congressional committees investigating it, now find ourselves being asked, as Lillian Hellman puts it, to “admit” that our actions contributed to Vietnam and to the “reign of Nixon.”
For a new “truth” is being created about the 1950’s—by the memoirs of some of those who lived in that period, but in greater part by the unending flow of volumes of apparently serious research revising the history of World War II and its aftermath (the flow will increase now that the new laws and rules affecting the release of confidential government reports lead to an ever greater volume of material for scholars to scrutinize). Young scholars of any generation tend to have a common point of view. After all, they have lived through the same kinds of times and the same kinds of experiences. And young scholars in general now believe that the congressional committees investigating Communism represented a totally unjustified attack on the freedom of thought, speech, and action of progressive-minded Americans, undertaken only for mean political motives, and that those investigations posed a greater danger to this country’s liberties than Communism ever did. Those of us who did not stand single-mindedly against this threat were culpable, guilty of a new “treason of the intellectuals.”
We are thus called to a reexamination of our behavior, our motives, our political judgment. The fact that what Lillian Hellman says about COMMENTARY and Partisan Review is untrue—the fact that articles against McCarthyism were published in both magazines—should not have to be mentioned in any honest discussion. To be forced to defend oneself in this way is no less demeaning than being forced to sign a loyalty oath. I could list such articles, including one by myself in COMMENTARY when I was a member of the editorial staff, but that would be beside the point. For opposition to McCarthyism was so taken for granted by magazines like COMMENTARY and Partisan Review that the main intellectual contribution they could make was to examine and clarify the many questions surrounding the phenomenon—questions like the sources of McCarthyism, the reasons for its appeal, and the precise nature of the political danger it represented. (Lillian Hellman still thinks that McCarthyism was an attempt “to destroy the remnants of Roosevelt and his sometimes advanced work.”)
At the same time we believed there was a legitimate public interest in knowing what the role of Communists was in government and the media of information and entertainment. But our own preference was to expose Communism in the pages of the New Leader and COMMENTARY, rather than before Congressmen for whom we had no political or any other kind of sympathy. Indeed, the fact that the committees made exposure of Communist connections and sympathies so damaging often inhibited us in describing Communists and Communist sympathizers for what they were.
Nevertheless, that some of us wrote articles against and about McCarthy or HUAC or the “radical Right” or restrained ourselves in this period from criticizing Communists or Communist sympathizers, will not get us off the hook so easily if indeed we failed to rise to a major threat to American liberty, if we abandoned fellow intellectuals to the bigotry of the American people and their elected leaders, or if we (again to quote Lillian Hellman) “found in the sins of Stalin Communism . . . the excuse to. join those who should have been [our] hereditary enemies.”
Of course there are enemies and enemies. Leafing through this book, one sees a picture of Lillian Hellman at the Waldorf meeting in March 1949—the Cultural and Scientific Congress for World Peace. Her argument is that the defense of freedom of thought and speech required the defense of those who were criticized for participating in such a meeting. I thought then—and I believe now—that the defense of freedom required one to expose the Communist organizers of this meeting, required one to demonstrate the obscenity of speaking of world peace under the auspices of a movement whose leaders ran a huge system of slave-camps for dissenters, who extirpated even the most modest efforts at independence of mind, who just about then were executing the leading Jewish poets and writers of Russia (even though these poets and writers had served them well). What was Lillian Hellman doing in that company? Where did the threat to freedom lie—with those who picketed the meeting and exposed it; or with those who, out of ignorance or for some other reason, were willing to join in a scheme designed by Communists to advance the interests of the greatest tyranny in the world? I believe the defenders of freedom belonged outside the meeting, even if some of us preferred to write about it rather than picket it. For Lillian Hellman, participation in such a meeting still seems nothing to be ashamed of.
It was—and is—inconceivable to her that the Communists she knew could be the enemy. Yet the Communists were certainly connected to, defended, apologized for, and advanced the interests of an awesome power that was, after the defeat of Hitler, unquestionably the enemy of freedom throughout the world. The Communists had destroyed the possibilities of democracy in Eastern Europe, and they were threatening to expand their power into Greece, Turkey, Italy, and France, by instigated civil war, or internal subversion, or perhaps by direct military attack. In the face of this danger, what attitude to Communists at home was legitimate? This was a far more difficult question for liberals than Lillian Hellman lets on. Liberals and progressives who had learned about Communism and Communists at first hand could be very tough in dealing with them locally—one recalls the history of the NAACP, which tolerated no Communist-controlled chapters, and the actions of the CIO in driving the Communist-controlled unions out of its own organization. Indeed, I would guess that considerably less due process was accorded Communists in the CIO than to those appearing before congressional investigating committees.
There were serious issues, then, in considering what actions against domestic Communists were justified by the real threat of Communists armed with state power. These issues disappear in Lillian Hellman’s account; she can find no justification for a public concern with Communism. The problem of domestic Communism, it is true, was often trivialized and sensationalized by the congressional committees, where almost any individual who could be gotten to take the Fifth Amendment, no matter how humble his role in life, or how modest the harm he could have done or might do, was regularly dragged before the spotlights to serve the political ambitions of the legislators.
But certainly one of the first steps in determining what might or might not be legitimate in dealing with the threat of Communism was to acquire information. And here I do not speak of the information that could come out of the necessarily inadequate procedures of congressional investigating committees (in almost all committees, whether of the Left or the Right, as we have been reminded by the recent congressional investigations of the CIA, political jockeying limits the search for truth). I am thinking of the information thoughtful and intelligent persons like Lillian Hellman could have contributed. Perhaps Communism in the world was a threat but Communists at home were not? Very well, let us hear about it.
But that brings us to another, and the most crucial, of the problems which agitated people at the time: whatever one thought of the congressional committees, what should one have done when called to testify—tell the truth, or be silent? Lillian Hellman puts it another way: should one have been a “friendly witness” or not? The first course meant to tell the truth, but it also meant telling about one’s politics and the politics of one’s friends and (possibly) causing them harm. The second course meant either to risk jail (by being silent and therefore exposing oneself to charges of contempt) or to escape jail but to risk reputation and livelihood (by pleading the Fifth Amendment—refusal to speak on grounds of self-incrimination).
The opportunity to plead the Fifth Amendment was an accidental result of the Smith Act, under which being a member of the Communist party might have been illegal. As a matter of fact, no ordinary member of the Communist party, or even prominent person who was an ordinary member, was ever prosecuted for membership in the party, but there could be lesser penalties—not being allowed to work in government, for example, or not being able to get a passport. On the other hand, pleading the Fifth Amendment opened one to the same penalties. And both courses of action opened one to sanctions by private groups and individuals who could deprive one of a livelihood.
I present the matter as I see it—as a troublesome dilemma. Only members of the party had no problem about what to do: they were under orders to remain silent, and to present themselves, even while taking the Fifth Amendment, as martyrs to free speech. But former Communists who had broken sharply with the party were often eager and willing to tell what they knew; and even when they were not eager, they often considered it their duty. Of course people who were sympathetic to Communism or Communists, but were not Communists themselves, were neither under orders to remain silent nor eager to talk, and might do one or another for any number of reasons.
Even this minimal degree of complexity disappears in Lillian Hellman’s account. To her, all those who testified were simple villains, worried only about saving their well-paid jobs and prominent careers (she suggests they were more frightened than she was because of their “immigrant” origins, as against her own self-confident Americanism), while those who took the Fifth Amendment were heroes. Now the latter included at least some Communists—people, that is, who supported, defended, and apologized for “the sins of Stalin Communism.” Yet it is not they who are the “scoundrels” of Scoundrel Time. The “scoundrels” are the ex-Communists, the people who testified. No doubt some of them, as Lillian Hellman charges, were testifying only to save their skins. But that there could have been any other motivation—disgust with the Communists and their tactics, remorse at having worked for a totalitarian movement, the desire to explain oneself and one’s behavior—does not occur to Lillian Hellman and does not moderate her vindictive scorn for the “friendly witness,” even at this date, when she claims to know what Stalinism was and did.
As for how she herself behaved, her account of just what she did, and why, is not very clear. She offered in a letter to tell the Committee anything it wanted to know about her, so long as it desisted from questioning her about others. If the Committee insisted on questioning her about others, she would take the Fifth Amendment. The Committee did, and she did.
The rest of the story is fuzzy. First, it appears that she answered enough questions so that her refusal to answer others by taking the Fifth Amendment opened her to prosecution for contempt; nevertheless, the Committee did not bring charges against her. Second, she suggests that despite the fact that she took the Fifth Amendment, she broke new ground in the strategies of witnesses before the Committee. Thus, she reports that a man in the audience during her appearance said loudly, “Thank God somebody had the guts to do it.” One is puzzled. Do what? She has just explained that she had taken the Fifth Amendment in refusing to answer a question (based on the testimony of a “friendly witness”) as to whether she had been present at a certain meeting (she tells us she hadn’t), and as to whether she was a member of the Communist party (she tells us she was not). So one is left wondering what new ground was broken, and just what she had the “guts” to do.
One factor in determining how one responded to the committees was the extent to which a real threat to freedom in the world could be divorced from those who at home had defended or were still defending or working to advance—for whatever reason—the interests of the tyranny that was the source of this threat; and one approach to this problem, as I have already suggested, was simply to spread a better understanding of domestic Communism—the nature of the party, the claims it made upon members, the degree of its power to influence organizations, to affect public opinion, and the like. These were questions which aroused the greatest interest and passion at the time. One could take the position that it was no one’s business what Communism in the United States was or was not; or that whoever’s business it might be, it was not the business of congressional committees composed of narrow-minded and ambitious politicians.
I am not sure whether Lillian Hellman takes the first position: she says a number of times that she is aware of the “sins” of “Stalin Communism” and it might thus seem to her that there was a legitimate public interest in knowing about Communism so as to devise some proper course in dealing with it. On this point, however, she says that she had little to offer, except perhaps some potential victims to the Committee’s appetite for public exposure.
Yet by her own account today, she was in a position to contribute to public understanding of Communism. She had been active, she tells us, in Henry Wallace’s campaign for the Presidency in 1948, and so dismayed had she been by the role of the Communists in that campaign that she arranged to meet with leading officials of the Communist party in an effort to persuade them to leave Wallace’s Progressive party alone. Certainly there was a legitimate public interest in knowing this story in 1952. Many liberals then were unaware of the manipulation of the Wallace campaign by Communists. To have told this story, she believes, would have been to rat on her friends. So she was silent in print, and took the Fifth Amendment before the Committee. Yet the Wallace campaign had been taken over by the Communists for a simple reason, to advance the interests of Stalinist totalitarianism. What was the responsibility of an intellectual at that time? Was it not to tell the truth? She was silent then about a key issue in American politics; she is remarkably coy now. Yet if she and others had fulfilled their responsibility as writers and intellectuals then, what role would have been left for the congressional committees, and who would have supported them? She never dreams of asking herself what her responsibility was as a writer and an intellectual supposedly committed to the truth and to telling the truth. She is entirely pleased with what she did instead of telling the truth: the righteous course, in her view then as now, and the only way to defend freedom, was to remain silent and excoriate the Committee.
History is now being rewritten so that the enemy of freedom since World War II, and even in World War II, not to mention today, becomes the United States. I refer less to Lillian Hellman’s account, which is personal and not much concerned with the rewriting of history, than to a larger effort in which her account will presumably be embedded. Indeed, she has insured that it will be so embedded by publishing it together with an introduction by Garry Wills. For Wills, even the occasional grays of Miss Hellman’s account are too much. To him American policy in the postwar period—a policy which contributed to the survival of the small island of democracy that still exists in the world—was quite simply a crime: “A newly aggressive Truman had launched the cold war in the spring of 1947 with his plan to ‘rescue’ Greece and Turkey,” he tells us. “We had a world to save with just those plans—from NATO to the Korean war. . . .” One reads such passages—and many others—in astonishment. Garry Wills believes that Greece and Turkey did not need to be rescued, that one of America’s “plans” was the Korean war. It seems that he prefers the political condition of, say, Bulgaria and North Korea to that of Greece and Turkey. He tells us with no hint of embarrassment that he prefers Communist totalitarianism to democracy. And what does Lillian Hellman make of the introduction that disgraces her memoir? Perhaps it was hard to tell in 1952 just who were the principal enemies of freedom then. Is it so hard to tell in 1976?
1 Little, Brown, 155 pp., $7.95.