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Budd Schulberg's heroism

The screenwriter was condemned for 'naming names,' but the communist threat he exposed was real and dangerous.

August 12, 2009|John Meroney | John Meroney is completing a book on Ronald Reagan's role in the Hollywood labor movement.

Imagine if one of America's foremost writers had once been privy to a shadowy plot by Hitler's Germany to take control of the motion picture industry through its labor organizations and force writers to clear scripts with Nazi censors, and then he courageously stepped forward to blow the whistle on the whole operation.

Wouldn't it be bizarre if, when this man died, instead of being celebrated for such heroism, he was criticized and even attacked by colleagues for revealing the identities of those who were behind the intrigue?

This strange scenario isn't far from what unfolded in the media last week when novelist and screenwriter Budd Schulberg died. The only difference is that Schulberg, once a communist, blew the whistle on Stalin's murderous Soviet regime and the Communist Party it controlled in America.

In obituaries and remembrances, Schulberg was praised for his talent, but his taking the witness chair in a congressional investigation of communism during the height of the Korean War was another matter entirely. This was almost universally characterized as a dark, shameful part of Schulberg's life: He "named names," telling Congress of people he knew who were party members, and supposedly betrayed friends. Many who wrote about Schulberg seem mystified about how an artist who proudly embraced liberalism all his life could at the same time participate with the House Un-American Activities Committee, now regarded as a government-sponsored witch hunt.

Perhaps this take on Schulberg and others who similarly rebuked the party shouldn't be all that surprising. Stories of "heroes" who refused to testify and of the horrors of the Hollywood blacklist pervade the culture. But there's another side to the story. The Communist Party was in fact a real threat and a real force damaging American institutions. The profound contribution beyond literature and film that Schulberg made by testifying to that has been almost completely lost to history.

"Naming names" was the least significant aspect of what Schulberg said at the witness table on that spring day in 1951. Going after individuals was not the point or the focus of his testimony, nor was it what dominated the news reports at the time. (In fact, those who were named as party members in the course of his testimony were for the most part already known.)

Instead, the key message from the vivid story he told was how aggressively communism was at war with individual creativity -- and how the last thing a true writer, liberal or labor man would want to be is a communist.

Schulberg, who joined the Communist Party in the mid-1930s, learned this truth the hard way when party operatives castigated him for not clearing his writing with them. They bedeviled him for writing stories that were considered destructive to Soviet ideology. So, late one night, he had declared to a comrade, "I'm out." As Schulberg told the congressional committee, "I felt I had to get away from control if I were to write at all."

He was also running from a shameful discovery about writers and artists in the Soviet Union, where he had traveled in 1934 when he still idealistically believed communism had the solutions to unemployment and fascism. Initially encouraged by what on the surface appeared to be a flourishing of freedom for Russian artists -- "a new silver age of writing," he called it in his testimony -- Schulberg was stunned to learn that by 1937, "every one of those writers had been shot or silenced" for not adhering to the party line.

Decades later, Schulberg would still talk openly about the Communist Party and how he saw it seize lives in Hollywood. "The discipline of the party took over and remade the person," he said in a 2000 interview in the Paris Review. "The Stalinist influence was so pervasive that, subconsciously, people would model themselves after Stalin. People spoke in that ridiculous syntax of Stalin's, asking a question and then answering the question, the most boring kind of syntax in the world."

"Today's liberals," he added, "talk about the communists almost romantically, as if they were just the rebels of their time, like the hippies of the 1960s."

Schulberg would enlighten you, however: Communism is anything but a Woodstock concert or just another political party.

"You were locked into a system," he told the Paris Review. "We would be assigned to work in the Writers Guild, influence the meetings. It was structured in a way that people couldn't conceive of in Hollywood today."

The same year, in another interview, he said: "I didn't like the way the party was trying to take over the Screen Writers Guild."

As to those whose names he named, Schulberg explained that they had long since ceased to be his friends and he did not, in any case, believe membership in the party should be a secret.

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