1000 Words: Thought Crimes

The last member of the Hollywood Ten died in 2000. One died in 1999. Three died in 1985. The rest died between the years 1957 and 1977.

It’s possible if you’re, say, 30-ish, you might have some memory of reading the obit of Ring Lardner, Jr., the last of that gang to turn in his typewriter and depart this mortal coil.

As I sit here writing this, at a table in Hopscotch, the Bloomington coffeehouse that serves as my work/social headquarters, I turn to my tablemate, a 41-year-old who is a voracious reader, a student of history, and an all-around knowledgable guy, and ask him if he knows what or who the Hollywood Ten were. He doesn’t, which surprises me.

He knows, of course, about the post-World War II communist witch hunts in this holy land, of which the H-Ten were among the more infamous victims. The Hollywood Ten made big news in the autumn of 1947, when they were subpoenaed by the US House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities, commonly known as the House Un-American Activities Committee or HUAC.

The Ten were screenwriters, playwrights, novelists, and directors who had been members of or had cozied up to the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) in the 1930s or ’40s. The HUAC members tried to grill them about their Party memberships and who else had shown up at CPUSA meetings. Each of the Ten refused to name names. Each of the Ten served time in prison because of it. Each of the Ten was blacklisted from employment in his chosen profession.

Think of it. In this century, in this millennium (if you tend to include the -00 years in those time frames) there was still living in these United States a person who’d been imprisoned for thinking the wrong things.

And, make no mistake, the things they thought were wrong, Their CPUSA was bankrolled, largely, by Joe Stalin’s Soviet Union even as his orders and practices resulted in the deaths and forced migrations of millions. The 1848 pamphlet CPUSA members adored, Karl Marx’s The Communist Manifesto, laid out a wholly unrealizable utopia wherein no one wanted for the basics of life and the capitalist world’s rival classes were eliminated.

The Hollywood Ten, like many Americans — like millions around the world — had been soured by the excesses of capitalism and the agonies imposed on most people during the Great Depression. They mistakenly thought Marx’s vision of the future was achievable and would be ultimately successful. They bought into Soviet propaganda that the Stalinist empire was a fair and equitable place.

Again, they were wrong.

Keep in mind none of the Ten was imprisoned for any crime of violence or insurrection or intimidation. Each was found guilty of Contempt of Congress for refusing rat out fellow Party members.

A contemporary analogy would be if, say, the Democratic-majority Senate threw folks in the federal pen for attending MAGA rallies, or the Republican-dominated House of Representatives imprisoned contributors to Planned Parenthood or the American Civil Liberties Union.

A lot of people think we’re living in a “cancel culture” these days (and, to a certain extent, we are, thanks to both ends of the political spectrum) but, truth is, we’re not throwing people in prison for joining a club or reading the wrong pamphlet.

An anecdote from one of the Hollywood Ten HUAC inquisitions: Albert Maltz, who’d penned the scripts for such classic movies as This Gun for Hire, Destination Tokyo, Pride of the Marines, and The Naked City, took his turn before the committee. One of his questioners was Mississippi segregationist John E. Rankin. The House member had long publicly held that the Ku Klux Klan was a noble organization. As Rankin began to query Maltz, the screenwriter interrupted, stating he wouldn’t be “dictated to or intimidated by men to whom the Ku Klux Klan, as a matter of committee record, is an acceptable American institution.”

Contempt, indeed.

It should be noted that never in American history has anyone ever been imprisoned for belonging to the KKK or hobnobbing with members thereof. This despite the fact that the Klan satisfies perfectly the definition of a domestic terrorism organization.

The American capitalist system is a stacked deck, rewarding the haves and punishing the have-nots, with racism, sexism, and nativism built into it. Our economic structure in the year 2023 is far more warped and cruel than it was in 1935, when Maltz joined the CPUSA, or 1947 when HUAC hauled him and the rest of the Ten before it.

HUAC members and their more rabid supporters held that the Hollywood Ten and other American communists were disloyal and subversive. Meaning, I suppose, they wanted to overthrow…, um, something. Politicians and demagogues were scared to death in the 1930s, during the depths of the Great Depression, by the spread of socialist and even communist thought in America. Stalin’s communists were clever guys, realizing that America should be attacked through its two weakest spots, wealth inequity and racism. Thoughtful but misguided people like bass-baritone Paul Robeson visited the Soviet Union, were given the white-washed tour, and came away thinking they’d get a better shake in Moscow.

They didn’t take into account the endemic and pervasive white supremacy that runs through the veins of much of Russia even today. Stalin’s Potemkin villages fooled a lot of people. Marx’s pie-in-the-sky utopia fooled many more. Being fooled, falling victim to charlatans and fabulists, isn’t an imprisonable offense in the United States. If it were, our jails would be bursting twenty times more than they already are, which is one hell of a lot.

Here’s a list of the Hollywood Ten:

  • Alvah Bessie novelist, journalist, screenwriter
  • Herbert J. Biberman screenwriter, director
  • Lester Cole screenwriter
  • Edward Dmytryk director
  • Ring Lardner, Jr. screenwriter
  • John Howard Lawson screenwriter, playwright
  • Albert Maltz playwright screenwriter, fiction writer
  • Samuel Ornitz screenwriter, novelist
  • Adrian Scott screenwriter, film producer
  • Dalton Trumbo screenwriter

The Hollywood Ten (minus one)

The House Un-American Activities Committee was disbanded in 1975.

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