Lillian Hellman’s stance was inspirational to a cowed generation…
|September 4, 2012|
From The Nation:
In 1952, Hellman was subpoenaed to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). It was the height (or should I say “nadir”?) of the red hunt. Senator Joseph McCarthy, with the intimidating attorney Roy Cohn at his side, seemed to be making daily headlines with his irresponsible charges that however many communists were undermining virtually every aspect of American life. Senator Pat McCarran’s Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, meanwhile, was blaming security risks in the State Department for the “loss” of China. (Many state legislatures had their own mini–investigating committees.) The Smith Act prohibited the teaching and advocacy of subversive ideas. Harry Truman’s Loyalty Program required all federal employees to sign an oath of fealty to the United States. The Hiss and Rosenberg cases dominated the news. Over President Truman’s veto, the restrictive McCarran-Walter immigration act was passed, along with the Taft-Hartley Act, which required all trade union officials to take a similar oath. The US attorney general had compiled and disseminated a list of subversive organizations. Police departments in every major city had their own red squads, and behind the scenes J. Edgar Hoover presided over an FBI that saw reds under every bed.
In Hollywood the blacklist became the principal drama, with investigators (Congressional and freelance) using guilt by association to destroy the careers of hundreds of people in the industry. After the so-called Hollywood Ten had been sent to prison for refusing to answer HUAC’s most notorious question (“Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?”), attorneys advised their subpoenaed clients that their choice was either to cooperate with the investigators (which meant naming names) or risk imprisonment for contempt of Congress (by refusing to do so); alternatively, they could invoke the Fifth Amendment with its protection against self-incrimination, but they would still end up on the blacklist. Naming names became the order of the day. The actor Sterling Hayden named his mistress; the director Richard Collins named one of his creditors. The left-wing playwright Clifford Odets, who had given the eulogy at Group Theater actor J. Edward Bromberg’s funeral, named J. Edward Bromberg. And Elia Kazan, Hollywood’s most prestigious and successful director, not only named names but took out full-page ads in Variety and the New York Times urging others in the industry to follow his example. Although there were some notable exceptions, most who took the Fifth kept their silence.
Such was the poisonous political climate surrounding Hellman when she appeared before HUAC. Yet, as Kessler-Harris observes, by the end of her testimony “she had given no names and would serve no jail time.” Indeed, in her letter to the committee, she asked that it respect the “simple rules of human decency and Christian honor” by not forcing her “to betray people who had never done any harm.” She famously and eloquently insisted that “To hurt innocent people whom I knew many years ago in order to save myself is, to me, inhuman and indecent and dishonorable,” adding: “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions, even though I long ago came to the conclusion that I was not a political person and could have no comfortable place in any political group.”
Writing in The New York Review of Books, the columnist Murray Kempton said of Hellman: “The most important thing is never to forget that here is someone who knew how to act when there was nothing harder on earth than knowing how to act.” This is precisely what all those others who would dismiss this difficult woman as “Stalinist” forgot. In my view, Hellman’s stance before HUAC was consistent with the best of her proclaimed democratic and humanistic values. In addition to what it says about her character (which was Kempton’s point), it served the larger political purpose of resisting unjust authority and also had an educational function for the citizenry at large. It took courage and literary elegance to pull off, yes, but more important, it was inspirational to a mostly cowed generation.
If Hellman’s response to McCarthyism was the high point of her existence as a public figure, Kessler-Harris makes it clear that decades later, toward the end of her life, when Hellman was losing her eyesight and was frail, angry and embittered (not least at the attacks on her for proclaiming her moral superiority at the expense of the truth), her response to what I will call Mary McCarthyism was less than admirable.
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