Allan H. Ryskind has been an editor and reporter at Human Events for over 55 years. His father, Morrie Ryskind, was a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and screenwriter famous for his Marx Brothers scripts and for leading the opposition to communism in Hollywood along with Ronald Reagan, Walt Disney and John Wayne. Previously the author of a biography on Hubert Humphrey, Allan Ryskind’s new book is, Hollywood Traitors: Blacklisted Screenwriters, Agents of Stalin, Allies of Hitler (Regnery History, 506 pages, $29.99). Below is my interview with the writer about his latest scholarly work:
DECKER: The popular consensus today is that the “Red Scare” led to innocent people being persecuted who weren’t really Communists or posed no threat to the United States. Is this an accurate view?
RYSKIND: No, it really isn’t, but even good conservatives like Fox’s Bill O’Reilly have gotten the history wrong. Hard-core Communists in Hollywood, and by that I mean those with party cards and whose allegiance was to Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union, not the United States, made a major effort to take over the movie industry and nearly succeeded. The much-maligned House Un-American Activities Committee, as even liberal Hollywood historians Larry Ceplair and Steven Englund acknowledge, uncovered over 200 party members in Hollywood. My dad, Morrie Ryskind, one of the few outspoken anti-Communist screenwriters in Hollywood, said the number was closer to 300. They were part of a broad conspiracy of subversives who had penetrated America’s most critical institutions, including our intelligence agencies, the State Department and even the White House.
Hollywood continues to celebrate the most ardent Stalinists as champions of our civil liberties. It will do so again this year by releasing a film featuring Bryan Cranston, the star of Breaking Bad, that honors Dalton Trumbo, a major Stalinist screenwriter, as a great defender of our Constitution. It also promises to go after important anti-Communists, like labor leader Roy Brewer and actor John Wayne.
By 1944, the American Communists, who viewed the murderous Joseph Stalin as their political leader, were deeply imbedded in the Hollywood guilds and unions, and even appeared to control movie content. The Screen Writers Guild was saturated with Communists, its major publication, The Screen Writer, edited by two devoted party members, the aforementioned Trumbo and Gordon Kahn, our next door neighbor in Beverly Hills. The Screen Writer, for instance, celebrated the Soviet Union, the Communist writers in Hollywood, and the pro-Stalinist films they were writing.
Think Song of Russia, written by two Communists, and Mission to Moscow, the work of an ardent Stalinist and fellow traveler, whose wife was a Communist Party member. Song of Russia made you think that pre-World War II Russia was a slice of paradise and Mission to Moscow that Joe Stalin was the wisest statesman on the planet. These and similar films even lauded Stalin’s collective farm system, which actually resulted in a horrendous famine that claimed the lives of at least 3 million Russian peasants. The Screen Writer also used its pages to smear the anti-Communist community. The Hollywood Reds gave tons of money to Communist-run causes, leftwing political candidates, far-left unions and publications defending the Soviet Union.
DECKER: There were all kinds of unholy alliances of convenience during the messy 20th century. The Hollywood leftists may have had a soft spot for socialism, but didn’t they play a leading role in confronting Nazism and fascism?
RYSKIND: It’s fair to say when the Soviet Union viewed Hitler as a threat to Moscow, the Communists in Hollywood — who never deviated from the Soviet line — were in the forefront of the fight against Hitler and fascism. Donald Ogden Stewart, a major Communist screenwriter, for instance, headed the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, which he admitted was controlled by the Communist Party. But the policy of anti-Nazism changed when Stalin entered that pact with Hitler in August 1939. The entire Soviet apparatus in America, including the Communist Party, suddenly allied itself with the Nazi dictator.
The Hollywood Reds enthusiastically supported Hitler when he invaded Poland on Sept. 1. They backed him when he conquered most of Western Europe the following year and were with him when he began dropping bombs on London, preparing for an invasion of England that never materialized because of aid we gave to England. The sole reason the Communists, including the Hollywood Reds, stood up to Hitler again is because the Nazi warlord double-crossed his friend in the Kremlin, launching a massive invasion of the Soviet Union in June of 1941. And that’s why the American Communists became super-patriotic during the war, because they realized that only the United States had the industrial and economic might to defeat Hitler. If Hitler hadn’t invaded Russia, it’s a safe bet to think Stalin and his Fifth Column in America would never have turned against the Fuhrer.
DECKER: Cold War historian M. Stanton Evans once quipped, “I didn’t agree with what Joe McCarthy was trying to do, but I sure did admire his methods.” How has the Wisconsin senator’s part in history been distorted?
RYSKIND: Several observations. I’m not an expert on McCarthy, but Evans, who died in March of this year, did a marvelous book on the senator called Blacklisted by History, which even those who dislike McCarthy have handed high marks for its scholarship. I think it should be included in any study of the senator to get a balanced view of what he did and didn’t accomplish and what mistakes he may have made. There is no question in my mind that McCarthy played a major role in exposing the Communist infiltration of the State Department and the U.S. military and alerted the public to the menace it posed to America.
Despite a mountain of misinformation that is now considered “history,” McCarthy played no role whatsoever in Hollywood. The House Un-American Activities Committee began its first major investigation of the red influence in Hollywood in 1947, and the vast majority of what the public learned about Hollywood and the Communist influence there stems from that investigation. The movie industry, in the wake of the hearings, felt impelled to institute the blacklist to convince the public that Hollywood was not “soft on communism.” The producers laid down the law that the studios would not hire anyone who was a party member and who refused to cooperate with the committee. None of this, however, had anything to do with McCarthy, who was a senator, not a House member, and didn’t even begin his anti-Communist crusade until 1950.
DECKER: Casablanca is widely considered to be one of the greatest classics of the silver screen, but this flick isn’t just the wartime romance it’s made out to be. What’s the unglamorous back story?
RYSKIND: Casablanca is one of my favorite films, but the main screenwriter, Howard Koch, who was a super fellow traveler and had married a Communist party member, did manage to squeeze in some pro-Soviet propaganda. He made certain that the viewers would know that Humphrey Bogart, the major star, fought on the Soviet side in the Spanish Civil War.
Koch’s most pro-Soviet film, however, was Mission to Moscow. This wartime movie turned Stalin into a virtual saint. He was, it seems, the wisest statesman on the planet. He had turned a backward Soviet Union into an industrial powerhouse. Despite carping critics, Stalin’s collective farm program was doing quite well, thank you. Everything Stalin did was embraced. The Moscow show trials, the pact with Hitler, the invasion of Finland — each was enthusiastically defended or even embraced. The movie was so pro-Stalin and pro-Soviet that leftwing historians and journals felt compelled to criticize it to keep their credibility. Even the very pro-Soviet Nation magazine, for instance, claimed the movie was a “whitewash.”
DECKER: There has been no Hollywood mea culpa for its history of aiding and abetting Soviet and Nazi totalitarianism — in fact, quite the opposite. How has Tinseltown continued to support Communist dictators?
RYSKIND: Hollywood no longer seems to be making pictures hailing the Soviet Union and Joe Stalin, but it is still turning out anti-American films and frequently embracing middle-weight Stalinists like Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Che Guevara and Venezuela’s late Marxist ruler Hugo Chavez. Though Stalin, himself, is not glorified the way he was in numerous World War II movies, Stalin’s champions in Hollywood are still being lavishly celebrated.
In 1997, I attended a gathering at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills honoring several “blacklisted” screenwriters, with First Amendment awards bestowed on two long-time Stalinist screenwriters, Ring Lardner, Jr., and Communist party leader Paul Jarrico. Various Hollywood stars, including Billy Crystal and John Lithgow, were lending their talents to the affair. The Majestic, starring Jim Carrey, names a wonderfully patriotic town after John Howard Lawson, the long-time head of the Communist Party in Hollywood. And this fall, as noted, Hollywood, with Brian Cranston playing Dalton Trumbo, has decided to honor this major Stalinist screenwriter and Hitler apologist. Go figure.
Brett M. Decker is a director at the White House Writers Group and a doctoral student at the University of Southern California.