Monday, 8 September 2008
Why was Ayn Rand chosen to be a “friendly witness” at the HUAC hearings?
There are several reasons, concerning Rand personally, the situation in Hollywood and the international situation. Rand was born in Russia and left the country in 1926 when she was 21. Thus her testimony is meant to have the aura of truth, although one can be sceptical, inasmuch as she never set foot in the SU again. I would argue that her remarks are purely ideological and have nothing to do with knowledge of the terrain. If, for instance, I were asked to comment on life in the region of Britian where I was born and raised, I would hesitate to do so: I have not lived there since 1972 and things evolve. As far as the international situation goes, her background brings grist to the mill of HUAC: she can stoke the fires of the Cold War, so to speak. If we must not lose from sight the fact that Hollywood did not appreciate the testimony of the “friendly witnesses” for washing dirty linen in public, the background was nevertheless favourable to the Hearings. Rand was member of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, set up in April 1944 as an explicit rejection of what their manifesto called “crackpots and Communists”. The fact that the war was still on and the MPA made no mention of America’s fascist enemies did not go down well within the film community and the MPA was denounced as unpatriotic. The MPA was created by the most conservative figures in the industry as a reaction to the setting up of the Screen Writers’ Guild in the 1930s. Most of the members of the MPA worked for the highly conservative studio MGM but the real reason was ideological: the MPA rejected the very idea of a union which they saw as demeaning to them as artists. However, the SWG had attracted some 750 members, the vast majority of Hollywood’s writers, going from Communists through radicals and liberals to impeccable conservatives such as Charles Brackett. However, the impetus for the union came from Communists with whose struggle for recognition most writers were in agreement. Writers had no say over the definitive form given to their scripts and it was the final victory of the SWG that gave them certain rights they had never had before. Hence the indignation over the MPA’s claims and the massive rejection by Hollywood. Rand, however, could be counted on to excoriate anything remotely contaminated by the collective, such as unions.
I understand that Rand originally planned to testify about two movies, Song of Russia and The Best Years of Our Lives. Why were these films of significance in this context?
Song of Russia was part of a sort of sub-genre of the war movie: films made to glorify the Soviet war effort and to promote understanding between Russians and Americans. This was obviously anathema to Rand. The other films are Mission to Moscow, The North Star and Days of Glory. Song of Russia has been described by film historian Bernard Dick, who is critical but sympathetic to the plight of the Hollywood Ten (the “unfriendly witnesses during the Hearings of October 1947), as a “Stalinist tract”, but this comes over in the film more as a hymn of praise to the Soviet people. Mission to Moscow, however, is a paean of praise to Stalin himself and aroused much fury on both Left and Right. North Star is a genuinely pro-Bolshevik film that extols the ordinary men and women, peasants and soldiers, who defended the Revolution and their homeland against Nazism. Strangely enough it did not draw the same flak as the other two films, perhaps because it concentrated more on the fight against Nazism than on the supposed joys of Bolshevism. Days of Glory similarly praises Soviet courage and sense of sacrifice. For the record, it was written by Casey Robinson, one of the first members of the MPA. The film is never mentioned as pro-Communist propaganda, for the simple reason that it was not written by a Communist. All the films were made in 1943-4. Rand denounced Song of Russia as pro-Communist propaganda, by which she meant: “I use the term to mean that Communist propaganda is anything which gives a good impression of Communism as a way of life. Anything that sells people the idea that life in Russia is good and that people are free and happy would be Communist propaganda”. Rand evoked the fact that the film shows “happy little children”, adding: “They are not homeless children in rags, such as I have seen in Russia”. Let us, for the sake of argument, accept this testimony as accurate. If we return to the US and 1933, the film Wild Boys of the Road, a Warner Bros. production, shows homeless children in rags roaming the length and breadth of America during the Depression, searching desperately for food and lodgings and stealing in order to survive. Rand would probably also call this pro-Communist propaganda but the film puts things in a somewhat different perspective. The Best Years of Our Lives is an even more complex matter. Briefly, we could say that the film would arouse Rand’s suspicion on the grounds that it denounces bankers for refusing returning veterans loans to buy homes on the grounds that they have no collateral. Within a short time, however, veterans were no longer a source of concern and were either denounced for complaining about their lot or simply forgotten. This was repeated during the war in Vietnam and veterans returning from Iraq are never mentioned, despite their appalling psychological problems. Rand is notorious for a pamphlet she had published by the MPA which listed a series of “Don’ts”: “Don’t smear the free-enterprise system” “Don’t deify the ‘Common Man’” “Don’t glorify the collective” “Don’t glorify failure” “Don’t smear success” “Don’t smear industrialists” I should point out, as others have before me, that pillorying bankers was frequent in Hollywood movies. An excellent example is Capra’s American Madness (1932), and Capra was a conservative. In 1941 he directed Meet John Doe. One character is a fascist businessman with a private army who dresses up like a cross between Mussolini and the Gestapo. And while we’re on the question of bankers and banking, it is not irrelevant to point to the current economic crisis, in particular the subprimes crisis where hundreds of billions of $ in taxpayers’ money are being used to bail out private banks which have speculated. So ordinary Americans will now pay for the criminal activities of those who have already destroyed homes, jobs and savings. The same thing is happening with the nationalisation of Freddie Mac and Fannie May. An official report estimates at six and a half million the number of foreclosures in the US by 2012. The same thing is starting to take place in Britain. This, too, is part of the legacy of Ayn Rand. I might add that one of her greatest admirers is Alan Greenspan, former President of the Federal Reserve Bank and therefore responsible for allowing to exist the conditions leading to the subprimes crisis. In The Best Years Wyler also put his finger on something that rankled with the witch hunters in 1947. One of the heroes is a soldier who has lost his hands and he and his war comrades are approached in a bar by a man who deplores what has happened to the soldier. He adds that the US fought the wrong enemy. In other words, the US should have been on Hitler’s side against Stalin. One of the veterans knocks him down. This scene exists to highlight a fact which HUAC preferred to repress: the pro-fascist stance adopted throughout the 1930s by certain categories of American, notable businessmen anxious to do business with Nazi Germany, Southern racists such as HUAC member John Rankin (one of the country’s most notorious anti-Semites) and much of Hollywood itself. We must remember that Communists, liberals and many conservatives united in the fight against fascism, a unity compromised fatally by the Communist Party’s support for the Nazi-Soviet Pact. So getting Rand to testify about this film might have brought to the surface things that the Right preferred to keep under wraps. After all, for most Americans, the war was too fresh in their minds to transform Nazi Germany into a stalwart ally and the SU into a monstrous enemy.
When it came to her testimony, why did Rand only talk about Song of Russia?
I think I have more or less answered that question now. HUAC was essentially concerned with pro-Soviet propaganda, which is hardly the case with The Best Years.
Rand apparently asked to be allowed to give additional testimony at a later date in order that she might be able to talk about The Best Years of Our Lives, as had been her original intention. Why did this not happen?
This is news to me, so I can only speculate. HUAC interrupted the Hearings suddenly and unexpectedly prior to having called to testify everyone on their list. By the time HUAC returned to Hollywood in February 1951, the tactics had changed radically. Gone were the accusations bandied about of films being pro-Communist propaganda. Now the accent was on the “worldwide Communist conspiracy”, aided and abetted by the Soviet Atom bomb, the victory of Communism in China, and the Korean war. And then, of course, there were the accusations made by Senator McCarthy in February 1950. Moreover, Hollywood, under pressure from the Wall Street banks and the Chamber of Commerce, had set up the blacklist in November 1947 and everyone was running scared. Thanks to the files of the FBI, HUAC had a list of every person who had ever joined the CP in Hollywood. If you were on the list, you either collaborated and named the names of former comrades, or you took the Fifth Amendment and refused to speak. In which case you were blacklisted. So The Best Years was an anachronism in the eyes of HUAC by 1951, especially as nobody involved with the film was a Communist or an ex-Communist.
Rand later spoke of the HUAC in disparaging terms. Did she feel it wasn’t sufficiently forceful?
HUAC could hardly be accused of that! However, it is possible that in Rand’s eyes the purpose of the Hearings of 1947 had been abandoned for something else. As I have said, the question of pro-Communist propaganda in films made during the war was no longer the order of the day; now something else was needed to incite voters to hate. Indeed, there is an extraordinary exchange between Congressman Walter of HUAC and friendly witness Clifford Odets, the well-known playwright and former Communist, who testified in May 1952. Here is what was said: Walter: “Isn’t the screening [by studio executives] so thorough it would be an utter impossibility to slant a picture?” Odets: “You are right. There is nothing less possible in Hollywood”. This flew totally in the face of what HUAC was trying so unconvincingly to prove in 1947, but for Rand nothing had changed: any attack on free-enterprise was Communist inspired, so The Best Years of Our Lives was also a form of Communist propaganda. Her view on communist influence in film and elsewhere was summarised as follows: “The principle of free speech requires ... that we do not pass laws forbidding Communists to speak. But the principle of free speech does not imply that we owe them jobs and support to advocate our own destruction at our own expense”.
The exchange between Walter and Odets is a partial reply to that. Friendly witness, writer Richard Collins, openly stated in an exchange when testifying in 1951 that nobody ever put Red propaganda into a film. Communists were hardly being paid to overthrow capitalism. Rand’s statement is ludicrous but it is one shared by other witch hunters, then and now. Listeners should also know that Hollywood did not immediately acquiesce in the setting up of a blacklist. The most powerful studio boss, Louis B. Mayer (whose employees had set up the MPA!), was opposed to it, as was Harry Cohn of Columbia (and liberal independents such as Doré Schary and Samuel Goldwyn who produced The Best Years). Both Mayer and Cohn cited the very argument of free enterprise that obsessed Rand: they were businessmen, their studios were privately owned, they had the right to hire and fire whom they wanted and produce the films they chose. They also made clear what Walter knew and what Odets confirmed: nothing a studio boss disliked would ever get on the screen if it was too obvious, such as calling for the need to create unions, still something that rankled after the defeat of the studios by the SWG. It needed the pressure of their bankers to make them change their minds about setting up a blacklist. It’s ironic that Rand should defend free speech for Communists, as they were denied this right by HUAC in both 1947 and the Hearings of 1951-3. At the time of the first Hearings, many commentators, particularly in the press, denounced the unfair treatment meted out to the Hollywood Ten: whereas Rand and her friends were allowed to say what they liked for as long as they liked and smear their opponents, the “unfriendly witnesses” were cut off as soon as they did not reply “yes” or “no”. As we have already seen, no genuinely left-wing ideas would be tolerated by the studio bosses. It is a sad comment on the mentality of the period that Hollywood’s Communists considered it a victory for change when negroes could be shown in ways that were not inherently demeaning. I might add here that the most left-wing films written and directed by Communists were a number of films noirs made in the years between the two Hearings. On example is The Asphalt Jungle, written by Communist Ben Maddow and directed by John Huston, co-founder with William Wyler (The Best Years of Our Lives) of the Committee for the First Amendment. Rand’s own contribution to Hollywood, her script for The Fountainhead (directed in 1948 by fellow MPA member King Vidor and starring “friendly witness” Gary Cooper), contains an interesting contradiction, where reality triumphs over Rand’s fantasies concerning individualism. Architect Howard Roark blows up the building he has designed but whose construction betrays his artistic and aesthetic values. He is found not guilty by a jury after justifying his act on the grounds of his individual rights. Now a jury is not a simple aggregate of individuals: they deliver a collective verdict. So Rand’s ideology of the individual versus society finds itself in a bind: without such a collective verdict justice cannot function.
Extra material (which I did not have the occasion to use)
1) Rand opposed to taxes 2) Rand considered that a free nation (according to her own definition) had the right to invade an enslaved nation (again, according to her criteria). Leaving aside the fact that Nazi Germany used similar arguments in the 1930s, one can note that she would happily invade Cuba, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran – to mention the most obvious - irrespective of international law. 3) Let us not forget that General Douglas McArthur went out of his way to praise the fighting spirit of the Soviets, well aware that their terrible suffering was helping the US by pinning down vast numbers of German troops in the SU. 4) One Cold War specialist has estimated that, without the Soviet resistance within their homeland, another 1 million US soldiers would have been needed to liberate Europe. A similar figure has been suggested if the US had decided to invade Japan, instead of dropping the Bomb. 5) Mr. Wood (HUAC): “Do you think that it was to our advantage or to our disadvantage to keep Russia in this war, at the time this picture was made?” Miss Rand: “That has absolutely nothing to do with what we are discussing”.