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Informing on the Informers

Naming Names

by Victor S. Navasky
Viking, 482 pp., $15.95

The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part.
—T.S. Eliot, “East Coker”

Early in his book on the Hollywood informers, Victor Navasky quotes from a pamphlet issued by Aware, Inc. (one of the “extra-governmental agencies” in the blacklisting business), entitled The Road Back (Self-Clearance): A Provisional Statement of View on the Problem of the Communist and Communist-Helper in Entertainment Communications Who Seeks to Clear Himself.

[Hatred of Communism] is like hatred of sin and error: a moral obligation. This does not mean hatred of individual Communists. It means “informing” in the noble sense of warning, educating, counselling. The sinful informer sells, for money or sufficient advantage, that which he knows to be right.

This vintage Fifties definition of “informing” sets the tone for Naming Names, an unlovely story crowded with enough shameful antics to turn any well-wisher of mankind into a Gulliver. Reading Navasky’s book is rather like listening to those long and self-abasing confessions in a Dostoevsky novel or to one of Hawthorne’s litanies on “that foul cavern,” the human heart. Yet his story has its comic side, too, if comedy can be defined as the ludicrous discrepancy between profession and act. Among his cast of hundreds are the smiling squealer, Paul Crouch; the informers’ counselor, lawyer Martin Gang; Ernest Philip Cohen, “a shrink who converted his patients into informers”; blustering film moguls; congressional persecutors and their network of official and unofficial henchmen; and most important of all, the witnesses—belligerent, unrepentant, self-defensive, or unctuous—summoned to unburden their guilty souls.

Victor Navasky, editor of The Nation, is hardly an Olympian recorder of HUAC (House Committee on Un-American Activities) in Hollywood, nor can it be said that his seven-year probe of Hollywood informers springs from idle curiosity. Had he been twenty years older, he remarked to a Publisher’s Weekly interviewer not long ago, he would have been “on all sorts of blacklists.” The parents of some of his friends lost their jobs “because of their politics,” and he was personally acquainted with actor J. Edward Bromberg, ex-communist and former star of the Group Theatre whose death by heart failure has been attributed in part to HUAC’s refusal to excuse him from testifying before the Committee despite a medical certificate advising against it. Naming Names, then, is more than an episode in the annals of the McCarthy era. It is also a brief for damaged lives and a moral and psychological meditation. In his search for “answers,” Navasky has dug into a vast amount of material and spoken to more than 150 participants of his ethical drama. One can only applaud the adroitness with which he has put together a lucid and persuasive narrative from such a mare’s nest of fact and supposition.

A number of writers have already dealt with the subject of blacklisting in the entertainment industry, and one recent work in particular, The Inquisition in Hollywood: Politics in the Film Community, 1930-1960, by Larry Ceplair and Steven Englund,1 provides a swifter and often more detailed coverage of many episodes described or alluded to in Naming Names. But Navasky’s book makes more riveting reading because it is unified and intensified by his unflagging purpose: to elucidate what he calls the “Informer Principle.”

What is an informer? Why did so many “decent” people “betray” their friends and associates? What happens when the state pressures its citizens to outrage their most deep-seated beliefs? When and why do voluntary associations violate the very principles they were organized to protect? In grappling with such questions, Naming Names becomes, in Navasky’s words, “less a history than a moral detective story”—and so it is, even though the Private Eye has convicted the criminals before he sets about his sleuthing. The informer appears in many guises: as the self-styled exposer of espionage and conspiracy, as the liberal who informs while rebuking his interrogators, as the patriot proud to justify his suspected loyalty. Navasky, the sternly fair advocate of the Named, questions the Namers, weighs their reluctant testimony, and pronounces judgment.

The heart of Naming Names (and the section most likely to attract attention in those quarters where morally interesting questions are being discussed) cites and analyzes the informers’ retrospective statements about why they informed. None of them, in Navasky’s opinion, really wanted to “squeal” or play the “fink,” but their pitiful extenuations—“I didn’t hurt anybody,” “They deserved what they got,” “I wasn’t responsible for my actions,” “I was acting in obedience to a higher loyalty”—simply won’t wash. Navasky replies in effect: “You did hurt people. They didn’t deserve what they got. You are responsible for your actions. Your higher loyalty was to your own security.” Only those who admit they acted badly and regret their capitulation (for example, the actors Sterling Hayden and Lee J. Cobb) earn his grudging sympathy, but none escapes his disapproval.

The wife of a blacklisted writer urged Navasky not to lump all informers together: “Some had ‘good’ reasons to inform. Those include one who lied to the FBI, homosexuals, people who were afraid of deportation, a woman afraid of going to jail because she would be leaving a two-year-old son….” To which Navasky responds: “The case for distinguishing among motives seems both compelling and appropriately compassionate. And yet it cannot be forgotten that for each informer there were two resisters, some in virtually identical circumstances, who refused to go along.”

Although Navasky’s arraignment of informers is never shrill or self-righteous, he takes seriously his obligation to expose wrong-doing and to declare, “Thou art the man.” So he must do more than give the facts and let the reader make up his own mind. The detective is also a social physician. “If there is pain and unpleasantness” in eliciting answers from informers who don’t welcome his invitation to unburden themselves, “that is because lancing a boil means letting the pus out.” The operation is required for the sake of the patient (even the most brazenly self-defensive informer, Navasky suspects, feels the throb of guilt) and for the public which needs to be immunized from future contagions. It should be noted in passing that the surgeon goes easy on the anesthetic.

The sad and painful scenes Navasky writes about are not mere correlatives for ethical reflection. He is out to destroy the conception of the HUAC informer as hero, to expose once and for all his shady tergiversations. Informing, no matter what the informer’s reasons or excuses, is for Navasky a disgusting act for which there can be no statute of limitations. To understand is not necessarily to forgive.

This is an uncompromising position. To defend it, Navasky must ponder the concessive alternative taken by Dalton Trumbo, one of the blacklisted Hollywood Ten, when he addressed the Screen Writers Guild in 1970. No one, said Trumbo, emerged unscathed from the evil days of the blacklist: “each person reacted as his nature, his needs, his convictions, and his particular circumstances compelled him to.” There were no criminals, only victims. “It’s the goddamn Committee we should be talking about,” he told Navasky. Navasky, it must be said, doesn’t discount the weight of Trumbo’s assertion, and he writes most effectively on the HUAC hearings or, as he calls them, “degradation ceremonies,” staged primarily to publicize the Committee and to enhance the general scare about Red infiltration. Thanks to police informers planted in the California branches of the CP from the late Twenties to the mid-Forties, and to the ubiquitous FBI, the Committee had a complete list of Party members. Thus HUAC’s demand that witnesses name names had no other purpose than to test the sincerity of their “conversions” and to make them grovel.

But in his scrupulously fair and reflective account of a long epistolary debate between Trumbo and Albert Maltz, who resented Trumbo’s conflating of the informer and the man of principle, Navasky seems to come down on the side of Maltz while conceding that each man is entitled to his own “moral style.” He upholds the right of “those who believe there are lessons to be learned from moral obloquy…to treat the informer as moral leper—to keep him at bay and in the limelight.”

This is Lillian Hellman’s view in Scoundrel Time. “Forgiveness is God’s job, not mine,” Trumbo reports her as saying. But if it is honorable to honor those who have behaved honorably, it is a hard doctrine that requires us to resist the impulse to empathize with fallible people unable to cope with frightening contingencies. To understand is not necessarily to condone, but to understand is to complicate. A good many of these contingencies, deriving as they did (as Navasky paraphrases Trumbo) from “the deeper social and economic forces of counterrevolution that gave rise to the Committee itself,” may very well have had some bearing on whether a person became an informer or a resister.

One of them—the recrudescence of anti-Semitism after the war—alarmed civil rights organizations, in which Jews were prominent, to the point where they cut off all ties with Communist-affiliated groups and refused to defend defiers of the Committee. The internecine squabbles over Communism within the liberal-radical community, Navasky thinks, gave the green light to HUAC and spelled the collapse of any effective opposition to its unconstitutional procedures. Hence he can blame Americans For Democratic Action (ADA) and the American Committee for Cultural Freedom (ACCF) for spending more time exposing Stalinists than fighting the Committee, and criticize “establishment Jewish organizations” for legitimizing HUAC’s unwarranted activities by “behind-the-scenes” collaboration. In overreacting to the hysteria of the times when “Jew” and “Communist” were synonymous to many Americans, these groups do share some complicity “in the larger social evil,” but to blame the victories of HUAC on their failure of nerve is no less simplistic than to blame the alleged machinations of the Communist Party for McCarthyism.

Navasky dismisses too quickly, I think, the accumulated resentments against Party practices and principles. Moreover, the time-frame of his book doesn’t permit him to say much about the antecedents and personal histories of the Hollywood activists before the HUAC investigations. Some of the “friendlies,” he notes, justified their willingness to name Party members and former Communists on the grounds that the Party had “betrayed” or “cheated” them—others for reasons he entertains as more plausible. He intimates as much when he refers to the Party’s “wooden, inflammatory rhetoric, its so-called democratic centralism, its overresponsiveness to Soviet policy and the consequent abrupt flip-flops in the Party line.” He makes insufficient distinction, however, between the witnesses long associated with the Party and those who had joined or cooperated with the Party for shorter periods.

Old “Movement” men like John Howard Lawson, Samuel Ornitz, Herbert Biberman, and George Sklar became radicals during the Depression years. Others, including screenwriters, directors, and actors, passed in and out of the Movement in the Forties and early Fifties. A number of the older group rested comfortably in the Party family and formed a close-knit and mutually dependent brotherhood. But most of the politically engaged remained marginal to the Party at best, impatient with the informal criticism of their work by Lawson’s “Writer’s Clinic”2 and bored by the periodic incursions of Party bureaucrats from the East Coast. The Hollywood group included those who would be blacklisted—Guy Endore, for example—and the name-namers like Budd Schulberg, Edward Dmytryk, and Richard Collins. None thought of himself as an artist in uniform. Bound by professional interests and sharing, in many instances, a similar cultural as well as ethnic background, they composed a restless enclave in the Hollywood scene and by 1947 were not ideologically in tune with the Party or with one another. Few had successfully meshed their politics and their professional concerns. When HUAC turned its spotlight on the movie industry, they found their livelihoods threatened on account of their once close or casual associations with a political party to which they felt no deep attachment. What was worse, they were handcuffed unwillingly to friends and colleagues who did.

I don’t think it’s being too far-fetched—although admittedly it is only a supposition—to attribute the acquiescence of the informers to HUAC’s orders not only to revulsion from Stalinist iniquities or personal ambition or thirst for money but to something deeper as well. It was never comfortable or safe to be a Communist, to have to conceal one’s political convictions in order to work; and it is no accident that writers and intellectuals in Hollywood and elsewhere were likely to be easier in their minds during the Popular Front days and during World War II when support for the USSR did not seem inconsistent with American national programs and policies and when fighting fascism was like fighting sin. With the coming of the cold war Jewish leftists in particular, who had always wanted to be considered a part of the American consensus and who had never felt completely accepted, even by their non-Jewish friends, suddenly faced the prospect of being stigmatized as aliens in league with the powers of darkness. The need to be “cleared” even under the dubious sponsorship of HUAC and to regain their American credentials proved to be stronger in some cases than their reluctance to inform.

The members of the Hollywood film colony, the strong ones as well as those whom a friend of Edmund Wilson (and one of their number) referred to as the “over-paid and under-gutted,” seem in hindsight to have been out of touch with actual America, or at least insensitive to premonitory signals from the hinterlands and from Congressman John Rankin’s Washington. Rankin’s anti-Semitic remarks on the way Jewish actors had changed their names, Navasky observes,

…were denounced or ignored by the cognoscenti. In fact, however, he had come close to a truth about the community he was smearing—many of its inhabitants were known by their pseudo-identities rather than their real ones. Hollywood was engaged in the manufacture of myths and dreams, and its inhabitants, stars and writers alike, had come to confuse their self-created images with their selves.

Living in remunerative thralldom to an industry that turned out salable fantasies, they were at once socially conscious—eager to strike at racism, anti-Semitism, exploitation—yet inept social diagnosticians. Perhaps the showbiz atmosphere of moral make-believe in which they worked had something to do with their blinkered perspective. What their employers asked from them and got (I paraphrase a contemporary comment) were films funny enough to make the moviegoer piss in his seat and sad enough to make him snuffle.

According to George Sklar3 the writers neither knew nor cared very much about the national past. If Sklar is right, they paid for their ignorance. Familiarity with obsessions might have warned them that sizable numbers of “flatlanders” inhabiting the regions between New York City and Hollywood did not see eye to eye with Henry Wallace’s Common Man. One of their colleagues, Nathanael West, could have told them as much, but then West was dead when the inquisition began.

The America revealed by the HUAC rituals looks more like Mark Twain’s Hadleyburg than Hollywood’s USA, but it would take a satirist of his or Mencken’s genius to illuminate fully the vicious comedy of the hearings. Until such a writer appears, Navasky’s powerful tract with its trenchant commentary, its suspenseful narrative (gradually the informer’s camouflage is stripped away, the resister is celebrated), its lawyer-like anticipation of objections, and its magisterial rejoinders, will suffice. He has drawn up the strongest possible indictment against a group of people who for whatever motives helped to bring the weight of the state against their former comrades, to deprive them of employment, to send them into exile. He has written an affecting tribute to those who for any number of reasons refused to knuckle under.

Mark Twain said the human race is a race of cowards and that he was “not only marching in the procession but carrying a banner.” In his darker moods, he would probably have given a qualified “yes” to the question Navasky raises in the foreword to Naming Names: “Can it be that to live lives of moral equilibrium our values must never be tested?” At any rate, it seems fair to conclude that the Hollywood resisters who met the test have a better right to condemn or exonerate the informers than those who were never tested—and certainly more than the vicarious revolutionists of that time who (in the words of a blacklisted screenwriter to this reviewer) took no risks and thrived on the ardency of others.

  1. 1

    Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1980.

  2. 2

    The Inquisition in Hollywood, p. 59.

  3. 3

    Interview with reviewer, February 7, 1959.

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