Pete Seeger, Kremlin tool — and American hero?

Seeger in later years

We’ve spent the last couple of days exploring the career of Pete Seeger, musician, activist, Stalinist, and on-again, off-again critic of the U.S. (depending on the orders from Moscow). As with many other radical performers, he had ardent fans in politically active circles during the Depression and World War II, got in a bit of hot water with the government in the postwar years, acquired new counterculture fans during the civil-rights and Vietnam era, and in his old age, like many other sometime traitors, found himself being honored by the same government that had once called him in on the carpet and celebrated by the same media that had once banned or refused to review his performances.

David Boaz

But there was also a backlash. When the New Yorker ran a long, gushing profile of Seeger in 2006, praising him as a “conservative” devotee of “the Constitution and the Bill of Rights,” David Boaz of the Cato Institute took to the pages of the Guardian to remind readers of “Seeger’s long habit of following the Stalinist line.” Boaz cited the rapid switcheroo that Seeger underwent between Songs of John Doe and Dear Mr. President, contrasting some lines from the former (“Franklin D, listen to me, / You ain’t a-gonna send me ‘cross the sea. / You may say it’s for defense / That kinda talk ain’t got no sense”) with some very different lines from the latter:

Now, Mr President
You’re commander-in-chief of our armed forces
The ships and the planes and the tanks and the horses
I guess you know best just where I can fight …
So what I want is you to give me a gun
So we can hurry up and get the job done!

Ronald Radosh

Boaz quoted Ronald Radosh: “Seeger was antiwar during the period of the Nazi-Soviet Pact; pro-war after the Soviet Union was the ally of the United States; and anti-war during the years of the Cold War and Vietnam.” He also quoted historian Alan Charles Kors: “We rehearse the crimes of Nazism almost daily, we teach them to our children as ultimate historical and moral lessons, and we bear witness to every victim. We are, with so few exceptions, almost silent on the crimes of Communism.” Indeed. Commented Boaz: “We can only hope that soon it will be the season for holding accountable those who worked for Stalinist tyranny, as we have held accountable those who worked for National Socialist tyranny.”

Alas, that reckoning did not take place in Seeger’s own lifetime. In 2007 he was feted at the Library of Congress; two years later, he performed at Barack Obama’s inaugural concert. At age 92, still a radical, he marched with Occupy Wall Street in New York. When he died in January 2014, Obama issued a statement saying that Seeger had “used his voice and his hammer to strike blows for workers’ rights and civil rights; world peace and environmental conservation, and he always invited us to sing along. For reminding us where we come from and showing us where we need to go, we will always be grateful to Pete Seeger.”

Pete Seeger, Stalinist toady

Pete Seeger

Born in 1919, the folk singer Pete Seeger was son of two high-profile figures in classical music – his father a composer and musicologist, his mother a violinist and teacher at Juilliard – and his siblings, like Pete himself, went on to be successful (one of them was a radio astronomer, the other a teacher at Manhattan’s Dalton School). Seeger became a radical early on, apparently under the influence of his father: at age 17, he joined the Young Communist League; six years later, he joined the Communist Party.

Woody Guthrie

In the 1940s, he collaborated with Woody Guthrie and a number of other well-known folk singers. He also helped found a folk group called The Almanacs that was ideology under the Kremlin thumb. Songs for John Doe, an Almanacs album on which Seeger played and sang, faithfully reflected the anti-FDR and anti-war (and, indeed, Hitler-friendly) Soviet line of the period following the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Germany and Russia. When, shortly thereafter, Hitler violated the pact by invading the USSR, Moscow instantly reversed its position and ordered its American lackeys to do the same.

Accordingly, Seeger and his pals removed Songs for John Doe from the market and destroyed all the copies they could get their hands on. They then put out an album entitled Dear Mr. President, which was essentially a love letter to FDR and an enthusiastic call for all-out war to defeat the Nazis. It was right out of Orwell: we have always been allies with Eurasia; we have always been at war with Eastasia. Such was the mentality to which Seeger subscribed – this man long celebrated as a hero of the people, of liberty, and of free expression.

Henry A. Wallace

Yes, Seeger & co. expressed some admirable sentiments: they sang about racism and anti-Semitism. Then again, at the time it was an integral part of the Moscow line to emphasize America’s unequal treatment of blacks and Jews. If the Kremlin had suddenly, for whatever reason, ordered American Communists to reverse their line on racism and anti-Semitism, what would Seeger have done? Given his immediate, unquestioning turnaround on FDR, it’s a fair question.

When the U.S. entered the war, Seeger joined the U.S. Army and spent the duration entertaining troops in the Pacific. In the 1948 election he supported third-party presidential candidate Henry A. Wallace, who was famously soft on Communism (if not, in fact, an all-out closet Communist). It was Wallace who said in a 1946 speech that the U.S. had no more in common with Britain than with the Soviet Union and whose refusal to disavow his endorsement by the Communist Party USA alienated even Norman Thomas, the country’s most prominent socialist. But his views didn’t alienate Seeger.

More Hollywood Commies

Lester Cole

Today, three more members of the Hollywood Ten.

Lester Cole, born Cohn, was the son of a Marxist garment-union organizer in New York. After gaining some success as a Broadway playwright, he was summoned to Hollywood in 1932. Throughout the 1930s and 40s, he churned out dozens of scripts, including Charlie Chan mysteries and B-movie thrillers, first for Paramount and later for MGM.

When he wasn’t writing motion pictures, he was playing a major role in Hollywood politics.With John Howard Lawson and Samuel Ornitz, both of whom would also be members of the Hollywood Ten (and whom we looked at yesterday), he co-founded the first Tinseltown union, the Screen Writers Guild. Over the years, he would expend a lot of energy seeking to heighten the Guild’s political profile, urging its members, as Allan Ryskind puts it in Hollywood Traitors, “to back Soviet foreign policy, support domestic Red causes, promote Communist penetration of unions, hire radical lawyers, subsidize left-wing groups, and engage in massive protests to stir up strife rather than to resolve labor problems.”

In 1934, Cole joined the Communist Party, which he would never leave. He was also a leader of the Civil Rights Congress and a member of the executive board of the League of American Writers – both of them Soviet front groups. In 1945, when the CSU – a Soviet-backed Hollywood workers union that was engaged in a struggle with the IA, an anti-Communist union – went on strike against the Warner Brothers studio, a range of Soviet front groups supported the CSU, as did the Communist Party newspaper, the Daily Worker. Cole, for his part, met with the board of the Screen Writers Guild, urging that it condemn Warners and that it warn that striking workers would not return to work at the studio until a satisfactory settlement had been reached. Then came the Blacklist, after which Cole spent some years in the cold; eventually he wrote the successful 1966 film Born Free, and later taught film writing in San Francisco.

Edward Dmytryk

On to Edward Dmytryk, the Canadian-born son of working-class Ukrainian immigrants who moved to Los Angeles when he was young. He began his Hollywood career in his teens, as a studio messenger boy; by age 31 he was a full-fledged film director. He went on to make some of the great films noirs of the Forties. In 1944, the same year that RKO released Murder, My Sweet, a thriller based on a Raymond Chandler novel, Dmytryk joined the Communist Party. Yet he was never as much of a fanatic as some of the other Hollywood Ten. For instance, he removed pro-Communist agitprop from his 1945 movie Cornered, arguing that the screenwriter, John Wexley, had written “long speeches, propaganda” that “went to extremes in following the party line on the nose.” Dmytryk knew that such dialogue simply didn’t work on any level – it ruined the effectiveness of the drama and it didn’t convince anybody of anything – but as a result of his action he was subjected to vicious criticism at several Communist meetings. Leading the charge against him was Lawson, who would soon be a fellow member of the Hollywood Ten; siding with Dmytryk was Albert Maltz, who, as we’ve seen, had had his own run-ins with Party purists.

Robert Adrian Scott

As a result of the conflict over the script of Cornered, Dmytryk began (as he put it) to “drift away” from Communism. Then came the House Un-American Activities Committee, and jail. While behind bars, he came to feel that he’d been used by his Party comrades, and in 1950 officially broke with Communism – the only member of the Hollywood Ten ever to do so. The next year he again appeared before HUAC, this time providing the names of no fewer than 26 fellow Party members. His career restored to him, Dmytryk went on to write and direct a number of major films, including The Caine Mutiny (1954) and The Carpetbaggers (1964).

Robert Adrian Scott (1911–1972), perhaps the least-known of the Hollywood Ten, can be mentioned here as a sort of footnote to Dmytryk: a middle-class kid from New Jersey, his main accomplishment in Hollywood was producing several films (including Murder My Sweet and Crossfire) directed by Dmytryk, who told HUAC that Scott had pressured him to put Communist propaganda in his movies. After the Blacklist, he worked in TV, dying in 1973.  

Three rich boys turned Hollywood Stalinists

Ring Lardner, Jr.

Some of the Hollywood Ten were from humble backgrounds. Not Ring Lardner Jr. (1915–2000), who, himself the son of a famous writer, went to Andover and Princeton. He was also an earlier convert to socialism than several of his fellow traitors. At Princeton he was active in both the Socialist Club and the Anglo-American Institute of the University of Moscow, a Kremlin propaganda organization based both in the U.S. and the U.K. By 1937, he had become a writer in Hollywood and a member of Communist Party. Soon he was also active in various Soviet front groups, among them the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League and the Hollywood Writers Mobilization Against the War. In 1943 he won an Oscar for co-writing the Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn hit Woman of the Year. Four years later, 20th Century Fox made him one of Hollywood’s best-paid writers – and HUAC called him to testify. A prison term ensued. His long post-Blacklist rehabilitation climaxed with a 1970 Oscar for writing the film M*A*S*H.

John Howard Lawson

John Howard Lawson (1894–1977), too, came from New York money. After Williams College, he drove an ambulance in Italy during World War I. Later he simultaneous wrote agitprop Broadway plays and Hollywood scripts. Although not as important a screenwriter as some of the other Hollywood Ten members (his major efforts included the Charles Boyer vehicle Algiers, a Bogart drama called Sahara, and a Susan Hayward weepie, Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman), he was the central figure in the group, co-founding the Screen Writers Guild, serving as its first president, and acting, according to one source, as “the Communist Party’s de facto cultural commissar in Hollywood, particularly as it affected writers.” Among his duties was the enforcement of Party ideology and discipline among his sometimes recalcitrant fellow scribes. After his appearance before HUAC, he decamped to Mexico, wrote scripts under pseudonyms, and ended up as a university lecturer.  

Samuel Ornitz

Samuel Ornitz (1890–1957) was also the scion of a wealthy New York family. He was an active socialist by age 12, giving speeches on street corners. Working briefly as a social worker, he soon became a successful Manhattan playwright and novelist. He went to Hollywood in 1928, where he spent the next two decades writing mediocre pictures for RKO and Republic (perhaps the most prominent item on his CV is a shared four-way writing credit on a John Wayne flick, Three Faces West) and telling everyone who would listen just how wonderful Stalin was. The Hollywood Reporter claims that he was “one of the most outspoken political figures in Hollywood”; another source says that his “doctrinaire, party-line communism alienated many of his liberal colleagues and friends, such as his dogged insistence that there was no anti-Semitism in Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union.” After his encounter with the House Un-American Activities Committee, he quit scriptwriting and resumed writing novels, including a now-forgotten 1951 bestseller, Bride of the Sabbath. 

So there we have it: three men, born with silver spoons in their mouths, who enjoyed their richesse even as they embraced an ideology dedicated to the coldblooded murder of people with bank accounts just like theirs. 

We’ll finish up with this crew tomorrow.

Hating free speech: Howard Biberman

Herbert Biberman

We’ve been looking at the Hollywood Ten, those unwavering devotees of totalitarianism, blind servants of Stalin, and out-and-out traitors who, after being held in contempt by the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947, spent a few years on the so-called Blacklist and later, in the 1970s, were gloriously rehabilitated, applauded by the media and by a new generation of Hollywood luminaries as heroes of the individual conscience, the life of the independent artist, and the First Amendment. Today’s subject: Herbert Biberman (1900-71), who after working in the New York theater in the early 1930s went to Hollywood, wrote several minor films, and married Oscar-winning actress (and fellow Blacklist member) Gale Sondergaard.

An APM button from the group’s “pro-peace” phase

In Hollywood, Biberman was a busy Communist bee. Among much else, he played a major role in a Soviet front group whose history of ideological shifts illuminates the way in which these groups perfectly mirrored the Kremlin’s own changing policies. Originally founded in 1933 as the American League against War and Fascism and conceived of as a means of preparing the Depression-struck U.S. for imminent Communist revolution, it encouraged workers to oppose FDR, whom it presented as oppressing workers and as being engaged in preparation for war. Two years later, however, having decided the U.S. was not on the verge of revolution after all, the Kremlin had the group’s name changed to the American League for Peace and Democracy and ordered it to support FDR and to boycott and propagandize against the USSR’s more immediate enemies, Germany and Japan.

Molotov (left) and Ribbentrop at the signing of the pact

Two years after that, when the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed, forging an alliance between Stalin and Hitler, the American League for Peace and Democracy was renamed American Peace Mobilization (APM) and told to be pro-peace, pro-Nazi, and, once again, anti-American. After Hitler invaded Russia, however, the APM, under Kremlin orders, underwent another ideological make-over: now it supported the Soviet war against Hitler and equated Nazi Germany with the U.S. and Britain, representing Hitler, Roosevelt, and Churchill as equally imperialist and equally intolerable.

Some of the Hollywood Ten and their lawyers, December 1947

How does Biberman fit into all this? He was on the APM’s “National Council.” As Allan Ryskind writes in Hollywood Traitors, Biberman told an APM meeting that the U.S. had become “a colony of the British Empire” and that Hitler, Roosevelt, and Churchill were “making a deal for the money markets of the world” and sacrificing “the lives of millions of men” in the process. At an APM rally in Los Angeles, he received a standing ovation after savaging FDR and Churchill. The readiness of Biberman (and several other members of the Hollywood Ten who were also on the APM “National Council” or otherwise involved in the group) to instantly change their ideological tune, not once but several times, in accordance with Kremlin directives only goes to show that none of this had anything to do with individual conscience or personal philosophy – it was all about being robotic, lockstep soldiers who were prepared to believe anything that Josef Stalin told them to.

Biberman before HUAC

Later, after America had entered the war on the side of the USSR, Biberman was active in other Soviet front groups, among them the Civil Rights Congress (CRC) and the Hollywood Writers Mobilization (HWM). These supposedly independent groups, which represented themselves as having been founded spontaneously by free-thinking individuals who, among other things, simply wanted to serve the war effort. In fact they were all branches of the same tree, following the same orders from the same masters in Moscow.

Albert Maltz

In 1946, like Alvah Bessie, Biberman stood up at a Communist gathering to condemn their fellow Hollywood Ten member Albert Maltz for the high crime of having suggested that the works of Communist artists should not be straitjacketed by Kremlin ideology but should rather be allowed to deviate from that ideology in minor specifics as long as it served, on the whole, the general aims and principles of Communism. For Bessie and Biberman, Maltz’s suggestion amounted to heresy; after Bessie denounced Maltz, Biberman took his turn, “spout[ing] elaborate mouthfuls of nothing, his every accent dripping with hatred.” In short, despite the Hollywood Ten image that would take form decades later, he was very far from being a champion of free expression.

Alvin Bessie, Stalinist soldier

Dalton Trumbo and wife

We’re talking this week about the Hollywood Ten – a group of Hollywood scriptwriters who enjoyed ample rewards for their talents in capitalist America even as they espoused a political system under which the very jobs they thrived at didn’t exist and in which their own stubborn contrarianism would likely have landed them in front of a firing squad. We’ve already devoted a good deal of attention to the most famous of the Ten – Dalton Trumbo, the colorful hero of a 2015 movie starring Bryan Cranston. But the other members of the group, all of whom refused either to answer questions about their political history or, in the phrase of the day, to “name names,” are no less interesting in their own right.

Alvah Bessie

Take Alvah Bessie (1904-85). The son of a successful New York businessman, he attended Columbia University, spent four years as a member of Eugene O’Neill’s acting troupe, the Provincetown Players, then, in 1928, went to Paris to become an expatriate writer like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. Returning to the U.S. the next year, he contributed stories and essays to most of the best American magazines of the day.

He did something else, too. He began moving in Communist circles, and in 1936 joined the Party. Two years later, like many other American Communists, he went off to Spain to fight against Franco and for the Republic. At the time, much of the left-wing media in the U.S. and elsewhere presented the struggle as a straightforward clash between fascism and freedom, but as George Orwell famously recorded in his classic Homage to Catalonia, the Republican side was strongly under Kremlin influence and was subjected to a great deal of pressure to toe the Stalinist line and to crush any hint of non-Communist dissent. In Orwell’s view, indeed, the Soviets in Spain oversaw a “reign of terror.”

George Orwell

Like Orwell, Bessie wrote his own account of the Spanish Civil War. His book, entitled Men in Battle, was published in 1939. In it, as the title suggests, he recounts everyday life at the front, in the heat of warfare. Unlike Orwell, however, he doesn’t complain about the Soviets. He was, as they say, a “good soldier.” He belonged to the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, which was one of the International Brigades that, as Allan H. Ryskind records in his 2015 history Hollywood Traitors, were “a Stalinist creation.” Just to make sure there’s no doubt about the matter, Ryskind spells it out: Bessie “was fighting for the Stalinist wing in the civil war.”

It was during World War II – specifically, in 1943 – that Bessie began writing movies for Warner Brothers, notably Objective, Burma! , for which he received an Oscar nomination. As a big Hollywood name he had access to people at the top of the American Communist Party, including its president, Earl Browder. Ryskind reports a conversation that suggests that Bessie was even a more hard-line Communist than the head of the Party himself. Browder’s – and the Party’s – official position was that the U.S. should undergo a peaceful transition from capitalism to Communism. Bessie rejected this notion: he believed in nothing less than a violent overthrow of the U.S. system.

Albert Maltz

If Bessie was more of a Communist than Browder, he was also more of a Communist than at least one of his fellow Hollywood Ten members, Albert Maltz (1908-85). In 1946, Maltz, a veteran of  the New York theater, a Communist since 1935, and an Oscar nominee for Pride of the Marines (1945), published an article in the Party’s weekly New Masses complaining that the Party was too strict in policing writers, expecting them to cleave strictly to the party line and produce crude propaganda. Among those who savaged Maltz for his dissent was Bessie, who at a Party meeting, according to one witness, “denounced” his fellow screenwriter “with bitter vituperation and venom.” After HUAC and prison, Maltz moved to Mexico, where he resumed writing films, including the Cinemascope spectacle The Robe (1953).

As for Bessie, he didn’t last long at Warners. Two years after going to work for the studio, he was fired. The anodyne account of his career in the Hollywood Reporter says that he was dismissed for supporting striking studio workers – which, of course, makes Bessie sound virtuous and the studio bosses pretty rotten. In fact, there was a struggle underway at the time between two unions, one Kremlin-controlled and one anti-Communist, that sought to represent Hollywood workers, and Bessie was squarely on the side of the Stalinists. Called before HUAC in 1950 and subsequently imprisoned and blacklisted, he quit the Party in the 1950s and wrote about his Blacklist experience in a 1957 novel, The Un-Americans, and a 1965 memoir, Inquisition in Eden.

Stalinizing Britain’s schools

Recently, British columnist James Bartholomew took up a subject that goes to the heart of what this website is all about.

james-bartholomew-2
James Bartholomew

It started with a holiday cocktail party, where he happened to meet a woman who teaches history at a top U.K. school. “We somehow started chatting about Stalin,” he recalled, “and she said – in passing – that there had been good aspects to his Five Year Plans.”

Stalin_Joseph
Josef Stalin

Of course, anyone who knows the true history of Stalin’s Five Year Plans knows that they proved to be a nightmare for the people of the Soviet Union. Far from improving the Soviet economy, as intended, they caused famine. Compared to the Western world’s economy, the USSR’s was a disaster. Yes, they told the world otherwise, but historians have long since shown that the statistics shared by the Kremlin with gullible Western journalists were sheer fairy tales.

After his encounter with the history teacher – with whom he “only just managed to avoid having a row” – Bartholomew decided to look into exactly what British children are being taught these days about Stalin. He bought a copy of a study guide for history students. What he discovered was that the fatuous teacher’s “balanced” view of Stalinism is now “the standard line” at the very best British schools.

Take collectivization – Stalin’s expropriation of privately held farms from their owners and introduction of a system whereby groups of peasants were ordered to run them on behalf of the state. As any student of Soviet history knows, this policy proved to be disastrous. Bartholomew sums up the results:

Production decreased. People starved. Some farmers were not keen to have their property taken away. They were imprisoned or killed. Some collectives hid grain to avoid starvation. If discovered, they were killed, too. In all, up to ten million died as a result of the collectivisation in one of the greatest man-made disasters the world has ever known.

But that’s not what British students are being told. According to the study guide, collectivization had its “pros and cons.” One “pro”: it “ended the forced exploitation of peasants by greedy landlords and got rid of the greedy and troublesome kulaks.” The “kulaks” were the small farmers from whom Stalin stole the farms. To call these people “greedy and troublesome” is to use the language of Stalinism itself. They were greedy, yes, insofar as they sought, like any person operating a private business under a capitalist system, to maximize production and profits and minimize expenses. “Troublesome”? Again, yes, to the extent that they stood up to the Bolsheviks who took their property from them.

eton
Eton College

Another “pro” of collectivization: “It helped peasants work together.” Yes, and ultimately starve together.

“It would be grotesque,” observes Bartholomew, “to suggest as a subject for discussion the possible Pros and Cons of the Holocaust. It would be sickening to offer the idea that forced labour camps ‘helped people work together’ even if you expected children to knock the suggestion down.” The same should apply to Stalin’s reign of terror. But no: when it comes to subjects like Stalinist collectivization, “students are advised to give a ‘balanced answer.’ Students are to take into the ‘balance’ that up to 10 million people were starved or killed. The brutal enforcement of starvation of 2.5 to 7.5 million Ukrainians, know as Holodomor, is not mentioned.”

kremlin
The Kremlin

The reason for this is clear. In Britain, as elsewhere in the West, the people who formulate school curricula uniformly recognize the horrors of Nazism – but some of them are likely to have a soft spot for Communism, notwithstanding its own attendant horrors. “The communists in the Soviet Union,” Bartholomew reminds us, “were responsible for the deaths of a minimum of between 13 and 15 million people, the second worst rate of deaths caused by human action after those caused by Mao Tse Tung in China. But young people are not taught this.” And the less they know about “the terror, economic failure and mass murder that took place under communism,” the more likely they are “to be seduced by similar ideas.” Yes, that’s how it works.