The other night I went to see Trumbo, an Off Broadway trial run of Christopher Trumbo’s play based mostly on his father, Dalton Trumbo’s, amazing letters about life under the Hollywood blacklist and other assaults on individual liberty in the name of national safety and security. The evening includes his famous dictum that those too young to remember the McCarthy era should not waste time searching for “villains or heroes or saints or devils because there were none; there were only victims.” Survivors are still debating the moral implications of his generous injunction, but as it turns out, those too young to remember that dark time may have only too many opportunities to revisit it.
By coincidence, the showing of Trumbo (it plays only on Mondays) coincided with the release by the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs of five volumes of secret testimony from 160 closed hearings held during Senator Joseph McCarthy’s redbaiting rampage through our democracy fifty years ago.
Press commentary has ranged over McCarthy and his chief counsel Roy Cohn’s bullying tactics, the fact that while they turned up some Communist smallfry, nobody went to prison and gossipy tidbits about the people called, who ranged from the famous, such as Aaron Copland (not a Communist), Paul Robeson’s wife (she denied any personal experience with Communism) and James Reston, Dashiell Hammett and Langston Hughes, to bit players like Annie Lee Moss, the State Department file clerk who didn’t know who Karl Marx was. Also starring among the witnesses and attorneys were many old Nation friends (Corliss Lamont, Harvey O’Connor, James Weinstein, Leonard Boudin and his partner, Victor Rabinowitz).
The closed hearings, it turned out, were a sort of dress rehearsal for later public hearings–show trials. Many witnesses who held their own were never called. Trumbo notwithstanding, there are heroes and villains in these pages, especially Roy Cohn at his witness-badgering worst and Democratic senators like Stuart Symington and Henry “Scoop” Jackson in supporting roles, out-McCarthying McCarthy in their efforts to prove the un-Americanism of Fifth Amendment-invoking witnesses.
But what most of the commentators have missed–and the reason Trumbo, the five volumes of declassified testimony and the latest batch of political memoirs are relevant today–is the apparent failure of our political culture to grasp a distinction one would have thought was elementary, the core of our Constitution and its values, the first principle taught in Democracy 101, namely, the difference between dissent and disloyalty.
The inquisitorial committees of the 1950s were wrong not because they so often got the wrong guy but because they occasionally got the right one. The red hunt was misguided because the equation that came to define the McCarthy era (to be a liberal is to be a pinko is to be a red is to be a spy) was misguided. And it was misguided because, in the name of national security and national safety, it inhibited, marginalized, attacked and attempted to decimate dissent.
It should by now be an old story that in the name of counter-subversion, those who did their best (i.e., their worst) to put the alleged subversives out of business did more damage to the Republic than the alleged subversives themselves. But today’s countersubversives, in the name of counterterrorism, scoop up suspected terrorists without due process, or any kind of process for that matter, and ship them to an island off the coast of Florida, where they are deprived of the right to counsel (although why would they need counsel if, under the Ashcroft doctrine, they are not entitled to a trial, fair or otherwise?). Preventive detention does not seem quite so bad when it is carried out in the shadow of a “preventive” war.
A few years ago, when the old Soviet archives opened up, and when the so-called Venona intercepts came on the market, a new breed of historian tried to argue that these fragments from our collective past show that McCarthy had been right after all. I have only dipped into the 4,232 pages of the behind-the-scenes McCarthy follies, but they seem to suggest–and all press and other reports thus far appear to confirm–that McCarthy was exactly what he appeared to be. Perhaps Christopher Trumbo will find a way to stage these hearings as his next project, since rehearsal for a stage play is what they were–a tale told by a charlatan, full of bluster, signifying nothing.