Arthur Miller, American playwright, died last night at 89. Having seen a magnificent production of his play The Crucible at Laguna Beach High School a few years back, and read Death of a Salesman years ago, I can attest to his skills as a playwright.
Miller was famous, of course, not only for his plays but for his marriage to movie star Marilyn Monroe.
NPR, in covering Miller's death, voiced the familiar theme that The Crucible was an attack by indirection on "McCarthyism," and simply assumed that McCarthyism was a dark stain upon American history, and those who resisted the investigations of American Communism in the later '40s and '50s were heroes, while the investigators were bumpkin Inquisitors. The era gave rise to such titles as Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, by Richard Hofstadter, and periodically public TV, Sundance, and the like treat us to sympathetic evocations of the likes of Paul Robeson, the Hollywood Ten, and Owen Lattimore.
(For the younger set, Robeson was a black actor and singer who was also a devoted adherent of the Communist Party ("CP"). The Hollywood Ten were movie folk, mostly writers, who refused to name their communist and pro-communist associates, and suffered for it, among other things, found themselves unable to find work under their own names. Lattimore was a scholar of Central Asia who was accused of Communist sympathies.)
What Was the American Communist Party?
The unspoken assumption of the center-left Conventional Wisdom is that while communism today is discredited and quaintly obsolete, folks who joined or collaborated with the American Communist Party were just socially conscious people, only more so. The party itself, although seen as a bit boring, was a league of good-hearted people who were looking for a way out of the depression, opposed racial discrimination, and wanted to to fight fascism before it was fashionable (so-called "premature anti-fascists").
A look at the history of the CP itself shows this to be a false picture. The party was a centrally-controlled, partly Soviet-financed organization that rigidly followed the dictates of Stalin's Russia, supported Stalin's every move, and recruited members to act as Soviet agents in the United States.
Moreover, by 1948, when the Soviet takeover of Central Europe was largely complete, and the Cold War (which was sometimes hot) began in earnest, affiliation, past or present, of an individual with the CP gave reason for concern about that individual's loyalty to this country. It was in this period that one wing of liberalism undertook to purge its unions and organizations of communists, because they recognized who and what Stalin was.
Membership in the CP, moreover, raised moral questions. The CP uncritically supported Stalin. Stalin, mouthing revolutionary rhetoric, from the '20s on, murdered millions, deliberately starving the peasants of the Ukraine, for example, and deporting millions to the Gulags or forced-labor camps, most of whom never returned. Stalin staged show-trials of his former associates, most of whom were subsequently executed. Although such mouthpieces as Walter Duranty of the New York Times tried to disguise the carnage, it was not unknown.
Nor was there any secret about the shift of the CP from a strong anti-fascist line to a pro-peace line when the Soviet Union signed a pact with Germany to invade Poland, back to a pro-war line when Hitler attacked Russia.
Support of the CP, then, was an example of either terminal and possibly deliberate ignorance, or colossal moral blindness.
Why Aren't Communists Pariahs Like Nazis?
One of the mysteries of our time is why, when any hint of sympathy with Hitler or Mussolini generates cries of outrage, and when it involves intellectuals such as Paul de Man, long articles in the New York Review of Books, an affiliation with communism is treated by intellectual and liberal circles as, at worst, an eccentricity.
It is clear from what we know now that the anticommunists of the '40s and '50s were right on the essential points:
- The CP was entirely under the control of the Soviet Union.
- The Soviet régime was a danger to its neighbors and the world, including the United States.
- Soviet agents, some affiliated with the communist party, were present throughout the Roosevelt administration, carrying over into Truman's, as well is in many corners of American life, especially the intellectual world, leftist movements of various kinds, and the labor unions in particular.
- Membership in the CP by anyone who was not brain-dead, for any length of time, was morally reprehensible,
The Roosevelt Administration recognized none of this. As the Cold War began and a section of American liberalism realized the dangers of communism, that movement split, and battles raged for control of groups such as the CIO, the grouping of industrial labor unions.Various individuals and groups on the center-right also seized upon this issue, partly as a club to attack the Democrats, but also out of religious conviction (the CP was atheist in principle) and a genuine recognition that there was a serious unrecognized danger.
Investigating Communist Infiltration Was a Legitimate Enterprise
All of this is a preface to my conclusion that opposition to communism and concern about communist infiltration of American government and institutions were legitimate. The anti-communist position was right, and the anti-anti-communist position was wrong.
It doesn't follow that all the politicians who mounted the anti-communist bandwagon were paragons, or that abuses and unfairness did not occur. The purpose of this piece is not to dissect McCarthy's investigations, or the activities of his staffers, such as Roy Cohn and David Schine, but to argue that on the fundamental issue, the "McCarthyites" were right.
- The Rosenbergs, who were executed for espionage, were in fact Communists and spies.
- Alger Hiss, a high official who was active in the formation of the United Nations, was a communist spy.
- Paul Robeson was a Stalinist, and deserves condemnation for it.
- The Hollywood Ten were communists or ex-communists, whatever their cinematic talents, and as the much-greater domination of Hollywood today by leftist ideas shows, communist infiltration of Hollywood was a legitimate concern, and their conduct (refusing cooperation with investigations) was not heroic, but reprehensible.
So getting back to Arthur Miller and The Crucible, if he intended an analogy from the anti-communist investigations of the '40s and '50s to the 'witch hunts' of colonial Salem, Massachusetts, the analogy was false. It's still a good play, but if its lesson was intended to be specific to anti-communism in its time, the lesson was as false as the play was well-written. It was the Russian KGB and its Eastern European counterparts that were the true witch hunters.