Disturbing parallels between the 1950s ‘Red Scare’ and now
by Dell Franklin
As a small boy back in the 1950s, I remember my mother talking to my dad about Dalton Trumbo, the author of the anti-war novel, “Johnny Got His Gun,” and the premier screenwriter in Hollywood. We lived in Compton, California, so the magical aura of filmdom was very near, and we were all movie fans, my father, as a pro baseball player, seeing every Western ever made on nights after day games, and afternoon matinees before night games. Only reason he never saw double features, he said, was because “a ball player’s got to save his eyes so he can see the goddamn ball when he’s at the plate.”
My parents were both educated, though dad was a jock who never resembled anything near an intellectual. Mother, who had read all the Russian and British masters and our greatest American writers, as well as history, was a closet intellectual who during quiet time listened, eyes closed, in the darkness to classical music.
“She’s emoting,” dad would say, winking at me, intimating mother was an egghead, like Adlai Stevenson, who’d lost badly to Ike in the Presidential election. But dad was keenly aware of the Red Scare, and people like McCarthy and Roy Cohen (an original pal of Donald Trump) and especially Richard Nixon, who’d destroyed Helen Douglas for a California senate seat in 1950 by implying she was a communist.
“I ran across Nixon in the Navy, just when I was getting out in 1945,” dad said. Dad had been in the South Pacific 20 months while Nixon never left the country. “He was the kind of weasel who had his nose up the brass’s ass and lorded every bit of authority he had over anybody below him, a real prick, he just looks like a prick, got the kind of face you wanna hit.”
Mom was totally engaged in the goings on in politics, and let me know early on that the people being persecuted by the petty ambitious politicians and phony patriots like Hedda Hopper were intellectuals, professors, scientists, actors, writers, our most valuable, brilliant and creative people, all of whom had the temerity to actually question our system of government, and for this were being forced to rat on their friends as to their stature as communists.
As a kid running in the streets with nothing on my mind but sports, I had no idea of the darkness settling in on our country, knew only that dad agreed with mother’s opinions as an Eleanor Roosevelt Democrat. We heard it at the dinner table. And we heard about it in government class. And we read about it, but we had no idea the suffering many people were experiencing, and especially Dalton Trumbo and the nine artists who made up the Ten who had once been members of the Communist Party and were going to jail for refusing to name names and made a folly of the power-hungry inquisitors at the congressional investigations.
Well, for all those who missed out on this sordid era, the movie, “Trumbo,” is a mesmerizing and moving history lesson as well as a mesmerizing and powerful performance by Brian Cranston as Trumbo. You watched formerly affluent families rendered penniless and beggarly. Old friends were pitted against each other, having to choose a side to merely survive, not to mention losing out in their ambitions as creative artists. Lofty men like John Wayne and Ronald Reagan (as president of the screen actor’s guild he turned people in) waved the flag and heaped scorn upon the so-called communist sympathizers. In a confrontation, the smaller Trumbo mentioned to a towering Mr. Wayne that he had been a war correspondent and pointed to fellow writers who had fought in World War II, and said, “While you were on the set making war movies.” John Wayne, who never wore the real uniform of an American soldier, and made sure he was always the blood and guts hero in his war movies, was unmoved.
When we moved from Compton, where I went to a huge integrated high school of blacks, Latinos and whites, to a sterile all-white suburb in Orange County, I experienced my first dealings with fanatical members of the John Birch Society. They were in school and they lived all around us. They hated and feared John F. Kennedy, a true war hero, and adored Nixon, who had become Vice President and was now running for the highest office only because he had trampled his political opponents with the Red Scare.
In classrooms I found myself arguing vehemently with students and even fellow jocks who were surprisingly engaged in politics and maintained startling venom toward Roosevelt’s safety net programs, bashed unions and claimed “white is right” when it came to desegregation. Some were on the warpath over gun rights. These were high school kids. I was confronted, told I was soft, sadly in the dark about threats boding everywhere, and especially in our own government.
Little did I realize this was all an extension of the Red Scare, the same super patriots who despised the so-called liberal elite, the egghead intellectuals and professors, the writers, the actors, our scientists, our most brilliant and valuable people, people with the capacity to think, to question, to criticize, to protest. They were part of a conspiracy by left-wing media that controlled all thought in the country and tried to brainwash the population into thinking we were safe when in fact there were threats everywhere.
In “Trumbo,” the blacklisted writers, led by the courageous Trumbo, surreptitiously, under the cover of darkness and bathed in paranoia, survived by writing screenplays under aliases and turning them in to movie studios, some of which were intimidated by people like Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper and John Wayne, America’s biggest box office draw and hero, and one that wasn’t, a maverick company making B films called Kings. Even after serving time in prison they were scorned and harassed by neighbors and scarred for life.
And so, after seeing “Trumbo,” you ask yourself, what kind of country were we, and what kind of country are we today?
An entire Congress, with few exceptions, was bullied into starting a war that has turned out to be perhaps our greatest disaster because they were afraid to look weak. The film industry, so liberal, is disparaged by the right wing as super-rich dilettantes out of touch with the real America for believing in climate change. The scientists who have spent their lives proving there is climate change are a conspiracy group undermining the economy, and especially big coal and industries polluting the atmosphere, led by billionaires like the Koch brothers. Mexicans are depicted as sub-human parasites and criminals trying to sneak into our country to soak up our social gravy train while in truth they have become our hardest workers, stellar citizens and finest soldiers.
And now we have Donald Trump expertly stoking paranoia against all Muslims after terrorist attacks by the fanatical faction of ISIS, lumping them all together; divvying up the good guys and the bad guys, terrifying the hordes. Pretty soon it’s possible you might be deeply suspect as a Muslim sympathizer if you happen to have a friend who is Muslim, or if you are seen on the street talking to somebody who resembles an Arab, and there is any proof from emails or phone conversations or the observations of suspicious citizens that you might actually know a Muslim, or know of a Muslim….
Watching “Trumbo,” and then going home and thinking about it, is downright scary. I’m sure most folks on the right wing will want nothing to do with such a film and label it liberal propaganda written by those film industry sympathizers, or, better yet, charter members of un-American activities. §
Dell Franklin writes under several aliases but lobs his best salvos against hypocrites and liars under his real name. He lives in Cayucos, Calif., with his rescue dog Wilbur, who may actually have descended from the suspected Communist sympathizer, Lassie.