Dalton Trumbo was born on December 9, 1905 in Montrose, Colorado. He launched a career as a professional writer in the early 1930s, publishing articles and stories in magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post, Vanity Fair, and the Hollywood Spectator. In 1934 Trumbo was named managing editor of the Spectator, began working as a script reader for Warner Bros., and published his first novel, Eclipse. The following year, Trumbo signed a contract as a junior writer with Warner Bros. and subsequently went on to become a prominent screenwriter and novelist.
From the late 1930s through the early ’50s, Trumbo was a devoted Stalinist and a secret member of the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA), which was controlled entirely by Moscow. He once lauded Stalin as “one of the democratic leaders of the world.” Historian Paul Kengor explains the monumental significance of membership in the Communist Party at that time: “Regardless of their American citizenship, Communist Party members in the Stalin era (when Dalton Trumbo joined the Party) swore an oath: ‘I pledge myself to rally the masses to defend the Soviet Union…. I pledge myself to remain at all times a vigilant and firm defender of the Leninist line of the Party, the only line that ensures the triumph of Soviet Power in the United States.’ They wanted the ‘triumph’ of Soviet power in America. They truly took marching orders from the Kremlin.”
Trumbo authored the 1939 book Johnny Got His Gun, a famous anti-war novel that describes the thoughts, feelings, and ultimate fate of a badly wounded and disabled World War I veteran. Because the book served as a persuasive cautionary tale about the horrors of war, the CPUSA, to Trumbo’s delight, did everything in its power to promote and publicize it. The Communist Party newspaper Daily Worker serialized the novel during the years of the Nazi-Soviet Pact (Aug. 23, 1939 to June 22, 1941), when the CPUSA position was that although Hitler already had attacked Poland and was waging war against Britain and France, America should stay out of the conflict and pursue “peace” with Germany — and, by extension, with the Party’s beloved Soviet Union. In 1940, when Britain stood alone against Nazi attack, Trumbo wrote The Remarkable Andrew in which the ghost of General Andrew Jackson argues against American military aid to Britain because “there’s no point in cooking up an alliance with a country that’s already licked.”
But Hitler’s surprise attack against the USSR on June 22, 1941 changed everything. The Communist Party line was transformed instantly from “Peace” (with Hitler) to “Fight the anti-fascist war!” The largest “peace demonstration” in American history had to be cancelled, and the new Party slogan — demanding military intervention and an alliance with the Soviet Union — instantly became “Defend the Soviet Union!” No novels on the horrors of war were wanted now, and Trumbo dutifully did what he could to suppress his own book, withdrawing it from circulation as bookstores were ordered to return their copies to the publisher.
As the 1940s progressed, Trumbo established himself as one of Hollywood’s most eminent, highest-paid writers for his work on such films as Kitty Foyle (1940), Thirty Seconds over Tokyo (1944), and Our Vines Have Tender Grapes (1945).
In Communist Party doctrine, art is a weapon, and writers and filmmakers are “artists in uniform” serving a political purpose. Trumbo was very comfortable with that concept. Viewing film as an art form that could — and absolutely should — be used to subtly shape the political opinions of the masses, he once declared that “every screenwriter worth his salt wages the battle in his own way — a kind of literary guerrilla warfare.” Failure to utilize film for this purpose, he emphasized, was “tantamount to abandoning the struggle altogether.” In 1954 Trumbo told a fellow writer that the Communist party had a “fine tradition . . . that whenever a book or play or film is produced which is harmful to the best interests of the working class, that work and its author should and must be attacked in the sharpest possible terms.”
In 1944 Trumbo invited FBI agents to his Hollywood home. Adhering to then-current CPUSA policy, which was to denounce to the U.S. government anyone who opposed World War II, he voluntarily furnished the Bureau with the names of people of various political persuasions whose only “crime” was to have asked Trumbo to sell them copies of Johnny Got His Gun. Trumbo gave the FBI investigators the letters he had received requesting the book, and he urged the Bureau to crack down on those who had penned the letters. He told the agents that such individuals might be “acting politically” and opposing “the commander-in-chief,” President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The Bureau, however, opened an investigation of Trumbo rather than go after the letter writers.
In 1946 Trumbo participated in the Communist Party’s inquisition against the screenwriter Albert Maltz, for Maltz’s published statement asserting that artists should be free to say what they believe, and that literature should be judged on its human and humane quality, not on the politics of its author. Trumbo and his fellow communists browbeat Maltz for publishing this heresy, until Maltz finally issued a humiliating public recantation.
In The Daily Worker, Trumbo bragged to his bosses in the Soviet Union that the Communist Party in Hollywood had helped quash anti-Soviet films like an adaptation of Arthur Koestler’s masterwork Darkness at Noon as well as Koestler’s The Yogi and the Commissar, Victor Kravchenko’s I Chose Freedom, and James T. Farrell’s Bernard Clare.
Trumbo never wavered in his devotion to the Communist cause. He was anti-Churchill when the prime minister delivered his famous “Iron Curtain” speech in 1946, and pro-North Korea during the Korean War in the early 1950s.
In 1947 Trumbo was one of ten writers and directors — collectively dubbed “The Hollywood Ten” — who were called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to testify on the presence of communist influences in Hollywood. Trumbo, like the others, refused to provide any information. Claiming for himself the mantle of a martyr for freedom-of-speech, he castigated as “rats” those individuals whom HUAC or the FBI had pressured into becoming informers against the Communist Party.
In 1949, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., in The Saturday Review of Books, bluntly suggested that Trumbo was a hypocrite who would not defend freedom-of-speech for his political adversaries, but only for other Communist Party members. Trumbo replied with a scathing letter to The Saturday Review, denouncing the liberal anti-Communist Schlesinger as a fascist while proclaiming himself a champion of free speech for all. He wrote, “I deny the right of any agent of government to call American citizens to account for their political affiliations or sympathies.” Trumbo further implied that Schlesinger had fascist political motives for suggesting that Trumbo would ever denounce to the government someone with whose politics he disagreed. Yet Trumbo had done precisely that, as noted above, in 1944.
In 1949 as well, Trumbo was part of a brutal Communist Party inquisition — carried out mostly by members of the Hollywood Ten themselves — against the director Robert Rossen, because of Rossen’s film All the King’s Men, which the Party Headquarters in New York viewed as an attack on one-man rule — i.e., a veiled attack on Stalin. Historian Ronald Radosh provides the background:
“Trumbo’s problem was that he wrote a script in 1952 about the case of a woman named Jean Field, a white woman who was a devout believer in Kim Il Sung and North Korea’s Communist state, and who was in danger of losing custody of her children to her ex-husband. One of the charges that her ex levied against her was that she let her own children play with black youngsters their own age.
“Field read Trumbo’s script and hit the ceiling. Accusing him of ‘RANK CHAUVINISM,’ she singled out a sentence in which he described a black youngster as ‘clean and dressed in his Sunday best.’ Field charged, and the party comrades agreed, that the implication was that the black child was ‘clean on only special occasions,’ and hence the description was racist to the core. In fact, Trumbo replied, he had written ‘her son is in his best clothes,’ and she had made up words he had not used. ‘Would it have pleased you,’ he wrote to her, ‘if I had written dirty and dressed in everyday clothes?‘ To the party, he added that black children ‘get quite as dirty as your children,’ and on special occasions, their parents ‘have just as much pride in their children as you do in yours.’
“Traumatized by this episode, Trumbo suddenly understood what had caused so many party members to defect and even to inform and testify before HUAC. The CP [Communist Party], he told one screenwriter comrade, threw ‘a bucket of filth over me.’”
Though Trumbo was privately unhappy about these incidents, there is no evidence that he ever openly protested them at any Communist Party meeting. He accepted the Party’s authority to impose discipline over the intellect: thus he obeyed, participated, and went along.
Because of his own refusal to cooperate with HUAC, Trumbo was ultimately convicted for contempt of Congress and spent 11 months in prison, starting in 1950. He and the other Hollywood Ten members were also blacklisted — i.e., denied opportunities for employment in their field — for a number of years.
Unable to find work in California after his release from prison in 1951, Trumbo moved his family to Mexico City. There, he continued to write screenplays and sold them by using pseudonyms or, in some cases, by having other writers claim authorship. All told, Trumbo wrote at least 10 screenplays that were made into films during his years in Mexico.
In the early 1950s, Trumbo was a defender of the atomic spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, both of whom were executed in June 1953.
In 1957, Trumbo’s screenplay for The Brave One—written under the pseudonym Robert Rich—received an Academy Award. When journalists seeking comment from the honoree were unable to find any screenwriter with that name, they surmised that Trumbo had likely written the film. This — along with other similar incidents involving blacklisted writers — caused the movie industry to scale back and ultimately terminate its blacklisting practices, thereby allowing Trumbo and the others to return to Hollywood.
In 1958, Trumbo was hired to write the film adaptation for the best-selling novel about Israel’s creation, Exodus. The following year, Kirk Douglas selected him to author the screenplay for Spartacus. Both movies were released in 1960, and Trumbo’s authorship of both was made public shortly before those releases. A short time later, Trumbo was readmitted to the Writers Guild of America.
In the post-blacklist period of his life, Trumbo continued to be a prolific and successful writer, producing such notable screenplays as Lonely Are the Brave (1962), The Fixer (1968), and Papillon (1973). In 1971 Trumbo wrote and directed a film adaption of his 1939 book Johnny Got His Gun, for which he won two awards at the Cannes Film Festival. A few years later, he was presented with his Oscar for his aforementioned 1956 film The Brave One.
In 1970 Trumbo finally forgave the “friendly witnesses” who had named names to HUAC and the FBI. In his famous speech to the Screen Writers Guild, he said that “it will do no good to search for villains or heroes or saints or devils because there were none [during the blacklist years]; there were only victims.”
After having spent a lifetime doing virtually whatever the Communist Party asked, Trumbo said he “never regretted” joining the Party. “As a matter of fact,” he told biographer Bruce Cook, “it’s possible to say I would have regretted not having done it.”
Trumbo was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1973. He died of a heart attack in Los Angeles on September 10, 1976. In 1993, he was posthumously awarded an Oscar for his 1953 screenplay for Roman Holiday.
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