- Hollywood screenwriter and secret member of the Communist Party USA during 1940s and 1950s
- Revolutionary Stalinist who was loyal to the Soviet Union
- Member of the infamous “Hollywood Ten”
Born in December 1905 in Montrose, Colorado, Dalton Trumbo was a prominent screenwriter and novelist. He authored the 1939 book Johnny Got His Gun, a famous anti-war novel which describes the thoughts, feelings and ultimate fate of a badly wounded soldier. Trumbo also penned the screenplays for Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), Spartacus (1960), and Exodus (1960).
When Johnny Got His Gun was published in the summer of 1939, it became immensely popular with the CPUSA. This was the era (August 1939 to June 1941) of the Hitler-Stalin Pact and the “peace movement” of the Communist Party. Though Hitler already had attacked Poland and was waging war against Britain and France, the CPUSA constantly called for America to stay out of the conflict and to pursue “peace” with Germany — and, by extension, with the Party’s beloved Soviet Union. Because _Johnny Got His Gun _served as a persuasive cautionary tale about the horrors of war, the Party, to Trumbo’s delight, did everything in its power to promote and publicize the book.
But Hitler’s surprise attack against the USSR on June 22, 1941 changed everything. The 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 became “Defend the Soviet Union!” No novels on the horrors of war were wanted now, and Trumbo dutifully did what he could to suppress the book.
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 the war, 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.
Trumbo participated in the Communist Party’s inquisition against the screenwriter Albert Maltz in 1946, 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 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.
Trumbo claimed for himself the mantle of a martyr for freedom of speech — and he castigated as “rats” those individuals whom HUAC or the FBI had pressured into becoming informers against the Party. Because of his own refusal to cooperate with HUAC, he 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.
Trumbo was part of a brutal Communist Party inquisition (carried out mostly by members of the Hollywood Ten themselves) against the director Robert Rossen in 1949, 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. Rossen’s confrontation with his Hollywood inquisitors over the nature of his art ultimately drove him out of the CPUSA.
There is some evidence that Trumbo was privately unhappy about these incidents, but there is no evidence that he ever openly protested them at any Party meeting — though other Party members in Hollywood certainly did so. Trumbo accepted the Party’s authority to impose discipline over the intellect: thus he obeyed, participated, and went along.
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 1970 Trumbo finally forgave the “friendly witnesses” who had named names to HUAC and the FBI; everyone, he reasoned, had been a victim in one way or another back in the 1940s.
Trumbo died of a heart attack in Los Angeles in September 1976.
Much of this profile is adapted from the article “Fountain of Lies,” written by Art Eckstein and published by FrontPageMagazine.com on March 14, 2005.