While the Communist Party USA was quite militant towards racism and colonialism, there were moments of prominent discord between African Americans and the Party during the war years due to tactical differences and putting the wellbeing of the USSR before Blacks. A nuanced view of that organization’s history with regards to race and racism is therefore mandatory. Whatever flaws can be seen in Ford’s portrayal of race and racism on screen should be seen as something that defined the thinking of Fellow Travelers in this regard.
The Communist Party in American history has a rather schizophrenic reputation due to the central role played by Communism in Cold War politics. One author describes the Party’s emotional impact on people:
It was the Party whose awesome structure harnessed that inchoate emotion which, with the force of a tidal wave, drove millions of people around the globe toward Marxism. It was the Party whose moral authority gave shape and substance to an abstraction, thereby making of it a powerful human experience. It was the Party that brought to astonishing life the kind of comradeship that makes swell in men and women the deepest sense of their own humaneness, allowing them to love themselves through the act of loving each other (Gornick 9).
It has been intentionally forgotten in America that the Party was the site of a vibrant counter-culture that created not just labor organizers and unions but also plays, songs, parades, magazines, newspapers, and social groups that were ethnically and sexually integrated at a time when segregation was not just the order of the day but law of the land. People of color and Europeans could be found dancing, dating, and celebrating events together in Communist venues while such behavior outside the building would cause not just social indignation but actual violence and even lead to murders. “From the middle thirties to the middle fifties, some three hundred film directors, actors, writers and designers joined the CP. By 1950 fewer than one hundred remained loyal or could stand the heat” (The Great Fear 487).
John Ford would have seen this subculture existing in Hollywood and New York and had several colleagues, such as Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who were involved with the Party.
Conservatives and quite a few liberals continue to insist up until today that Party members in America participated in various forms of espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union. Progressives and radicals emphasize that instead the Party was the location of a powerful mass-mobilization and protest movement and that the Party was ahead of its time in terms of ethnic, gender, and labor relations. Furthermore, they say the espionage idea is simply hogwash conceived by borderline-paranoid political demagogues who sought to use claims of dual loyalty to the USSR as a way to prevent inroads being made by this movement in terms of integration and workplace equality.
The answer to this issue is a complex mix of the two.
The affective life of the Communist Party USA was approximately forty years in length. More than a million Americans were Communists at one time or another during these forty years. Of these million, thousands were held for a lifetime by the passionate ideal (Gornick 23).
On the one hand, a few Party members did engage in individual acts to benefit the Soviet Union during World War II, when America was allied with Stalin against Hitler, and after, when they believed that the Cold War was both unfair and pointless.
The leadership of the Party did engage in conspiratorial behavior, exemplified by Chairman Earl Browder’s interactions with the Russian government.
Max Shachtman, the Trotskyist who debated Browder in 1950, said in a debate:
When I saw him standing there at the podium, I said to myself: Rajk was the general secretary of the Hungarian Communist Party, and was shot, or hanged, or garroted. Kostov was the general secretary of the Bulgarian Communist Party. And when I thought of what happened to them, I thought of the former secretary of the American Communist Party, and I said to myself: There-there but for an accident of geography, stands a corpse! (Browder)
This informs the basic morality of the Party leadership worldwide in this period. Every decision made by them was calculated and not made by mistake or out of rashness. The American Party’s leaders acted in a quite cynical and self-interested way that the rank-and-file membership did not grasp during this heyday because they were molded by their leaders to rationalize inexcusable failures.
As a result of this manipulation, Morris Cohen, for example, who had fought in Spain as a member of the Communist-backed Abraham Lincoln Brigade during that country’s civil war, transmitted information about the nuclear weapons program to the Russians. Julius Rosenberg attempted at one point during the war to communicate to the Soviets data about airplane propeller mechanics. However, it is almost certain Julius was not handling atomic bomb secrets and that his wife Ethel, who was executed alongside him, was merely a housewife who did not turn in her husband to the authorities (HEIR TO AN EXECUTION). The Rosenberg trial of 1950-51 was a very public and sensational event that shocked and horrified anyone who had affiliated with the Communists, probably including John Ford.
However, it bears mentioning that the question of whether one Whittaker Chambers, who alleged the Roosevelt administration was loaded with Communist double agents, was a spy remains highly dubious due to extremely problematic scholarship by those who have claimed to chronicle his exploits. This in turn casts a strong level of doubt on the guilt of Alger Hiss, who was accused of being a Communist engaged in espionage while working in the Roosevelt administration. And the Hiss case in turn is the linchpin in the conservative assault on not just the Communist Party but also the Democratic Party and its New Deal programs like Social Security. In reality, the Party showed great support for the Roosevelt administration and had little to no impact on White House policies while exercising a great deal of influence on a large membership that expressed patriotic support for the wartime economy.
In fact any Soviet-era espionage in America, or any country for that matter, was managed by the Russian GRU, OGPU and NKVD intelligence agencies. The majority of Communist Party members had little to no interaction or even knowledge of those organizations. Instead, the experience of Communists mostly involved picket lines, protests, and cultural events such as plays, concerts, and dances that were notably ethnically integrated.
The most prominent way that the Soviet Union would directly impact membership would be when the Communist International (Comintern), the Moscow-based gathering of the worldwide movement promoting socialist revolution, would issue declarations that would change the orientation and policy of the Parties, known colloquially as “party line”. One such party line was the Third Period, when the Communists refused to form alliances with Socialists in opposition to the rising Fascist parties in Europe. These shifts were directly informed by the needs of the Soviet Union as the only existing Communist state in the geopolitical sense at that time. The change of party line could sometimes be quite jarring and even lead to members quitting, most notably when the American Party suddenly shifted from a pro-war to anti-war stance regarding Nazi Germany following the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939. For years, members had agitated against the racist Nazi and Italian Fascist governments and called for a war to defeat these countries. Yet with the mere stroke of a pen, that all changed overnight. Many members felt betrayed and hurt by what some called a duplicitous maneuver on the part of the Russian government. However, this sort of political shift, while ethically and morally dubious to some and certainly manipulative, is quite different from engaging in espionage. People who joined the Party did so out of belief in ending racism or sexism and not for devious purposes.