The problematic political shifts of the Communists do not negate the support of the Party for the plight of the Scottsboro Boys. In Alabama, the Party’s legal branch, the International Labor Defense, helped overturn on appeal the verdict of a racist show trial that had condemned nine black teenagers to death for raping a white woman. The trial was made into an international cause through the network of worldwide Communist Parties. The Party’s behavior towards the NAACP in regards to those events has been described as sectarian by historians of the period, meaning that one must have a tempered view of these developments. Yet at the end of the day the Party’s involvement did make a significant impact that ended with exoneration of the defendants.
Another thing that is not negated by these shifts is the key role that Party members played at the grassroots level in organizing labor unions alongside the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).
The issue that had come to the boil in 1945-46 [causing the Red Scare in Hollywood] was whether the Hollywood labor force should be represented by a militant, independent and left-wing trade-union coalition called the Conference of Studio Unions, or by a racket-dominated setup known as the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees [IATSE]… Like his predecessors, [IATSE union president Roy M.] Brewer had one answer to any rival labor leader aspiring to structure genuinely independent unions in Hollywood: that answer was “Communist!” (The Great Fear 488)
John Ford was witness to many of these events as union drives sprang up across Hollywood and the Scottsboro case became a major news story in the media industries he worked in. He probably at least saw for sale in Los Angeles issues of Western Worker, the Communist newspaper that was printed in San Francisco, and may have even read a few issues.
What happened to people who had affiliated with the Communists after World War II, the Red Scare that is also called McCarthyism, was an assault on the civil liberties of thousands of people who were activists during the Depression and Second World War. Many people who were not Communists, had never been Communists, or who had merely been married or related to someone who had at one point been involved with the Party saw their lives destroyed in the name of a witch hunting craze that was rendered in analogue by Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible.
The Red Scare would not have been as damaging if liberals had taken a strong stand against it. At first, it seemed that they would… As the Red Scare grew, the anti-Communists began to expand the blacklist to include not only party members but anyone who opposed the measures taken to curb them. More than eighty people who signed a petition urging the Supreme Court to overturn the contempt convictions of the Hollywood Ten later found themselves blacklisted as well (Finan 153).
Another element of the Red Scare that is obscured still is its homophobic nature. The Communist Party was not in favor of abolishing sodomy laws and at certain points demonized homosexuality. However, because of its intersection with the arts, it was inevitable that same-sex attracted individuals would find themselves within the Party subculture. This was utilized by McCarthy and his followers to further hound both lesbians and gays, as well as Communists, out of their jobs. It was only because John Ford was one of the most successful directors in the world at the time of the McCarthy period that he avoided being blacklisted as many of his colleagues were.
And even if they had been Party members, this was their right under the First Amendment and the suggestion otherwise was simply preposterous.
The second Red Scare should have been the ACLU’s shining hour… But the leaders of the ACLU were usually divided in their views of how to respond to the Red Scare. Even before the war, anti-Communists on the ACLU board had demanded that the organization declare its opposition to the Communist Party. While the Communists and civil libertarians had often worked together, there had always been considerable distrust between them. Communist Party attacks on other leftist groups alienated ACLU board members like Norman Thomas, the leader of the Socialist Party (156-157).
A good amount of copy has been generated in the past seventy years that suggests all Communists were involved in a conspiracy to violently overthrow the American government. This is simply a convoluted misrepresentation of what the Party base saw as its goals and agenda. If the Party had wanted to overthrow the government, why did so many Communist Party members run for office to become a part of that which they intended to destroy?
The Popular Front, beginning in summer 1934, was a call by the Comintern for the creation of coalitions made up of Communists, Socialists, and Liberals to combat the rise of fascism. In America, where Communism reached the level of municipal elections in cities like New York and large numbers in the rank-and-file organizers of the CIO, this led to a milieu that had a notable impact on arts and culture. Many talents who worked in these various industries either joined the Communists or, if not, became Fellow Travelers.
It is a great irony of history that when the Party gained its largest membership and greatest prominence the leadership was behaving in the most advantageous and cynical fashion, sacrificing in the name of the Soviet Union their militant labor solidarity and opposition to racism. Dr. Noel Ignatiev’s dissenting obituary for folk singer Pete Seeger is a useful source of insight here:
I like [Seeger’s] 1939-1941 view more than than his stance after 1941, when the Party upheld the no-strike pledge (“quit fighting with the landlord”), opposed the 1942 Negro March on Washington Movement and the Puerto Rican independence movement (both of which undermined “national unity”), and kept silent about Japanese internment. (No doubt he came to regret the latter.)… Seeger faced loss of livelihood and even prison for standing up for what he believed. He lent his voice and strength to many good causes over the years; and yet, even though I enjoyed his music and many of the songs he sang have become part of me, I cannot bring myself to join in the celebrations of his life. Why? Because the standard I apply to those I take seriously is not simply their support for peace, civil rights, labor and the environment, but their willingness to oppose the misleaders within those movements, and that, so far as I know, he never did (Ignatiev).
In summation one can say in an objective sense that the moral and ethical legacy of the American Communist Party is neither totally pristine nor totally diabolical. This was part of the culture which STAGECOACH was released into and informed by.
Longtime activist Annette T. Rubinstein wrote an autobiographical essay about her years in the Party. Rather than focusing on the minutiae of heated political debates, the longtime activist instead communicates in great detail what it was like to be in the Communist Party on a social level and how the Party related to a wider Old Left.
Virtually all my time, except for the hours necessarily spent professionally, was occupied by such specific ad hoc projects as building a customer’s committee to aid the Gimbel’s strikers (the first victorious white collar strike), defending the Scottsboro Boys and Trenton Six, chairing the Westside chapter of the American League Against War and Fascism, chairing the Fifth South club of American labor party, organizing mothers’ committees for The Mayors’ Committee for the Care of Young Children in Wartime to open the low-cost nursery schools, etc. Yet, except for sporadic accounts in the FBI files, there is little documentary evidence of all this and less of the work of other full-time rank-and-file party members in similar organizations and unions (Rubinstein 239-240).
In other words, rather than explaining the technicalities of the Permanent Revolution as opposed to Socialism in One Country, she explains what it felt like to actually be a Communist, putting Moscow’s rather convoluted political backflips and pirouettes into perspective as simply incidental to having an actual life that included Party activities.
Ford is a political shape-shifter in regards to Communism, at one point in his career being a Fellow Traveler and ending as a Cold Warrior, supporting the anti-Communist Richard Nixon and producing a film titled VIETNAM, VIETNAM. In discussing Ford’s portrayal of ethnicity, Berg emphasizes that the director framed his ideas about race and racism through the lens of Irish Catholicism (Berg 75). Yet the author fails in this essay to tease out the political connections between the Irish and socialism. For one, the 1916 Easter Rising was led by a group, including socialists, who were highly praised by Lenin and the Bolsheviks. This author’s great uncle was an Irish priest who spent a long period of his early ministry working against socialist inroads into the Irish labor market by the so-called “Connolly boys”, named for the executed Easter Rising leader and socialist James Connolly.
The Irish later attempted to gain diplomatic recognition by the Soviet government, an effort that was scuttled due to Soviet efforts to not anger a British Empire that was supporting their enemy White Armies during the Russian Civil War. McBride’s biography of Ford features a good deal of enthusiasm expressed by the director for the Irish Revolution and Michael Collins (McBride 136-144). The tensions between socialist and anti-socialist Irish nationalists, as well as the unique role played by Catholicism in such a political debate, has underlaid Irish politics for a century now, particularly in regards to the Irish Republican Army (IRA). McBride’s biography does not have a direct certitude about Ford’s Irish politics besides a series of personal negative encounters with the Black and Tans and a potential positive encounter with Michael Collins, the moderate Irish leader whose acceptance of partition was seen as treasonous by hardliners in the IRA.
In terms of Communism in America, Ford was involved in the creation of the allegedly “Communist-inspired” Screen Director’s Guild which incorporated in 1936.
…Ford put his principles into a broader context than simply the complaints of directors desiring more creative autonomy. Showing as much solidarity with the lowest-paid workers in Hollywood as with his fellow directors, Ford’s speech marked the beginning of his period of dramatically increased political awareness and activity. Influenced by the New Deal and by Popular Front agitation for progressive change in the years leading up to World War II, Ford would become so militant that by 1937 he would declare himself “a definite socialistic democrat—always left” (McBride 193).
These positions included further activism surrounding the Spanish Civil War, helping found the Motion Picture Artists Committee to Aid Republican Spain, consulting with Ernest Hemingway on the production of THE SPANISH EARTH documentary, donating an ambulance to the Second Spanish Republic, and writing with laudatory verbiage to his nephew Bob Ford who was serving in the Communist-organized Abraham Lincoln Brigade. However, McBride does create some nuance in these passages, adding “he was convinced that Communism was not the answer to the world’s problems because it ran the risk of bringing about despotism” (270-271).
This is extremely interesting to consider in contrast with the propaganda war that the Catholic Church engaged in on behalf of Francisco Franco’s Spanish Nationalists. At a time in history when the Church was still officially anti-Semitic and bore at least a minor level of responsibility for anti-Communist agitation that quickly fed into the rise of European Fascism, Ford was openly defiant and adamant as a Leftist while also being a lifelong faithful participant in Irish Catholic culture. Several of his films, such as THE INFORMER (1935) and THE QUIET MAN (1952), were set in and romanticized Ireland while others, such as FORT APACHE (1948), celebrated the Irish migrant experience in America. It is worthwhile to also note here that, due to Germany’s anti-British attitudes prior to the war, the Irish American community had a very substantial pro-Nazi element, exemplified by the behavior of Ambassador Joseph Kennedy in this period. Fascism was seen by these American Irish Catholics as an anti-colonial project that would both expel the British from Northern Ireland while respecting and promoting their faith, unlike godless atheistic Communism.