Victor Navasky, in "Naming Names," a study of the Hollywood balcklist in the McCarthy years, has penetrated to a core truth of politics: behind the quest for power is a quest for moral revelation, for using or confronting power nobly as well as effectively, for being morally right and, further, for being seen to be right, even -- especially -- in a struggling cause.
One sees that urge explicitly at work in what Navasky calls his "moral detective story," an ambitious effort to distribute moral ratings to those movie figures who cooperated and those who didn't and those who fudged when the House Unamerican Activities Committee asked them, in the late 1940s, to tell who they knew to be members of the Communist Party.
Actually, before I got into the Navasky book I felt I knew just about where I stood. My part of his and my (postwar) generation, teething politically on the Korean War and Sen. Joseph McCarthy, was anti-Communist internationally and anti-witch-hunt at home. This formulation solved some tests of policy and integrity, and created others. But on balance, I have thought over the years (not without some fluctuations and misgivings), it was an honorable if imperfect response. It recognized the totalitarian model wherever it existed, while trying to respect the liberal commitment to both a peaceful and just world order and American democratic values.
Having now freshened and broadened my perspective by reading Navasky, I still think so.
Navasky, alas, couldn't agree less. He dismisses "cold war liberals" as people whose concern with international communism or domestic Communists invariably tainted them with McCarthyism and domestic repression. To attack HUAC and to refuse to "inform" was insufficient, in his view, if you acknowledged any HUAC right at all to question individuals' politics, regardless of whether they were CP members or sympathizers.
Navasky's heroes, including the Hollywood 10 and especially Lillian Hellman, accepted the risk and resisted all cooperation with the "unjust authority" represented by HUAC. Most of all, they would not name names.
I wouldn't begrudge them respect for resisting a witch hunt at (for many) heavy personal cost.But that's far from the whole story. Navasky does not require his "moral exemplars" to come clean on their -- to me, morally diminishing -- apologies for Stalinism. He does not ask whether their resistance flowed from liberal principle or party dictate. He scorns the friendly HUAC witnesses for "delegating their consience to [American]state" and celebrates people who could fairly be accused for delegating their consience to the Soviet state.
Navasky's has contempt for the HUAC "informers," but he accepts Ralph Nader's appeals to "concientious civil servants to "blow the whistle," and he can describe John Dean as "an informer who might be said to be engaged in socially constructive betrayal."
While writing his book, he was asked to withhold the name of a therapist whom he found to have counseled patients to cooperate with HUAC. He weighed the "claims of history" against the "claims of privacy" and decided that "secrecy bargains" made behind the scenes "are precisely the sort of contracts whose hidden clauses journalists and scholars ought to scrutinize . . ." He named the name.
He swallows and recalls Lillian Hellman's remarkable 1976 line -- one much reducing her claim to his and her kind of virtue -- "I do not like subversion or disloyalty in any form, and if I had ever seen any, I would have considered it my duty to have reported it to the proper authorities." Of this line he writes: "It may have been a sign of the terror, or simply loose terminology, that led even Miss Hellman to refer to 'subversion' when she might have said 'espionage.'"
This is another time when many Americans feel anxious about the spectacle of Soviet power on the march. It is being asked in some quarters, and in the light of Navasky's book it should be, whether in reaction to this spectacle a new wave of McCarthyism may blight the American scene. My guess, and hope, is that from the first time around we learned something about the ways and costs of political hysteria, and about the requirements for vigilance. Anyway, there is no evident McCarthy.
But it is not being asked, though in the light of Navasky's book it also should be, whether a new wave of domestic Stalinism may sweep in. This is critical, for, I believe, if there had not been real people, Americans obedient and sympathetic to Soviet purposes, on the scene, McCarthy could not have flourished. The coals he blew to a fire already had some glow.
On this score the prognosis is not so bad. The Depression and World War II provided the circumstances in which the CPUSA burst the traditional, sturdy and legitimate forms of American domestic radicalism, and became a troubling and not insubstantial presence. I don't see the analogous context in which a like force, similarly open to alien and hostile bidding, could now grow.