Alvah Bessie: Fighting On Most Fronts

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Psychiatrists who deal with returning military veterans note that those who have seen almost constant combat have trouble switching off, and search for an outlet to satisfy their martial needs.

This was never more true for Spanish Civil War veteran and Communist Party member Alvah Bessie. Whenever his Party needed a rigid enforcer of the Party line toward revisionist members, and a fighter against the “fascists,” represented by HUAC, Bessie was front and center.

Of those conflicts favored by the Communist Left, it is arguably the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) that is their favorite. Although fanatically supportive of World War II (the reason: the Soviet Union was fighting alongside the U.S.), the Spanish War was free of the problematic features of World War II. A battle between the legally elected leftist Spanish government and a military rebellion led by the Hitler-backed Francisco Franco, Spain didn’t have to contend with having a bluff imperialist like Churchill on their side; nor did they have to twist themselves into un-Marxist shapes as they did in World War II (no strikes pledges, a refusal to go to bat for the interned Japanese Americas or for blacks in the segregated Armed forces).

But the Spanish Civil War did present problems that required careful editing by those who fought and those who directed the battles, the main problem being the very real Stalinist purges of Spanish government soldiers who had the misfortune of fighting in non-Stalinist units. Many of those on the wrong side of the fence were never seen again.

A skilled writer, Bessie upon returning to the United States after being wounded, wrote a carefully edited (by himself, and by his Party) book, Men in Battle (1939), about his war experiences. Despite its obvious tampering, Ernest Hemingway who was present during the fighting (he was in Spain to make a pro-Loyalist film), was duped by the book, and gushingly wrote, “A true, honest, fine book. Bessie writes truly and finely of all that he could see … and he saw enough.”

Bessie, as the drama and film reviewer for the house organ of the CPUSA, Then New Masses, did not return the favor when reviewing Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls (1940). He denounced Hemingway for daring to criticize Russian conduct during the war (Hemingway “impugns and slanders” the Communist leadership, their motives, and their attitudes”).

During World War II, which he was denied the chance to fight because of his wounds, Bessie satisfied his need for anger by writing one of the most bloodthirsty World War II movies, Objective Burma (1945). A gutsy account of Allied paratroopers fighting their way out of the Japanese lines, the movie’s depiction of Allied soldiers killing Japanese was not enough for Bessie (and for his fellow Party member, the equally bloodthirsty Leser Cole). Thus, Bessie and Cole inserted a line about the need to wipe out the Japanese race uttered not by a villainous racist but by a patriotic and sympathetic character.

For those who did not make the ideological leap during an abrupt shift in policy as when the Communist Party outed the relatively “liberal” leader of the CPUSA, Earl Browder, in 1945, and replaced him with the hard-line William Z. Foster, Browder was there to browbeat those who were mere days behind the new Party line.

Screenwriter Albert Maltz, assuming that the Party was still in its “liberal” phase, accordingly wrote an essay asserting that Communist writers should not write as Marxists, and those who were not Marxists could be capable of good writing. Predictably, the Party savaged him, and Bessie was front and center.

Of those who attacked Maltz, Leopold Atlas, who left the Party over the incident, recalled Bessie as the angriest, spewing at Maltz “bitter vituperation and venom.”

To his credit, when Congress summoned Hollywood Communists to report their political affiliations in 1947, Bessie urged his 9 other subpoenaed members to adopt the strategy of simply admitting their present or past membership in the Party, as he was proud of his. But his argument did not win out, and his comrades adopted the doomed policy of dancing around any Congressional questions without admitting their membership.

It also must be recognized that, unlike the other 9 members of what was known as “The Hollywood Ten,” who denied putting Communist propaganda into films, Bessie boasted of it (in one film he scripted, he proudly declared his script was “subversive as hell”).

Along with the 9, Bessie went to prison for refusing to cooperate with Congress. Released, Bessie was able to continue the fight by refusing to rehabilitate himself before Congress and thus get back on the studio payroll.

Late in life, he showed he still needed to fight, but this time around his stance thrust both ways. Asked by a hugely sympathetic interviewer about whether he had been or still was a Party member, Bessie exploded.

“I hope you won’t take offense,” said Lawson, “but were Lardner or any of the Hollywood Ten members of the Communist Party??

“Does it matter?? Said Bessie. ‘that isn’t the question. It’s a matter of the Constitution. We were robbed of the fundamental right of free thought. What gave the Government the right to think they had the right to summon citizens before them and give an account to the government on their beliefs and associations. Like religion, this was a matter of our own business. Lives were ruined, careers destroyed, and the industry censored, and for what??

“I apologize for asking the question,” said Lawson.

“No need for that,” said Bessie. “I know you don’t think like that. It’s just that there were powerful people in the government who believed Communists were infiltrating the motion picture industry and these people were intent on exposing them.”

How far Bessie traveled from defiantly proclaiming his Marxism come what may, to now hiding behind the Bill of Rights even with sympathizers. And thus, regarding the battle of fighting as an unconcealed Communist, Bessie now sat that one out.

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Ron Capshaw is a Senior Contributor to The Liberty Conservative from Midlothian, Va. His work has appeared in National Review, The Weekly Standard, and the American Spectator.