Howard Koch: A Non-Member Communist Party Supporter

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To mock Congressional attempts during the Cold War to investigate communism in Hollywood, anti-anti-communists smugly cite blacklisted screenwriter Howard Koch to show how ridiculous the lawmakers were. For, in the words of Victor Navasky, the elder statesman of the anti-anti-communist school, “all {HUAC} could come up with was Mission To Moscow, which was written a non-communist,” Koch, “at the request of President Franklin Roosevelt.”

By highlighting Koch’s non-membership, leftist pundits can assert that the pro-Purge Trial film was not an expression of fervent Stalinism, but a patriotic attempt to help the war effort by lauding America’s ally in World War II, the Soviet Union.

But whether one held a Communist Party membership card or not was and is not a gauge of pro-Communist beliefs, and with that in mind, it is apparent that Koch was a true believer in Stalin.

In Hollywood history, Koch loomed large. He scripted H.G Wells’ War of The Worlds for Orson Welles on the radio, which owing to the script’s news bulletin style, caused wide-spread panic in 1938.

On the strength of this script, Koch was invited to Hollywood where he worked on the film classic, Casablanca.

But the structure of Casablanca—a former anti-fascist turned amoral drunk returning to idealism—allowed Koch to politicize the film to some extent by grafting onto the Humphrey Bogart character a leftist past; in the film, Bogart’s mercenary background includes fighting Mussolini and Hitler in the 1930s.

Koch expressed his leftism behind the scenes of the movie by slamming the initial casting of Ronald Reagan in the role that eventually went to Humphrey Bogart. Koch, who regarded Reagan as a “red-baiter” from pre-war days, Koch made the case that no one would believe Reagan as a man of the Left in the film.

But Koch’s most blatant example of leftism occurred when he was tasked with scripting Mission To Moscow (1943), based on the book of the same name by pro-Soviet sympathizer Joseph E. Davis, which aped Stalin’s defense of the Purge Trials as a necessary anti-fascist measure.

When Warner Brothers, the studio making Mission, selected Koch as the scriptwriter, it was an example it was kismet. For Koch had a history of fellow-traveling with the Communist left.

By itself, Koch’s statements provided strong clues as to his pro-Stalin sympathies. Like the CPUSA, Koch attacked anyone criticizing FDR as a “fascist,” and saw World War II through communist blinders: for him, the battle against the Axis “was simply a class struggle, capitalism taking its stand against socialism.” Of Hollywood communists themselves, Koch had nothing but bobbysoxer admiration. Regarding the most hard-line, purge-happy communist in Hollywood, John Howard Lawson, Koch gushed that the Stalinist deserved “sainthood.”

With Mission to Moscow, Koch’s enthusiasm for the Soviets was given free reign, and he exceeded his brief to make a non-political goodwill gesture toward the U.S’s ally. In the guise of American patriotism, Koch was able to laud Stain and attempt to hoodwink viewers by waving the American flag. Koch did so by emphasizing Davies’ “conservative background,” the purpose of which was to show valid the Purge Trials were that even a capitalist like Davies was convinced. But there was also a sadomasochistic reason for Koch lauding the Purge Trials, which was to make “the Soviet-haters scream.”

When the film was released, Hollywood right-wingers organized into the Motion Picture Alliance For The Preservation of American Ideal, who invited Congress to investigate reds in Hollywood. Anticommunists of the left picketed the film as well. Koch lumped both together, stating that both objected to the film because it was “unkind to their prejudices.”

A decade later, and much against its liberal characterization, Congress was not fooled by Koch’s assertion that he was not a pro-communist sympathizer based on his lack of membership. Astutely, however, HUAC saw through this ruse and blacklisted the screenwriter, largely because of his work on Mission.

Amazingly, in light of subsequent evidence that the Purge Trials were rigged, and that witnesses were drugged or tortured into confessing to falsehoods, Koch remained proud of his part in Mission To Moscow.

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.