When I was a graduate student, my mentor of sorts, John Patrick Diggins, told me of an incident he had with blacklisted screenwriter Lester Cole, who along with nine others, testified before Congress 70 years ago, in 1947. Both were watching the Watergate hearings, when Cole exploded to Diggins, “See, it has to be done like Castro—democracy doesn’t work!”
Whether true or not, this moment certainly fit Cole’s character. For, as the only member of the Hollywood Ten who remained a Stalinist, Cole hated till his dying day.
Unlike the other members, Cole came to Communism early, courtesy of a Socialist father. In his twenties, he championed the cause of anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, who were sentenced and then executed for an alleged robbery in Massachusetts.
Cole drifted to Hollywood where he joined the Hollywood branch of the American Communist Party in 1934. The Party in that period suited his volatile character, for, on orders from Moscow, American Communists shunned any alliances with the non-Communist left because the latter were considered “fascists.”
Hired as a screenwriter, Cole, apart from the Errol Flynn vehicle, Objective Burma (1945), and Born Free (1966), was best known for cranking out Charlie Chan movies, and was pathetically proud of inserting the Spanish Civil War slogan, “It is far better to die on your feet than on your knees,” into a boys’ school picture.
Cole dutifully defended every twist and turn of Soviet policy throughout the 1930s, But given his spleen, he finally found a Party line that suited him, both during and after World War II. In the war years, owing to the military alliance between America and the Soviet Union against Hitler, Party members were homicidally patriotic. Claudia Jones, editor of the Young Communist Weekly, stated “to hate the enemy is to love one’s country.” Composer Marc Blitzen combined bloodthirstiness with a demand for the Americans and British to invade Western Europe in order to help Stalin:
“Open up that Second front! Open up that Second front! We will bomb a tyrant’s smile, and from his throat his insane Heil…We will bomb him from the face of the earth.”
But the hateful award goes to Cole, who in his screenplay for Objective Burma, detailing the behind-the-lines exploits of Allied paratroopers in Japanese-occupied Burma, had a character explode, after seeing a soldier tortured to death by the Japanese: “Their animals. We should wipe this race off the face of the earth.”
In 1945, the Party followed Stalin’s lead by ending the wartime alliance with liberals and advocating for class war with capitalism. This switch, resulting in the ouster of the wartime Party head of the CPUSA, Earl Browder, who tried to mainstream the Party, resulted in scores of members leaving.
But not Cole, who actually preferred this Leninist policy, and was in the forefront of championing a violent strike in Hollywood led by Communist union members. When he and his comrades were subpoenaed to Washington, Cole was one of the most venomous during his testimony, castigating lawmakers as “fascists” and “Hitlerites”.
Alienating liberal Hollywood with their behavior, Cole was once again front and center for spewing hate, this time around in blasting liberals who initially supported the Ten and then refused to, chief among them Humphrey Bogart. Bogart, aghast upon finding out he was defending Communists, took out an ad in a Hollywood trade paper, and declared his anticommunist beliefs and denouncing his brief support of the Ten.
True to form, Cole expressed no regret in duping Bogart and other liberals. Although denied studio work because of the blacklist, and, upon leaving jail, forced to find work in England, the blacklist, in fact, gave him the luxury of another group to hate: those who named names and those in the Ten who became mildly anti-Soviet.
When his fellow Ten member Dalton Trumbo gave a speech in 1970s stating that informers were also “victims,” Cole, from his faculty perch at San Francisco State University, equated Trumbo’s speech with “Ford pardoning Nixon.” Although another Ten member, Albert Maltz, attacked Trumbo, Cole launched into Maltz for giving money to dissidents in the Soviet Union like Alexander Solzhenisyn, who Maltz believed were being “blacklisted” by the Soviet Union. He accused Maltz of “aiding in the growth of neo-fascism” by his “valiant championing of that towering symbol of Czarist humanism and freedom, Alexander Solzhenitsyn.”
The Communist Party must have been as much a suitable vehicle for Cole’s hatreds as for any political positions he agreed with. Expressing no regrets about defending Stalin, Cole, till his death in 1985, routinely appeared at film festivals in Communist satellite nations, and defended, of all places, the particularly brutal East German republic.
By his example, Cole negated the often promoted liberal characterization of the American Communist Party to this day as composed of humanist civil libertarians. Instead, with his hatefulness, Cold typified what writer Murray Kempton stated about the Party– “that it had no room in it for doubt or mercy.”