The Selective Pacifism Of Dalton Trumbo

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Probably the most mocked of anti-Communist claims by anti-anti-Communists was that the American Communist Party of the 1930s and 40s was dedicated to the violent overthrow of the American government. Former Communist and blacklisted screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr. said that even though Communism had “taken a violent form in the Soviet Union” it did not mean the American Communist Party wanted to use the same Leninist methods of seizing the government. Rather, he asserted, the CPUSA sought to bring socialism about through democratic gradualism.

But a generation later, in the 1960s, the New Left was committed to that very goal the Old Left was accused of. They didn’t want the U.S. to withdraw from Vietnam; they wanted the Vietcong to defeat “fascist America.” They didn’t want to make the U.S live up to its democratic principles; they wanted it overthrown a la the methods of Castro, Mao, and Ho Chi Minh, who many modeled their units after (New Leftist Tom Hayden called his violent Weathermen faction an “American Vietcong”).

Hence, on the surface, it appears that the New Left’s penchant and glorification of violence separated the more “establishment-minded” Old Left from them.

But this is false, at least, ironically or perhaps not so ironically, in the case of Dalton Trumbo, a blacklisted screenwriter and supposedly fierce critic of war. Trumbo, who penned the anti-war classic, Johnny Got His Gun (1939), a book which he allowed to be used by Vietnam protesters, revealed himself to be a selective supporter of violence if practiced by the Left.

Trumbo pulled no punches about the violence of the American government. With passages like the following during the Vietnam era, Trumbo denounced the U.S. as blood-thirsty racists. Calling racism the “keystone of national policy, both domestic and foreign–so profoundly a part of our national psyche,” he rhetorically asked, “how many gooks have we killed in Korea? How many slopes in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia? Millions and we’re still killing more of them. Our thirst for the blood of dark-skinned sub-humans is insatiable.”

As with his selective view of civil liberties (i.e. his broad category of “fascists” not eligible), Trumbo, however, had a selective view of violence if practiced by the right side. He used the violence of Vietnam to argue for the violence carried out by leftists on campuses and the streets. In a 1970 letter to the New York Times, he wrote, “I agree with today’s protesting students…I’m against burning down libraries, but we burn down more than that in Vietnam. After all, who is it that is using violence?”

Trumbo expressed even greater kinship with the violence-prone sections of the New Left by attacking the non-violent approach of Martin Luther King Jr. When asked to adapt William Styron’sConfessions of Nat Turner, to the screen, Trumbo registered his approval of Turner’s violent actions against slaveholders over King’s more pacific approach:

“In his resort to violence Nat Turner is truly a man of the Twentieth Century, which Martin Luther King, unhappily, is not… (Turner) in carrying through his rebellion, did nothing more than accept a principle of white Christian violence which had enslaved all of Africa, and used it for the first time in American history as a weapon against white Christians.”

How different from his attacks on “far right groups” in the same period. In an article for the Nation, “Honor Bright and All That Jazz,” Trumbo, true to form, carelessly lumped conservatives such as William F. Buckley who condemned the weaponized, far right groups such as the apocalyptic-minded Minutemen as an equal lover of violence, while at the same time sought to boldly contrast the much more peaceful Old and New Left:

“[Leftists in the 1930s and 1960s] had no foothold in the police and military, and no secret bands of armed auxiliaries. The New Right has both… Combine their forces in a time of crisis with such veterans’ actions groups as fought the labor wars of the 1920s, and thousands of their like-minded brethren from the country’s organized gun clubs, and rifleman’s associations, and you have as formidable–and as legal–a political army as anyone could hope for.”

Trumbo even used a dream sequence of this group taking over and the consequences to those like him on the Left. Chased through the streets by rightists, Trumbo wrote, “I hear sounds of the hunters retracing their steps. I cry my alarms to the silent listener inside (a building). I beg refuge. He doesn’t answer…the hunters race toward me. I cross to a window that is only partly draped. I cupped hands to my brow and peer through it. The face in the darkness which stares so intently back at me is mine. The hunters strike.”

Asked late in life how he could so vociferously support World War II and yet with equal passion condemn Vietnam, Trumbo said, “I am inconsistent.”

But the consistency for selective violence was always present, even back in 1939. In the concluding passages of Johnny Got His Gun, where the triple amputee and deaf and blind character makes his passionate speech for peace, there is the familiar Communist Party line for soldiers to turn their guns on their capitalists: “the menace to our lives does not lie on the other side of a no man’s land that was set apart without our consent it lies within our own boundaries here and now we have seen it and we know it… We will use the guns you force upon us, we will use them to defend our very lives and the menace… within our boundaries.”

Small wonder that the book was adopted by the Maoists, Castorites, and Viet Cong supporters on the New Left, for with only the elimination” of “no man’s land,” this passage typified their assertion of “bring the war home.”

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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.