Standing up for the things that matter at the time they matter

Watching the film Trumbo that I reviewed yesterday brought to mind a very old post of mine that quoted Trumbo extensively from a moving letter he wrote to a friend in 1967 that was published in the March 2004 issue of Harper’s magazine (subscription required). It asks us to reflect on what is really important in life, what is worth making a stand for, and how people use the flag and country to shift blame away from themselves for their unprincipled behavior.

Here are excerpts from the letter that Trumbo wrote, that carry weight even today.

[A] prominent and liberal producer was quoted as saying: “Look, you people are simply stubborn and foolish. Regardless of what you think of informing it has become a part of the law. The committee and its requirements are part of our time; they are the country; they are the flag. That’s the way it is, and those who refuse to recognize this no longer arouse sympathy; they only isolate themselves and prevent their voices from being heard.”

The more I think of that the more I disagree with it, and the more puzzled I become about the workings of the mind that produced it.

I know and can read the First Amendment as well as anyone. I know it is the basic law of this country. I know that if it goes, all will go. The Warren Court has carefully and specifically outlined the exact method by which persons can refuse to inform. It is almost as if the court had decided to provide citizens with a textbook on how to avoid turning informer.

Thus the court has presented us with a dilemma that lies at the heart of all philosophies and religions, the dilemma best symbolized in the Faustian legend: yield up your principles and you shall be rich; cling to them and you shall be less prosperous than you presently are.

That’s the problem: choice. Not compulsion. Committee or no committee, law or no law, capitalism or no capitalism, movies or no movies, it is the constant necessity to choose that dogs every action of our lives every minute of our existences.

Who is it then who compels us to inform? The committee does not come and ask us to change our minds and give them names and reinstate ourselves. Who is it that denies us work until we seek out the committee and abase ourselves before it?

Since it is neither the court nor the law nor the committee, the man who compels informing can only be the employer itself. It is he, and not the committee, who applies the only lash that really stings – economic reprisal: he is the enforcer who gives the committee its only strength and all its victories.

Disliking the nasty business of blacklisting but nonetheless practicing it every day of his life, he places upon the country and his flag the blame for moral atrocities that otherwise would be charged directly to himself. And thus, since informing has nothing to do with the law and the country and the flag, and since the necessities of his life, as he sees them, oblige him to enforce what the committee can never compel, and since without his enforcement that committee would have no power at all, – what he actually said is that he is the law and the country and the flag.

How often do we still hear those words of people saying that while they may not like something and it may not be the law, being a ‘good citizen’ who ‘loves their country’ requires them to take actions that they would otherwise deplore on principle? It is what results in excusing torture, summary executions, indefinite detention without trial, and the ‘if you see something, say something’ attitude that results in profiling with perfectly innocent people being kicked off planes and arrested and otherwise harassed.

John Wayne and Ronald Reagan later tired to distance themselves from their role is sustaining the blacklist by saying that while they themselves had no part in it, it had to be done to save the country from its enemies. Here’s John Wayne in an interview in 1974 trying to wriggle out of any blame.

Note how Wayne even falsifies the ending of High Noon (1952), a film that he called “the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life”, where he claims that at the end Gary Cooper’s Will Kane threw down the marshal’s badge and stepped on it, and Wayne interprets that as a sign of deep contempt for the United States. In reality, Kane just drops the badge on the ground and leaves. It is clear that what he has contempt for is the cowardice of the town’s citizenry that did not stand up for what is right when it counted. No doubt Wayne hated the film because it was clearly allegorical and based on the blacklist and he recognized himself as being part of the cowardly citizenry. The screenwriter for the film was Carl Foreman who was himself blacklisted and had to go to England in 1951 in order to work. A documentary Darkness at High Noon was made on the efforts to minimize his role on the film because of fears of repercussions.

Back to Trumbo’s letter, after the above passage Trumbo reflects, in a moving series of montages, on the wide range of jobs he has had all over the country and the wide variety of people from all walks of life that he has met on that journey. And he concludes:

And if I could take a census of all the Americans I have seen and of all the dead whose graves I have looked on, if I could ask them one simple question: “Would you like a man who told on his friend?” – there would not be one among them who would answer, “Yes.”

Show me the man who informs on friends who have harmed no one, and who thereafter earns money he could not have earned before, and I will show you not a decent citizen, not a patriot, but a miserable scoundrel who will, if new pressures arise and the price is right, betray not just his friends but his country. Such men are to be watched; I cannot imagine they are not watched.

I look back on two decades through which good friends stood together, moved forward a little, dreamed that the world could be better and tried to make it so, tasted the joy of small victories, wounded each other, made mistakes, suffered much injury, and stood silent in the chamber of liars.

For all this I am grateful: that much I have; that much cannot be taken from me. Barcelona fell, and you were not there, and I was not there, and perhaps if we had been the city would have stood and the world have been changed and better. But we were here, and here together we remain, and our city won’t fall, and if it should, better that we lie buried among its ruins than be found absent a second time.

You can see why Trumbo is considered such a good writer.


  1. Friendly says

    You can see why Trumbo is considered such a good writer.

    Indeed. That’s some powerful stuff. Can you recommend any particular collections of his writing?

  2. Mano Singham says

    Actually, I cannot. While he did write some articles early in his career and wrote a couple of novels, his strength was in his screenplays. There is a collection of his letters Additional Dialogue: Letters of Dalton Trumbo, 1942–62, 1970 (ed. by H. Manfull) that may be helpful but I have not read it.

  3. says

    Ah, the HUAC, the blacklist, people ratting out other people not just for their political affiliations, but for being associated in any way with people with the wrong political affiliations. Nothing says “freedom and liberty” like trampling all over freedom and liberty in their own name.

    At least things have changed. Now the enemy “hates us for our freedom” so the answer is to take that freedom, put it safely into a pillowcase with some nice comfortable rocks, and toss it into the river so the enemy can’t find it.

  4. Michele says

    When I was about 5 1/2 years old my family took a vacation to Washington, DC. At least that’s what I was told. Actually, my father, a physicist (Manhattan Project, later NASA), was testifying on behalf of a co-worker who had (anonymously) been accused of being a Communist. Strangely, all his “friends” suddenly had amnesia and couldn’t quite recall him or any conversations they had with the accused. My dad did the right thing at the right time. Fortunately, he didn’t suffer any bad consequences for this and his career was not affected but there was no guarantee at the time. Not everyone caved.

  5. hyphenman says

    @Friendly (and Mano)

    Two of Trumbo’s books that I highly recommend are: “Johnny Got His Gun” (fiction) and “The Time of the Toad: A Study of Inquisition in America by One of the Hollywood Ten” (non-fiction).

    “Night of the Aurochs” and “Eclipse” are also very good.


    I agree with the centrality of the First Amendment, but two facts will always trouble me: first, that the Bill of Rights was included as amendments to our Constitution rather than central parts of the document (perhaps as a different Article I or an extended preamble) and second, that, as demonstrated by the horrifyingly brief first section of the 21st Amendment—Section 1. The eighteenth article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed.—all the amendments are fragile in the extreme.

    Jeff Hess
    Have Coffee Will Write

  6. Mano Singham says


    You can be proud of the actions of your father. It is always, always true that those who stand up for what is right are the ones whom history regards positively and with admiration.

    Quite a few physicists were affected, one of the notable ones being David Bohm who had to find a job outside the country.

  7. doublereed says

    @5 hyphenman

    Articles are just as susceptible to amendments as amendments are. Slavery was enshrined in the articles (most famously with the 3/5 compromise) but slavery was removed by amendment. The Bill of Rights is generally considered central to our constitution, often including the 14th Amendment as well, because it outlines Birthright Citizenship and Incorporation of the Bill of Rights.

    Some amendments are more fragile than others. But all of our rights are constantly under attack with every generation, which is why we need organizations like the ACLU. Because freedom can’t defend itself.

  8. hyphenman says

    @doublereed No. 7

    That’s true, you’re absolutely right.

    I find the psychological/emotional separation of the articles and the amendments, however, troubling.

    From where I stand, that the founders decided, after long debate, to create the separation between the Bill of Rights and the articles was a strategic mistake.

    Jeff Hess
    Have Coffee Will Write

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