Screenwriter Trumbo's Free Speech Bona Fides Deserve a Second Look

For today’s Left, blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo is an admirable figure. Director Oliver Stone called Trumbo his “hero,” while a flood of celebrities (including Gore Vidal, Brian Dennehey and Liam Neeson) have lined up to star as the screenwriter in the off-Broadway play “Trumbo.”

In a recent New York Times article, journalist David Itzkoff praises the Writers Guild for posthumously recognizing Trumbo as the true author of the screenplay for “Roman Holiday.” Both Itzkoff and the Guild saw this belated screen credit as a blow against censorship.

Dalton Trumbo

But missing from the award and the article is Trumbo’s own censorship efforts while a member of the American Communist Party.

In a 1943 letter, Trumbo bragged about how he and his comrades were able to keep such “untrue and reactionary” works such as “Trotsky’s so-called biography of Stalin,” Arthur Koestler’s anti-communist “Yogi and the Commissar” and John Dos Passos’ attacks on Stalinist duplicity in the Spanish Civil War novel, “The Adventures of a Young Man,” from being made into films.

The next year Trumbo attempted to get the FBI to investigate correspondents who wanted his anti-war “Johnny Got His Gun” (1939) brought back into circulation in order to end American participation against the Axis. When the tide turned and it was the American Communist Party who others urged the FBI to investigate, Trumbo attacked the bureau as fascist.

As the editor of The Screen Writer magazine, Trumbo rejected the submission of an anti-communist writer on the following grounds:

“It is difficult to support your belief in the inalienable right of man’s mind to be exposed to any thought whatever, however intolerable that thought might be to anyone else. Frequently such a right encroaches upon the right of others to their lives. It was this “inalienable right in Fascist countries which directly resulted in the slaughter of five million Jews.”

Thus, the free speech Trumbo would be honored for led, in his estimation, to the gas chamber if practiced by those he disagreed with.

A mark of a true anti-censorship proponent is defending the free speech of all, especially in times when opponents are in the minority. During the war, the tide was on Trumbo’s side. His fellow comrades such as John Howard Lawson were writing the Democratic Party platform for California. Trumbo himself authored UN speeches for State Department official Edward Stettinius. But in the same favorable position that his adversaries would be in after the war, Trumbo censored with impunity.

Trumbo certainly deserves his screen credit, but not the characterizations of him as a free speech avatar