Arthur Miller’s Other Legacy: Stalin’s Little Helper
“Arthur Miller, Moral Voice of American Stage, Dies at 89.” The New York Times‘ adulatory front-page obituary was typical. Indeed, within hours of Miller’s passing February 10, the famed playwright was receiving rousing reviews for his prodigious literary output that won him a Pulitzer, four Tony awards and a flock of other honors.
The man who had once married Marilyn Monroe was lavishly celebrated for several important dramas, including All My Sons (1947), Death of A Salesman (1949), The Crucible (1953) and A View From the Bridge (1955). He had achieved icon status among liberals just for having written The Crucible, his allegorical tale ripping Joe McCarthy, and been saluted again for his refusal to “name names,” i.e., Communists he had met in various Red gatherings, before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HCUA). Few folks have secured a more marvelous media send off from their earthly moorings.
What has been obscured is Miller’s role as willing Soviet pawn. Miller’s plays not only savaged America’s free-enterprise system, but also were lovingly staged in Communist countries. In a broadcast over Radio Hanoi (Aug. 22, 1972), Jane Fonda told of her euphoria when she “saw Vietnamese actors and actresses perform the second act of Arthur Miller’s play, All My Sons.” Hanoi Jane said she found it “very moving” that Vietnamese artists were so forgiving that they were “translating and performing American plays while U.S. imperialists are bombing their country.”
Fonda didn’t have a clue. Ho Chi Minh’s ideological warriors were staging Miller’s drama because they saw it as “agitprop” against America. The protagonist is a corrupt American manufacturer who causes American pilots to die when he deliberately sells faulty equipment to the U.S. Armed Forces. First produced in 1947, it was given a vigorous thumbs-up by the Communist Daily Worker, which hailed Miller as a “leading figure” in a new generation of playwrights. It has been much admired in Red circles ever since. Death of A Salesman, another terrific punch tossed at the American way of life, became a favorite of the left as well.
Lengthy Red Record
Miller also used his writing talents to zing disillusioned Communists, such as his long-time friend and collaborator, Elia Kazan. Kazan had not only turned against the Soviet Union but had also testified against some of his ex-comrades before HCUA. Miller got even with such “turncoats” and “informers” in both The Crucible and A View From the Bridge. The Miller obituaries also failed to report another important part of his legacy: his substantial support of Joe Stalin’s fifth column operations here in America, those Soviet-controlled Red fronts.
When finally forced to face his own crimson past before the public, Miller chose to seriously mislead. In his famous June 1956 appearance before HCUA, he vowed–to the eternal cheers of the left–that he would never inform on Red conspirators he had known. But he also proclaimed he would be “perfectly frank with you [committee members] in anything relating to my activities.”
Miller kept his first promise, but conspicuously crawfished on the second. Even the crumbs of “admissions” he coughed up had to be pried out of him by HCUA’s pit-bull staff director, Richard Arens.
Did Miller, for instance, sign a 1947 statement, released by the notoriously Red-controlled Civil Rights Congress, giving a carte blanche defense of the Communist Party? Several lawmakers thought the party, as a wholly owned and directed Stalin subsidiary, should be outlawed, though others, for valid reasons, disagreed. But Miller, along with numerous CP co-signers, decided to coat the party with whitewash, insisting there was “nothing in their [the party’s] program, record or activities, in war or in peace” to justify any “repressive legislation.” (Committing espionage and subversion and taking orders from Stalin, apparently, amounted to “nothing.”)
When Miller fumbled over whether he’d been a signatory, Arens pushed under his nose the Daily Worker of April 16, 1947. The CP’s flagship publication, said Arens, indicates “that 100 prominent Americans had issued this statement, including a person described here as Arthur Miller. I lay that before you and ask you if that refreshes your recollection.”
Cornered, Miller conceded (sort of): “I see my name here,” so “I will not deny I signed it.” (But he wouldn’t admit it either.)
Arens then directed Miller toward a similar defense of the party that appeared in a May 20, 1947, advertisement in the Washington Post. The ad’s sponsor: the same, subversive Civil Rights Congress. Miller suffered another spasm of amnesia, but did allow once more: “I see my name here. I would not deny I might have signed it.”
Arens then pushed on another front: “Did you sign a statement in protest of the prosecution of Gerhart Eisler?” Miller: “I don’t recall that, sir.” So Arens disgorged a 1947 Civil Rights Congress press release protesting the “persecution” of the “German anti-Fascist refugee, Gerhart Eisler.” “I recall this,” Miller piped up, his memory at last refreshed, but Arens then put forth a more interesting query: “Did you know at the time you signed that statement protesting the persecution of Gerhart Eisler that he was a top-ranking agent of the Kremlin in this country, and that, among other things for which he was being pursued by our government, was passport fraud?”
Miller pleaded the equivalent of nolo. “I would have no knowledge of that,” he said, pointing out that he was neither an “investigator or a lawyer.” Eisler was convicted in 1948 for having concealed his Communist ties when applying for his passport, fled the country a year later and then wound up as an important official in Communist East Germany. He had also been a member of Stalin’s powerful Comintern governing foreign Communist parties.
Did Miller regret having given aid and comfort to a dedicated Soviet agent intent on destroying the United States? Miller clearly thought the questions about his connections with Eisler were somewhat frivolous, and he never expressed the least bit of remorse in his testimony or his later writings.
Despite Miller’s effort to muddy the past, Arens produced enough material to show that the esteemed playwright in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s hung around with America’s comrades, co-wrote scripts with them, received high praise from the Red press, rose to the defense of active subversives and supported or joined a host of prominent CP fronts and causes–each dutifully attempting to serve the Soviet Union and undermine this country’s national security.
As late as 1952–in the midst of the Soviet-inspired Korean War–Miller joined yet another front, signing a statement in defense of the 12 top Communist Party leaders convicted under the Smith Act of knowingly conspiring to teach and advocate the violent overthrow of the U.S. government. He was still opposed, he volunteered, “to the prosecution of anyone for advocating anything,” including America’s violent demise. What’s more, he argued, the act curtailed “the right of an author to advocate, to write,” to engage in “creative literature.”
Committee members thought it bizarre that Miller believed the law–which he admitted he had never read–inhibited “creative” writers (unless, of course, they were engaged in an organized conspiracy against our government). For Miller, however, the untrammeled freedom of the literary class grandly trumped the need of the U.S. government to protect itself against agents of a deadly foreign power. Miller was not a Communist when he testified, but he still knew how to rally around a cause the party intensely supported.
A Party Member?
Had Miller ever joined the party? HCUA never came up with a card, as it had with each of the Hollywood 10, but Miller seemed, at the very least, to have come right up to the precipice. The U.S. State Department was concerned enough about Miller to deny him a passport in 1953. And six months before his HCUA appearance, the Communist writer Howard Fast wrote a lengthy piece in the Daily Worker, hailing Miller “as the American dramatist of our time,” better than Clifford Odets, Elia Kazan and Lillian Hellman. Each of the three had been in the party, although some were more fervent than others in their loyalty to the “movement.” Fast’s flowery salute certainly raised suspicions that Miller’s links with the party had, at the very least, been extremely close. (In his autobiography, Timebends, Miller confesses that even in the late 1940s he had “at times believed with passionate moral certainty that in Marxism was the hope of mankind. . . .”)
Kazan said he didn’t believe Miller was ever a party member, but he sprinkled his own autobiography with enough tales to make the reader seriously wonder. He recalls Miller’s curious behavior in suddenly abandoning in 1951 a movie script (The Hook) when Harry Cohn, president of Columbia Pictures, pressed him to give the key character, a tough union leader, a slight anti-Communist aura. When Miller unilaterally dropped the project, Kazan, who had been working with Miller on the film, was not the only one who was angry. So was Cohn. “Miller is a Communist,” he told Kazan. And if not, then “tell me what other explanation could there be for what he did? . . . I could tell just by looking at him. He’s still one of them.”
Arens also thought Miller had been a Red, but he never proved it. When Arens asked the playwright if he’d ever applied for party membership, Miller, no doubt wondering what revealing document Arens would next pull out of his lethal pile, gave a curious reply. “In 1939, I believe it was, or in 1940,” he said, “I went to attend a Marxist study course in the vacant store open to the street in my neighborhood in Brooklyn. I there signed some form or another.”
“. . . some form or another“! What kind of foggy response was that? Yet that was his entire, initial answer. But this was “an application for membership in the Communist Party, was it not?” a puzzled Arens pursued.
Miller: “I would not say that. I am here to tell you what I know.”
Then, said Arens, “Tell us what you know.”
But Miller had nothing to tell: “This is now 16 years ago. That is half a lifetime away. I don’t recall and I haven’t been able to recall and, if I could, I would tell you the exact nature of that application.”
Even with the passage of time, that reply defies credulity. How could Miller not recall if he had ever applied for party membership? This was not something one did every day, not even reliable joiners of Red-controlled fronts like Miller. And what was it that convinced Miller to say that he just might have applied for membership at this particular meeting? Miller, alas, never lets us in on the secret.
Moreover, Miller should have recalled his decision for another reason. He strongly suggests he signed “some form or another” in late 1939 or 1940, shortly after Stalin had cut a deal with Adolf Hitler–a convulsive event in both world history and on the left. Could a smart Jewish boy from Brooklyn really fail to remember applying for membership when the party had come to embrace the Fueher, whose brutality and raw anti-Semitism had been thoroughly on display for nearly a decade? Not likely.
Nor was this Miller’s last known brush with the CP. Arens also asked Miller if he had ever attended any Communist Party sessions with playwright Arnaud D’Usseau. Miller: “I was present at meetings of Communist Party writers in 1947, about five or six meetings” and “I went there to discover where I stood finally and completely [in relation to Marxism]. . . .”
Miller said he composed an essay for the group suggesting his differences with these party members, but when asked to produce it by Chairman Francis Walter, he quickly lamented that he had somehow lost what he believed was “the best essay I ever wrote.” Still, long after his supposed Marxist critique, Miller remained a faithful Stalin camp follower, promiscuously joining or backing one Red enterprise after another. (Even at the HCUA hearing, as noted, he was condemning the Smith Act prosecutions.)
Estrangement From Kazan
What is particularly illuminating about Miller’s connection with the left was his conflict with Kazan. Kazan and Miller had become bosom friends over the years, with Kazan having directed two of his plays. Kazan had even introduced Miller to Monroe. The two had parted company in 1952 and the only reason ever given was this: The famed director had willingly named before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952 those who had belonged to a Communist cell with him in the 1930s.
Kazan’s autobiography details his side of the break. After he testified before HCUA, Kazan said that Miller stopped talking to him. Kazan said he had heard that Miller had accused him of testifying for money, but then, “I received his public dismissal through the newspaper. The [New York] Post‘s headline: ‘KAZAN SLAP AT REDS COST HIM MILLER PLAY.’ And following that: ‘. . .since then, Mr. Miller has expressed strong disapproval of that stand to Broadway intimates and cut off all communications with his theatrical teammate.'”
Kazan said that the only reaction he got from Miller “came indirectly through Arthur Kennedy, who played the lead in The Crucible [the Miller play condemning ‘informers,’ such as Kazan]. Kennedy told me that at the opening night party for that play, Art raised a glass of spirits and, in a tone of vindication, said, ‘This one’s for Gadg! [Kazan’s nickname].’ And so we separated.”
All knowledgeable people in the theater and the film world and generally on the left knew, for a fact, that the split had occurred because of Kazan’s testimony, along with the director’s strong defense of what he had done. Yet, quite surprisingly, Miller, despite repeated hammering by Arens, insisted that “I have never attacked Kazan” for his testimony or for anything else. He acknowledged a parting of the ways, but Arens, in one of his few missteps, let him get away with never having to state the reason.
The truth is Miller never really forgave Kazan for “informing.” Victor Navasky, a man of the left, in his comprehensive and highly informative Naming Names, strongly suggests that Miller viewed Kazan as a “stool pigeon,” and the liberal critic Richard Rovere insisted Miller took the view in his writing that “informing” was “the ultimate in human wickedness.” When Kazan and Budd Schulberg’s 1954 Oscar winner On the Waterfront celebrated the hero who “informs” on union racketeers, Miller retaliated the next year with A View From the Bridge, in which the informer is depicted as a despicable human being.
The committee did not go after Miller for his deceitful responses about Kazan, but did, despite his “moral scruples,” cite him for contempt for refusing to name party members he had met at Communist gatherings.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia tossed out the case on a technicality. Meanwhile, Miller’s HCUA performance and his refusal to “name names” had enhanced his hero status on the left.
Still a ‘Man of the Left’
Arthur Miller remained a man of the left until the day he died, though he did become a critic, albeit a mild one, of both the Soviet Union and Communist China. Even during his HCUA hearing he said that he had stopped joining Red-controlled fronts, though he never seemed to regret the cause of the fronts he had championed.
In 1965, he was elected president of International PEN, a leading literary organization and, in his new role, went to bat for dissident writers in Communist countries. The Soviet Union was annoyed enough with Miller that his works were banned there in 1970. (But not in Communist Hanoi, as Jane Fonda’s broadcasts remind us.)
Miller, however, always remained soft on Communists, and even communism, generally, and harsh on anti-Communists in particular. In Timebends, he proudly recalls that at one performance of The Crucible, the audience, upon the execution of the innocent leading character, John Proctor, “stood up and remained silent for a couple of minutes, with heads bowed.” The reason? Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, two very guilty Soviet atomic spies, were at that moment being executed in Sing Sing.
Arthur Miller was a much-heralded playwright, whose works frequently had power beyond their political tilt. But in the great battle that was waged against Soviet communism in the 20th Century, Miller, when it really counted, wound up on the side of Joe Stalin–and not in a peripheral way.