The Scoundrel Time of McCarthy

Lillian’s famous 1952 letter stands as a waymark of the last century, indicating that it is perhaps only the free individual who can smash the mythic power structure of the modern State. A direct line can be drawn from the Lillian Hellman letter to the present situation, where there is no longer any arena in which the individual may make a stand, and no audience permitted to hear their protest. Here is the letter in full. See what a distance we have come from there to the silence of the intellectuals half a century later.

May 19, 1952
The Honorable John S. Wood
Chairman
House Committee on Un-American Activities
Room 226 Old House Office Building
Washington 25, D.C.
Dear Mr. Wood:
As you know, I am under subpoena to appear before your Committee on May 21, 1952.
I am most willing to answer all questions about myself. I have nothing to hide from your Committee and there is nothing in my life of which I am ashamed. I have been advised by counsel that under the Fifth Amendment I have a constitutional privilege to decline to answer any questions about my political opinions, activities and associations, on the grounds of self-incrimination. I do not wish to claim this privilege. I am ready and willing to testify before the representatives of our Government as to my own opinions and my own actions, regardless of any risks or consequences to myself.
But I am advised by counsel that if I answer the Committee’s questions about myself, I must also answer questions about other people and that if I refuse to do so, I can be cited for contempt. My counsel tells me that if I answer questions about myself, I will have waived my rights under the Fifth Amendment and could be forced legally to answer questions about others. This is very difficult for a layman to understand. But there is one principle that I do understand: I am not willing, now or in the future, to bring bad trouble to people who, in my past association with them, were completely innocent of any talk or any action that was disloyal or subversive. I do not like subversion or disloyalty in any form and if I had ever seen any I would have considered it my duty to have reported it to the proper authorities. But to hurt innocent people whom I knew many years ago in order to save myself is, to me, inhuman and indecent and dishonorable. I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions, even though I long ago came to the conclusion that I was not a political person and have no comfortable place in any political group.
I was raised in an old-fashioned American tradition and there were certain homely things that were taught to me: to try to tell the truth, not to bear false witness, not to harm my neighbor, to be loyal to my country, and so on. In general, I respected these ideals of Christian honor and did as well with them as I knew how. It is my belief that you will agree with these simple rules of human decency and will not expect me to violate the good American tradition from which they spring. I would, therefore, like to come before you and speak of myself.
I am prepared to waive the privilege against self-incrimination and to tell you anything you wish to know about my views or actions if your Committee will agree to refrain from asking me to name other people. If the Committee is unwilling to give me this assurance, I will be forced to plead the privilege of the Fifth Amendment at the hearing.
A reply to this letter would be appreciated.
Sincerely yours,
LILLIAN HELLMAN

Her defiance gave the lead to the other writers and film people who had been arraigned. Arthur Miller’s defence almost followed Lillian’s, phrase by phrase. Bernard Dick, in his book ‘Hellman in Hollywood’, defined as ‘one of the most memorable quotations of the century and as Dr. Johnson would have said, part of the ‘literary parole’: “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions.”’

In her book ‘Pentimento’ she had observed: ‘In the short time since Henry James, the United States had become the dominant country not alone in money and power, but in imposing on other people a morality which was designed in part to hide its self-interest.’ Garry Wills said that Hellman was to ideology what Faulkner was to racism. He observed that she came to the battle ‘with no ideological weapons, just with that personal code, with undefended decency – which is, on occasion, the strongest weapon of all.’ In her summing-up of the McCarthy episode, ‘Scoundrel Time’, she wrote:

‘It is not true that when the bell tolls it tolls for thee: if it were true we could not have elected, so few years later, Richard Nixon, a man who had been closely allied with McCarthy. It was no accident that Mr. Nixon brought with him a group of high-powered operators who made Cohn and Schine look like cute little rascals from grammar school. The names and faces had been changed; the stakes were higher, because the prize was the White House. And one year after a presidential scandal of a magnitude still unknown, we have almost forgotten them, too. We are a people who do not want to keep much of the past in our heads. It is considered unhealthy in America to remember mistakes, neurotic to think about them, psychotic to dwell upon them.’

Her final word on the McCarthy confrontation was: ‘In truth, I was nobody’s girl.’

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