Slate promotes the story as “The Communist Who Built Our Atomic Bomb,” which is more definite than the story. Still, the story of Robert Oppenheimer is a bit of confirmation of the picture that conservatives have long drawn of the Roosevelt-Truman decade of the 1940s being infiltrated by communists.
I grew up a generation later, and was educated to believe that the worry about this was all a “witch hunt,” which is to say, a search for things that didn’t exist. The clear message to my generation was that there weren’t any communists, or not any that mattered. My teachers discussed this issue entirely in relation to Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who was careless in his accusations.
McCarthy, however, came toward the end of the period. The low-hanging fruit had already been picked—and what a crop it was, too. There were several high-profile cases of Americans charged with spying--cases in which conservatives tended to argue that the people were guilty and liberals, that they were innocent. In several key cases, the conservatives have been shown to be correct. In recent years definitive (and non-right-wing) books have come out on the cases of Elizabeth Bentley, Judith Coplon and Alger Hiss.
Ronald Radosh, a leftist turned conservative, is out with a new book on the communists in the film industry, called Red Star Over Hollywood. In the late 1940s, the House Un-American Activities Committee called in 19 Hollywood folks, most of them screenwriters. They questioned 10, who became known as the Hollywood Ten. Dalton Trumbo, who would later write the script to Spartacus, was one of them.
Hollywood still defends these guys, and hates how they were blacklisted after being hauled in front of the congressional committee. From a civil liberties view, they have a point. In normal times, and maybe even in abnormal times, it is not the government's business to ask political questions of screenwriters. But the story has also been told as if they were not communists, or as if it didn’t matter to the nation’s culture if they were. But it did affect some films, particularly during the war. And for the record, they were Reds.
Respond to Bruce.