Friday, October 18, 2013

On Waldo Salt’s Un-American Activities

Introduction to the Occasional Series

Today, there are concerns raised in some quarters that federal government programs are infringing on Americans’ First Amendment, Fourth Amendment, and Fifth Amendment American liberties. These concerns relate to NSA secret surveillance of law-abiding American citizens.  

Many Americans do not understand that they can be harmed when they give up their claim to Constitutional liberties. Many Americans are wont to say, “If I have nothing to hide, I have nothing to fear.” Or they may say, “I am happy to accept the curtailment of these liberties, because I am afraid of terrorists, and I am confident that the NSA activities are motivated purely by the desire to protect Americans from terrorists.” What Americans do not say, but which may accurately describe their inner thought processes, is “I wasn’t using my First, Fourth, and Fifth Amendment liberties, so I don’t see the harm in giving them up.”

In this occasional series, I will profile Americans who have been harmed as a consequence of government usurpations of these liberties, in arguing that these liberties matter and that they deserve a vigorous defense. 

Waldo Salt 

During his long career as a Hollywood screenwriter, Waldo Salt wrote screenplays for notoriously bad movies such as Taras Bulba. For a period of time he wrote forgettable scripts for episodes of television shows and commercials. Later in life, however, Waldo Salt showed unmistakable genius. He won academy awards for Midnight Cowboy and Coming Home, and was nominated for an academy award for the 1973 film Serpico
Waldo Salt

The story of Serpico is the story of a New York City police detective who is determined to expose police department corruption, who doggedly pursues this cause even after it becomes obvious that his superiors within the department will oppose him at every step of the way. Thus, it is the story is of a man who values civic virtue more highly than the self-interested goal of professional advancement.

Mr. Salt discovered his own genius after his life had been nearly destroyed. In 1951, he was found guilty of being a communist sympathizer, and as a consequence, his name was added to a Hollywood blacklist of individuals who would no longer be given work. As recounted in a PBS documentary, 

Though the blacklist had been lifted, much of [Waldo Salt’s] life had fallen into ruin. Divorced, and sick with pneumonia and despair, Salt was living in a cheap New York hotel trying to write television scripts. “I ended up at fifty, over-the-hill, thinking I had no future,” Salt explained. “Finally, I realized that I had allowed myself to write less than I could.” According to fellow writer Ian Hunter, “From then on, Waldo approached screenwriting as an artist (source).”
During his years on the blacklist, Mr. Salt could only be paid if he agreed that his work would not be credited. Sometimes, he wrote under his wife’s name. 

The Truth of the Allegations

As it happens, Mr. Salt was a member of America’s Communist Party. Of course, the question of whether one supports or opposes communism is beside the point. It is fairly certain that Mr. Salt never plotted the violent overthrow of the United States. Persecuting Americans because of their political views goes against the values enshrined in the United States Constitution. That Constitution was written by men who had lived in fear of being punished by the British Government during colonial days, and when they shared their political views in newspapers, they used pseudonyms. 

Blacklisting as an Economic Sanction

The Hollywood blacklist was a form of economic sanction against individuals. It relied on the cooperation of private industry. Once an individual was brought before a hearing to discuss his or her alleged communist sympathies, and regardless of innocence or guilt, he or she would be fired and later discover it to be virtually impossible to find work elsewhere. About 80% of people who were summoned to these hearings lost their jobs, and the total number of who lost their jobs is about 10,000 (source). 

It is worth reflecting on the fact that Hollywood bosses were more than willing to give in to pressure from Joe McCarthy and his supporters. A typical Hollywood boss probably weighed the options thusly: (a) I could allow my reputation to be tarnished by people who accuse me of harboring communist sympathizers, and lose money or even my job in the process, or (b) I can fire an employee and find someone else to do the work, and avoid any trouble. A person who had both the moral clarity to see McCarthyism for what it was and the moral conviction to risk his or her career for the sake of principle might choose option “a.” A self-interested individual would certainly choose option “b.”
Al Pacino in Serpico

What did Joe McCarthy Want?

It is possible that the NSA is engaged in its secret surveillance of Americans solely for the purpose of protecting Americans from terrorists. It is possible that Joe McCarthy engaged in his campaign of anti-communism solely for the purpose of protecting Americans from the perceived threat of communist infiltration and subversion. He was, in fact, instrumental in uncovering Alger Hiss, who according to the CIA, was a bona fide Soviet spy working in the U.S. government (source). Julius Rosenberg, likewise, was probably a Soviet spy (source). Even if we give McCarthy credit for being well-intentioned and not a power-hungry demagogue it’s worth reflecting on whether the discovery of these two spies was worth the cost in thousands of ruined lives and reputations. 

Waldo Salt: An Epilogue

In one scene in the movie Serpico, the hero is warned that if he persists in trying to uncover corruption in the police department, he would be putting his life in danger. The danger wouldn’t come in the form of cold-blooded murder by another officer. Instead, the danger would flow naturally from his social exclusion from the bond of loyalty that officers otherwise share.   

Nobody has to take a shot at you.
I'm not saying anything’s going to happen. I'm saying it could happen.
I mean, there’s lots of ways.
They can just not be there when you need them.
Somebody comes at you with a gun, they look the other way.
Or they can send you in first enough times... until finally one day you’re gonna walk in the wrong door.
Six months before his death in 1987, Waldo Salt accepted the Laurel Award for Screen Achievement from the Writers’ Guild. During his acceptance speech, he said, “As writers true to ourselves … if we’re good, we’ll always be in trouble. Let’s be sure we deserve it.”

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