Dalton Trumbo -- at the time the highest paid writer in Hollywood and also one of the best (the two aren't necessarily the same) and one of several who would go on writing Academy Award-winning screenplays under pseudonyms long after they had been declared untouchables by the industry -- called it "The Time of the Toad: A Study of Inquisition in America," in his bitter 1977 polemic against the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC).
Trumbo, along with the others of the Hollywood Ten who "took" the Fifth Amendment before the committee in a principled refusal to "cooperate" in the dismantling of the Constitution (not to mention the violation of their own conscience), and who served time in a federal penitentiary for his pains, was referring not only to HUAC or to the informers and "friendly witnesses" but even more to an atmosphere, an enveloping hysteria that went beyond particular events to chill the national climate.
Later, the period came to be called McCarthyism -- those dark days of cold war, Redhunting, epidemic accusation and suspicion. But the events which provide the ground of Victor Navasky's significant far-reaching study -- the congressional "investigation" into the political rectitude of the film industry and nation-at-large -- both preceded and followed the noisome career of the Wisconsin demagogue.
The Hollywood Ten have been much written about, of course, by historians and scholars of every stripe as well as the protagonists on both sides of the great divide, and because the historic moment and occasion were so richly symbolic and reverberent we may be sure they will persist as a subject of inquiry.
And, while the issue of informers and informing -- of "naming names" -- is scarcely a new one, never before has it been subjected to nearly so intensive, wide-ranging, and subtle an examination as that provided by Navasky's "moral detective story," which, in the process of revealing through extensive, deeply probing interviews with the principals as much as we have reason to know about this aspect of HUAC's sordid history and about those who, by "cooperating," kept it in flourishing business, also tells us more about ourselves as a people and nation than we may wish to know.
A squalid time, when a surburban supermarket mogul by threatening advertisers to boycott a detergent or deodorant held veto power over TV programming, and the threat of an American Legion picket line could intimidate the major film producers and thereby abruptly end a writer's or actor's or director's career, no matter how distinguished.
Blacklist them, declare them to be pariah, unpersons, dead. Unless, that is, they agreed to "name names" -- of communists real or supposed, dead or alive, former or present, known or rumored, the informers' ex-comrades, wives, husbands , lovers, dear friends and colleagues; to inform against others and by so doing demonstrate one's own perfervid patriotism and compliant willingness, no matter how hedged about by gaudy displays of inner torment, to dance to the piper's tune.
Under extreme pressure -- economic, moral, emotional, psychological -- so few conducted themselves with dignity and honor, acted out of principle or even ordinary decency and personal pride.
The actor Lionel Stander gave better than he got; and the late great comic Zero Mostel provided the few enlivening moments of exquisite comedy and high art when he, the son of a rabbi, told the committee he dared not be an informer lest he be denied burial in consecrated ground by ancient Talmudic law, and when he further informed the august body that when he performed at a fund-raising function for some retrospectively suspect cause or other, he was merely miming a butterfly at rest.
As for the name-namers, principally Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg, Navasky has some very harsh though manifestly fairminded observations to make.
For what was finally at stake, Navasky argues persuasively, was a quality so fundamental no society worth living in is possible without it: trust, trust itself, personal and social trust, a "social good," as Sissela Bok argued in "Lying," "to be protected just as much as the air we breathe and the water we drink. When it is damaged, the community as a whole suffers; and when it is destroyed, societies falter and collapse."
At bottom, Navasky concludes, "it was the informer's contribution to spoil the possibility of trust and thereby the sense of community. At this level of perception it is imaginatively right that Navasky, appropriating a term from anthropology, should characterize name-naming as a "degradation ceremony" exacted by HUAC of its victims willing and reluctant, as the moral price for being readmitted to the tribe. When a society permits itself to conduct such savage rites, it exposes something harrowing about itself which it otherwise conspires to deny or disclaim; and that may be the reason why 30 years later the events of those days continue to haunt us, and will go on doing so 30 years from now.