Several years ago (this is another post reprinted from my own blog) I wrote a movie book called Screen Enemies of the American Way, spotlighting movies and TV built around political paranoia. As historian Richard Hofstadter put it, clinical paranoids imagine someone’s poisoned their wine; political paranoids think fluoridation is a communist conspiracy.
Political paranoia has a long history in American culture: Illuminati in the late 1700s, Catholic immigrants in the 1800s, Jews pretty much always, and communists, Nazis and Muslims in the 20th century. Movies shied away from some of these but threw in science-fiction infiltrators such as pod people and fembots. Among the TV and movies I caught were several episodes of the 1950s TV series I Led Three Lives so I also read the bestselling 1952 book the series was based on.
It says a lot about the 1950s zeitgeist that the book not only sold well but spawned a hit TV spinoff because dear god, it is unbelievably, mind-blowingly dull.
The writer, Herb Philbrick, was probably the best known of what writer Victor Navatsky calls “professional witnesses,” people who built lucrative careers on infiltrating the Communist Party for the FBI. The government and the media (including Philbrick’s TV show, the movie I Was a Communist For the FBI and more) portrayed this as an incredibly heroic act. Not only were these informants battling a deadly threat to American democracy, if they were ever identified as Party members the FBI could never reveal the truth. To avoid exposing its anti-Communist investigations, the Bureau would disavow any knowledge of their actions: they’d be tarred as sincere communists with all the opprobrium, blacklisting and other consequences that came with it.This was a lie. Philbrick and the other stool pigeons all went on to talk about their role infiltrating the Reds, whether in books, TV shows, radio shows, movies, consultant gigs, or speaking engagements. The TV series repeatedly reminds us that the FBI could never acknowledge pipe-smoking “Comrade Herb” (Richard Carlson) as one of their own … in a show where every episode acknowledges he was one of their own.
As Philbrick’s book tells it, he was in college when he got involved in a liberal anti-war group but soon became puzzled by some of their other positions, such as support for “fair housing” (i.e., letting blacks buy homes in white neighborhoods). Digging deeper, he discovered the group was a communist front taking its orders from Moscow (as I’ve mentioned before, it was a standard anti-communist/racist trope back in the day that civil rights equals communism). When he reported them to the FBI, they encouraged him to stay in the party despite the risk of being tarred as a Red. Philbrick took the risk and spent nine years taking photographs of his fellow Communists, getting their names and recording their debates. By today’s standards it’s hard to see why anyone would care.
In the TV show, Herb undercuts plots to stop the Party from discrediting anticommunist labor leaders, murdering a former leader turned informer, and passing off propaganda films as true newsreels (they were going to spread lies that minorities in the inner city deal with racism, poverty and police brutality!). In the book, his big triumphs consist of figuring out the right Marxist response to questions about party dogma, convincing his comrades that he’s on the same wavelength as their bosses in Moscow. The Communist Party isn’t a revolutionary cadre, let alone a spy network: it’s a bunch of twits chattering endlessly about Marxism and the dialectic, blathering about the inevitable collision of capitalism and communism but not doing anything to bring it about (having known a few communists, this rings true).
Philbrick tries to convince us that American reds are bad news. He blames them for pre-WW II isolationism, “losing” China to Mao Zedong (China was never ours to lose but that wasn’t how the U.S. saw it back then), losing Vietnam (in an updated 1970s edition) and the JFK assassination. Not that the party was involved but if they’d reported Oswald as a fellow communist, the FBI would totally have saved JFK (as an FBI informant, Philbrick unsurprisingly presents the Bureau as on a par with UNCLE or SHIELD). Evidence? What, you need more than the word of a heroic patriot? The worst evil-doing he can testify to is that one party member suffered a “mysterious fall” right after he dissented from Moscow’s latest utterances. That’s underwhelming.
In the anti-communist paranoid world of the 1950s, however, it was enough for stardom.