The terrible truth is that there can be no statute of limitations on moral crimes.
Watch the final scene of the new film Guilty by Suspicion and you will understand.
Robert De Niro strides from the hearing room of the House Un-American Activities Committee. He has refused to name friends who were in the American Communist party with him. If De Niro had named them, he could have continued as one of Hollywood's hottest directors. By remaining silent, he closed the door on his career.
He will be blacklisted, never to be hired in the film business again.
De Niro reaches the exit. He stops briefly to hear the start of testimony by his best friend, played by George Wendt from television's Cheers. Wendt's first answers make it clear he has decided to surrender. One of the people he will name is De Niro.
The time is 1951, when the House Un-American Activities Committee not only created its own "Red scare" but destroyed the lives and careers of scores of Hollywood directors, actors, actresses and writers in the process.
Everything that takes place in the movie happened.
In the film, De Niro goes to a meeting called by the powerful Darryl F. Zanuck, his big sponsor in Hollywood.
Zanuck offers him the script of a new movie to direct. He tells him that all he needs to do is square himself first with the congressional committee.
In real life, Elia Kazan tells of a similar meeting with Zanuck in his autobiography:
"Then Darryl urged me to `Name the names, for chrissake. Who the hell are you going to jail for? You'll be sitting there and someone else will sure as hell name those people. Who are you saving?' . . . Then he told me that he'd had a good deal of experience in Washington during the war and `the idea there is not to be right but to win.'" People sold their souls during this time. Some were broken. Some disappeared. Some died too early. A few actually took their own lives. Lifetime friendships were ripped asunder.
It was a time in this country when people were asked to violate their own values and betray their friends to save themselves.
John Garfield, then one of Hollywood's brightest stars, told the committee he abhorred Communists but refused to become what he called a "stool pigeon." Garfield died of a heart attack soon after, but a friend described his feelings.
"He wouldn't say the one thing that would keep him from walking down his old neighborhood block in Brooklyn, a place where being a stool pigeon was the ultimate horror." The committee called up Hollywood's biggest names because the members were sure to draw the widest media coverage.
It was a terrifying circus in which some people of great talent sacrificed their ideals to retain their huge incomes. At the same time, some inspiring acts of bravery occurred.
The committee demanded to know of the playwright Clifford Odets if he wrote on "communist themes." Odets replied: "When I wrote, sir, it was out of central, personal things. I did not learn my hatred of poverty, sir, out of communism." But Odets, too, later named his best friend, the actor J. Edward Bromberg, as a Communist. The emotional stress caused Bromberg, who had already suffered two heart attacks, to have a third and fatal attack.
But then Odets showed up to deliver the eulogy at Bromberg's funeral.
Jerome Robbins, the choreographer, testified because he feared that he would be exposed as a homosexual if he didn't.
Pete Seeger, folk singer, wouldn't name names but he offered to sing songs.
Dalton Trumbo asked the committee members: "How can there be innocence when there is no guilt?" He was blacklisted.
Lionel Stander, a gravelly-voiced actor still seen on television, said he would identify "a group of fanatics who are desperately trying to undermine the Constitution." He added that he was speaking, of course, of the members of the committee.
He was blacklisted.
Life has its surprises.
J. Parnell Thomas, the committee chair, was later convicted of accepting kickbacks and actually served time in the same prison with two of the so-called "Hollywood Ten" that his committee was responsible for sending to jail.
One of them was Ring Lardner Jr., who later wrote the script for the Academy Award winner M*A*S*H. Some still remember that Larry Parks was the hottest thing in Hollywood after starring in The Jolson Story. He named names and never made it back.
Sterling Hayden, fresh from a great role in The Asphalt Jungle, named his ex-mistress.
In his book Wanderer, Hayden tells of explaining to his psychiatrist:
"Son of a bitch, Doc. I'm thinking of quitting analysis . . . If it hadn't been for you, I wouldn't have turned into a stoolie for J. Edgar Hoover. I don't think you have the foggiest notion of the contempt I have had for myself since the day I did that thing . . . Fuck it! And fuck you, too." Victor S. Navasky spent years working on Naming Names, a book about the period.