What an outpouring of pious liberal sentimentality greeted the death of the playwright and left-wing icon Arthur Miller, aged 89, last month! The Washington Post teared up about the “shatteringly human frailty in his plays,” The Chicago Tribune mourned “the preeminent social conscience of the world stage,” Harold Pinter (who will get a similar send-off when the time comes) said his pal was “a landmark,” and The Guardian told us that the “international theatre community … had somehow assumed that the creator of an American archetype in Willy Loman … would live and write forever.” Prensa Latina, dateline Havana, fondly recalled Miller’s visit to Cuba in 2000, and extolled “an undisputed man of conscience” who “bashed the intolerance that spread in the U.S. during the Cold War, for fear that socialism overtook the world.” The New York Times really went to town with a front-page valentine that went on to occupy an additional two pages inside the paper. “Mr. Miller grappled with the weightiest matters of social conscience in his plays,” swooned our Paper of Record, “and in them often reflected or reinterpreted the stormy and very public elements of his own life—including a brief and rocky marriage to Marilyn Monroe and his staunch refusal to cooperate with the red-baiting House Un-American Activities Committee.” You have to say this for the Times: it pushed all the buttons: Arthur Miller, Genius Playwright; Arthur Miller, Social Celebrity; Arthur Miller, Moral Paragon and Darling of the Left Establishment.
We wouldn’t for a moment dispute Arthur Miller’s high standing as a celebrity. In that, at least, he really was distinguished. As a playwright, however, he looks smaller and smaller. The folks at Powerline.com got it exactly right when they asked whether Miller “ever wrote anything worth seeing or reading after the play that kicked off his career in 1949, Death of a Salesman.” And even that period-piece melodrama is hard for anyone who has graduated from adolescence to take seriously.
Death of a Salesman instantly established Miller’s literary reputation. The Crucible (1953), his Salem-witch-trial allegory about HUAC, secured his political bona fides on the Left. It wasn’t until the summer of 2000, in an article for The Guardian, that Miller publicly spelled out the connection between his woodenly didactic allegory and what he called the “calamity” of “anti-communist rage” in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Although Miller acknowledged that “practically everyone” he knew was on the Left, he remained clueless about the infiltration of the American Communist Party by hard-core Stalinists and KGB operatives. “I have never been able to believe in the reality of these people being actual or putative traitors,” Miller wrote. “The unwelcome truth denied by the right was that the Hollywood writers accused of subversion were not a menace to the country, or even bearers of meaningful change. They wrote not propaganda but entertainment.”
Whatever the limitations of Arthur Miller’s capacity for belief, by the year 2000 the rest of the world had long known that Joseph McCarthy, whatever his failings and excesses, was essentially right about the presence of Soviet spies in the United States. Indeed, McCarthy was in many ways a godsend to the fellow-traveling Left. As the historian Ronald Radosh noted at the time,
scores of anti-Communist liberals and defenders of civil liberties rallied around the right of Communists and Socialists to be heard, although they despised their propaganda. Without “McCarthyism,” the left-wing would actually have had less of a shield to hide behind: the attacks on their links to the Soviet Union allowed them to claim that anyone accused—such as Alger Hiss—was completely innocent, even when in fact they were guilty.
Quoting from an article by the espionage expert Thomas Powers, Radosh went on to observe that “the crisis which propelled Miller to write The Crucible was caused ‘not only by the discovery of spies but by the denial of spies.’ The Soviet Union was in fact running major spy networks, infiltrating the United States government, and the implications of this operation were not faced squarely by the United States until late in the game.” To deal with the era as a “witch-hunt,” as Miller did, is to ignore a crucial fact. “One cannot,” Radosh concludes, “write about McCarthyism without first admitting that there were spies; the spies claimed idealism as a defense.”
Arthur Miller told us that “The heart of the darkness was the belief that a massive, profoundly organized conspiracy was in place and carried forward mainly by a concealed phalanx of intellectuals, including labor activists, teachers, professionals, sworn to undermine the American government.” But as we noted in these pages at the time, what Miller described as a paranoid fantasy we now know to be the historical truth.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 23 Number 7, on page 1
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