Elia Kazan was a great director, especially according to many of the actors who worked with him and from whom he coaxed (or tricked, or bullied, or squeezed) their best performances. But he was an exceptionally polarizing figure in Hollywood because of his testimony for HUAC, when he named names and earned lifelong enmity from the left.
Why did he do it [emphasis mine]?:
When [Kazan] was in his mid 20s, during the Depression years 1934 to 1936, he had been a member of the American Communist Party in New York, for a year and a half.
In April 1952, the Committee called on Kazan, under oath, to identify Communists from that period 16 years earlier. Kazan initially refused to provide names, but eventually named eight former Group Theater members who he said had been Communists…All the persons named were already known to HUAC, however. The move cost Kazan many friends within the film industry, including playwright Arthur Miller…
In later interviews, Kazan explained some of the early events that made him decide to become a friendly witness, most notably in relation to the Group Theater, which he called his first “family,” and the “best thing professionally” that ever happened to him:
“The Group Theatre said that we shouldn’t be committed to any fixed political program set by other people outside the organisation. I was behaving treacherously to the Group when I met downtown at CP [Communist Party] headquarters, to decide among the Communists what we should do in the Group, and then come back and present a united front, pretending we had not been in caucus…
“I was tried by the Party and that was one of the reasons I became so embittered later. The trial was on the issue of my refusal to follow instructions, that we should strike in the Group Theatre, and insist that the membership have control of its organisation. I said it was an artistic organisation, and I backed up Clurman and Strasberg who were not Communists… The trial left an indelible impression on me… Everybody else voted against me and they stigmatised me and condemned my acts and attitude. They were asking for confession and self-humbling. I went home that night and told my wife “I am resigning.” But for years after I resigned, I was still faithful to their way of thinking. I still believed in it. But not in the American Communists. I used to make a difference and think: “These people here are damned fools but in Russia they have got the real thing,” until I learned about the Hitler-Stalin pact, and gave up on the USSR.”
Mills notes that prior to becoming a “friendly witness,” Kazan discussed the issues with [Arthur] Miller:
“To defend a secrecy I don’t think right and to defend people who have already been named or soon would be by someone else… I hate the Communists and have for many years, and don’t feel right about giving up my career to defend them. I will give up my film career if it is in the interests of defending something I believe in, but not this.”
Miller put his arm around Kazan and retorted, “don’t worry about what I’ll think. Whatever you do is okay with me, because I know that your heart is in the right place.”
Kazan had personal experience of what the Party was capable of when they read him the riot act for his lack of obedience, and demanded he say his mea culpas. When no one stood up for him he understood that loyalty among this group was only to the Party; people were expendable. Why should he risk himself for a group like that (not to mention what he learned about Stalinism later)?
Kazan’s conscience was at peace with his decision [emphasis mine]:
[Kazan's] controversial stand during his testimony in front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) in 1952, became the low point in his career, although he remained convinced that he made the right decision to give the names of Communist Party members. He stated in an interview in 1976:
“I would rather do what I did than crawl in front of a ritualistic Left and lie the way those other comrades did, and betray my own soul. I didn’t betray it. I made a difficult decision.”
Of course the Left, in its usual Orwellian inversion, considered what he did a betrayal. But before he betrayed them, they—and Communism itself—had betrayed him. That version of the story goes, of course, against the usual leftist meme that Kazan had “betrayed old friends” versus “behaving with silent honor” by keeping his mouth shut.
In the Guardian piece I just linked, David Thomson writes that in Kazan’s autobiography (which I haven’t read) “you will feel his agony, you will hear of the old friends who never spoke to him again, and you realise how Kazan was haunted by the incident as long as he lived.” One implication is that he caved to pressure and that his conscience troubled him. He may have caved to pressure, but I don’t think it was his conscience that troubled him at all. It was the realization that his erstwhile friends would ostracize him, as many of them did—including Arthur Miller, who (despite his supposed promise otherwise) didn’t speak to him again for twelve years, and only reconciled due to the peacemaking efforts of Marilyn Monroe, who earlier in her life (before her marriage to Miller) had had affairs with both men.
The fact that Kazan was unrepentant about his HUAC testimony may have stung even more than the testimony itself. Just as his earlier “trial” at the hands of the Party had contained a prescription for his recantation and repentance, so did the later condemnation of Kazan for his HUAC testimony contain the need that he apologize. Far from doing so, he had actually taken out “a full-page ad in the NY Times justifying himself” after his testimony, and never retreated from that position.
Earlier, Kazan had betrayed himself and his friends at the Group Theater for the sake of the Party when he had first joined and reported to the Party secretly on the Group’s doings, and then gotten kicked in the teeth by the Party for his pains. He was not interested in betraying himself for the Party again, even if it meant telling the truth about the Communist affiliations of some friends.
[NOTE: All of the people Kazan named were not only already known to HUAC, but had also been members of the Group Theater and the Party at the same time he had been, back in the 30s. I assume it likely that they had been among those who had voted for his censure back in the 30s, as well as having joined him then in betraying the Group Theater by reporting secretly to the Party about its doings and supporting Party takeover of the Group. So his HUAC testimony may have been a form of payback as well.
If you're interested in the text of Kazan's post-HUAC-testimony NY Times ad, you can find it here. An excerpt:
I joined the Communist Party late in the summer of 1934. I got out a year and a half later.
I have no spy stories to tell, because I saw no spies. Nor did I understand, at that time, any opposition between American and Russian national interest. It was not even clear to me in 1936, that the American Communist Party was abjectly taking its orders from the Kremlin.
What I learned was the minimum that anyone must learn who puts his head into the noose of party “discipline.” The Communists automatically violated the daily practices of democracy to which I was accustomed. They attempted to control thought and to suppress personal opinion. They tried to dictate personal conduct. They habitually distorted and disregarded and violated the truth. All this was crudely opposite of their claims of “democracy” and “the scientific approach.”
To be a member of the Communist Party is to have a taste of the police state. It is a diluted taste but it is bitter and unforgettable. It is diluted because you can walk out.
I got out in the spring of 1936.
The question will be asked why I did not tell this story sooner. I was held back, primarily, by concern for the reputations and employment of people who may, like myself, have left the party many years ago.
Firsthand experience of dictatorship and thought control left me with an abiding hatred of these. It left me with an abiding hatred of Communist philosophy and methods and the conviction that these must be resisted always.
It also left me with the passionate conviction that we must never let the Communists get away with the pretense that they stand for the very things which they kill in their own countries.
I can't seem to find any information on the subject, but my hunch is that Kazan remained a Democrat and liberal for the rest of his life.]