Mission to Moscow: Hollywood goes Stalinist

Kevin Brianton

Senior Lecturer, La Trobe University


Mission to Moscow glorified Stalin at a time when the United States desperately wanted to maintain the alliance with the Soviet Union. It was despised by J. Edgar Hoover.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

While popular films showed there was deeply felt anti-communism in the United States in the 1930s , there was no expressed desire to lurch to fascism.  Perhaps the sentiments of the American people were best summed up in the popular Frank Capra film You Can’t Take It With You which was released in 1938.  In the film, a fatherly figure commented on the latest developments in politics.

Communism fascism, voodooism … Everybody got isms these days… When things go badly, you go and get yourself an ism… Nowadays they say, ‘Think the way I do or I’ll bomb the hell out of you.’[1]

When the United States entered the war, Hollywood’s film output changed tack.  Many films were made which praised the effort of the Russian armies.  The scripts for these films were often written by communist or leftist writers such as John Howard Lawson, Lillian Hellman, Howard Koch or Paul Jarrico.  These films were filled with praise for the heroic efforts of the Soviet army and people.  The presence of left leaning and communist writers involved in pro-Russian footage, in American cinema was to provide the fuel for the conspiracy theorists of the right after the cold war had set in.

The most controversial of these films was Mission to Moscow (1943) which was based on the autobiography of the United States Ambassador to the Soviet Union Joseph E. Davies.  The film glorified Stalin at a time when the United States desperately wanted to maintain the alliance with the Soviet Union.[2]  The film glossed over Stalin’s disastrous collectivization of peasants and it also accepted the Stalinist line on the show trials of the 1930s.  Adjusting and simplifying history was a time-honored Hollywood tradition, but Mission presented a gross distortion.[3]  As film historian David Culbert has observed the Soviet purge trials asked people to believe that the Soviet equivalents of the American Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had all plotted against their country.[4]  Mission to Moscow showed only one trial, that of Nikolai Bukharin, who was a strong ally of Lenin in the Russian revolution and supported Stalin against Trotsky after Lenin’s death.  He broke with Stalin after opposing the collectivization of the Kulaks and attempted to overthrow Stalin through the Central Committee of the Party.  In March 1938, Bukharin was put on trial in Moscow with other prominent Bolsheviks and subsequently shot.[5]

All of Hollywood’s skills were needed to sell the message of a benign Russia to the American public.  Warner Bothers allocated the top talents of director Michael Curtiz and screenwriter Howard Koch, who were riding high on their success of Casablanca.  In the trial scene, Nikolai Bukharin made his final speech at his trial in Mission to Moscow where he admitted collusion with the fascists:

CLOSE SHOT BUKHARIN
  As he speaks to the courtroom with deep feeling and sincerity.
BUKHARIN:  
For three months I refused to testify – then I decided to tell everything.  Why?  Because while in prison I made an entire re-evaluation of my past.  For when you ask yourself, ‘If you must die, what are you dying for?’ an absolutely black vacuity rises before you with startling vividness… My hope is that this trial may be the last severe lesion in proving to the world the growing menace of Fascist aggression and the awareness and united strength of Russia.  It is in the consciousness of this that I await the verdict.  What matters is not the personal feelings of a repentant enemy, but the welfare and progress of our country.[6]

Film producer Robert Bruker later claimed that he wanted some ambiguity in the trial scenes but Davies insisted that the accused be depicted as guilty traitors and Trotskyists.[7]  Davies’ own book contains some concerns about the trials which the film entirely lacked. 

Off the record, one is admitted, to wit: that the occasion was dramatized for propaganda purposes.  It was designed: first, as a warning to all existing and potential plotters and conspirators within the Soviet Union; second, to discredit Trotsky abroad; and third, to solidify popular national feeling in support of the government against foreign enemies Germany and Japan.  During the trial every means of propaganda was employed to carry to all parts of the country the horrors of these confessions.[8]

Davies’ more balanced assessment was disregarded during the film.  Extremely wild assertions were made about the role of Stalin’s exiled rival Leon Trotsky who was linked to both Hirohito and Hitler in their plans to invade Russia.  Immediately after the scene with Bukharin, the action crossed to the German embassy in Oslo where Leon Trotsky was plotting with German Minister of Norway.  The Nazis abandoned Trotsky because of the bungling of his plot against Russia.  The film managed to turn one of the fiercest and most persistent critics of fascism, Leon Trotsky, into a Nazi pawn.  But the scene had actually been toned down from an earlier version of the script by novelist Erskine Caldwell where after the trials of Bukharin, Hitler met with Trotsky.

HITLER:         We are not ready for this turn of affairs.  You have completely bungled the work you were supposedly directing with judicious ability.  That forces us to withdraw our hand completely for the minute.  That means Russia will be able to buildup its army and augment its supplies of war materials.  You are trying to force us to act in Russia before we are ready!

TROTSKY:      No, no, Herr Hitler.  This is all an unfortunate accident.  You know I am in perfect accord with your plans.[9]

The Office of War Information was ecstatic in its praise of the film.  They described it as a ‘magnificent contribution to the Government’s motion picture program as a means of communicating historical and political material in a dramatic way.’  It said that the presentation of the Moscow trials was a high point and:

Should bring understanding of Soviet international policy in the past years and dispel the fears which many honest persons have felt with regard to our alliance with Russia.  The clarity and conviction with which this difficult material is presented is a remarkable achievement for the screen and should do much to lay the ‘ghosts of fascist propaganda’ which still haunt us and delay the forgoing of that international unity which is essential to the winning of the war and the peace.[10]

The OWI said the film would help create a friendly relationship between the Soviet Union and the United States.  The Office gave the film immediate release for domestic and international markets.

The film was disturbing because it was not only historical drivel but contradicted Davies’ own reports form the time as well as his own book.  At the time, he described the trials with terms like ‘horror’ and ‘terror’ and it was clear that he had not been hoodwinked.[11]  Davies was not a fool and had previously had a career as a Wisconsin lawyer who had made his fortune representing Standard Oil.  Yet when he introduced the film, he must have been aware of the misrepresentations, and distortions contained within it.  Davies even had the nerve to call upon his ‘sainted mother as an ordained minister of the gospel’[12] to add weight to his claims that it was historical truth.  He also claimed that:

No leaders of a nation have been so misrepresented and misunderstood as those in the soviet government during those critical years between the two world wars.  I hope that my book will help correct that misunderstanding in presenting Russia and its people in their gallant struggle to preserve the peace until ruthless aggression made war inevitable.[13]

Davies accepted the distortions of his own book and had a fair amount of say in the production of the film.[14]  Screenwriter Howard Koch later wrote that Davies was annoyed by the fact that actor Walter Huston did not look like him.  He told this to director Michael Curtiz who replied that Roosevelt, Kalinin, Churchill and Litinov were famous men while Davies was not.  After a stony silence, Davies told Curtiz that he was well known, with thousands of friends.  To cool down the situation, Davies was permitted to personally introduce the film.[15]  The incident showed that Davies had a fair amount of his own self-image tied up in the film and wanted it to depict film as a hero mixing with the ‘Great Men’ of the day.

United States diplomats were embarrassed by the film when it was shown to Stalin and other Soviet officials on 24 May 1943.  Ambassador William Standley reported to the Secretary of State that Stalin had sat silently through its presentation and grunted once or twice.  He wrote that the glaring historical discrepancies provoked resentment from the Soviet officials and that its depiction of the 1930s trials meant that it would not be released in the USSR.  He felt that the film would not contribute to a better understanding between the countries.[16]  Davies, by contrast, thought that the picture was well received by both Stalin and Molotov.[17]

When it was released in the United States, the film was heavily criticised in many quarters.  In a massive letter, published on the editorial page of the New York Times professor John Dewey from Columbia University, who headed a commission into the Russian trials of the 1930s, wrote that Mission to Moscow was the first instance of ‘totalitarian propaganda for mass consumption’ in the United States.  Dewey described the film as propaganda which falsified history through distortion, omission or pure invention of fact.[18]  He claimed that the film falsified not only the trials, but Davies’ own reports to the State Department and his comments in letters of the time.[19]

A small group of academics and writers also condemned the picture.[20]  The group argued that the film falsified history, distorted Davies’ own book, glorified Stalin’s dictatorship and had serious implications for American democracy.  The group said that:

(Mission to Moscow) corresponds in every detail with what the Kremlin would like the American people to think about its domestic and foreign policies.  It denounces British appeasement of Hitler, but the appeasement of the Stalin-Hitler pact is glossed over as… realism!  It shows half the map of Poland in flames when Hitler attacks but the other half, invaded by the Red Army appears unaffected.  The invasion of Finland is presented as anti-fascist action.[21]

Many film critics were even less impressed.  Writing for Nation, influential critic James Agee said the film was almost ‘the first Soviet production to come from a major American studio.’  He described the film as a:

Mishmash; of Stalinism with New Dealism with Hollywoodism with journalism with opportunism with shaky experimentalism with mesmerism with onanism, all mosaicked into a remarkable portrait of what the makers of the film think the American public think the Soviet Union is like – a great glad two-million bowl of canned borscht, eminently approved by the Institute of Good Housekeeping.[22]

While the film was made to simply serve the war needs of the United States in 1943, it did raise some disturbing questions about the propaganda of the Second World War.  Many people colored their world view by what they saw on the screen and Hollywood had to at least take some critical distance.  The film recorded a modest return of $1.2 million in rentals according to Variety.  This was much lower than other pro-Russian films such as Action in the North Atlantic which made $2.6 million and North Star which made $2.8 million in the same year.[23]

The FBI director J Edgar Hoover was deeply concerned about communism, but felt constrained during the war, as the Soviet Union was an ally against Germany and later against Japan. The release of Mission to Moscow, with its pro-Stalin message,caused uproar, with the Republicans attacking the film industry for doing the bidding of the Roosevelt administration.[24] The FBI reacted to the release of the film by beginning a comprehensive surveillance of the film industry, ranging from scrutiny of industrial issues, the political activities of directors, actor and writers, through to the content of films.  At one point in 1944, Hoover demanded a report by the 15th of each month on the infiltration of Hollywood by communist agents and ideas.[25]  


[1] You Can’t Take It With You, (d) Frank Capra, (w) Robert Riskin.

[2] The publication of Mission to Moscow in 1943 became part of an internal wrangle within the State Department between those who were suspicious of Stalin’s motives and those like Davies who felt he could be negotiated with in the post war world.  See Daniel Yergin, Shattered Peace: The Origins of the Cold War and the National Security State, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1977.

[3] George MacDonald Fraser argues that, as a rule, Hollywood was very accurate in its presentation of the past.  See George MacDonald Fraser, The Hollywood History of the World, Michael Joseph, London, 1988.

[4] David Culbert, Our Awkard Ally: Mission to Moscow printed in O’Connor, John E., Jackson, Martin A. (eds) American History/American Film: Interpreting the American Image, new exp edn, Continuum, New York, 1988, p. 124.

[5] Alan Palmer (ed.), The Penguin Dictionary of Twentieth Century History 1900 – 1978, Penguin, Harmindsworth, 1962, pp. 63 – 64.

[6] David Culbert, (ed.). Mission to Moscow, Wisonsin/Warner Bros Screenplay Series, University of Wisconsin Press, Wisconsin, 1980, pp 159 – 160.

[7] Ibid., p. 253.

[8] Joseph E. Davies, Mission to Moscow, rev edn, Pocket Books, USA, February 1943, p. 37.

[9] Culbert, Mission, p. 237.

[10] Report, Hollywood Office, Bureau of Motion Pictures, Office of War Information, April 29, 1943, Box 1434, Entry 264, Record Group 208, Office of War Information Records, Archives Branch, Washington National Records Center, Suitland, Md in Culbert, Mission, p. 257.

[11] Yergin, Shattered, pp.30 – 32.

[12] Culbert, Mission, p. 225.

[13] Ibid, p. 58.

[14] Culbert, Mission, p. 253.

[15] Howard Koch, As Time Goes By, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, 1979, pp. 125 – 126.

[16] Telegram form Ambassador William Standley to Secretary of State, May 25, 1943, Box 68, President’s Secretary’s file, Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, Hyde Park, NY. In Culbert, Mission, p. 262.

[17] Letter from Joseph Davies to Harry M. Warner, May 24, 1942, box 13, Joseph E. Davies Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of congress, Washington DC in ibid p. 261.

[18] New York Times, 9 May 1943.  Letter signed by John Dewey and Suzanne La Folette.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Form letter, Dwight MacDonald et al. to ‘Dear Friend,’ May 12, 1943, NAACP MSS, Manuscript division, Library of Congress, Washington DC in Culbert, Mission pp. 257 – 259.

[21] Form letter, op cit, in Culbert, Mission, p. 259.

[22] Nation May 22, 1943 in Agee, Agee on Film, Grosset & Dunlop, New York, 1969, p. 37.

[23] Variety 4 January 1944.

[24] Hollywood Reporter, 15 April 1943. The publication of the book Mission to Moscow in 1943 had become part of an internal wrangle within the State Department between those who were suspicious of Stalin’s motives and those such as the author Soviet Ambassador Joseph E. Davies, who believed the Soviet could take its place in the world community. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover remained on the side of those who distrusted Stalin and his motives. J Edgar Hoover to SAC Los Angeles – 21 June 1943, Volume 1, COMPIC 100 -138784. For a full account of the politics of Mission to Moscow see David Cuthbert, “Our Awkward Ally: Mission to Moscow,” 1988, printed in John E. O’Connor, and Martin A Jackson, (eds) American History/American Film: Interpreting the American Image, New expanded edition, Continuum, New York, 1988. See Daniel Yergin, Shattered Peace: The Origins of the Cold War and the National Security State, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1977.

[25] Variety 4 January 1944. Hollywood Reporter, 15 April 1943. The publication of the book Mission to Moscow in 1943 had become part of an internal wrangle within the State Department between those who were suspicious of Stalin’s motives and those such as the author Soviet Ambassador Joseph E. Davies, who believed the Soviet could take its place in the world community. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover remained on the side of those who distrusted Stalin and his motives. J Edgar Hoover to SAC Los Angeles – 21 June 1943, Volume 1, COMPIC 100 -138784. For a full account of the politics of Mission to Moscow see David Cuthbert, “Our Awkward Ally: Mission to Moscow,” 1988, printed in John E. O’Connor, and Martin A Jackson, (eds) American History/American Film: Interpreting the American Image, New expanded edition, Continuum, New York, 1988. See Daniel Yergin, Shattered Peace: The Origins of the Cold War and the National Security State, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1977. FBI report, 29 April 1944, COMPIC – PSM.

Sergeant York and the ire of the isolationists

Kevin Brianton

Senior Lecturer, La Trobe University


Sergeant York (1941) was the film which finally raised the ire of the isolationists in Washington.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The 1930s were not an easy time for political players in the left or right. While Roosevelt remained a popular President, the economic carnage of the depression meant that political certainties began to fade. During the 1930s, both liberal and conservative political certainties started to crumble in the face of the Great Depression and the rise of fascism. Communism seemed to offer a solution to many.The tone of films such as Gabriel Over the White House (1933) often verges on the hysterical. There was a faint desperation in the political solutions offered by both the left and the right, verging on despair. A political consensus did emerge in the United States after Pearl Harbor, when it was shaken out of its isolationist stupor and became a reluctant ally of the Soviet Union to fight Nazi Germany. While Fascism appeared rampant in Europe, American cinema was mute on the topic.

The political censorship of the production code meant for a long time almost no anti Nazi or fascist films were made in Hollywood during the 1930s. While fascism rose in Europe, isolationism was a strong and formidable force in the United States. The possibility of a war in Europe or Asia, redoubled the efforts of isolationists to stay out of the war. The isolationists were particularly strong in the Republican Party, which constantly goaded the Roosevelt administration that it was seeking an unnecessary war. The isolationists also had considerable support across the Untied States.

Sergeant York (1941) was the film which finally raised the ire of the isolationists in Washington. It was based on the life of First World War hero Alvin York and was launched with an amazing amount of fanfare, even by Hollywood standards.  The Astor theatre in New York was decorated with 15,000 flashing red, white and blue lights.  York was marched down Broadway with an escort of First World War soldiers to a premiere attended by Roosevelt, General John ‘Black Jack’ Pershing and other dignitaries.  Roosevelt enjoyed the film and welcomed Alvin York to the White House following the screening.  The army used the occasion to give out recruiting material.[1]

The film followed the transformation of a devout Christian pacifist in to a war hero.  York represented the dilemma of America in many ways.  It was a nation which clearly did not want to fight in Europe, but in the end, found it had to do so.  In a key scene, York wrestled with his conscience over the commandment “Thou shalt not kill.’  After failing to register as a conscientious objector, he went to boot camp where he was recognised as a crack shot.  After spending a day and a night debating the conflicting demands of country and God, he read the verse form the Bible about rendering unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar and decided to travel to France.[2]  The film was one of the most popular of the year.[3]

The success of this and other pro-interventionist films, finally sparked the isolationists into action.  On 1 August 1941 Senator Gerald Nye attacked Hollywood for plunging America into war fever.

When you go the movies, you go there to be entertained…And then the picture starts – goes to work on you, all done by trained actors, full of drama cunningly devised…Before you know where you are you have actually listened to a speech designed to make you believe that Hitler is going to get you.[4]

Nye reasoned that the Roosevelt administration wanted to glorify war and British actors and directors wanted to lure America into the war.  With Europe dominated by the Nazis, the major diplomatic issue of the time was whether America should intervene in the European war.  Roosevelt had committed America to the Lend Lease program and the isolationists feared that it would slowly drag the United States into the war.  Time pointed out the Senate investigative committee was ‘stuffed with die-hard isolationists.’  The committee was not even established by any Senatorial vote.[5]

If the isolationists had proven their case, it would have meant the introduction of federal legislation to control Hollywood’s film content.  The industry responded with a forthright defense headed by the former Republican party presidential aspirant Wendell Willkie who fired off a press release where he denounced Nye as un-American and questioned the legality of the hearings.  The committee demanded that Hollywood product films showing both sides of the dispute and Willkie responded:

This, I presume, means that since Chaplin made a laughable caricature of Hitler, the industry should be forced to employ Charles Laughton to do the same on Winston Churchill … the motion picture industry and its executives are opposed to the Hitler regime … we make no pretence of friendliness to Nazi Germany.[6]

Warner bothers studio head Harry Warner was even more blunt.  Sergeant York was: ‘a factual portrayal of one of the great heroes of the last war … If that is propaganda, we plead guilty.’[7]

A remarkable contrast exists between the Senate investigation of 1941 and the HUAC investigations six years later.  The Hollywood industry was vigorous in its defense.  Accusations were not taken lying down and were thrown back at the committee.  Under pressure, the committee bungled by not being thoroughly prepared for the investigation.  While facing tight questioning from Senator Ernest McFarland, Nye admitted that he had not seen some of the films.  Nye also confused the plots and titles of films and could only make weak attacks on the films he could remember.[8]  The hearings became a disaster for the isolationists who were forced to abandon the whole issue after Japan bombed Pearl Harbour on 8 December.


[1] Koppes, Hollywood, pp. 38 – 39.

[2] Ibid. p. 38.

[3] Steinberg, Reel Facts, Vintage, New York, 1982, p. 18.

[4] Gerald Nye, ‘War Propaganda’, Vital Speeches, 15 September 1941, p. 720 quoted in Koppes, p. 40.

[5] Time, 22 September 1941.

[6] Time, 22 September 1941.

[7] Koppes, Hollywood, p. 44.

[8] Koppes, Hollywood, p.45.