Book Review: Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo

Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo

Before going any further, I must confess that Dalton Trumbo is one of my heroes. When the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) turned its attention to Hollywood in the late 40s (to generate lots of publicity and boost their own popularity in America’s Heartland by going after an easy target—Hollywood leftists—let me be clear, the left in Hollywood was never any threat to America; the greater threat was intimidation of those exercising their right to free speech and association), there were 10 men, popularly known as the Hollywood Ten, who boldly stood on their constitutional rights and refused to play the committee’s game. Among them was Dalton Trumbo, easily the biggest name and arguably the greatest talent among the ten.

Before Trumbo appeared before the committee and invoked his constitutional right against self-incrimination and protested the bullying technique of the committee, he had been a successful screenwriter in Hollywood, though his greatest screenplays would come later. In 1938, he published one of the most famous anti-war novels ever written, Johnny Got His Gun.

This book was hugely popular in the early 70s, when I was in high school, partly because of the film based on the book, starring Timothy Bottoms, which came out in 1971, but largely because many saw in the book, which was critical of the warmongering done by the powerful at the expense of the powerless who ended up fighting and dying in war, a parallel to Johnny’s nightmare in the topsy-turvy world of Vietnam, a deeply unpopular and costly war ostensibly being fought for noble aims, but which seemed to be more about the egos of leaders and the profit margins of big business.

The book was also hugely popular when first published. Trumbo won the National Book Award for Most Original Book for the novel, and the anti-war sentiment resonated with the American public, many of whom still looked on the United States in idyllic ways, cut off from the troubles of Europe in the 1930s. Isolationism was very popular on Main Street. In the late 30s, the memory of the Great War was still fresh, and both left and right had reasons to push for the United States staying out of any war in Europe. The non-aggression pact signed by Germany and the Soviet Union in 1939 intensified this desire on the far left, while the far right was always in favor of staying out of the war against Hitler.

And yet, by the time the United States entered WWII in December 1941, and the available copies of the book were few, Trumbo agreed with his publisher that it was in the best interests of all concerned to keep from reissuing the book until hostilities were concluded. Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor had galvanized the general public for US entry into war, and Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union got America’s far left, which had been opposed to war with Germany, fully on board.

Right wing groups interested in advancing Germany’s interests in the war (and keeping the US out of the war on England’s side) tried to convince Trumbo to reissue his book, whose powerful message they felt would revive isolationism, but Trumbo refused. He even reported these letters to the FBI, but found that Hoover and company were much more interested in his leftist activities than in those of the right-wing groups. Trumbo notes in his preface to the post-war edition of the book that it probably served him right for reporting on fellow citizens. One can imagine that the lesson learned here was much on Trumbo’s mind when he was called upon to name names to HUAC, and refused.

Ron Kovic, a Vietnam vet and an opponent of the Vietnam War, whose life story was told in Born on the Fourth of July, kept a copy of this book with him at all times, and read it many times. In a sense, he took it to heart that he could do what Joe Bonham in the novel could not do – use his own war experience and the injuries sustained in the war to speak out passionately against that war and war itself.

Cindy Sheehan, a mom whose son was killed in the War in Iraq, and who maintained a lengthy vigil outside George Bush’s ranch in Crawford, TX, also found great inspiration in this work, as she took it upon herself to speak out for all the mothers and spouses who’d lost loved ones in Iraq, and for her dead son, who could no longer speak for himself.

The message of the book is mixed. Celebrating the little guys like Joe Bonham, the book is brutally frank on how little power the little guys of the world have in the capitalistic system that often uses up its human resources for the material gain of the few—the novel was serialized in The Daily Worker—but the novel also serves as a clarion call to ALL citizens to stand up and speak out, a call many like Kovic and Sheehan have heeded.

Check out this book, and don’t miss the feature film, Trumbo, based on Trumbo’s life and especially his experience as a blacklisted writer, which hits the theatres on November 6. Bryan Cranston plays the author, and heads an all-star cast. It’s a profile in courage I’ll be sure to catch.

About the Author

Bernard Norcott-Mahany, a library technical assistant at the Lucile H. Bluford Branch, is our resident connoisseur of classic literature. He is also the leader of the Black Classics and In the Heat of the Night book groups.

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