One of the embarrassments for the pro-Soviet leftists in America, including the bulk of the Roosevelt administration — Stimson and Hull were perhaps only pawns –, was the Soviet invasion of Finland in November 1939. Yes, the enemies of all humanity and decency, the “Nazis,” had invaded half of Poland; but then the great hope of humanity, the vanguard of everything good, the “Commies,” had also invaded half of Poland, and now they were rolling into Finland as well. This created a problem. It was not a crisis of conscience. The American left already knew about the show trials. Before that, journalist Walter Duranty had white-washed the Communist genocide-starvation of the Ukraine for the NY Times, coining the wry phrase “you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs,” and won a Pulitzer for his efforts. Conscience quickly adapts and filters evidence in terms of ultimate loyalty. It was not a crisis of conscience, but it was a crisis of propaganda. How could the American people, still committed to non-intervention and peace, be manipulated, not just into a needless war, not just into a war against their own cousin-germans, but into a war on behalf of a regime, the USSR, that was obviously the most dangerous aggressor in the world?
Enter Robert E. Sherwood, playwright and playboy, to save the day. He pulled off a most amazing feat, producing a play in which every evil action or attitude of anyone anywhere is portrayed as simply a lapse into Nazism. Yes, the invasion of Finland that filled people with disgust appeared to be carried out by the communist Red Army; but this was only because they had temporarily forgotten their ideals and succumbed to the temptation to act like Nazis. Indeed, perhaps they were as innocents actually being manipulated by Nazis to carry out a Nazi agenda without even knowing it. Therefore, America needed to awaken and prepare to wage war against the Nazis.
The title of the play was “There Shall Be No Night,” from Revelation 21:25 or 22:5. However, it does not purport to be a Christian answer to the global situation. The main character explains that the deeper meaning of Revelation is theosophical rapture in one’s own mind:
Kaarlo: We can all use the Book of Revelation to substantiate our own theories. It’s an eternally effective device. I have heard evangelist charlatans quote it to prove that if you do not accept their nonsense and pay for it, you will most surely burn in hell. But there is something profound in those words I quoted. That unknown Jewish mystic who wrote that — somehow, unconsciously, he knew that man will find the true name of God in his own forehead, in the mysteries of his own mind. “And there shall be no night there.” That is the basis of all the work I have done. (Scene 6)
The play premiered on Mar 29, 1940 — just two weeks after the “First War” against the Finns and 24 days after the Soviet massacre of 25,000 Polish officers and intellectuals in cold blood at the Katyn Forest.
The play can be summarized adequately by describing each character, for there is not much in the way of plot: the propaganda proceeds by chit-chat among the players, and the small amount of action is merely implied by the dialogue.
Dr. Kaarlo Valkonen, Finnish psychiatrist, takes every chance to pontificate about insanity, of which waging war is one manifestation. The Russian Revolution was an idealistic breakthrough of sanity, even as the work of Freud and Pavlov and himself is a marshaling of science toward curing humanity of its mental problem. Despite his pacifistic tendencies, however, he comes to see that Nazism is the one thing that will prevent man from rising to greatness, so he finally takes up arms himself.
His wife, Miranda, is New England-born, and represents the “can’t we all just get along” attitude of the typical American. She had two ancestors, representing two sides of America: “rugged heroism” — that one “died happy” –, and capitalism — that one “made a nice fortune selling shoddy uniforms to the army.” She is inclined to favor the latter as a role model for their son, like the proverb “better a live dog than a dead lion,” but the play is meant to rekindle the former motif, and trigger a properly anti-Nazi warlike spirit in other Americans.
Their son Erik, being of mixed American/Finnish blood, represents the conflict between patriotism and love of fun and romance. In the end, he realizes that he must fight for “freedom” and against Nazism in every form. He dies, but not before impregnating his girlfriend Kaatri. She is persuaded to flee to America to raise the child away from all the insanity, thus becoming a symbol for women and children that can rebuild and “carry on the blood” after the men have died fighting Nazism.
Affable German Consul Dr. Ziemssen frankly announces everything about Germans that Sherwood believes about them. In this way, Sherwood does not have to defend his prejudice, since his straw-man “opponent” admits the same view.
A few examples from the text of the play itself will show just how blatant New Deal rhetoric can be; indeed to the point that it is rather amusing in retrospect.
All evil comes from Nazism
Erik and his girl are discussing the Soviet buildup (Scene 2).
Erik: The American government — all governments — are being pulverized with fear by this Soviet propaganda. They want to pulverize us, too, so that well give them what they want without a struggle.
Maybe Erik is waking up to the Soviet threat? Alas, no:
… It’s all bluff — it’s all an imitation of the Nazis.
Kaatri: But when the bluff doesn’t work, suppose they go on imitating the Nazis — suppose they do attack?
Note the Soviets appear to be the aggressor, but if so, they are only “imitating Nazis.” Later (scene 5), Joe, the fighter pilot, describes his feelings after strafing a column of Germans.
Joe: They were Nazis. It gave me a thrill. All this time, in fighting the Russians, I’ve felt just a little bit uncomfortable — you can imagine it, Dave, after my experience with the Loyalists. You know, I couldn’t help saying, “God forgive them — for they know not what they do.”… But when I saw those Nazis — those arrogant bastards — and I could even see the looks on their faces, — all I could think of was, “God forgive me if I miss this glorious opportunity.” I let ’em have it! It was a beautiful sight…
Dave: I thought it was about time for the Nazis to be taking a hand in this war. No wonder the tide of battle has turned. I guess they’ve decided there has been enough of this nonsense of Finland’s resistance. Probably they want the Russians to get busy somewhere else.
The idea is that the Russians when they are aggressive are simply the tools of the Nazis, not acting according to their own ideology and interests. In scene 7, incredibly, the Germans continue to be referred to as the actual aggressor:
Joe: This city might hold out for a long time, like Madrid.
Dave: I hope not. Because if it comes to a siege, you’ll see German battleships out there, doing their bit in the bombardment. I wouldn’t like to be here when that happens.
A bit later, Dave grants that the Soviets have a role, but:
Dave: Three months ago, the Soviet troops marched in…. The cause of revolution all over the world has been set back incalculably…. The Soviet Union has been reduced from the status of a great power to that of a great fraud. And the Nazis have won another bloodless victory.
Incredibly, the result of the Soviet invasion of Finland is… a Nazi victory over Finland.
Again and again, the play drills in that if the Soviets do something bad, it is falling away from the ideals of the Revolutionists, and instead, imitating Nazis.
Communism is good
In scene 1, son Erik says he is studying economics and sociology. His father chimes in.
Kaarlo: And skiing. He can’t make up his mind whether he wants to be another Karl Marx, or another Olympic champion.
Thus, Karl Marx is set up as the great exemplar of economics: the analogue of an “Olympic champion” of skiing.
Dave: Have you been much in the Soviet Union?
Erik: Oh, yes. We lived there when father was working with Pavlov.
The “oh, yes” shows enthusiasm at the memory of the Soviet Union. The only thing worth mentioning about that country is the science, the good work.
Dave: And you really believe they might invade this country?
The “really” indicates that it is inherently incredible to think of the USSR invading another country.
Erik: If there were counter-revolution in Russia, anything might happen. Or the Nazis might come that way. We have to be prepared.
Thus it is explained how such a thing could happen. It could happen if there were counter-revolution, i.e. if the Marxist revolution were overthrown by reactionaries! Or, what amounts to the same thing, the Nazis might get there first. There is some banter about punch, then:
Dave: Of course, the Nazis have been highly successful in terrifying people of the Bolshevik menace. But all the times I’ve been in Moscow, I’ve never seen anything but a passionate desire to be let alone, in peace.
Notice all the assertions here. Any fear of the Bolsheviks is caused by Nazi propaganda. Dave has been in Moscow a lot and all he has seen is the desire for peace. Just like Walter Duranty, only here it is being said with a straight face.
The German confesses that world conquest is the goal
Later, in scene 3, when the German Dr. Ziemssen urges his friend to leave Finland, he reveals this bombshell:
Ziemssen: You think our enemies are these — these Communists who now invade your country?
Kaarlo: Yes. That is what I think.
Ziemssen: The Russians think so, too, but they are wrong. We are your enemies, Herr Doktor. This Finnish incident is one little item in our vast scheme. We make good use of our esteemed allies of the Soviet Union….
After a bit he continues
Ziemssen: The same is true of every nation that we conquer; we shall see to it that none of them will ever rise again … This is a process of annihilation. It is a studied technique, and it was not invented in Moscow. You will find the blueprints of it, not in Das Kapital, but in Mein Kampf. …
Kaarlo: Do you approve of this technique?
In answering, Ziemssen indicates that the Germans even plan to enslave their fellow Aryans, the Scandinavians:
Ziemssen: Naturally, I regret the necessity for it. But I admit the necessity. And so must you, Dr. Valkonen. Remember that every great state of the past in its stages of construction has required slavery. Today, the greatest world state is in process of formation. There is a great need for slave labor. And — these Finns and Scandinavians would be useful. They are strong; they have great capacity for endurance.
The memes continue to be planted that the German goal was world conquest, including the outright lie that they desired the conquest of the new world:
Kaarlo: Where can one go to escape this world state?
Ziemssen: An intelligent question, Herr Doktor. I assure you that the United States is secure for the present. It may continue so for a long time, if the Americans refrain from interfering with us in Mexico and South America and Canada. And I believe they will refrain. They are now showing far greater intelligence in that respect than ever before. They are learning to mind their own shrinking business.
America must give up its isolationism
In Scene 3, while the doctor encourages his wife to leave the country, the meme is planted for Americans pondering their role. Miranda’s attitude is to mirror the American isolationist view — understandable but untenable.
Miranda: I don’t think [Erik] would be particularly happy or proud to hear that his mother has scurried to safety at the first sound of a shot fired.
Kaarlo: Erik has American blood in his veins. He will understand.
Miranda: Oh! So that’s it! His American blood will tell him that it’s perfectly reasonable for me to run away. You evidently share Kaatri’s opinion of me.
And later, American non-involvement is likened to Pontius Pilate.
Dave: [Pilate] knew that this was a good, just man, who didn’t deserve death. .. But when they cried, “Crucify Him!” all Pilate could say was, “Bring me a basin of water, so that I can wash my hands of the whole matter.”
In summary, the play drives home that Soviet aggression, to the extent that it was not just a manipulation by the Nazis and under their control, was a lapse from the glorious ideals of Marxism. American must therefore wake up and crush the Nazis.
It is no wonder that Sherwood was fingered to become an employed shill for the New Deal. The question for a grad student in history to pursue is to discover how he became such a doctrinaire apostle for the “cause.” A good place to start would be his Hollywood connections, who rewarded him richly for minor editorial work. He hung out with a number of them during his California jaunts. Therein is probably to be found the story behind the story.