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Ronald Reagan in Hollywood

Ronald Reagan was from a family of modest means and struggle, in Dixon, Illinois. His mother brought him up as a member of the Church of Disciples, which downplayed the idea of sin. Ronald is said to have acquired the same cheerfulness as his mother – despite the circumstances of their lives. This was expressed later in his life, at the age of 40 in 1951, when he wrote to a friend that God did not create evil and "so the desires in us are good." Reagan from early on was an optimist. Evil was just a passing thing that could be overcome.

Reagan went to college as few people of modest means did in the early years of the Great Depression. This was a little college in Illinois – Eureka College – a Disciples' institution. He worked washing dishes and serving tables. He was moved by radio and dramas broadcast on radio, and in addition to joining the campus football team and track, he acted in plays. Suiting his cheerful temperament and confidence, he was a basketball cheerleader. He was also a yearbook editor, and in his senior year he was student body president and captain and coach of the swim team.

His first vote, at age 21 in 1932, was for Franklin Roosevelt and the "full Democratic ticket." In his autobiography he writes:

During the Fireside Chats, his strong, gentle, confident voice resonated across the nation with an eloquence that brought comfort and resilience to a nation caught up in a storm and reassured us that we could lick any problem. I will never forget him for that.

After college, during the Depression, he found work as a sports announcer, eventually for Chicago Cubs baseball games, honing his play-by-play descriptions to a maximum connection with his common listener. While in Los Angeles he followed someone's advice and succeeded in winning an acting contract at Warner Brothers motion pictures studio. He had to join a union: the Screen Actors Guild. Reagan writes:

As far as I was concerned, some of the studio bosses were abusing their power. Throughout my life, I guess, there's been one thing that's troubled me more than any other: the abuse of people and the theft of their democratic rights.

Reagan was chosen as one of the Guild's board of directors. On the board with him were big-name stars such as Cary Grant and Jimmy Cagney who, in Reagan's words, "gave their time and prestige to assure that lesser players like me got a fair shake."

When war came in 1941, Reagan was thirty. He joined the Army as a second lieutenant and ended as a captain on duty in California, an adjutant and personnel officer at Fort Roach, a movie studio used by the military. Working with civilians assigned to Fort Roach, Reagan learned about bureaucracy. He writes,

If I suggested that an employee might be expendable, his supervisor would look at me as if I were crazy. He didn't want to reduce the size of his department; his salary was based to a large extent on the number of people he supervised. He wanted to increase it, not decrease it.

I discovered it was almost impossible to remove an incompetent or lazy worker and that one of the most popular methods supervisors used in dealing with an incompetent was to transfer him or her out of his department to a higher-paying job in another department.

We had a warehouse filled with cabinets containing old records that had no use or historic value. They were totally obsolete. Well, with a war on, there was a need for the warehouse and the filing cabinets, so a request was sent up through channels requesting permission to destroy the obsolete papers. Back came a reply – permission granted provided copies are made of each paper destroyed.

Reagan was acquiring a "distaste for big government," but at the end of the war he remained, he writes, a "New Dealer to the core." He did not trust big business. From a family that believed in fair and decent treatment for blacks, he was disturbed by racism. He writes that at the end of the war "scores of new veterans' groups sprouted up around the country and were trying to peddle some of the same venom of fascist bigotry that we had just defeated in the war." As an after-dinner speaker, Reagan spoke against the rise of "neo-fascism" in America. He joined the United World Federalists and the American Veterans Committee, impressed by their slogan "A Citizen First, a Veteran Afterward." He dismissed as "foolish and paranoid" those who were denouncing the Russians, remembering that the Russians had been allies of the U.S. in the war against fascism.

Meanwhile, the Marxist-Leninist leadership of the Communist Party in the United States was maintaining its devotion to the world's one Marxist-Leninist power: the Soviet Union. The Communist Party USA saw verbal attacks against Stalin or the Soviet Union as lies, bourgeois propaganda and as counter-revolutionary – ten years before the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev would denounce Stalin. Not pursuing a strategy independent of Stalin – as Tito, Yugoslavia's Communist leader, would – made the Communist Party USA more at odds with public opinion and more vulnerable to attack. And in Hollywood, the Party's eagerness to advance itself within left-of-center organizations appears to have put it on a collision course with various people in Hollywood, including Ronald Reagan.

There were forty-three labor unions in the picture business, most of them affiliated with the American Federation of Labor, as was the Screen Actors Guild and the International Association of Theatrical and State Employees (IATSE). In 1946 an attempt was made to take over the IATSE by a new group called the Conference of Studio Unions (CSU). The CSU planned to set up picket lines at Warner Brothers Studios. Reagan investigated the strike for the Screen Actors Guild, and he decided that the strike was " phony."  He described it as a jurisdictional dispute between two unions, not something worth shutting down the movie industry. While making a movie he was called to a telephone at a nearby gas station. The caller would not identify himself and said that if Reagan made a speech against the strike at an upcoming meeting of the full membership of the Screen Actors Guild a squad of people would be waiting for him. According to Reagan the caller said, "Your face will never be in pictures again."

Burbank police gave Reagan a gun to carry, and a twenty-four hour guard was put on his house. Reagan spoke to the full membership of the guild, and the membership voted 2,748 to 509 in favor of crossing the CSU picket line. According to Reagan the gates of the studios became a bloody battleground of daily clashes between the people who wanted to work and the strikers and outside agitators brought in to help them. Homes and cars were bombed and many people were seriously injured. During the strike a member of the Federal Bureau of Investigation came to Reagan's home and informed him that during a meeting of the Communist Party in downtown Los Angeles one of the members asked, "What they hell are we going to do about that son-of-a-bitching bastard Reagan?"

The FBI agent also told Reagan that the Communist Party was attempting to gain control of the Hollywood work force and also striving to influence the content of movies through the work of several prominent film writers and actors who were Communist Party members or Party sympathizers. The agent invited Reagan to meet periodically with the FBI for discussions regarding developments, and Reagan agreed.

Reagan was invited to fill a vacancy on the board of directors of the Hollywood Independent Citizens Committee of the Arts, Sciences and Professions. At a meeting of that organization, Reagan was annoyed with the arbitrary manner of the chairman. Also the former president's son, Jimmy Roosevelt, whom Reagan knew personally, was verbally attacked by "a couple of well-known Hollywood writers" for saying that a group such as this needed to be vigilant against being used by Communist sympathizers. Dore Schary, the head of MGM motion picture studios, sitting next to Reagan, whispered to Reagan to stop by the apartment of the actress Olivia de Havilland after the meeting. There, Reagan heard about ten others speak of their suspicion that Communists were trying to take over the organization. He turned to de Havilland and whispered: "You know, Olivia, I always thought you might be one of them." Reagan writes that "She laughed and said, 'That's funny. I thought you were one of them'."

At a meeting of the executive committee, De Havilland submitted a motion that the board declare its "belief in free enterprise and the Democratic system" and repudiate "Communism as desirable for the United States." None of the other members of the executive committee supported the motion. De Havilland, Reagan and ten others resigned from the organization, what Reagan describes as "the last front of respectability" for the group. And within a week, he writes, it was out of business.

Reagan went to a meeting of the board of the veterans' organization he had joined, a meeting being held in an abandoned store that had been lent to the group. He sat on one of the folding chairs. "As soon as I sat down," he writes, "every member on the board who had been sitting on that side of the aisle got up and moved across to the other side, leaving me to sit alone. Shortly after that, I learned the group had become another front for the Communist Party in Hollywood."

Reagan writes with critical words of the arrival of members of the House Un-American Activities Committee coming to Hollywood searching more for personal publicity than Communists. "Many fine people, he writes in his autobiography, were accused wrongly of being Communists simply because they were liberals. "I was all for kicking Communists out of Hollywood," he added, "but some members of the House Un-American Activities Committee, ignoring standards of truth and fair play, ganged up on innocent people and tried to blacklist them." Reagan and others formed an "industry council" to contact people threatened with blacklisting. The council suggested that these people cooperate with the FBI and the House Committee and declare their innocence. 

Some in Hollywood believed that Communists and "sympathizers" had as much right to work in Hollywood as anyone. Reagan, on the other hand, believed that Stalin wanted to get control over the motion picture industry, and he complained in his autobiography that a lot of "liberals" just couldn't accept that Moscow had bad intentions or that Stalin was "a murderous gangster." To them, writes Reagan, fighting totalitarian was "witch hunting" and "red baiting."

Reagan loathed Communism, but he was more optimistic than some others about human nature and choice. He saw Communist societies as an aberration and something that would not work. He believed that time was on the side of what he called freedom.

Copyright © 2005-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.