Gary Cooper: Fairminded Conservative

in History/Politics by
   

When Lucille Ball was accused of being a Communist at the height of her fame in the 1950s, she pleaded contextual circumstances. She cited her pressure by her Party-line uncle, but also noted that “in those days it was considered shameful to be a Republican.”

And indeed it was, even in Hollywood, which was presided over by rock-ribbed studio heads. To subscribe to any type of anti-New Deal conservatism in Hollywood was to invite charges of fascism from Hollywood reds, who were at the high tide of their influence in the 1930s, and especially during World War II.

This was never more true than in the case of mega-star Gary Cooper.

Cooper, who, like Clark Gable, was spared the accusations of homosexuality directed at other male stars of the era, was nevertheless accused of fascism because of his conservative beliefs.

The first charge lodged at him came from leftist Carey McWilliams, who was, for all intent and purposes, a Communist in all but Party membership. The charge centered on Cooper’s brief membership in the Hollywood Hussars in 1935. What McWilliams saw as some type of “march on Hollywood” Nazi movement, was, in actuality, merely a group of actors parading around in gaudy uniforms carrying wooden rifles and spouting anti-Communist rhetoric.

However, after reading McCarey’s agitprop article, Cooper left the group. The next charge came when Cooper visited Nazi Germany in 1939. An isolationist up till then, Cooper, upon seeing Nazism up close, now supported FDR’s anti-Nazi policies. This transformation occurred at the same time that Carey and the CPUSA had, owing to the military partnership between Hitler and Stalin, undergone their own transformation—from fervent anti-Fascists to fervent isolationists.

Without a doubt, Cooper was an anti-Communist Republican who, like conservative actors today, feared big government. Cooper saw this as personified in FDR. Roosevelt running for a fourth term in 1944 galvanized the actor into fervently campaigning for Republican presidential candidate Thomas Dewey.

Cooper bought air time on the radio and his attack on Roosevelt was hardly the stuff of fascism (home-grown Nazis, to insult FDR with their most damning charge, accused the president of being Jewish by giving him the moniker, “Franklin Delano Rosenfeld”). Cooper, however, stuck to his ideological objections:

“I disagree with the New Deal belief that the America all of us love is old and worn-out and finished—and has to borrow foreign notions that don’t seem to work any too well where they come from.”

He added, “Our country is a young country that just has to make up its mind to be itself again.”

The third charge came about when Cooper helped found the Motion Picture Alliance For The Preservation of American Ideals in 1944, a tinsel-town conservative group alarmed by the growing trend in both Hollywood and the country toward pro-Stalinism.

Predictably, Hollywood Communists and some liberals denounced the group as pro-Nazi opponents of the war. Although peopled by right-wing loons like actor Ward Bond, the group’s statement of purpose was hardly Bundist:

“We believe in, and like, the American way of life: the liberty and freedom which generations before us have fought to create and preserve; the freedom to speak, to think, to live, to worship, to work, and to govern ourselves as individuals, as free men; the right to succeed or fail as free men, according to the measure of our ability and our strength.”

And in other sections of the principles, one found an echo of Cooper’s reasonable opposition to New Deal collectivism and support of the American effort in World War II:

“As Americans, we have no new plan to offer. We want no new plan, we want only to defend against its enemies that which is our priceless heritage; that freedom which has given man, in this country, the fullest life and the richest expression the world has ever known; that system which, in the present emergency, has fathered an effort that, more than any other single factor, will make possible the winning of this war.”

No doubt the chief attack on them from Hollywood reds was their statement that ‘we find ourselves in sharp revolt against a rising tide of communism, (they also included “fascism and kindred beliefs”). But there was credence to their alarm.

During the war years, Hollywood Stalinism would be at its most influential, both in film content and outside influence. In movies like Song of Russia and the North Star, communist screenwriters did injustice to Stalin’s decimated Kulak population by showing them as happy, well-fed “Our Town” types. Even Stalin’s obviously framed-up Purge Trials (which resulted in 600,000 to 2 million executions) was defended in Mission To Moscow, which portrayed the defendants, often tortured into false testimony, as part of a Trotskyite/Hitler conspiracy.

Moreover, Hollywood reds were indeed granted political power. John Howard Lawson, regarded in the Party as a hard-line sectarian, wrote the 1942 California Democratic Party platform. The equally Stalinist Dalton Trumbo wrote speeches for UN Secretary Edward Stettinius.

But when given opportunities to kick Hollywood reds when they were at their most vulnerable, Cooper’s fair-mindedness came into play. Although his organization was responsible for getting Congress to investigate tinsel-town Reds, Cooper’s friendly witness testimony was mild compared with the others. Alone along the A-list stars, except for Ronald Reagan, Cooper named no names.

Instead, Cooper focused on the ideology. He stated that he didn’t like Communism because it ‘wasn’t on the level,” and sought to eradicate the Constitution. Although he reported rejecting scripts because they were “un-American” and “tinged with communist ideas,” he didn’t specify who wrote them.
Cooper’s refusal to name names garnered him praise from one Hollywood red, Ring Lardner Jr., and disgust from his fellow MPAPA member, Sam Wood, who called Cooper’s testimony “embarrassing” and “stupid.”
Cooper’s next opportunity to stick the knife into the by now blacklisted reds was when he starred in his comeback vehicle, High Noon (1952); this was in sharp opposition to John Wayne, who rejected the role because he considered it “the most un-American thing I’d ever seen.”

When its producer, the liberal Stanley Kramer, tried to get the screenwriter, former Communist and now subpoenaed HUAC witness Carl Foreman booted off the picture, Cooper defended Foreman; and was able to keep Foreman on the set and at full salary. “People should get paid for their work,” Cooper reportedly said.

Despite his HUAC testimony in which he stated he vetted scripts for “communism,” Cooper did not always subject them to an ideological litmus test. Despite the pacifistic nature of Friendly Persuasion, which involved Quakers, caught up in the American Civil War, and its authorship by blacklisted screenwriter Michael Wilson, Cooper was more than glad to star in it.

Today, liberal grow tearful about the “injustices” of the blacklist, and in the words of liberal star Alec Baldwin, pontificate about how “unfair the blacklist was.” But in the case of the “fascist” Cooper, one actor tried to upheld fairness even for those he disagreed with.

Ron Capshaw is a Senior Contributor to The Liberty Conservative from Midlothian, Va. His work has appeared in National Review, The Weekly Standard, and the American Spectator.