In the recent film Trumbo, about the blacklisted screenwriter–and Stalinist–who helped end the barring of communists from working in Hollywood, a sinister, bespectacled figure threatens a poverty-row filmmaker who is employing Trumbo. “Fire him,” the sinister figure says, or “we”–who he identifies as the Motion Picture Alliance For The Preservation of American Ideals–“will shut you down.”
In point of fact, such an incident could have and probably did happen, for that organization did try to enforce the blacklisting of suspected or actual communists from studios. But the makers of this eulogy to Trumbo overshot their mark by having said sinister figure cite Ronald Reagan as one of the members. Reagan, then a liberal, but anticommunist Democrat, was not.
It is readily apparent why the liberal film-makers of Trumbo are trying to link Reagan to an unofficial enforcement branch of the blacklist (although, to be fair, many of the anticommunist members were blacklisted by Hollywood reds when the latter had more clout with the studios). Even before his presidency, an unshakeable assertion by liberals was that Reagan was a right-wing loony enforcing the blacklist against “progressives.”
But the real Reagan was hardly a proponent of the blacklist; indeed, as president of the Screen Actor’s’ Guild, he sought to ameliorate its effects.
Almost alone among the “friendly witnesses” who testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1947 regarding communism in Hollywood (the same Congressional group that would help send Trumbo to jail) Reagan advised against imposing a blacklist on communists he had personally battled within the Screen Actor’s Guild.
Rather than, in the words of actor Robert Taylor, “sending them back to Moscow,” Reagan instead asserted that the best way to oppose communists was to “make democracy work.” An example of this, Reagan stated, was practiced in the Screen Actor’s Guild by “insuring everyone a vote and keeping everyone informed.”
And this policy Reagan advocated for the country at large: “I believe that, as Thomas Jefferson put it, if all the American people know all of the facts they will never make a mistake.”
But unlike the majority of right-wingers who testified, Reagan did not favor outlawing the Communist Party. “As a citizen,” the actor said, “I would hesitate to see any political party outlawed on the basis of its political ideology.
Attacking the Communist Party’s philosophy, and even more, “their tactics, which are those of the fifth column, and are dishonest,” Reagan nonetheless didn’t want the country to abandon democracy to fight reds: “I never as a citizen want to see our country become urged, by either fear or resentment of this group, that we ever compromise with any of our democratic principles through that fear or resentment. I still think that democracy can do it.”
Reagan’s adherence to civil liberties was all the more remarkable considering his run-ins with Hollywood communists during a 1945-46 labor strike in Hollywood–a strike militantly and violently organized against studios by communists. As a member of the Independent Citizen’s Committee of the Arts and Sciences and Professions (ICCASP), a liberal group that helped re-elect FDR for a fourth term, Reagan became uncomfortably aware that over 70 percent of the supposedly liberal membership were hard-line Stalinists.
Along with other anti-communist liberals in the organization, among then actress Olivia De Havilland, Reagan tested the waters by introducing a resolution condemning communism as well as fascism and pledging support to the free enterprise system. Hardline communists denounced Reagan as a fascist and the actor later received a phone call from someone threatening to throw acid in his face. Outnumbered, and unable to convince communist members to allow the resolution to be put to a vote among the membership, Reagan and other liberals, including FDR’s son James Roosevelt, resigned.
After testifying before HUAC in 1947, Reagan joined others to try to minimize the effects of the blacklist in a group called The Motion Picture Industry Council. In the words of liberal screenwriter and founding member Philip Dunne, the purpose of the group was to “limit the scope” of the blacklist, get the blacklisted back to work, and defend those who were falsely accused of communist beliefs.
But such nuance regarding Reagan does not fit into liberal narratives. Because Reagan was anticommunist, even while a Democrat, he has to be a red-baiter trying to deny those such as Trumbo employment.