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What Ronald Reagan Accomplished in his Hollywood Years: A New LA Times Article Tells us The Real Story

Ronald Radosh

If any bona fide members of the Hollywood Left read the magazine section of tomorrow’s Los Angeles Times,they are going to ruin their breakfasts. It might even be enough to ruin their evening viewing of the Super Bowl. For what they will find is an amazing article by the journalist John Meroney about what he has found out while doing research for his book about Ronald Reagan’s Hollywood years. Titled “Left in the Past,” the article tells the story of how the seeds of Reagan’s anti-Communist ideology that led eventually to the break-up of the evil empire began in the years when Reagan was a Hollywood liberal.

Central to Meroney’s story is an account of what he found in the 75 legal size file boxes of an unknown or perhaps forgotten Hollywood labor leader, the late Roy Brewer. His files, Meroney writes, “form a remarkable portrait of Reagan’s life as a movie star, liberal Democrat and union man.” Yes, as many young people probably do not realize, Ronald Reagan was not born a conservative. Indeed, Meroney is correct when he observes that many conservatives prefer to forget that he was a union man who campaigned for Harry S. Truman in 1948, just as liberals and leftists prefer to forget that he was not an “archconservative Red baiter.”

What Meroney brings to the story — the general outlines of which my wife and I wrote about in Red Star Over Hollywood – is how Roy Brewer served as Reagan’s mentor and was a man who gave him both advice and training in how to wage the battle against the film colony’s Stalinist machine. It was Brewer and Reagan who together began the fight against Soviet influence in Hollywood in the 40s and 50s.

Conservatives tend to forget (or many do not realize) that the fight against Communism was waged at first by anti-Communist liberals and social-democrats, not by the far-Right or conservatives. As Meroney writes about Brewer:

A gritty, often misunderstood character, Brewer was a tough union man, yet he would almost weep when quoting Scarlett O’Hara’s “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again” line from Gone with the Wind. The line spoke to his personal determination, New Deal loyalties and socialist leanings. A portrait of FDR hung on his wall. He regarded Joseph McCarthy as a demagogue. (In the archive, I found far-right McCarthyite propaganda smearing Brewer as soft on Communism and castigating Reagan as a “flagrant Red.”) Politically, Brewer supported Reagan in all his campaigns, but in the Florida recounts, he backed Al Gore. He didn’t like George W. Bush.

What both men realized was that the American Communist Party in La-La land was not a regular political party, but rather, more like “an underground cult.” Or as Sidney Hook had put it in those days, it was a conspiracy led by Stalin’s minions in America, not by a group of heretics. Communists wanted everyone to believe that they were just liberals who wanted progress a bit faster, and they carefully hid the truth that the moves they made and the positions they took were orchestrated for them in Moscow.

Over the years, one issue that has come up over and over is that of whether or not the Hollywood Reds managed to insert their propaganda and viewpoint into the films they worked on. Anti-anti-communist leftists like Victor Navasky have always said this was a falsehood. But as Meroney concludes, it “may be true after all.” He cites material he found revealing that the Hollywood CP boss, screenwriter John Howard Lawson, gave concrete instructions to actors and writers on how best to do just that. The idea was to do as much as you could, and try as hard as possible to put “the party line in every script you write.” Of course that was a hard task, given that the line kept changing, and by the time a film was released, what they said may have already been obsolete. But one of Meroney’s finds is a document from screenwriter Paul Jarrico — one of the lions of the blacklisted Communists — admitting that “we were certainly involved in efforts to affect the content of films,” and were “wide-eyed about the possibility of writing movies that would affect millions and millions of viewers.”

In the later Vietnam era, when Reagan was already conservative, he and Brewer were furious about how the Hollywood Stalinists tried to depict themselves — successfully as it turned out — as civil libertarians and unjustly treated victims of repression by the studio chiefs. Reagan remembered vividly the lessons he learned during the postwar series of Communist-inspired strike actions that divided Hollywood. The Party wanted to create one single union to represent all Hollywood labor that they and by indirection the Soviet Union would control. How the Hollywood Reds depicted themselves, Reagan put it, was “the biggest fairy tale since ‘Snow White.’”

Among other things, readers will find out about the violence perpetrated by the Party under the control of a secret Communist labor leader, Herb Sorrell, who brought in union toughs from Harry Bridges’ Longshoremen’s Union (controlled by the Party) to beat up those back-lot workers and actors and others who sought to return to the studios and ignore the CP-established picket lines set up at the studio gates.

What Reagan and Brewer did was to build a coalition across partisan party lines — uniting Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, to work together against those in Hollywood who pledged their loyalty to Joe Stalin. They managed to interrupt the efforts of secret Communists like actor Sterling Hayden, who urged the Screen Actors Guild to support the Communist-led strike.

As for the famous HUAC hearings in Hollywood and DC that began in 1947 and went on for a few years more, Meroney’s work backs up those of us who have long argued that the true heroes were not those who refused to testify ostensibly on grounds of protection of their civil liberties, but those who openly bucked the tight-fisted leftist centers in Hollywood and decided to testify about how Communism was a real danger. Most significant is Meroney’s finding of the recollections of John Huston, who originally opposed HUAC with other liberals as an infringement on one’s political rights but who later came to see, as Huston put it, that the unfriendly witnesses were not trying to protect freedom, but were “really looking after their own skins.” They gave false testimony to imply that they were only liberals and not Communists and had he known the truth, “I would have washed my hands of them on the spot.”

Brewer and Reagan worked together to keep democracy working, by telling the truth about the Communist agenda, and at the same time trying to protect real civil liberties from infringement. They worked to keep the unions they led — like the Screen Actors Guild on the part of Reagan — a group run by its majority and not a well-oiled minority of Red militants.

When John Meroney’s book appears late this year or early next, the full story will be told. Until then, leftists in the film colony will have to do with being upset by this Sunday’s morning paper.

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