Reagan Era Ends at Last?

But “Red Scare” myth endures.

As First Lady, Nancy Reagan was something of a target for the left, but when Nancy passed away on March 6, praise rang out from the White House and even the Clintons. For his part, Mitt Romney said Nancy’s passing marked a final goodbye to the days of Ronald Reagan. That may be well be, but one thing is certain. Left-wing mythology from Reagan’s Hollywood days remains alive and well.

In a nearly 4,000-word obituary of Nancy Reagan in the New York Times, Lou Cannon wrote: “In the late 1940s, Hollywood was in the grip of a ‘Red Scare,’ prompted by government investigations into accusations of Communist influence in the film industry.” There was a bit more to it.

In the late 1940s Stalin expanded his grip on Eastern Europe, escalated espionage abroad, and on August 29, 1949, exploded the USSR’s first atomic bomb. Stalin also stepped up repression against writers, artists and national minorities. He swung the USSR back to its traditional anti-Semitism, dubbing Jews “rootless cosmopolitans.”

In 1943, the first Soviet Jewish delegation to the United States assured Americans that tales of anti-Semitism in the USSR were no more than malicious rumors. Samuel Ornitz, who would later join the Hollywood Ten, organized a reception for Soviet actor-director Solomon Mikoels and writer Itzak Feffer.  In 1948, Stalin had Mikoels murdered, his mutilated body signaling the dictator’s personal touch. Three years later an executioner’s bullet claimed Itzak Feffer. Many more Jews would have been killed had not Stalin died in 1953. 

That year screenwriter and director Robert Rossen (All the King’s Men), previously an uncooperative witness before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, had second thoughts. Rossen willingly testified about the Communists during the Nazi-Soviet Pact and the murders of Mikoels and Feffer. The victims of the recent show trials in Czechoslovakia, Rossen told the Committee, were “all hung, in my opinion, for being Jews, and nothing else.” 

As one who has written extensively about Reagan, Lou Cannon should know that “Red Scare” falls far short of what was going on in Hollywood in the late forties, and long before. During the 1930s, as Budd Schulberg wrote, the Communist Party USA was “the only game in town,” controlling studio unions and working through many front groups. As screenwriter-director Phillip Dunne put it, “all over town the industrious Communist tail wagged the lazy liberal dog.”

The Party’s goal was to organize studio labor into the Conference of Studio Unions, which they controlled. In the early going, Ronald Reagan had been a CSU ally, but like other actors became aware of Party manipulation. As head of the Screen Actors guild, Reagan resisted Communist Party overtures, teaming with fellow union leader and liberal Democrat Roy Brewer.

Massive battles raged outside every studio, and behind the scenes. Brewer prevailed in the back lots and Reagan in the so-called talent guilds. It was this conflict that established Reagan’s staunch anti-Communism. When asked for his view of the Cold War, he famously said, “We win, they lose.”

After the hearings of the late 1940s the studios reversed themselves and said they would not hire Communists. As Lou Cannon noted, in 1949 the name Nancy Davis appeared in a Hollywood newspaper as a supporter of two blacklisted screenwriters. It was a case of mistaken identity, but it lead to a meeting of Nancy Davis and Ronald Reagan. The rest, as they say, is history.

An online story on Nancy Reagan’s death, meanwhile, was accompanied by footage of Joe McCarthy, who never had anything do to with Hollywood. So the myths endure, but there are signs of a shakeup.

Trumbo, a favorite of the left, failed to gain an Academy Award nomination for best picture and Bryan Cranston did not win for his performance in the lead role. On the other hand, Mark Rylance won an Oscar as best supporting actor for his portrayal of Soviet spy Rudolf Abel in Bridge of Spies. That film, directed by Stephen Spielberg, did not win best picture, but it did break new ground.

The script made it clear that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were spies and traitors. The audience saw the Berlin Wall being built and got a sense of life under Communist tyranny. The film even showed Communist border guards gunning down those fleeing to freedom. Those are signs that Hollywood blacklisting of Communist reality may come to an end some day.