Commentary: Was Ronald Reagan a secret snitch?

Los Angeles TimesDecember 17, 2010 

Did Ronald Reagan secretly give the FBI names of people he suspected were communists when he was a movie star and Hollywood labor chief in the 1940s?

This allegation resurfaced in the media just before Thanksgiving when the San Jose Mercury News, which published excerpts from Reagan's FBI file to great international acclaim in 1985, ran a column revisiting its original story about Reagan the snitch. It implies that Reagan was a shadowy operator in cahoots with the notorious FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover, orchestrating their next Hollywood Red scare.

The answer? Maybe. But Reagan was hardly betraying friends and confidants. He told the bureau what he told others publicly about communist influences in the Hollywood he knew. He didn't seek out the FBI originally; agents came to him. Moreover, he had little to tell them that the bureau didn't already know. It's hardly the picture of a Red-baiting Judas.

As the Reagan centennial approaches, and as every candidate for the GOP presidential nomination scrambles to assert that he or she is the true and rightful heir of Reagan ( Sarah Palin invokes him more than 30 times in her latest book), it's a good idea to look at a complete picture of what Reagan did with the FBI - and why.

Reagan's relationship with the FBI started when he was about 32, and it had nothing to do with communists. It wasn't unusual or at all nefarious. According to a memo in the file, the bureau was on the trail of domestic Nazis, and Reagan reported that he almost punched a man for making hateful comments about Jews at a Hollywood cocktail party.

The bureau initiated contact with many stars and other prominent figures in Hollywood because of the industry's global influence. Reagan responded without moral anguish or soul-searching. A Screen Actors Guild officer during that era told me, "If an FBI agent appeared at your door, you met with him."

Like most FBI files on famous people, Reagan's is mostly filled with press clippings and public information available to anyone. An entry from 1946 describes a Reagan radio broadcast against the Ku Klux Klan. He talked about an incident in Tennessee in which police officers "had beaten a Negro while in a soldier's uniform and had gouged his eyes out with a billy club." He said: "A community that is aware of the threat to its people and security by bigoted terroristic groups will be protected from such acts. It is important that every citizen of Southern California be ready to assist all public officials who are attempting to check any further occurrences of this kind and to join with those civic organizations which are laboring to bring better understanding and unity among the different elements of our society without regard to race or creed or color."

Communism later emerged as the driving force behind the bureau's interest in Reagan, but not for the reason you'd think. In 1946, Reagan, then a SAG officer, vocally resisted communists as they tried to sway the guild and destroy the stagehands union. (SAG and the stagehands had been bulwarks against party infiltrators.) For this, Reagan became a marked man, and the FBI knew it. In an incident that probably appears in redacted sections of his file - but which he disclosed in his memoir - FBI agents appeared at his house on Cordell Drive, informing him of a secret Communist Party meeting where the keynote was "what to do about that son-of-a-bitching bastard Reagan."

As an "informant," Reagan couldn't add much to the bureau's existing intelligence because he wasn't a Communist Party insider. It operated covertly, holding its meetings in secret. Communists used aliases and code numbers. They shielded themselves behind fronts. And in truth, the FBI's strongest information came from whistle-blowers among party factions, and from undercover FBI agents and operatives.

But if Reagan wasn't providing the bureau with juicy details about communists, what is in the file? And what about the charge of "naming names"?

In one session in April 1947, Reagan and his then-wife, actress Jane Wyman, did describe two groups in the SAG leadership that consistently pushed the Communist Party line, regardless of the issue. But this wasn't clandestine information delivered by a secret snitch; Reagan was telling this to anyone who would listen.

His colleagues in the guild and in the wider Hollywood labor movement told me that Reagan often argued that communists had a legal right to champion the communist philosophy, but, as his hero, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, put it, they had "no American right, by act or deed of any kind, to subvert the government and Constitution of this nation."

The brand of communism Reagan encountered was responsible for, in his words, some "strange and awful things" that began happening in certain Hollywood unions and civic organizations. At one union local meeting when a man opposed the leadership, henchmen dragged him out by his arms as the chairman asked, "Does anybody else want to comment?" Of course, no one else did.

In other meetings, Reagan witnessed so-called leaders who wouldn't permit the organization's full membership to vote on key policy issues and instead made decisions behind closed doors. When votes did go to the floor, key leaders and their cronies would filibuster until most of the membership was exhausted and went home, allowing the vote to proceed with the few who remained. After one such episode, the full membership awoke in the morning to learn that it had "voted" to approve a vitriolic attack on President Harry Truman's Cold War policy - an attack few of the predominantly Democratic members would have endorsed if present.

Reagan's suspicions that these organizations had come under control of communists would be confirmed in court decisions in the mid-1950s that found particular Hollywood unions and organizations to have been "dominated and controlled" by party operatives during that era.

Reagan had long since quit the groups. To hear the media tell it, he did that because the FBI had - correctly - singled them out as communist fronts. But he and other liberals, such as actress Olivia de Havilland and writer-producer Dore Schary, realized that their efforts to champion honest liberalism within such organizations were in vain. Their celebrity and participation provided cover for the Communist Party's true tactical intent within the motion picture industry. "We were the last front of respectability behind which they'd been hiding," Reagan said in an unpublished interview.

It's easy to read that the FBI listed Reagan as a "confidential informant" in Hollywood and jump to the conclusion that he was "a trusted supplier of tips to J. Edgar Hoover and company," as the Mercury News put it. But in truth, Reagan did not add much to Hoover's war against communism.

And Reagan's choice to stand against communism was not inspired by an FBI witch-hunt. Rather, once Reagan saw the insidious nature of the party with his own eyes, he went from being a noncommunist liberal to an anti-communist liberal in a matter of weeks. "It isn't a thing that we all got hysterical and dreamed up the Cold War," Reagan said. "It was there."

ABOUT THE WRITER

John Meroney is completing a book about Reagan's life in Hollywood. He provides audio commentary on the Ronald Reagan Centennial Collection, a DVD set of Reagan's films, out next month. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

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