Beginning in the 1930s, Hollywood’s powerful International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees Union (IATSE) was led by men tied to organized crime. Studio executives were of course supportive of these union leaders financially to inhibit strikes and to curb the labor cost increases. Following its leaders being sentenced to prison for extortion, organizing drives by opposition labor groups surged.
The Conference of Studio Unions (CSU), a craft union coalition run by Herbert Sorrell, was founded in 1941 following “a divisive, but successful strike” against Walt Disney Productions by cartoonists aligned with Sorrell. Over an eight-month CSU-led industry-wide strike in 1945, IATSE, aided by the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Values (MPA) — a right-wing anticommunist industry group — launched its campaign to brand theirs rival as Soviet collaborators. A further strike accompanied by police violence occurred the following year, and by 1947 with the cooperation of Screen Actors’ Guild president Ronald Reagan, the studio heads, MPA, and IATSE emerged victorious in this jurisdictional battle.
Formed at the dawn of the Cold War, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) opened its first hearing into the communist infiltration of the motion picture industry on October 20, 1947. And while the concerns over the corruptive influence of the media is nothing new today, neither is Donald Trump, because he is the contemporary combover casting aside hijabs and turbans of McCarthyism’s Red Scare.
But the HUAC inquisitions actually predated McCarthyism. Members of the House committee engaged in a near decade-long congressional investigation into alleged communist influences in Hollywood during the early postwar period. And while Republican Wisconsin U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy — illegitimately the namesake of an era marked by anti-communist paranoia — was not involved with the HUAC hearings, their aims by design overlapped. Fearing a Soviet conspiracy would inject propaganda into productions and recruit movie-going Americans to collaborate with Stalin’s agenda, the committee subpoenaed over 40 actors, directors, writers and studio executives, grilling them on their political affiliations, demanding them to name names of “other Hollywood communists”.
Yet despite the 80 celebrities — which included the recently deceased Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart, Gene Kelly and John Huston — who signed a petition denouncing the committee as un-American itself for probing the politics of individual citizens, the anti-communist momentum during the early Cold War period propelled the hearings forward. Some even complied as “friendly witness”.
One of those “friendly witnesses” was the young actor Ronald Reagan.
Reagan, 36 years old at the time of his interrogation, testified how a “small clique” of communists “have attempted to be a disruptive influence” within the Screen Actors Guild, while Walt Disney declared they had been behind a strike at his studio. Mr. Disney had felt particularly vulnerable to the communists according to his testimony, in which he alleged that one communist agitator, Sorrell, swore “he would make a dust bowl out of my plant if he chose to.” Disney knew very well that Sorrell was a communist, he said, because of “having seen his name appearing on a number of Commie front things.”
In his testimony before HUAC — which the MPA repeatedly urged to investigate subversives in the industry — Reagan and Mr. Disney painted these struggles solely in terms of a battle between forces in favor and against communism. And among the many answers provided by Reagan to the committee chair, one particularly stands out as applicable today.
“In the Screen Actors Guild we make it work by insuring everyone a vote and by keeping everyone informed. I believe that, as Thomas Jefferson put it, if all the American people know all of the facts they will never make a mistake.
Whether the party should be outlawed, I agree with the gentlemen that preceded me that that is a matter for the Government to decide. As a citizen I would hesitate, or not like, to see any political party outlawed on the basis of its political ideology. We have spent 170 years in this country on the basis that democracy is strong enough to stand up and fight against the inroads of any ideology. However, if it is proven that an organization is an agent of a power, a foreign power, or in any way not a legitimate political party, and I think the Government is capable of proving that, if the proof is there, then that is another matter…”
In a stunningly response to Reagan’s reply, which appeared to be ab libbed and off-the-cuff, the committee chairman declared, in an almost revocable manner, to what had and would proceed for the following decade that,
“There is one thing that you said that interested me very much. That was the quotation from Jefferson. That is just why this committee was created by the House of Representatives, to acquaint the American people with the facts. Once the American people are acquainted with the facts there is no question but what the American people will do a job, the kind of a job that they want done; that is, to make America just as pure as we can possibly make it.”
To which Reagan replied, in sheer, utter horror to what the committee chair stated,
“Sir, if I might, in regard to that, say that what I was trying to express, and didn’t do very well, was also this other fear. I detest, I abhor their philosophy, but I detest more than that their tactics, which are those of the fifth column, and are dishonest, but at the same time 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.”
After all America, it was Franklin Delano Roosevelt in orating during his iconic 1933 first inaugural address, who stated “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” For my part as a historian, I respectfully ask everyone to avoid travelling down this path which destroyed the Republican Party for nearly 40 years. We should not feel as though we must live burrowed beneath our own homes, terrorized by our slumbers that yielding our worst nightmares without facing together this evil menace in the Islamification of the West as it is: the process, not the result, if we willingly stand together.
This, more than any other reason, is why we must reject wholly the message of Donald Trump. Of all the candidates in the presidential field at present, he is perhaps the most dangerous not because of his policies but rather that he has vocally imperiled the nation, having ushered in a terror America has not witnessed in 60 years, regardless whether he or Mrs. Clinton wins. The path to Hell is oft paved with good intentions.
And let it be said, regardless whether Mr. Trump wins the nomination in 2016, the consequence that there might not remain an America materially to be made great will be replaced by a paralyzed population of agoraphobes.