Ronald Reagan: Informant

At a crucial moment in his career, Reagan talked to the FBI about communism in Hollywood

Published August 19, 2012 12:00PM (EDT)

This article is excerpted from "Subversives: The FBI's War on Student Radicals, and Reagan's Rise to Power,"by Seth Rosenfeld, to be published on Aug. 21 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.

Ronald Reagan would quip that [as an actor] he became the Errol Flynn of the Bs, the low-budget second features on double bills. Through 1943 [when he was in his mid-30s] he would appear in thirty-one films, mostly light romantic or action movies in which he played his preferred role of a traditional hero—cavalryman, football star, government agent. While filming “Brother Rat,” a 1938 comedy set at a military academy, Reagan met the actress Jane Wyman. They were married in 1940, the same year he played his signature role of George Gipp in “Knute Rockne, All American.” Their daughter, Maureen Elizabeth, would be born in 1941, and they would adopt a son, Michael, who was born in 1945. Featured together in several films, Reagan and Wyman became an item in the Hollywood press; one newspaper dubbed them “top candidates for the title of happiest young Hollywood marrieds.”

But America had been edging toward war, and in the midst of this Reagan was notified that he would be called for duty. According to the historian Stephen Vaughn, however, the actor received special treatment with help from a former FBI agent. In late 1941, Reagan was finishing his biggest film yet, a $1 million Warner Brothers production titled “Kings Row,” and was negotiating a studio contract that would nearly triple his salary. When he learned soon afterward that he would have to report for service, Warner Brothers requested a deferment on the ground that his absence would cause the studio a significant financial loss. The request was not approved, and Jack Warner deployed William Guthrie, the studio’s liaison to the military. Guthrie had been with the FBI only two years when he was dismissed in 1920 “because of conduct unbecoming an Agent.” An internal bureau inquiry concluded he was “entirely dishonest; was using his official position to further his own ends; [and] was not above accepting gratuities or graft.” It further noted that “he depended very much on influential friends submitting communications in his behalf.”

Guthrie suggested the studio send a retired military officer who was close to General Peak, commander of the U.S. Army base at the Presidio in San Francisco, to see Peak about a deferment. The studio did, and Reagan’s call to duty was deferred at least twice, to April 19, 1942, four months after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Finally, Reagan was ordered to report to the cavalry reserve at Fort Mason in the Presidio, where he was eligible for limited stateside service because of his poor eyesight.

Reagan was there just five weeks. Warner and Guthrie had meanwhile convinced the Army Air Corps (the predecessor of the U.S. Air Force) to create a special movie detail. The First Motion Picture Unit was established under Warner’s direction at the old Hal Roach movie studios in Culver City, twenty minutes from Reagan’s home. Guthrie helped the army select some of the unit’s 1,300 men and, according to Reagan’s military records, arranged for his expedited transfer to it. Reagan spent the rest of the war at “Fort Roach,” narrating or appearing in films that promoted the Air Corps, recruited new enlistees, or trained men for battle. He also helped produce newsreels for commercial theaters, and was promoted to captain by the end of the war. Guthrie then arranged for his prompt discharge, helping him return to civilian life and a $3,500-per-week salary (about $44,268 per week in 2012 dollars).

Not everyone in Hollywood was happy about Reagan’s tour of duty. According to previously undisclosed FBI records, a movie industry source told bureau agents that Guthrie had obtained commissions and appointments to the First Motion Picture Unit “on a large scale for his friends and those of Jack Warner.” Guthrie had brazenly displayed dozens of blank U.S. Army commissions and asked the source if he wanted one. Separately, a producer at Warner Brothers told FBI agents that, in his opinion, “Ronald Reagan’s commission and appointment could stand investigation.” The FBI opened a file on Guthrie titled “Fraud Against the Government— Bribery,” but it is unclear from available records whether the bureau pursued the matter.

World War II had jolted Reagan. Before the war, he had focused on career and family. He had inherited his father’s allegiance to the Democratic Party and had followed FDR “blindly,” as he put it. He had not yet developed his own political philosophy. But during and after the war, he began to think more about world events. Although he never saw action, at Fort Roach he saw raw footage of Nazi death camps and of men in combat, like the film of a pilot crashing and burning to death as his comrades tried to pull him from the cockpit. Reagan also worked on top-secret training films that realistically simulated American flights over bombing targets in Japan.

Reagan had expected the Allies’ victory to fix the world. He was sure all “the blood and death and confusion of World War II would result in a regeneration of mankind.” Events disappointed him, however, and he determined to help. In the months after his discharge in fall 1945, he became involved in liberal causes, lending his name to fund-raising efforts and giving talks. It seemed like the right thing to do in the lingering spirit of the Popular Front, which had united Communists and liberals during the war. As he recalled, “my first evangelism came in the form of being hell-bent on saving the world from neo-Fascism.” But though he was taking action, Reagan still was operating on the basis of political wisdom received from his father, the FDR Democrat.

Then the Cold War set in and the national mood shifted as if from Technicolor to black and white. J. Edgar Hoover feared a Kremlin-controlled conspiracy to infiltrate Hollywood and use the world’s largest producer of motion pictures to slyly manipulate public opinion against America. He had opened an investigation even before the end of the war, at about the same time he initiated the investigation of Soviet espionage in Berkeley. Code-named COM PIC—short for Communist Infiltration of the Motion-Picture Industry—the inquiry had two main goals:to determine the extent of Communist penetration of film industry unions, and to identify Communist activities by screenwriters, actors, directors, executives, and, as one FBI report put it, “the so-called intellectuals in general.”

As Hoover intensified the COM PIC case, Reagan’s name began showing up in reports from the bureau’s Los Angeles field office alleging he had suspicious associations. An April 1946 report described him as a sponsor of the Los Angeles Committee for a Democratic Far Eastern Policy, “the latest Communist front pressure group set up for the purpose of supporting the foreign policy of Soviet Russia as it is being applied in the Orient.” The report claimed the committee’s sponsors and directors all had “records of Communist activity and sympathies.” Besides Reagan, they included two Democratic congressmen, the muckraking author Carey McWilliams, and the actors Gregory Peck and Edward G. Robinson. Reagan had lent his name to a dinner for the committee at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City—along with Paul Robeson, the singer and actor who criticized American racism and openly admired the Soviet Union.

A May 1946 report said Reagan recently had been elected to the executive council of the Hollywood Independent Citizens Committee of the Arts, Sciences and Professions (HICCASP). The FBI’s political interest in the organization was clear. “It is a powerful political pressure group and using the motion picture industry and its prestige as a base will be the dominating factor in the coming primary elections in the State of California,” the report said. “Every endorsement for public office made by this organization coincides exactly with that made by the Communist Party of the state.” The group’s executive council included many movie stars and, according to the report, no fewer than twenty-four Communists.

As the COM PIC investigation continued, Hoover pressed his Los Angeles agents to develop more informers in Hollywood. Checking their files, the agents saw reports showing Reagan was well-placed in these suspect organizations. Checking further, they also saw he’d had some friendly contacts with the FBI.

One of Reagan’s college fraternity brothers had become an FBI agent. On September 17, 1941, the agent, Charles Browning, Jr., told FBI headquarters that through the frat he was “intimately acquainted” with several “influential individuals” who “might be of some assistance to the Bureau,” including Reagan at Warner Brothers. Hoover directed Browning to give Reagan’s contact information to the head of the Los Angeles field office for future reference.

Agents called on Reagan in 1943 while investigating a suspected Nazi sympathizer, one Baron Paul Emile de Loqueyssie, also known as Paul Avalon, a French bit actor who had graced the society pages. Reagan told the agents they had met at a Beverly Hills cocktail party hosted by Arthur Lyons, the New York talent agent who represented Jack Benny, Eugene O’Neill, and Cole Porter. Reagan said “considerable drinking had been done by all persons involved,” according to the agents’ report, and Loqueyssie made anti-Semitic remarks that so incensed Reagan that they almost came to blows. The agents also interviewed Reagan about “other matters” not specified in their report.

In 1945, Reagan passed along some political gossip of special interest to Hoover. After Reagan’s Army Air Corps basketball team played the FBI team at the Elks Club, Reagan drove home with Agent H. Rex Ellis. Reagan said he’d heard that Governor Thomas Dewey of New York, while campaigning for president several months earlier, had vowed that if elected “there would not be enough jails in the country to hold the people he was going to put into them, and that John Edgar Hoover of the FBI was going to be one of the first.” Richard B. Hood, the special agent in charge of the Los Angeles office, promptly sent Hoover a report marked “Personal and Confidential” containing this hearsay and describing Reagan favorably. “Reagan is, of course, a captain in the U.S. Army,” Hood wrote, and had said “he would certainly be inclined to side with Hoover.”

In addition to these contacts, Reagan’s brother was by now working with the FBI. Neil “Moon” Reagan had moved to Los Angeles and taken a job at the McCann Erickson advertising agency. According to a previously undisclosed FBI report, he was also serving as an informer in the bureau’s investigation of alleged Communist infiltration of the radio and television industry. He was listed as “Confidential Informant T-36.” Agents described him as “reliable.”

“Now, in those days, I was doing little things for the FBI,” he recalled during an oral history interview years later. “You know, ‘Neil, we’d like you to go out and lay in the bushes and take down the car numbers off of the cars that are going to be at this little meeting in Bel-Air. Put it in a brown envelope, no return address. And always remember, if you get caught in the bushes, you can just forget about saying, well, you’re doing this for the FBI, because we’ll just look him right in the eye and say, ‘We never saw the guy in our lives. Forget it.’ ”

Knowing all this, FBI officials concluded Ronald Reagan was a good prospect as an informer.

Late one night in 1946, FBI agents knocked on the front door of the eight- room house Reagan and Wyman had built at 9137 Cordell Drive, a twisting road overlooking Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. The unexpected visitors presented official identification, and the suntanned actor, then thirty-five, invited them in. “We have some information which might be useful to you,” one agent said as Reagan served coffee. “We thought you might have some information helpful to us.”

“Instinctively, my old liberal reaction popped up before I could think,” Reagan recalled in “Where’s the Rest of Me?,” published in 1965, “and almost by rote I found myself saying, ‘Now look, I don’t go in for Red-baiting.’ ‘We don’t either,’ said the second one. ‘It isn’t a question of that. It’s a question of national security. You served with the Air Corps. You know what spies and saboteurs are.’ ‘We thought someone the Communists hated as much as they hate you might be willing to help us,’ added the third.”

Reagan took the bait. “That got me,” he wrote. “It’s always a jolt to discover others have been talking you over. ‘What do you mean?’ I asked. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘they held a meeting last night.’ He described the house, gave the address, told me who was there, and what they said. I broke in. ‘What did they say about me?’ I demanded. ‘The exact quotation,’ he replied, ‘was: “What are we going to do about that sonofabitching bastard Reagan?” Will that do for openers?’ ”

“We got to talking. I must confess that they opened my eyes to a good many things. I came to admire these men: they never accused anyone of being a Communist unless they had every last bit of evidence which would stand up against the most vicious court assault. They were extremely careful never to smear anyone or guess even on good but less than complete evidence. They were very thorough, very patient, and very accurate. We exchanged information for a few hours.”

In his second autobiography, “An American Life,” published in 1990, Reagan elaborated on the agents’ visit: “They confided in me that FBI investigations had shown the Party was attempting not only to gain control of the Hollywood work force but striving to influence the content of movies through the work of several prominent film writers and actors who were party members or party sympathizers. They asked if they could meet with me periodically to discuss some of the things that were going on in Hollywood. I said of course they could.”

Their mission accomplished, the agents stood and bid Reagan good night. They had made what would turn out to be one of the FBI’s best contacts ever.

Not long after his visit that evening from the FBI agents, Reagan attended a meeting of the board of directors of HICCASP, the star-studded political action group under bureau investigation. Reagan had recently joined the board, but what the FBI agents told him had made him wary.

A heated debate quickly erupted when James Roosevelt, FDR’s son, took the floor and declared that organizations like HICCASP must be “vigilant against being used by Communist sympathizers.” This was a sensitive issue. What was a “sympathizer”? And what difference did it make who supported the cause if the cause was legitimate? Other board members harshly criticized Roosevelt’s proposal. Reagan was disturbed by this and mentioned it to Dore Schary, the head of MGM, who was sitting beside him. As the meeting broke up, Schary invited Reagan to stop by the home of the actress Olivia de Havilland, a board member who had starred in “Gone With the Wind” (1939).

Reagan raced over to de Havilland’s apartment, to find a gathering of concerned HICCASP board members. “I was amazed when she and others in the room said they suspected Communists were trying to take over the organization,” Reagan wrote in “An American Life.” “As we talked over the situation, I turned to her and whispered: ‘You know, Olivia, I always thought you might be one of “them.”' She laughed and said, ‘That’s funny. I thought you were one of them.”

Reagan had planned only to listen during this meeting, given that he was a new board member. “But knowing a little about Communist tactics from my dealings with the FBI, I suggested that we propose a resolution to the executive committee with language that we knew a Communist couldn’t accept and have Olivia submit it in the next meeting the following week and see what happened,” he wrote. Reagan drafted the motion, which declared, “We reaffirm belief in free enterprise and the democratic system and repudiate Communism as desirable for the United States.”

The group agreed to Reagan’s plan and, as he recalled, it “proved strong enough to blow the whole organization sky-high.”

On July 5, 1946, the feuding members of the full HICCASP board met at James Roosevelt’s home at 623 North Bedford Drive, in Beverly Hills, this time to discuss Reagan’s resolution. FBI agents hidden outside took down the license numbers of cars parked nearby, including one registered to Jane Wyman.

Inside, another argument broke out. Dalton Trumbo, the writer, and Artie Shaw, the composer, spoke against Reagan’s motion. So did John Howard Lawson. The screenwriter had drawn the ire of the Tenney committee when he participated in the 1943 Writers’ Congress at UCLA that Robert Gordon Sproul had refused to cancel. FBI agents had long suspected Lawson was a Communist, a suspicion they confirmed when they illegally broke into a Communist Party office in Los Angeles and photographed membership records. Waving his finger under Reagan’s nose, Lawson shouted, “This organization will never adopt a statement which endorses free enterprise and repudiates communism.”

Reagan’s deliberately divisive measure was voted down. “It was all the proof we needed,” he wrote. “HICCASP had become a Communist front organization, hiding behind a few well-intentioned Hollywood celebrities to give it credibility.” Reagan, de Havilland, and their fellow plotters promptly resigned. The organization collapsed soon after.

Before quitting, though, Reagan absconded with some of HICCASP’s internal records. He confided this to his brother and fellow informer during a late-night rendezvous at a Hollywood hamburger stand. As Neil Reagan recalled in his oral history interview, “One evening he calls me— evening, hell, it was about midnight—he had stopped up at the Nutburger stand (there was a Nutburger stand at the corner of Sunset and Doheny at the time, across from the drugstore). He says, ‘I’m having a cup of coffee, come on up.’ I said, ‘Do you know what time it is?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Well, I’ve been in bed for three hours. Have your coffee and go on home and go to bed.’ ‘No, I want you to come up.’ And I said all right; so I put a pair of trousers on and a shirt and drove up the hill. Here he is, parked. I got in, and—he’s a member of the board—he says, ‘You wouldn’t believe it. It just came to me tonight. We have a rule that if a board member misses two meetings without being excused, you’re automatically off the board.’

“ ‘There’s a gal out at the such-and-such studio,’ and he says, ‘I’ve been a little suspicious of her. All of a sudden, we had one of these cases come up tonight, that so-and-so had missed two board meetings, and so they were off, and now we’ve got to find somebody else. It suddenly dawned on me that over the last several months, every time one of these cases came up, she had just the individual that would be excellent as a replacement.

“‘I managed to filch the minute books before I left. I can show you the page where her board members became a majority of the board, with her replacements.’ ”

The 1946 minutes subsequently made their way into the FBI’s possession, according to bureau records.

Reagan had successfully used the insights imparted by FBI agents to disrupt HICCASP. He soon employed similar tactics against the Hollywood chapter of the American Veterans Committee, of which he also was a board member. As he testified in a subsequent court case, the national organization of the American Veterans Committee revoked the charter of both its Hollywood and California state chapters, dismissed their officers, and placed them in trusteeship “because there had been some Communist infiltration.” A lawyer asked, “Did you have any part in bringing about the revocation of that charter?” Reagan replied, “Very similar to the same activities in HICCASP.” The lawyer asked, “Did you at that time, Mr. Reagan, have any special access to investigative facilities of the government, either national or state, with respect to Communist activity?” Reagan replied, “Well, unofficially someone dropped in to my living room a few times and made information available to me, but told me at the time that if I ever got in trouble from using it they would deny that they had done so.”

By the fall of 1946, Reagan found himself in the midst of another battle against what he had come to see as the international Communist conspiracy in Hollywood. At this point he was third vice president on the board of directors of the Screen Actors Guild, the powerful union representing actors. He and other SAG directors conducted an inquiry so they could recommend whether guild members should support the Conference of Studio Unions. The CSU was representing movie set builders in a strike for better wages and working conditions. Although the National Labor Relations Board had recognized the CSU, the SAG directors concluded the CSU was not pursuing legitimate labor issues and was merely involved in a “jurisdictional” dispute with another union over which of them would represent the set builders. The other union, the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees, or IATSE, was headed by Roy Brewer, one of Hollywood’s most militant anti-Communists.

When the Screen Actors Guild met at Hollywood Legion Stadium, the old boxing venue, Reagan presented the board’s recommendation against supporting the CSU strike. A bruising debate followed in which Katharine Hepburn and Edward G . Robinson urged support of the strike. The actor Alexander Knox stood and delivered a stinging parody of all Reagan had said. “No fighter ever bled in that ring as I did,” Reagan recalled. “Alex was getting laughs, and that meant they were laughing at me.” But eventually the laughter stopped and Knox was booed off the platform. In the end, the SAG voted overwhelmingly not to join the strike.

The strike wore on for months, involved violence by both employees and management, and led to what was then the largest mass arrest in California history, of some seven hundred people for violating a court order limiting the number of pickets outside film studio gates. Reagan would later say he received threats of physical harm because he opposed the CSU, and that he began to carry a gun. He saw sinister forces behind the strike. “I will say of the Communists—they were the cause of the labor strife, they used minor jurisdictional disputes as excuses for their scheme. Their aim was to gain economic control of the motion picture industry in order to finance their activities and subvert the screen for their propaganda,” he wrote. “It would have been a magnificent coup for our enemies.”

Reagan’s views had shifted starkly since that night the FBI agents first dropped by his apartment. Bureau officials had told him there was a vast Communist plot at work behind the scenes in Hollywood. Those revelations had led him to fight Communists in HICCASP, the American Veterans Committee, and the CSU. In the process, he became convinced that some members of his own union—among them those who had opposed his position on that strike—were also subversive.

When Robert Montgomery stepped down as president of the Screen Actors Guild on March 10, 1947, the guild’s board of directors elected Reagan to finish out his term. Reagan was a man with a mission.

“More than anything else,” he wrote, “it was the Communists’ attempted takeover of Hollywood and its worldwide weekly audience of more than five hundred million people that led me to accept a nomination to serve as a president of the SAG and, indirectly at least, set me on the road that would lead me into politics.”

Excerpted from Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power by Seth Rosenfeld, published in August 2012 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright ©2012 by Seth Rosenfeld. All rights reserved.

By Seth Rosenfeld

Seth Rosenfeld is a former investigative reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle.

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1960s Communism Fbi History Hollywood Ronald Reagan