As we celebrate Labor Day, I want to remember the days when the labor movement and its leaders were very different than they are today. At one time they stood strong against the powers of International Communism.
In the 1950’s the labor movement in Hollywood was infiltrated by Communists, but a group of actors lead by Ronald Reagan, then President of the Screen Actors Guild turned the tide.
Reagan explained in his autobiography, An American Life, why he became involved in the union. He felt some of the studio bosses were abusing their power, and said, “Throughout my life, I guess there’s been one thing that’s troubled me more than any other: the abuse of people and the theft of their democratic rights, whether by a totalitarian government, an employer, or anyone else,” crediting his father Jack for instilling those beliefs in him.
During the postwar years Reagan said he “found myself becoming increasingly involved with contract negotiations and other activities for the Screen Actors Guild.
One of the first things that really alarmed Reagan was the growing influence of labor leader Herb Sorrell, head of the Conference of Studio Unions (CSU). According to Reagan biographer Peter Schweizer in Reagan’s War, Sorrell had been a longtime member of the Communist party who had been trained by Harry Bridges, the head of the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union. (Soviet documents prove that Bridges was a secret Communist party member who worked closely with Soviet intelligence.) In 1946, Sorrell had called a strike against the movie studios as a power grab to gain total control over all of the labor unions in Hollywood. In fact, according to
Schweizer, Sorrell even bragged, “When it ends up, there’ll be only one man running labor in Hollywood, and that man will be me.”
Reagan was fully aware of the violence and conflict created by Sorrell and his fellow Communist agitators. “The gates of the studios soon became a bloody battleground of daily clashes between the people who wanted to work and the strikers and outside agitators,” remembers Reagan. “Homes and cars were bombed and many people were seriously injured on the picket lines; workers trying to drive into a studio would be surrounded by picketers who’d pull open their car door or roll down a window and yank the worker’s arm until they broke it, then say, ‘Go on, go to work, see how much you get done today.’”
Reagan discovered many Hollywood liberals just couldn’t accept the notion that Moscow had bad intentions, that the Soviets wanted to take over Hollywood and other American industries through subversion, or that Stalin was a murderous gangster. To them, fighting such totalitarianism was “witch hunting” and “red baiting.”
One evening during the strike two FBI agents showed up at Reagan’s door and wanted to ask him some questions. He invited them in but told them he didn’t think he knew any more about the actual extent of Communist infiltration in Hollywood than they did. One agent responded, “Anybody that the Communists hate as much as they do you must know something that can help us.” The agents informed Reagan that during a recent meeting of the American Communist party in Los Angeles, one member asked, “What the [expletive] are we going to do about that [expletive] Reagan?”
The FBI agents confided in Reagan that their investigations had revealed the Communists were attempting not only to gain control of the Hollywood workforce but also—something much more insidious and subversive—to influence the content of movies with the help of several film writers and actors who were party members or party sympathizers.
The Communists’ strikes and efforts to take over Hollywood organizations had a profound effect on Reagan and made him realize what an impact movies and the media have on public opinion. He later noted, “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 president of the Screen Actors Guild and, indirectly at least, set me on the road that would lead me into politics.”
As many of us will in our lives he was faced with a decision: ignore the insidious evil and danger to America which he saw occurring in Hollywood and turn a blind eye and not get involved, or do what was right and try to stop it. He chose the latter choice. The often quoted statement by Edmund Burke says it well, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil, is for good men to do nothing.”
Floyd G. Brown
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