Rand, Ayn and Ronald Reagan
Ayn Rand and Ronald Reagan
Excerpt from "Testimony from House Un-American Activities Hollywood Hearings, October 1947"
Available at CNN Interactive: Cold War (Web site)
"Try to imagine what it is like if you are in constant terror from morning till night and at night you are waiting for the doorbell to ring, where you are afraid of anything and everybody, living in a country where human life is nothing, less than nothing, and you know it. You don't know who or when is going to do what to you because you may have friends who spy on you, where there is no law and any rights of any kind."—Ayn Rand
I n October 1947, to root out communist influence or propaganda either real or imagined in U.S. movies, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) began investigating the U.S. film industry in Hollywood, California. J. Edgar Hoover (1895–1972), director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), had already established a network of confidential informers within the industry. Especially under investigation by the HUAC were ten of Hollywood's producers, directors, and screenplay writers. Aptly known as the Hollywood Ten, they were summoned before the committee to explain their politics and memberships or past memberships in organizations considered communist-leaning. Also called to testify were twenty-four Hollywood witnesses. Two friendly witness testimonies excerpted here were those of author and screenplay writer Ayn Rand (1905–1982) and actor Ronald Reagan (1911–). Other famous Hollywood notables who testified were actors Gary Cooper (1901–1961) and Robert Montgomery (1904–1981) and producer Walt Disney (1901–1966).
In the first of the two testimonies, Rand answered questions regarding a recent Hollywood film, Song of Russia, that the HUAC believed was produced as Soviet propaganda. Rand, who was born in Russia but left there to come to the United States for good in 1926, related how the Russian society pictured in Song of Russia was not the Russia she remembered. By 1947, Rand received national fame for her book The Fountainhead. She also had been writing screenplays for Hollywood producers for many years. Her testimony before the committee was riveting, as her talent to use words to create pictures was apparent. Near the end of the testimony, Rand commented that the Russians "try to live a human life, but you understand it is totally inhuman … you are in constant terror from morning till night and at night you are waiting for the doorbell to ring, where you are afraid of anything and everybody, living in a country where human life is nothing, less than nothing, and you know it."
The second excerpted testimony comes from then-actor and president of the Screen Actors Guild, Ronald Reagan. Reagan had been active in the anticommunist movements in the late 1940s. This involvement sparked his interest in politics. The HUAC called Reagan to report to the best of his knowledge about members of the Screen Actors Guild who might have communist leanings.
Things to remember while reading the excerpt from "Testimony from House Un-American Activities Hollywood Hearings, October 1947":
- The HUAC's mission was to investigate any subversive activity that could lead to the overthrow of the U.S. government.
- The HUAC believed that several movies, such as the Song of Russia, glorified the communist system.
- The HUAC opened each questioning session with "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?" Any answer except "no" brought immediate suspicion.
Excerpt from "Testimony from House Un-American Activities Hollywood Hearings, October 1947"
Testimony by Ayn Rand before HUAC, October 20, 1947.…
STRIPLING [Robert Stripling, Chief Investigator]: Would you give the committee a breakdown of your summary of the picture relating to either propaganda or an untruthful account or distorted account of conditions in Russia?
RAND: Yes. First of all I would like to define what we mean by propaganda. We have all been talking about it, but nobody—
STRIPLING: Could you talk into the microphone?
RAND: Can you hear me now? Nobody has stated just what they mean by propaganda. Now, I use the term to mean that communist propaganda is anything which gives a good impression of communism as a way of life. Anything that sells people the idea that life in Russia is good and that people are free and happy would be communist propaganda. Am I not correct? I mean, would that be a fair statement to make—that that would be communist propaganda?
Now, here is what the picture "Song of Russia" contains. It starts with an American conductor, played by Robert Taylor, giving a concert in America for Russian war relief. He starts playing the American national anthem and the national anthem dissolves into a Russian mob, with the sickle and hammer on a red flag very prominent above their heads. I am sorry, but that made me sick. That is something which I do not see how native Americans permit, and I am only a naturalized American. That was a terrible touch of propaganda. As a writer, I can tell you just exactly what it suggests to the people. It suggests literally and technically that it is quite all right for the American national anthem to dissolve into the Soviet.…
Then you see a Moscow restaurant that just never existed there. In my time, when I was in Russia, there was only one such restaurant, which was nowhere as luxurious as that and no one could enter it except commissars and profiteers. Certainly a girl from a village, whoin the first place would never have been allowed to come voluntarily, without permission, to Moscow, could not afford to enter it, even if she worked 10 years.… From this restaurant they go on to this tour of Moscow. The streets are clean and prosperous-looking. There are no food lines anywhere. You see shots of the marble subway—the famous Russian subway out of which they make such propaganda capital. There is a marble statue of [Joseph] Stalin thrown in.
There is a park where you see happy little children in white blouses running around.… They are not homeless children in rags, such as I have seen in Russia.…
You see the manicured starlets driving tractors and the happy women who come from work singing. You see a peasant at home with a close-up of food for which anyone there would have been murdered. If anybody had such food in Russia in that time he couldn't remain alive, because he would have been torn apart by neighbors trying to get food.…
That for a Communist Party member to have anything to do with religion means expulsion from the party. He is not allowed to enter a church or take part in any religious ceremony. For a private citizen, that is a non-party member, it was permitted, but it was so frowned upon that people had to keep it secret if they went to church.…
I have never seen so much smiling in my life, except on the murals of the world's fair pavilion of the Soviets. If any one of you have seen it, you can appreciate it. It is one of the stock propaganda tricks of the communists, to show these people smiling.…
MR. JOHN MCDOWELL: You paint a very dismal picture of Russia. You made a great point about the number of children who were unhappy. Doesn't anybody smile in Russia any more?
RAND: Well, if you ask me literally, pretty much no.
MCDOWELL: They don't smile?
RAND: Not quite that way, no. If they do, it is privately and accidentally. Certainly, it is not social. They don't smile in approval of their system.
MCDOWELL: Well, all they do is talk about food.
RAND: That is right.
MCDOWELL: That is a great change from the Russians I have always known, and I have known a lot of them. Don't they do things at all like Americans? Don't they walk across town to visit their mother-in-law or somebody?
RAND: Look, it is very hard to explain. It is almost impossible to convey to a free people what it is like to live in a totalitarian dictatorship. I can tell you a lot of details. I can never completely convince you, because you are free. It is in a way good that you can't even conceive of what it is like. Certainly they have friends and mothers-in-law. They try to live a human life, but you understand it is totally inhuman. Try to imagine what it is like if you are in constant terror from morning till night and at night you are waiting for the doorbell to ring, where you are afraid of anything and everybody, living in a country where human life is nothing, less than nothing, and you know it. You don't know who or when is going to do what to you because you may have friends who spy on you, where there is no law and any rights of any kind.…
Testimony of Ronald Reagan before HUAC, October 23, 1947
STRIPLING: As a member of the board of directors, as president of the Screen Actors Guild, and as an active member, have you at any time observed or noted within the organization a clique of eithere
communists or fascists who were attempting to exert influence or pressure on the guild?
REAGAN: There has been a small group within the Screen Actors Guild which has consistently opposed the policy of the guild board and officers of the guild, as evidenced by the vote on various issues. That small clique referred to has been suspected of more or less following the tactics that we associate with the Communist Party.
STRIPLING: Would you refer to them as a disruptive influence within the guild?
REAGAN: I would say that at times they have attempted to be a disruptive influence.
STRIPLING: You have no knowledge yourself as to whether or not any of them are members of the Communist Party?
REAGAN: No, sir, I have no investigative force, or anything, and I do not know.
STRIPLING: Has it ever been reported to you that certain members of the guild were communists?
REAGAN: Yes, sir, I have heard different discussions and some of them tagged as communists.…
STRIPLING: Mr. Reagan, what is your feeling about what steps should be taken to rid the motion picture industry of any communist influences?
REAGAN: Well, sir, 99 percent of us are pretty well aware of what is going on, and I think, within the bounds of our democratic rights and never once stepping over the rights given us by democracy, we have done a pretty good job in our business of keeping those people's activities curtailed. After all, we must recognize them at present as a political party. On that basis we have exposed their lies when we came across them, we have opposed their propaganda, and I can certainly testify that in the case of the Screen Actors Guild we have been eminently successful in preventing them from, with their usual tactics, trying to run a majority of an organization with a well organized minority.
In opposing those people, the best thing to do is make democracy work. 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, that is a matter for the government to decide. As a citizen, I would hesitate to see any political party outlawed on the basis of its political ideology. However, if it is proven that an organization is an agent of foreign power, or in any way not a legitimate political party—and I think the government is capable of proving that—then that is another matter. I happen to be very proud of the industry in which I work; I happen to be very proud of the way in which we conducted the fight. I do not believe the communists have ever at any time been able to use the motion picture screen as a sounding board for their philosophy or ideology.
CHAIRMAN: There is one thing that you said that interested me very much. That was the quotation from Jefferson. That is 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 that the American people will do the kind of job that they want done: that is, to make America just as pure as we can possibly make it. We want to thank you very much for coming here today.
REAGAN: Sir, I detest, I abhor their [communist] philosophy … but at the same time I never as a citizen want to see our countrybecome 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.
What happened next …
Despite the "friendly" witnesses' willingness to testify, the Hollywood Ten refused to answer the HUAC's questions. Denouncing the questioning as an obvious violation of their constitutional rights, they took the Fifth Amendment's constitutional privilege of not responding to questions. As a result, all were convicted for contempt of court. Following an unsuccessful appeal to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 1948, eight served one year and two served six months in prison. Once released, they could get no work because other Hollywood producers had blacklisted them. Blacklisting refers to a practice of refusing work to those who were suspected of communist affiliation or communist sentiments.
Blacklisting spread throughout the radio industry and to the newly emerging television industry as well. Anyone found to have connections in any way to groups who might have supported subversive activities would be blacklisted. The communist paranoia was so rampant in American society that if it were discovered that a member of a group had ever had communist ties, real or imagined, then everyone in that group would be blacklisted. As for the HUAC and Hollywood, the message was clear—either cooperate with the HUAC or be blacklisted.
Did you know …
- Ayn Rand, original name Alissa Zinooievna Rosenbaum, was born in St. Petersburg (later Petrograd), Russia, and educated at the University of Petrograd. There, she first watched American movies and was fascinated by the bright world projected on the screen. That world was in stark contrast to the dismal, dark atmosphere of Russia.
- Reagan would be elected the fortieth president of the United States in November 1980. It was in the later
1940s, under the communist scare in the United States, that Reagan's politics shifted from liberal leanings to very conservative.
- In October 1947, as the HUAC opened its investigation of Hollywood's film industry, fifty of Hollywood's most famous celebrities chartered a plane, named it the Star of the Red Sea (the term "red" refers to communists), and hopped across the country holding press conferences where they touched down. They included Humphrey Bogart (1899–1957), Lauren Bacall (1924–), Ira Gershwin (1896–1983), Danny Kaye (1913–1987), and Frank Sinatra (1915–1998). They supported free expression in Hollywood films. Nevertheless, the HUAC was too powerful and Americans' fear of anything communist too great. Most of the fifty realized they were risking blacklisting and backtracked in their support of the Hollywood Ten. Realizing the trip had been a mistake, they quietly headed back to California as quickly as possible.
Consider the following …
- What symbolism used at the opening of the movie Song of Russia did Ayn Rand especially object to? What is her definition of propaganda?
- Although Reagan related that his Screen Actors Guild did probably have members that had Communist Party affiliations, what was his overall opinion of the Guild?
- At one point in Reagan's testimony, he ever so gently warned the HUAC not to go too far. Identify those words.
For More Information
Barson, Michael, and Steven Heller. Red Scared: The Commie Menace in Propaganda and Popular Culture. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2001.
Branden, Barbara. The Passion of Ayn Rand. New York: Anchor Books, 1986.
Cohn, Roy. McCarthy. New York: New American Library, 1968.
Morris, Edmund. Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan. New York: Random House, 1999.
Sherrow, Victoria. Joseph McCarthy and the Cold War. Woodbridge, CT: Blackbirch Press, Inc., 1999.
CNN Interactive: Cold Warhttp://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/cold.war/episodes/06/documents/huac (accessed on September 22, 2003).
"Hollywood Blacklist." University of Pennsylvania, Department of English.http://www.english.upenn.edu/~afilreis/50s/blacklist.html (accessed on September 12, 2003).
"Moderntimes Classic Film Pages." House Un-American Activities Committee and Censorship Changes.http://www.moderntimes.com/palace/huac.htm (accessed on September 12, 2003).