Ronald Reagan’s Testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In October 1947, motion picture actor and future US president Ronald Reagan gave testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) regarding the influence of Communism within the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), of which Reagan was president. Though the HUAC had been in existence since 1938, its activities had increased dramatically after the conclusion of World War II, as the perceived threat posed by the Soviet Union and Communism within the United States became more widespread. The HUAC had the power to subpoena anyone and exerted pressure on its witnesses to provide the names of people they suspected of being Communists. Refusing to name names could result in the witness being held in contempt of Congress and was likely to lead some members to the conclusion that the person him- or herself was a Communist. Though Reagan was staunchly anti-Communist, with a long track record of opposing the influence of Marxist ideologies, he also expressed reservations about the activities of HUAC.

Summary Overview

In October 1947, motion picture actor and future US president Ronald Reagan gave testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) regarding the influence of Communism within the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), of which Reagan was president. Though the HUAC had been in existence since 1938, its activities had increased dramatically after the conclusion of World War II, as the perceived threat posed by the Soviet Union and Communism within the United States became more widespread. The HUAC had the power to subpoena anyone and exerted pressure on its witnesses to provide the names of people they suspected of being Communists. Refusing to name names could result in the witness being held in contempt of Congress and was likely to lead some members to the conclusion that the person him- or herself was a Communist. Though Reagan was staunchly anti-Communist, with a long track record of opposing the influence of Marxist ideologies, he also expressed reservations about the activities of HUAC.

Defining Moment

The fear of Communism in the United States was nothing new in the late 1940s. As early as 1919—only two years after the Soviet Union came into being—US attorney general A. Mitchell Palmer staged a series of raids on suspected Communists that set the tone for what would become known as the First Red Scare. By 1938, when the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was formed to investigate domestic disloyalty and subversion, its focus was primarily on Fascism, as the preeminent threats came from Nazi Germany and Japan. However, in the context of the Great Depression, Communists and Communist organizations also came under scrutiny. Whatever the motives for its founding, the HUAC was often used for political ends, mainly to discredit liberal supporters of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal domestic policy program.

After the end of World War II, the attention of the HUAC quickly turned fully toward the threat posed by Communism. In 1946, William R. Wilkerson, the publisher of the Hollywood Reporter, began to publish a series of articles in which he named actors, directors, and others in the motion picture industry that he claimed were Communists. Usually naming people with either dubious proof or none at all, this first “blacklist” caught the attention of the HUAC, which then began to subpoena those they thought might be in a position to know of any Communist activity in Hollywood.

What the HUAC may not have known was that Reagan and others had already been recruited by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to help ferret out Communists in a number of different Hollywood organizations. FBI officials had disclosed their belief that Communists were trying to gain influence in Hollywood in order to use motion pictures to spread their message and that numerous film writers and actors were either Communist Party members or Communist sympathizers. Reagan agreed to work with the FBI. Reagan was briefly involved with two groups, the American Veterans Committee and the Hollywood Independent Citizens Committee of the Arts, Sciences, and Professions, which the FBI considered to be Communist-front organizations. Reagan had left both groups because of his views against Communism, but at the same time had stated to the FBI that he distrusted the motives of the HUAC and worried about its apparent attempts to quell free speech.

Along with animator Walt Disney, Reagan was one of the prominent names subpoenaed by the HUAC in October 1947. As president of the SAG, Reagan was in a unique position to know a wide array of Hollywood stars and to assess whether they were Communists intent on subverting industry groups, or, even more importantly, subtly inserting pro-Communist propaganda into Hollywood movies.

Author Biography

Ronald Reagan was born on February 6, 1911, and came of age during the Great Depression. Like many others of his generation, he initially supported Franklin D. Roosevelt's Democratic Party rather than the Republicans, whom many blamed for the Depression. He became a Hollywood actor in 1937 and joined the SAG, quickly becoming involved in the union's management. Reagan produced military training films during World War II before becoming president of the SAG in 1947. As his acting career wound down in the early 1950s, he became increasingly involved in politics, and his views shifted from liberal to conservative. Reagan was elected governor of California as a Republican in 1966 and, in 1980, was elected to the US presidency. He led a resurgence of conservative ideology in both domestic and foreign affairs and was reelected in 1984. After his retirement, Reagan battled Alzheimer's disease and died on June 5, 2004.

Historical Document

The Committee met at 10:30 A.M. [October 23, 1947], the Honorable J. Parnell Thomas (Chairman) presiding.

THE CHAIRMAN: The record will show that Mr. McDowell, Mr. Vail, Mr. Nixon, and Mr. Thomas are present. A Subcommittee is sitting.

Staff members present: Mr. Robert E. Stripling, Chief Investigator; Messrs. Louis J. Russell, H. A. Smith, and Robert B. Gatson, Investigators; and Mr. Benjamin Mandel, Director of Research.

MR. STRIPLING: When and where were you born, Mr. Reagan?

MR. REAGAN: Tampico, Illinois, February 6, 1911.

MR. STRIPLING: What is your present occupation?

MR. REAGAN: Motion-picture actor.

MR. STRIPLING: How long have you been engaged in that profession?

MR. REAGAN: Since June 1937, with a brief interlude of three and a half years—that at the time didn't seem very brief.

MR. STRIPLING: What period was that?

MR. REAGAN: That was during the late war.

MR. STRIPLING: What branch of the service were you in?

MR. REAGAN: Well, sir, I had been for several years in the Reserve as an officer in the United States Calvary, but I was assigned to the Air Corp.

MR. STRIPLING: Are you the president of the guild at the present time?

MR. REAGAN: Yes, sir.…

MR. 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 either Communists or Fascists who were attempting to exert influence or pressure on the guild?

MR. REAGAN: Well, sir, my testimony must be very similar to that of Mr. [George] Murphy and Mr. [Robert] Montgomery. 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 associated with the Communist Party.

MR. STRIPLING: Would you refer to them as a disruptive influence within the guild?

MR. REAGAN: I would say that at times they have attempted to be a disruptive influence.

MR. STRIPLING: You have no knowledge yourself as to whether or not any of them are members of the Communist Party?

MR. REAGAN: No, sir, I have no investigative force, or anything, and I do not know.

MR. STRIPLING: Has it ever been reported to you that certain members of the guild were Communists?

MR. REAGAN: Yes, sir, I have heard different discussions and some of them tagged as Communists.

MR. STRIPLING: Would you say that this clique has attempted to dominate the guild?

MR. REAGAN: Well, sir, by attempting to put over their own particular views on various issues.…

MR. STRIPLING: Mr. Reagan, there has been testimony to the effect here that numerous Communist-front organizations have been set up in Hollywood. Have you ever been solicited to join any of those organizations or any organization which you consider to be a Communist-front organization?

MR. REAGAN: Well, sir, I have received literature from an organization called the Committee for a Far-Eastern Democratic Policy. I don't know whether it is Communist or not. I only know that I didn't like their views and as a result I didn't want to have anything to do with them.…

MR. STRIPLING: Would you say from your observation that this is typical of the tactics or strategy of the Communists, to solicit and use the names of prominent people to either raise money or gain support.

MR. REAGAN: I think it is in keeping with their tactics, yes, sir.

MR. STRIPLING: Do you think there is anything democratic about those tactics?

MR. REAGAN: I do not, sir.

MR. STRIPLING: Mr. Reagan, what is your feeling about what steps should be taken to rid the motion-picture industry of any Communist influences?

MR. REAGAN: Well, sir, ninety-nine 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.…

Sir, 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.

Document Analysis

In this congressional transcript, Reagan answers question posed by the HUAC chief investigator Robert E. Stripling regarding his background and his knowledge of Communist activity in the motion picture industry. Reagan claims he is aware of some attempts to influence the SAG by individuals he thinks may be Communists or Communist sympathizers, but says they are a small minority. He asserts his own anti-Communist views as well as his belief that promoting democracy is the best way to counteract Communism.

Stripling begins the questioning by going over the basic facts—where Reagan was born, his occupation, and his wartime military service. Then Reagan is directly asked if he has seen within the SAG “a clique of either Communists or Fascists who were attempting to exert influence or pressure on the guild.” Reagan's answer is both nonspecific and noncommittal. He states that, as others had testified, there are some within SAG that he has suspects are Communists, but that he has no direct information about their affiliation. However, he does deem their ideas disruptive and their tactics as those that he would associate with members of the Communist Party.

Reagan states that he has heard that some members of the SAG were thought to be Communists, but is hesitant to cite such hearsay evidence. He agrees that the suspicious faction could be considered to be attempting to dominate the SAG and impose its own ideology on the group. Stripling then asks Reagan if he has been recruited by any Communist-front organizations. Reagan describes receiving literature from a group called the Committee for a Far-Eastern Democratic Policy, claiming that he disregarded it, as he did not like the group's views, but he qualifies that he does not know whether the group is in fact Communist. Stripling then asks if the group's recruitment tactics are typical of Communist organizations, and Reagan agrees that they are and that such methods are undemocratic. Reagan does not mention his involvement in two other groups considered Communist-front organizations, or his work as an informant for the FBI on those groups.

In his conclusion, Reagan is asked what he thinks should be done to purge Hollywood of Communist subversion. He responds by asserting that most people in the motion picture industry are aware of any Communist efforts and that the majority has been largely successful in preventing Communism from having any real impact on the industry. He obliquely critiques the HUAC investigation by claiming that anti-Communist efforts must remain “within the bounds of our democratic rights” and that the best method is to let democracy run its course. Reagan reasserts his opposition to Communist beliefs and tactics, but cautions against allowing fear and resentment to dictate the US response to Communism.

Essential Themes

The key themes of Reagan's testimony are the atmosphere of anti-Communist suspicion fostered by the HUAC, its impact on the motion picture industry, and the conflicting views on how to deal with the perceived Communist threat. Central to the issue is the balance between addressing potential matters of national security and preserving the right to free speech. Reagan illustrates the divisive nature of the subject, as he was strongly opposed to Communism and cooperated with the HUAC, but also understood the risk the investigations posed to democratic values.

The HUAC investigations into Hollywood have been viewed by historians as a major violation of free speech. Investigations often ruined careers, as studios kept blacklists of actors, writers, and directors that were suspected of having Communist sympathies. The HUAC grilled the people they subpoenaed about their personal political beliefs and then asked for the names of any other people who might have also participated in subversive activities. Those who refused to cooperate could be held in contempt of Congress and imprisoned. Those who invoked their Fifth Amendment rights were branded Communists and often blacklisted.

Soon after Reagan testified, ten writers, producers, and directors refused to cooperate with the HUAC investigations and were held in contempt of Congress. The so-called Hollywood Ten were all sentenced to prison and blacklisted by the studios. However, their saga also became a cause célèbre among those who thought, as Reagan had alluded, that the right to freedom of speech and thought was of greater importance than whether or not one was or ever had been associated with Communism.

Reagan's call to allow democracy to naturally resist Communist influence went unheeded. The Second Red Scare grew into the 1950s, culminating with Senator Joseph McCarthy's extreme accusations of subversion for his own political gain; such unfounded accusations and persecution became known as “McCarthyism.” The Hollywood blacklist lasted into the 1960s, and many careers were damaged beyond repair. The era of fear and paranoia would have a lasting effect on US politics and culture.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Bentley, Eric, ed. Thirty Years of Treason: Excerpts from Hearings before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, 1938–1968. New York: Thunder's Mouth, 2002. Print.
  • Litvak, Joseph. The Un-Americans: Jews, the Blacklist, and Stoolpigeon Culture. Durham: Duke UP, 2009. Print.
  • May, Lary, ed. Recasting America: Culture and Politics in the Age of Cold War. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1989. Print.
  • Vaughan, Stephen. Ronald Reagan in Hollywood: Movies and Politics. New York: Cambridge UP, 1994. Print.
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