A very early letter mentioning Dalton Trumbo; the earliest and best Reagan letter leading to his conversion to anti-communism we have ever seen
The evolution of Ronald Reagan from Democratic liberal to Republican conservative had profound consequences for his country and the world. In this letter we see that the one primary motivating force that let loose this change was his opposition to communism. It also shows just how early he was looked to as a leader in the crusade against communist influence in the United States.
He started as a liberal, with an interest in labor unions. His labor union work began on August 11, 1941, when he attended his first Board meeting of the Screen Actor’s Guild (SAG), the actors’ union, as an alternate for actress Heather Angel. His then-wife, Jane Wyman, was elected to the Board over a year later. Reagan was not, however, a very political person at that time. World War II and its horrors politicized him, and he 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. Starting even before his discharge from the Army in the fall of 1945, he became involved in liberal causes, lending his name to fund-raising efforts and giving talks. He joined the American Veterans Committee (AVC), an organization with a liberal constitution and a goal of world peace, as chairman of the Hollywood membership board. He also resumed his service as an alternate on the SAC board in February 1946, first for Rex Ingram, and then for Boris Karloff. About the same time, Reagan was invited to fill a vacancy on the board of directors of the Hollywood Independent Citizens Committee of the Arts, Sciences and Professions (HICCASP), whose purpose was ostensibly to promote New Deal and humanitarian principles. By then HICCASP's membership had grown to 3,200 and Reagan “felt honored” to be named to its executive council (along with Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn and Edward G. Robinson). He accepted.
As Reagan participated in AVC activities in early 1946, he grew increasingly aware of communist activity within the organization. In April he attended he AVC’s convention in Los Angeles, and there he saw a small minority of well-organized communists manipulate the entire proceedings. He was stunned and appalled; this was, he later said, his “awakening” A few months after the convention he would resign. This letter, referencing a talk that took place between the end of the convention and mid-May, makes manifest that in the immediate aftermath of the convention, he modified his talks to liberals to include a strong anti-communist message. And when that message was not well-received by many in the liberal community, it began to change his feelings in general.
Reagan soon saw that the HICCASP had a communist element in the leadership that sought to dominate. In June 1946 the HICCASP was fingered by historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. as a communist front. James Roosevelt, FDR’s son, was a director of the Hollywood branch of the HICCASP but no communist. On July 2, he, Reagan, Olivia De Havilland, Dory Schary, and a few others decided to put the organization to the test. At a meeting on July 2, 1946, Roosevelt introduced a measure that sought peaceful relations with Russia but repudiated communism. Surely such a denunciation would show the HICCASP was liberal and not communist. The measure fell under severe criticism from members such as Artie Shaw (who thought the Soviet Union was more democratic than the United States) and Dalton Trumbo (who stated that the proposed resolution was wicked). Reagan spoke endorsing Roosevelt’s proposal, at which point he found himself “waist high in epithets”. He was stung and horrified. Roosevelt resigned very soon after, as did De Havilland. As for Reagan, he recalled resigning at the same time, and many maintain that this was so. However, this letter proves that his resignation took place later, at some point after penning this. Why did he remain in? De Havilland suggested that Reagan did so as “an observer”, a polite term for intelligence gatherer.
Lola Kinel Shipman was an author with a storied past, who with extraordinary prescience at this very early stage saw Reagan as a leader in the fight against Communism. Born in Russia, she escaped with her grandmother and sister to Warsaw during the Bolshevik Revolution. From then her career was filled with variety, color, adventure, romance. She was secretary-interpreter to famed dancer Isadora Duncan and her Russian husband, and eventually made her way to America. She wrote two biographies about her experiences. In 1946 she was member of the West Hollywood Democratic Club, which still exists and works for the election of Democrats. She was concerned about infiltration of that organization by communists, and wrote a lengthy letter to Reagan on May 19, 1946, saying she was in the audience and heard him speak, and that the issue “was too important to overlook any possibility that you may agree with me and be willing to help.” She continued, “I was in the auditorium at Fairfax High when you were called upon to speak impromptu in place of James Roosevelt. You gave a wonderful speech, and I agree with your viewpoint 100%. I noticed, however, that at one point when you spoke for liberalism you said something to the effect that ‘we liberals can take care of the Communists ourselves and weed them out and need no help from the reactionaries’ – there was a dead silence. I wanted to applaud, then stopped because of this funny reaction. Later on I kept thinking about it and I did not like it at all. I may be wrong in this, but it seems to me increasingly that the Democratic Party is being infiltrated by Communism. In our own little group – the West Hollywood Democratic Club – the influence of the fellow travelers is very clear…I am Polish American, was born in Russia and have lived there both under the old regime and under the Soviets, and I know what I am speaking of. Right now Poland is writhing under the Soviet fist…the Secret Police has successfully cowed all free elements and deported those that can't be cowed. I could write ten more pages on this, but won't take your time. However, please believe me, this is so.” She then gave numerous examples of how freedom in Poland had been crushed by the Russians.
She continued, “All these are facts; yet many American Democrats and so-called liberals prefer not to face them; they wish to believe that somehow, in spite of what they hear or even know, the Communists are allright, that Russia is a happy country and that we ought to emulate them. For one who knows what goes on in those countries this seems utterly crazy, but one somehow can't convince people like that. Once, at a meeting, when I tried to take part in the discussion, they accused me of belonging to the Tenney Committee [which led anti-communist investigations in California]. I have voted for Roosevelt 4 times, have been a liberal all my life, and now I find that sticking for all the things which real liberalism means: freedom of press, of speech, of religion, freedom from fear (and that is important. No one in Soviet Russia is free of fear) seems to put one right into the lap of the reactionaries. Kind of crazy, isn't it?…What I wanted to say is that if you agree with me that it is important to keep American liberalism true to its real tenets of freedoms, please do speak up for it again whenever you might be called upon to speak. Please make this clear and firm; you have a wonderful talent, you can rouse people and you know how to present ideas forcefully and logically. Please use all these gifts on behalf of true progress and all the freedoms. In Poland, in the Balkans, these freedoms have been crushed, and the Atlantic Charter has become a mockery. There are forces that would make a mockery of it here if they could. Do not let them.”
Reagan responded. Autograph letter signed, two long pages, Burbank, CA, August 12, 1946, to Lola Kinel Shipman. “This is a very belated answer to your letter of May 19. I appreciated your writing to me very much & I assure you I was very conscious of the silence that greeted my ‘anti-communist’ utterance in the address at ‘Fairfax Hi’. Yes the entire ‘liberal’ movement has been invaded by the ‘outright communist’ element but there is cause for hope. Organized labor has started in to rid itself of this ‘red’ influence – especially here in Southern Calif. And our own Democratic party is in the hands of a man who is well aware of the menace (Jimmy Roosevelt). No matter what he says publicly, I can assure you he resigned from the Hollywood Independent Citizens Committee because the ‘fellow travelers’ are in complete control there. Speaking of that organization, some of us have been staging a fight to bring this issue to a head. We presented a resolution for adoption by the executive council which re-affirmed our desire for friendly relations with Russia but repudiated Communism as a form of government desirable for this country. It only took an hours discussion to reveal every communist on the council, so many of us who have been active on the liberal front are resigning & leaving HICCASP to the ‘Reds’.
“I am quite sure your club – the West Hollywood Democratic Club – must number some of these people – Mrs. Bernard Vorhaus, John Howard Lawson, Dalton Trumbo, True Boardman, Henry Blankfort, Lou Harris, etc. If so, rest assured they are ‘fellow travelers’ if not ‘party members’. Please believe me I don’t want to be a ‘Red Baiter’ or go on a ‘witch hunt’ but if the liberal cause is to win in the fight against native Fascism it must first stand up and be counted as opposed to communism. Some of you who feel as you do might raise the issue in your organization & see what is the strength of the communists – they’ll reveal themselves. One thing to watch however is that any resolution must be directed against communism & not communists, otherwise they’ll charge you with favoring restrictions on individual political thinking. Again, thanks for your kind letter & Don’t Give Up. Sincerely, Ronald Reagan.” Mrs. Shipman gave this letter to a friend before she died, and we obtained it from him. It is unpublished and has never before been offered for sale.
This letter gives great insight into Reagan`s developing anti-communism and awareness of the threat that communism posed, makes clear that this was the driving force in his political changeover, shows him emerging quickly as a leader, and indicates his readiness to name names where communists were involved. Soon he would be cooperating with the FBI to prevent communists from taking over the production studios. His feeling of being had, of being manipulated, by communists who poisoned seemingly legitimate organizations and perverted their purposes, always keeping hidden their secret agenda goals, screams off the page of this letter. It would affect his entire life.