Special Report

Reagan vs. the Progressives

Remembering Ronald Reagan at 100 -- and what he learned from his "progressive" friends.

By 2.4.11

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America this week marks the centennial of Ronald Reagan's birth. Born February 6, 1911, Reagan lived a remarkable life, with a presidency of utmost consequence, winning, among other things, 44 states in 1980 and 49 in 1984, plus a Cold War against a truly Evil Empire. Oh, yes, he also won a long battle -- less recognized -- against progressives. It was a crucial battle -- even less understood -- that began for Reagan, with fascinating twists, back in Hollywood. The Reagan centennial is a golden opportunity to consider what happened there and to draw lessons for what America faces with progressives today.

In the 1980s, the progressives Reagan faced called themselves "liberals." In the 1940s, when Reagan first encountered them, as a liberal himself, they weren't shy about calling themselves progressives. More telling, Reagan was shocked to find that many of those spearheading "progressive" groups and causes weren't really progressives but were communists exploiting progressives, their labels, and their organizations. Understanding this is no mere historical curiosity; no, for Reagan, it was a life-changing wake-up call, initiating a personal-political transformation that, ultimately, and dramatically, led to the presidency and victory in the Cold War. That path included Reagan handing the progressives their biggest setback since the founding of their movement -- a setback they're striving to "change" and "reform" right now.

Before considering Reagan's conversion, it's key to understand what was happening with Hollywood's progressives in this period. Many "progressives," especially following the surge by Communist Party USA (CPUSA) during the Great Depression, were actually closet communists lifting the progressive label to dupe progressives. This was done quite cynically and successfully, whether ordered and orchestrated from CPUSA headquarters in New York, from CPUSA's branch office in Los Angeles, or from Comintern headquarters in Moscow. It's fascinating, and would be hilarious if not so sad, that the Soviets even referred to Joe Stalin as a progressive. The Soviet Ministry of Education framed Stalin as "the great leader of the Soviet people and of all progressive mankind."

Similarly, in Washington, some self-proclaimed "progressives" serving President Franklin Delano Roosevelt were actually communists penetrating and influencing the administration: Lauchlin Currie, Harry Dexter White, Harold Glasser, Alger Hiss. Even FDR's most trusted adviser, Harry Hopkins, may have been a closet communist masquerading as a progressive. That's the conclusion of some experts who have dissected the Venona transcripts.

The communist pilfering of the "progressive" label was evident in a major Congressional report in December 1961, the most in-depth investigation of communist front groups ever done. Titled, "Guide to Subversive Organizations and Publications," the investigation went back to the early 20th century. Probably the most popular title listing in the 994-page cumulative index is the word "progressive."

That brings me to Hollywood, where the exploitation of the progressive label was especially rich, and where communists truly desired to hijack the motion-picture industry. Progressives would be central to that plan.

Consider the group, Progressive Citizens of America (PCA), which was thoroughly penetrated. One liberal actor exploited was the great Gene Kelly, a pleasant, patriotic American. Kelly was enlisted as a progressive prop to stand in front of a giant American flag and lead the Pledge of Allegiance. He rallied the progressives in reverential renditions of "America." In one sorry display, the all-American boy was cast to provide the introduction at PCA's initial meeting in Los Angeles on February 11, 1947. The evening's theme was established before Kelly spoke, as a large screen flashed photographs of bombed Hiroshima, with rolling footage of the dead and maimed. That evening, PCA board members would be elected. On the ballot were secret hard-line Hollywood communists like John Howard Lawson and Dalton Trumbo, as well as non-communist liberals like Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart, John Garfield, Gregory Peck, Lena Horne, and Melvyn Douglas.

Take another sorry case, where Katharine Hepburn was the opening speaker at a May 19, 1947 Progressive Party Rally at Hollywood Legion Stadium. Draped in a long, flame-red dress, the liberal New Englander read a speech scripted by Trumbo -- and so admired by People's Daily World that it reprinted the entire text.

This manipulation was old hat for the comrades, who found no shortage of progressives to do the bidding of Stalin.

Alas, into this waded an actor named Ronald Reagan, mid-30s, politically passionate. As a committed FDR liberal, Reagan was susceptible to the conniving of communists. He was targeted immediately after World War II, a quick victim of several front-groups. He was very "naïve," Reagan admitted later, "blindly and busily" joining "every organization I could find that would guarantee to save the world." He was "an active" but unwitting participant "in what now and then turned out to be communist causes." The deceived Reagan assumed these folks were "liberals, and being liberals ourselves, [we] bedded down with them."

Most redeeming about Ronald Reagan is that when he learned, he really learned. By October 1947, he was testifying before Congress on communist infiltration. Later still, he would explain: "The communist plan for Hollywood was remarkably simple. It was merely to take over the motion picture business … [as] a grand world-wide propaganda base." Before TV and mass production of foreign films, said Reagan, American movies dominated 95% of the world's screens, with an audience of "500,000,000 souls" around the globe. "Takeover of this enormous plant and its gradual transformation into a communist gristmill was a grandiose idea. It would have been a magnificent coup for our enemies."

In Reagan's view, those were the stakes, prodded by a "master scheme" to "line up big-name dupes to collect money and create prestige." Progressives were central to the plan. Even at the height of party membership, CPUSA never had more than about 100,000 members; it couldn't advance without progressives.

Americans needed to wake up, as had Reagan.

Of course, the rest is history. Reagan began a historic march to the presidency that, by the 1980s, threatened to squash the progressive long march that preceded him. He had splendid success, but one thing about progressives -- which Reagan understood -- is their patient ability to work slowly, incrementally, with victories not necessarily at the ballot box but in other influential facets of American life, like education. They waited and waited, until, in November 2008, enough oblivious Americans, especially moderates and independents, were duped like Reagan once had been -- and voted into office a progressive-in-chief campaigning under the banner of "change." Some things never change.

We must learn what Ronald Reagan learned: The progressive left isn't going away, ever-awaiting the next step in the evolutionary chain. It's an ebb and flow, but always creeping toward centralization; or, what Reagan called "creeping socialism." We must awaken, providing progressives with more setbacks. Most of all, we must not to be fooled, misled, duped, certainly not more than once. Ronald Reagan's life, and path, is a history and life lesson for all of us.

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About the Author

Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. His latest book is 11 Principles of a Reagan Conservative.