Did Ronald Reagan secretly give the FBI names of people he suspected were communists when he was a movie star and Hollywood labor chief in the 1940s?
This allegation resurfaced in the media just before Thanksgiving when the San Jose Mercury News, which published excerpts from Reagan's FBI file to great international acclaim in 1985, ran a column revisiting its original story about Reagan the snitch. It implies that Reagan was a shadowy operator in cahoots with the notorious FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover, orchestrating their next Hollywood Red scare.
The answer? Maybe. But Reagan was hardly betraying friends and confidants. He told the bureau what he told others publicly about communist influences in the Hollywood he knew. He didn't seek out the FBI originally; agents came to him. Moreover, he had little to tell them that the bureau didn't already know. It's hardly the picture of a Red-baiting Judas.
As the Reagan centennial approaches, and as every candidate for the GOP presidential nomination scrambles to assert that he or she is the true and rightful heir of Reagan ( Sarah Palin invokes him more than 30 times in her latest book), it's a good idea to look at a complete picture of what Reagan did with the FBI — and why.
Reagan's relationship with the FBI started when he was about 32, and it had nothing to do with communists. It wasn't unusual or at all nefarious. According to a memo in the file, the bureau was on the trail of domestic Nazis, and Reagan reported that he almost punched a man for making hateful comments about Jews at a Hollywood cocktail party.
The bureau initiated contact with many stars and other prominent figures in Hollywood because of the industry's global influence. Reagan responded without moral anguish or soul-searching. A Screen Actors Guild officer during that era told me, "If an FBI agent appeared at your door, you met with him."
Like most FBI files on famous people, Reagan's is mostly filled with press clippings and public information available to anyone. An entry from 1946 describes a Reagan radio broadcast against the Ku Klux Klan. He talked about an incident in Tennessee in which police officers "had beaten a Negro while in a soldier's uniform and had gouged his eyes out with a billy club." He said: "A community that is aware of the threat to its people and security by bigoted terroristic groups will be protected from such acts. It is important that every citizen of Southern California be ready to assist all public officials who are attempting to check any further occurrences of this kind and to join with those civic organizations which are laboring to bring better understanding and unity among the different elements of our society without regard to race or creed or color."
Communism later emerged as the driving force behind the bureau's interest in Reagan, but not for the reason you'd think. In 1946, Reagan, then a SAG officer, vocally resisted communists as they tried to sway the guild and destroy the stagehands union. (SAG and the stagehands had been bulwarks against party infiltrators.) For this, Reagan became a marked man, and the FBI knew it. In an incident that probably appears in redacted sections of his file — but which he disclosed in his memoir — FBI agents appeared at his house on Cordell Drive, informing him of a secret Communist Party meeting where the keynote was "what to do about that son-of-a-bitching bastard Reagan."
As an "informant," Reagan couldn't add much to the bureau's existing intelligence because he wasn't a Communist Party insider. It operated covertly, holding its meetings in secret. Communists used aliases and code numbers. They shielded themselves behind fronts. And in truth, the FBI's strongest information came from whistle-blowers among party factions, and from undercover FBI agents and operatives.
But if Reagan wasn't providing the bureau with juicy details about communists, what is in the file? And what about the charge of "naming names"?
In one session in April 1947, Reagan and his then-wife, actress Jane Wyman, did describe two groups in the SAG leadership that consistently pushed the Communist Party line, regardless of the issue. But this wasn't clandestine information delivered by a secret snitch; Reagan was telling this to anyone who would listen.
His colleagues in the guild and in the wider Hollywood labor movement told me that Reagan often argued that communists had a legal right to champion the communist philosophy, but, as his hero, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, put it, they had "no American right, by act or deed of any kind, to subvert the government and Constitution of this nation."