A recently released exchange of letters between Ronald Reagan and an older Soviet émigré, Lola Kinel Shipman, sheds new light on when and why Reagan shifted from being a supporter of the Popular Front to becoming a strong anti-Communist liberal. After World War II, Reagan wrote:
[I was] blindly and busily joining every organization I could find that would guarantee to save the world.
Reagan became a member, and then leader, of two major groups: the American Veterans Committee, and the Hollywood Independent Citizens Committee of the Arts (known as HICCASP, which he later said sounded “like the cough of a dying man”). But Reagan — as my wife and I showed in our book Red Star Over Hollywood — quickly found that these and other Popular Front groups were dominated by Communist Party members, who eventually took them over and tried to get members to follow a pro-Soviet foreign policy.
The newly found letter, sold by historical documents center RAAB, reveals that Reagan’s strong opposition to communism led him to change his political views to conservatism.
Shipman, a liberal and member of the Democratic Club in West Hollywood, was concerned about Communist infiltration of the Democratic Party. She heard Reagan speak against the Communists at a meeting of her club, and she wrote to him afterwards:
You gave a wonderful speech, and I agree with your viewpoint 100%.
She noted that when Reagan said something to the effect of “we liberals can take care of the Communists ourselves and weed them and need no help from the reactionaries,” the audience was deadly silent. She was shocked, and wrote to Reagan:
It seems to me the Democratic Party is being infiltrated by Communism …
[M]any American Democrats and so-called liberals prefer not to face them; they wish to believe that somehow … the Communists are alright, that Russia is a happy country and that we ought to emulate them.
She knew this was “utterly crazy,” but noted:
[O]ne somehow can’t convince people like that.
A liberal her entire life, Shipman discovered that she was being accused of working for the local state senate committee that was investigating Communists in Hollywood. She hoped that Reagan would join her:
[Keep] American liberalism true to its real tenets of freedoms … freedom of press, of speech, of religion, freedom from fear (… No one in Soviet Russia is free of fear.)
Of Polish descent, she wrote of her awareness of Poland’s struggle:
Poland is writhing under the Soviet fist … the Secret Police has successfully cowed all free elements.
Reagan’s answer, written on Aug. 12, 1946, is fascinating:
I assure you, I was very conscious of the silence that greeted my “anti-communist utterance in the address.”
He then named a few people he thought were likely Communists belonging to her Democratic Party club in West Hollywood.
His list included the CPUSA’s cultural apparatchik, John Howard Lawson. He also mentioned the screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. (Trumbo was recently celebrated in the film starring Bryan Cranston.)
Acknowledging that “the entire ‘liberal’ movement has been invaded by the ‘outright communist’ element,” Reagan still saw cause for hope. First, Reagan praised organized labor for moving to fight and expose Communist-led unions in the AFL and CIO.
Then, he pointed to liberals who were wising up: himself, Jimmy Roosevelt (one of FDR’s sons), and actress Olivia de Havilland, he wrote, were resigning and “leaving HICCASP to the ‘Reds.’”
Reagan’s letter included the same kind of disclaimer everyone on the political Left who nevertheless criticized Communism used at the time:
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.
As we know, Reagan was beginning his long political journey from the Popular Front to anti-Communist liberalism, and then finally to conservatism. While at the time there were Republicans and Democrats who opposed Communists and Communism, there was no mass conservative movement that made anti-Communism one of its key goals.
The editors of the RAAB website accurately sum up Reagan’s view:
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.