When in 1940, the House Committee on Un-American Activities came to Hollywood to investigate suspected industry communists, they overshot their mark by including actor Melvyn Douglas.
Douglas was hardly a communist; indeed, he had been battling the influence of Party members in liberal and anti-fascist groups for well over a decade.
Because he became president, Ronald Reagan is often cited as a liberal anti-communist who once warred with industry Communists. But Douglas, an unreconstructed New Dealer, had fought Communist influence a full decade before Reagan.
Previously apolitical, Douglas and his Helen Gahagan Douglas (a future Congresswoman who ran and lost a Senate race against Richard Nixon), became committed anti-Nazis after witnessing German anti-Semitism on a 1931 trip to Europe.
Even though he was aware it was dominated by Hollywood Communists, Douglas joined the Anti-Nazi League because, as his wife said, it was “the only organization in California that was speaking out against Hitler.” The actor also helped create the Motion Picture Democratic Committee framed around electing Democratic gubernatorial candidate Colbert Olson; Olson supported causes Douglas was in favor of, such as public ownership of private utilities, a defense of civil liberties, and better conditions for the working class. Douglas had qualms about working with Communists in the MPDNC. According to a former communist named John Bright, Douglas “very reluctantly accepted” the Party’s support. With Colbert elected, the MPNDC was able to convince him to pardon Tom Mooney, a labor leader serving a life sentence for supposedly bombing a parade in 1916.
Soon, however, Douglas would go beyond reluctance about working with Party members to outright opposition when Hitler and Stalin signed a military partnership in 1939. Upon hearing the news, fellow liberal and MPDNC member Philip Dunne didn’t believe the Hollywood Communists would support Stalin’s abandonment of anti-Nazism. He bet Douglas that industry reds would leave the Party over this reversal. Dunne predicted that “the next morning there wouldn’t be more than a dozen Communists left in Hollywood.” Douglas took the bet and was proven correct. Communists stayed in the Party, with Stalinist screenwriter Herbert Lieberman adjusting what was previously championed as anti-fascist collective security stances to “collective security for peace.” Dunne admitted that Douglas was much more astute politically than himself; Douglas, he later said, “knew a religious fanatic when he saw one.”
With Party members like Dalton Trumbo now denouncing Great Britain, currently being bombed by Hitler, as worse than the Nazis, and calling FDR a “war-monger” for sending aid to England, Douglas and other liberals sought to save the MPDC from Communist control. Douglas assured New Deal officials that the MPDC was “willing to do what it could for the New Deal,” but to accomplish this, “two or three communists, rather prominent in the organization… will have to sidetrack since they continue to be apologists for Stalin.”
But Douglas had underestimated the number of fervent Stalinists in the organization. He submitted a report to the executive board of MPDC that urged members to return to supporting Roosevelt’s anti-Nazi foreign policy.
In the report, he located the source of some liberals betraying FDR as coming from the Communist Party, and in turn, dismissed the Party’s previous “sincerity” as merely “opportunistic.”
When Douglas called on the organization to oppose the communist members, he was immediately attacked by reds and fellow travelers. Dominating the MPDC board, Party members and their acolytes soundly defeated Douglas’ resolution.
Douglas tried one last time to save the MPDC by rewriting the resolution, which now called on liberal members to refuse to work with any groups opposed to Roosevelt’s foreign policy. Again, the resolution was defeated by the board. Douglas and other liberals resigned from the organization and the MPDC was now exclusively composed of Communists and fellow travelers.
Finally, the resolution, now with an amendment denouncing all imperialism, “including Soviet aggression” was submitted. Stalinist sympathizers, attacking the report as little more than “a witch-hunt…disguised” with “liberal phrases,” defeated the resolution.
When HUAC returned in 1947, and liberals like Burt Lancaster, Humphrey Bogart, and even Douglas’ comrade, Philipp Dune defended the subpoenaed Communists, Douglas refused to help. To a fellow liberal, Douglas stated that liberals should not “join hands with the Communists.” Doing so, he cautioned, was “a serious mistake from the standpoint of both ideology and practical politics.”
In later years, Douglas never wavered from liberal principles, supporting the Great Society opposing Vietnam, but he never forgot Communist treachery both at home and abroad.