Those of us who have suffered either under official, vetted history under totalitarian regimes or under equally edited works by academia know that a historical lie doesn't require empirical proof, merely repetition.
The latest specimen of this type is that Ronald Reagan in 1938 attempted to join the Communist Party but was rejected. This rumor, first aired in Edmund Morris' admittedly part fictionalized account of the president, now matter-of-factly appearing in John Patrick Diggins' biography of Reagan.
Before dismissing it outright, let's consider its possibilities. Reagan described himself in the thirties and World War II as an ardent New Dealer, awakening only to anticommunism in a bitter postwar labor union battle with industry Stalinists. And 1938 was arguably the most seductive year for an ardent New Dealer to join the Party, as both liberals and communists worked side by side in organizations and the Party line of the moment was patriotic antifascism. All of that would end a year later when liberal suspicions about the geography of the Party’s true loyalties were confirmed when the comrades closed ranks around the Hitler-Stalin Pact.
But the problem with the Reagan story is that it is attributable to only one source, Party member Howard Fast. Even sympathizers with Fast stated the he was always making up stories about famous figures trying to join the Party.
Whatever Reagan’s attitudes toward the Party, he was a convert to anticommunism much earlier than his recollections. Howard Koch, a fellow traveling screenwriter, recalled being a member of an antifascist organization with Reagan in 1939 and characterized the future president “as a Red-baiter even then.” Koch recalled that Reagan was trying to pass an anticommunist as well as antifascist resolution. Koch’s lingering ideological dislike of Reagan stayed with him into the casting sessions of Rick in Casablanca. Koch dismissed Reagan for the role of the antifascist Rick because “no one could imagine Reagan having a leftist past.”
Another alarm bell going off is the Fast story and its ideological implications. Fashioning a story about Reagan trying to join in 1938 and then being rejected as “being too dim” contains themes revealing the pervasive nature of the Popular Front and the astuteness of Party recruiters. Following this thread it also has possibilities of attaching, as Party members did with Whittaker Chambers, motives of being spurned for attacking communism.
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