When Democratic Senators Collaborated With American Nazis to Stop Hollywood From Taking on Hitler
This exclusive excerpt from the new book “Hollywood Hates Hitler!” explores the time U.S. senators teamed with the fascist America First Committee to battle pro-war Hollywood.
On March 31, 1941, MPPDA president Will Hays released his annual report, titled Motion Pictures and National Defense. Although most of the 38-page document would be ignored by the Senate investigation of Hollywood, Hays outlined Hollywood’s response to the turmoil in Europe. Hays describes 1940 “as a period of supreme crisis in the history of the world.” Profits were the only true ideology in Hollywood, and the war was clearly affecting foreign sales. Hays listed fourteen countries that no longer bought Hollywood films and thirteen that were nearing the same position. The isolationist senators used this economic change as an explanation for why Hollywood made anti-Nazi films, but Hays also explained that the industry had simply shifted its export focus elsewhere.
The MPPDA president also gave an overview of the kinds of films released over the past year. Hays categorized them in terms of drama, comedy, and music and singled out films that portrayed the “somber and satirical aspects of the tragedy of Europe.” Several films that would be discussed during the Senate investigation were listed, such as The Mortal Storm, The Great Dictator, Night Train to Munich, Foreign Correspondent, The Man I Married, and Pastor Hall. For Hays, the war in Europe was a natural topic for movies, but the small number of such films “spoke most emphatically against any charge that the screen was a breeder of hate.” Only 5 percent of films released in 1940 dealt with the European conflict in any capacity.
While critics of Hollywood would soon refer to film primarily as a means of amusement, Hays defined film as “a medium of information, education, and entertainment.” Hays also stated that movies were an important force for national morale, which was proven by the Naval leaders who testified before the House Appropriations Committee two weeks prior to Hays’s report. After describing the industry’s growth in terms of exhibition policy and technology, Hays noted how Hollywood was leading the nation with its community service. The film industry raised millions of dollars for the Red Cross and donated thousands of films to health facilities, which was a testament to its civic responsibility.
PURCHASE ‘HOLLYWOOD HATES HITLER!’ HERE
Hays’ conclusion argued that “the screen is too prominent a medium for criticism, right or wrong, not to be constantly leveled at it. Wholesome criticism allows for constant self-examination and stimulates our progress; baseless criticism gives us the opportunity to establish the facts about the industry.” The industry would certainly be providing facts countering ill-informed criticism, as the isolationist senators would grasp strongly to Hays’s final paragraph that describes cinema as “an instrument of universal entertainment,” but would ignore the rest of the sentence that describes film as an instrument of “wide-spread information and common inspiration.” Much of Hollywood’s defense would be based on the medium’s purpose of spreading information and, when necessary, inspiration.
The pamphlet that likely informed the Senate investigation on a more significant scale was G. Allison Phelps’ dossier An American’s History of Hollywood: The Tower of Babel. Phelps’ arguments and accusations throughout the 34-page document would regularly find their way into the comments made by the isolationist senators. An American’s History of Hollywood opens with the claim that Hollywood is largely informed by its many Russian immigrant employees, and therefore is an industry led by communists. Phelps’ evidence, without listing specific productions, was that “the Hollywood leaders, in selecting ‘literature’ from which to produce pictures, reached far back into Russia to bring forth the embryo of atheism, the oriental germ of eroticism, [and] the seeds of lust and hatred.” The films coming from Hollywood were described as “a constant stream of sexy, underworld pictures, propaganda pictures, European tales of hate, greed, and brutality, which do not furnish entertainment but which do serve to corrupt, warp, or to horrify the minds of not only America’s growing boys and girls, but the minds of America’s men and women, as well.” Phelps also pointed out Hollywood corruption in terms of its cavalier approach to marriage and divorce, noting that most industry couples do not make it past five years.
After arguing that Hollywood was abusing stockholders’ money, a point that would come up in the coming Senate hearings, Phelps included a xenophobic satire of Louella Parsons’ annual “All-American” Hollywood team. Phelps’ team was called the “Indispensables” and was coached by Nicholas Schenck, who Phelps argued was the one truly running Hollywood. It would be no surprise when Schenck got subpoenaed by the Senate subcommittee. Assistant coaches included Bob Rubin, Eddie Mannix, Darryl Zanuck, and Adolph Zukor. The team consisted of a majority of other Hollywood moguls, including Harry Warner, Harry Cohn, Samuel Goldwyn, and Louis B. Mayer. Each name included the foreign countries in which they were born and the lofty salaries each executive earned. In addition to a list of substitutes and cheerleaders, Jack Warner was humorously relegated to the status of water boy. Phelps referred to this team as “the shiftiest, fastest-blocking team of industrialists in America. Even the Government Team has not been able, yet, to make a clean tackle of this line-up.” Additional chapters focused on nepotism, monopoly, and blacklist. Phelps argued that “motion pictures are connected by a link of cousins, uncles, brothers, wives, in-laws and out-laws.” The monopoly charges, Phelps observed correctly, were regularly being fought by Hollywood. Phelps added that “the stockholders will pay the expenses of this fight of the Hollywood leaders of the industry to control picture production through a Hitler cartel system in defiance to all decent American business systems.” The blacklist concern was based on claims that isolationists had a difficult time getting work once their opinions were known. Phelps added that many players found periods of unemployment after pressuring studios about their contracts.
Phelps concluded, ignoring the Dies Committee reports that gave Hollywood a clean record on communist infiltration, that “the most prominent figures in the business have communistic leanings.” The end of the document referred to Hollywood as “an influence of evil” and demanded a congressional investigation into the American film industry. The last page of the pamphlet featured a headline that read, “Attention! Sam Goldwyn,” with an acronym of “what’s wrong with Hollywood” that included words like “Aliens,” “Warped Judgement,” “Refugees,” “Nepotism,” “Hate,” “Propaganda,” “Communist Ideology,” but also surprisingly featured “Geniuses.” Phelps’s isolationist and nationalistic ideology can also be seen in another pamphlet, “America for Americans.” The xenophobic agenda is clear from the title alone.
Ideological Competition at the Hollywood Bowl
The summer of 1941 saw two competing events in Los Angeles that would serve as a primer for coming debates. Two rallies were held at the Hollywood Bowl, the first on June 20, 1941, in support of the America First Committee. The featured speakers at this isolationist rally were famous aviator Charles Lindbergh and Senator D. Worth Clark (D-ID), who on June 19 told the press, “Our business is to make ourselves strong and our further business is to let them, the Germans, the English and all the rest, settle their own business.” Clark further warned that if the United States did go to war, “We are going to wind up with some sort of state control. Capitalism as we know it will be through.” Lindbergh would echo Clark’s fearmongering to a packed house of twenty thousand.
Receiving a wild ovation, Lindbergh shyly walked onto the stage to present his prepared speech. Lindbergh gained his composure while photographers’ flashbulbs illuminated the bowl. “We fight with the blade of truth as our greatest weapon,” the aviator proclaimed. “They use the bludgeon of propaganda.” Lindbergh’s concern was that the United States was not ready for war, and the only way to prepare would be to turn the country “into a military nation that exceeds Germany in regimentation.” Confident that no country could invade the United States, Lindbergh argued that the United States should keep out of the European conflict to ensure foreign trade relationships. If we refuse to negotiate peace, argued Lindbergh, the result will be “either a Hitler victory or a prostrate Europe, and possibly a prostrate America as well.” Lindbergh also showed his animosity towards Europe by saying, “The only way European civilization can be saved is by ending it quickly,” which sounds more like a talking point from Hitler than one from a patriotic American. Showing great concern for the lives of young men who would be shipped into deadly conflict if sent to war, Lindbergh displayed no sympathy for the genocidal conditions growing in Europe.
On July 23, the Hollywood Bowl saw an interventionist gathering, hosted by the immensely popular actor Bob Hope, with former presidential candi- date Wendell Willkie as the keynote speaker. Willkie was flanked by a list of Hollywood celebrities. Many of the industry’s top actors and actresses spoke at the event, including Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, Robert Taylor, Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Montgomery, Myrna Loy, Spencer Tracy, Douglas Fairbanks, Lew Ayres, Bette Davis, John Garfield, Edward G. Robinson, Fredric March, Walter Pidgeon, Marlene Dietrich, Madeleine Carroll, Hedy Lamarr, Charles Boyer, Joel McCrea, Tyrone Power, Don Ameche, Harold Lloyd, and Joan Bennett. The star-studded crowd filled the venue, with a crowd of 19,000, slightly less than the Lindbergh event.
Willkie spoke after receiving a three-minute ovation complete with chants of “we want Willkie!” Declaring the current interventionist-isolationist debate one of the greatest in history, Willkie argued that looking at the division as simply war versus peace was a misconception. The real debate was about peacekeeping and not warmongering. Willkie took aim at the argument that a European war was Europe’s problem alone. “It is sophistry to try to define this danger in purely territorial terms.” The future security of the United States was Willkie’s primary concern, which did not mean a declaration of war but instead an increase in defense awareness. “Hitler was able to attack the unprepared,” added Willkie. “We should have begun to prepare the moment the rise of Hitler revealed our danger.” Willkie’s speech made it clear that his intention was not for the country to jump into war, as his detractors had claimed, but instead to push for a more focused plan of defense that considered the growing threats posed by strong fascist power in Europe.
Because the film industry czar Will Hays would likely be too cordial and accommodating going up against the attack dogs in Washington, Hollywood made its interest in Willkie clear. As a political insider himself, Willkie was able to push the impending Senate investigation into September so he could meet [Senator Gerald] Nye and prepare a defense.
Congressional Opposition Grows
In a radio address delivered from St. Louis on Aug. 1, Senator Nye drew his line in the sand against the motion-picture industry. Nye opened with a plea to fight for America and specified “but for America only.” Arguing that America was wrongly lured into World War I thanks to effective propaganda, Nye asserted that the United States was being primed for another war. The cause, Nye argued, was the film companies that had “been operating as war propaganda machines almost as if they were being directed from a single central bureau.” Nye derided Hollywood for making films “designed to rouse us to a state of war hysteria.” Specific films named were Convoy (RKO 1941), Escape (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer 1940), Flight Command (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer 1940), That Hamilton Woman (United Artists 1941), Man Hunt (Twentieth Century Fox 1941), Sergeant York (Warner Bros. 1941), The Great Dictator (United Artists 1940), and I Married a Nazi (which was released by Twentieth Century Fox as The Man I Married). Ignorant of Hitler’s horrors, Nye scoffed that each of these films were “designed to drug the reason of the American people, set aflame their emotions, turn their hatred into a blaze, fill them with fear that Hitler will come over here and capture them, that he will steal their trade, that America must go into this war—to rouse them to a war hysteria.”
Sergeant York (1941) was particularly offensive to Nye because the film was praised by President Roosevelt, who invited the real Alvin York to the White House. Nye also called attention to Will Hays’s recent statement that movies were primarily entertainment. After a spineless qualifier along the lines of “with all due respect,” Nye argued that because Hollywood is made up largely of European immigrants, the industry’s concern is not that of the United States. Nye’s infamous line, that the film studios are “gigantic engines of propaganda,” was based on the assertion that Hollywood needs European markets to survive. Additional accusations were hurled at (Jewish) Leo Rosten and Major General Charles S. Richardson, who were working as liaisons between Hollywood and the US government.
Wondering if Hollywood had become something akin to Germany, Italy, or Russia’s propaganda wings, Nye argued that the US government was to blame for recruiting filmmakers. Nye called motion-picture propaganda in Hollywood “insidious” because it undermined moviegoers. “Eighty million people will go to the movies this week,” Nye claimed, using the inflated attendance number to his advantage. “Seventy-five percent of those people are against going into war. But those seventy-five percent will pay three-fourths of the bill for this propaganda designed to get them into a war they don’t want to go into.” After criticizing both newsreels and feature films, Nye stated that this “propaganda is moving us into a dance of death.” No in-depth analysis was made of Hollywood or its films and the speech remained a series of headline-grabbing quips followed by reminders that a large percentage of Americans are against intervention.
Senators Nye and Wheeler continued their attack on the March of Time newsreel series. Wheeler had complained to Will Hays years prior about unfair depiction of the Lend-Lease bill in the newsreels. Variety noted that “the Senate isolationist group is grasping at every available material to sustain charges . . . that the film industry is propagandizing for war.” Louis De Rochemont, March of Time representative, responded with a letter: “The Hitler peace offensive is on and lots of well-meaning people will be taken in by it. We at March of Time are not. We know the record of Nazi Germany and know that Hitler means war, not peace, and war against America at the end of it all.” March of Time was putting together a new short newsreel titled Peace—by Adolf Hitler, which was to outline Hitler’s history of deceit and make a case against believing any peace initiative from a totalitarian state. Larchmont’s letter encouraged viewers to spread the word and discuss the contents of the film, signing off with the question, “Can I count on you?” Variety concurred, stating that discussion of the film is “brutal to American thinking,” presumably to the isolationist wave in the United States Government. An op-ed in U.S. Week was even more blunt with Wheeler, claiming that the senator simply had accepted that “Hitler has won the battle for the world” and felt that the country needed to be friendly with him. The day after Nye took his on-air shots against the film industry, Walter Wanger, now president of the Motion Picture Academy of Arts & Sciences, read a letter to Franklin Roosevelt on the KFWB airwaves. Wanger endorsed the president’s leadership in the crisis period before America joined the war. As a supporter of war-conscious studio films and a producer of them himself, Wanger wrote Roosevelt, “When we hear some of these politicians talk and tell us [Hollywood] to play safe and try to get along with these world aggressors, we wonder if this is the same America in which we were born and brought up.” Wanger was referring to senators like Burton K. Wheeler and Gerald P. Nye, who were stirring up suspicion of Hollywood. “There are a few men in our Senate, Mr. President, who have been hypnotized by Mein Kampf and believe that they can imitate him successfully in this country.” Without naming names, Wanger argued that these senators “should join Hitler and leave those of us who cherish our liberties the right to fight for them, unhampered by their fears and un-American influences.”
Wanger was ready to not only help defend the United States, but had already established a record of defending Hollywood as isolationist voices grew. In May, Wanger addressed the Variety Clubs of America convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, by focusing on the increased importance of films as part of our culture. “Our duty is to entertain,” Wanger emphasized, “but great entertainment can also be enlightening.” Wanger felt that movies should help Americans wake up to the happenings of the word, that movies can help people face reality. Part of his frustration was that less than ten out of 350 Hollywood films focused on something beyond variations of romance. “I say motion pictures can aid in National Defense by giving us many, many more that 10 out of 350 pictures which deal with democracy in the world crisis,” argued Wanger.
Even though anti-Nazi or interventionist filmmaking was a minority of Hollywood’s output, Wanger was well aware of the increased pushback. He lived it with Blockade and Foreign Correspondent. Wanger made the understandable argument that while critics may take shots at a film they see as propaganda, they say nothing about the best-selling book or popular play the film was based on. Wanger pointed out that the Saturday Evening Post, a publication that opposed the president’s Lend-Lease Bill, was the same magazine that published the serialized anti-Nazi story Escape. The book became a best-seller, but when the film was made, “It was barbarism. The cry went up [that] Hollywood is going in for propaganda,” explained Wanger. The producer went on to specify that the main problem was a group of United States senators pushing isolationism with false data in support. Wanger encouraged the Variety Clubs to use their local theaters as “lighthouses of the community” to centralize “strength in the interests of freedom.”
America First, and Second, and Third
Another major player in the isolationist movement was the America First Committee, which was built around the neutrality legislation of 1939–1940. The committee was a mixture of truly isolationist supporters still upset over the Great War, but also served as a hideout for both Nazis and communists who had different motivations to oppose war in Europe. Although the committee had rules against extremists, the fact that each chapter was independently organized made it impossible to police the membership nationwide. Each chapter was also self-sustaining, which created an imbalance of funding across chapters. America First spokespeople included aviator Charles Lindbergh, senators Burton Wheeler and Gerald Nye, journalist and FDR opponent John T. Flynn, and former Wisconsin governor Philip La Follette.
America First historian Wayne S. Cole admits that the committee attracted a wide range of political views. The meetings and rallies had supporters who included both economic liberals and conservatives. Cole notes that while the conservative Saturday Evening Post called out the isolationist movement as inherently socialist, the committee had many progressive supporters such as Senator Wheeler, labor leader John L. Lewis, socialist minister Norman Thomas, and writer and economist Stuart Chase. While Cole works to establish the bipartisan nature of the America First Committee, the author acknowledges that one of its central problems was its susceptibility to becoming a “transmission belt” for extremism. In fact, radical rhetoric was heard from Senator Wheeler, who had been known to refer to the Hollywood moguls as “Hollywood Hitlers.”
Speaking at Masonic Hall in Los Angeles on Aug. 27, America First chairman William Hunt praised Los Angeles Times publisher Harry Chandler for allowing a column critical of the Hollywood studios. Jimmy Fidler had recently defended the anti-Hollywood stance in the Los Angeles Times, which led Louis B. Mayer and Harry Warner to call a meeting with Chandler. According to Hunt, “Chandler said that the Times would not yield to pressure and that as long as Fidler wrote the truth he would be allowed to put in his column what he wished.” A syndicated columnist, radio personality and rival to Louella Parsons, Fidler certainly had a reach that could concern the Hollywood moguls. Defending their industry from the outside was expected, but having to deal with a local detractor was maddening.
Hunt continued by attacking the prospect of war. “I do not want to see our boys in this thing. I do not want to see their blood shed for Europe’s quarrels again.” This statement is a telling foreshadow of the kind of commentary that would be hurled at Hollywood during the Senate hearings. The notion that the battle of fascism was simply a European problem was a key argument for the isolationists. Hunt continued to vaguely attack recent attempts at war propaganda, stating, “We are only in danger if we allow those few who have an interest in war to scare us into submission.” Going further, Hunt offered funding to send back across the pond anyone who had come to America to push foreign interests.
While Roosevelt was gearing up for an inevitable war effort, United States senators would not accept American intervention and blamed its growing acceptance on Hollywood films. Wayne Cole’s friendly biography of Nye posits that the senator was just building off of what began with antiwar groups throughout the previous years. For Cole, Nye’s focus was simply on “more democratic control of foreign affairs.” As early as 1934, Nye pushed for legislation that would install government control of radio so that all political parties could have equal access to reach voters. The motion-picture industry certainly opposed government intervention in any capacity, which is one of the reasons the Production Code was implemented (though not immediately enforced) in 1922. Hollywood had fought off the government for two decades and they were not about to back down now.
With support of the America First movement, journalist John T. Flynn helped secure financing for an investigation of Hollywood war propaganda led by Senator Nye. Flynn sent a letter to Burton K. Wheeler on Aug. 6, 1941, that told the senator he was putting together “a full analysis of the propaganda in the movies, names of the pictures, the manner in which the various war clichés are exploited” and “the cost of producing these pictures—25 or 30 million dollars’ worth of propaganda in the last six months.” Flynn also promised to present the subcommittee with the names of companies and producers involved in propaganda films, as well as anything else that will support the argument that Hollywood was full of warmongers. Flynn asked to communicate with whoever would be the chairman as soon as possible and concluded his letter, “It begins to look as if our dear President was running into a little resistance. May his woes increase.”
On Aug. 28, subcommittee chairman D. Worth Clark (D-ID) wrote a preliminary draft of questions for the subpoenaed film producers. They included a series of leading questions:
1. You are in the amusement and entertainment business, are you not?
2. The dissemination of propaganda is something that is foreign to entertainment, is it not?
3. When you produce propaganda pictures, you do so with the use of stockholder’s money, do you not?
Such questions provide insight into the senator’s intentions with the subcommittee. Each question has a built-in accusation. The first question is a set up for the producer to answer in the affirmative so the senator can declare the undesirable films as something other than entertainment. The second question is another trap, with the aim of the senator comparing films to other entertainment mediums that do not engage in the “dissemination of propaganda.” The final question is geared to make both the public and the stockholders angry, and to raise the question of who was actually funding the movies. The senators may have felt this would be an easy case, but they certainly underestimated Hollywood’s ability to defend itself.