“I don’t believe the American people should ever be told any lies, publicly or privately,” Ayn Rand testified under oath before Congress in October 1947, adding that “I don’t believe that lies are practical…. I don’t believe that the morale of anybody can be built up by a lie.”
That’s the same Ayn Rand who continues to have significant influence on American political life, with devoted followers on the libertarian right, including Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan, now the Republican nominee for Vice President. Ryan, whose political career began while he was still in college, spoke at the Atlas Society’s “Celebration of Ayn Rand” and said in 2005, “the reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand.”
In the fall of 1947, in a series of hearings on Communist Party activities in Hollywood during the 1930s and 1940s, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) called Rand to testify as one of several a so-called “friendly” witnesses, that also included Gary Cooper and Ronald Reagan (who was by then also an FBI informant). A number of the “unfriendly” witnesses, later known as theHollywood Ten, ended up going to jail, as did the committee chair. Others were blacklisted.
Rand was then a screen writer under contract at Warner Brothers, where she had writer credits on two popular romantic comedies —You Came Along (July 1945) and Love Letters (Oct. 1945), which had four Academy Award nominations (best actress, art direction, original song, and score). Rand had been born in Russia in 1905 as Alisa Rosenbaum, and lived under Soviet rule till she came to the U.S. in 1926. She had written Anthem, the autobiographical novel of her fabled escape from the Soviet Union, published in England in 1938, as well as the novel that made her famous in 1943 when it was published in the United States, The Fountainhead.
The bulk of her HUAC testimony was her assessment of the ways MGM’s Song of Russia (1943) served as Soviet propaganda, but she also revealed a bit of the truth behind her own growing personal legend.
“First of all I would like to define what we mean by propaganda,” Rand told the committee. “Nobody has stated just what they mean by propaganda. Now, I use the term to mean that Communist propaganda is anything which gives a good impression of communism as a way of life. Anything that sells people the idea that life in Russia is good and that people are free and happy would be Communist propaganda.”
Song of Russia, produced in 1943, during the Nazi the siege of Leningrad, presents a Hollywood fantasy of Russia in 1941, a unlikely love story between a Russian peasant girl and an American orchestra conductor, built around the music of Tchaikovsky lots of peasants smiling. “It is one of the stock propaganda tricks of the Communists, to show these people smiling,” Rand explained, adding that it was ridiculous “that an American conductor had accepted an invitation to come there and conduct a concert, and this took place in 1941 when Stalin was the ally of Hitler.”
Having clearly articulated the propaganda aspects of the movie, Rand went on to wonder why an American movie would incorporate Soviet propaganda:
Now, here is what I cannot understand at all: if the excuse that has been given here is that we had to produce the picture in wartime, just how can it help the war effort? If it is to deceive the American people, if it were to present to the American people a better picture of Russia than it really is, then that sort of an attitude is nothing but the theory of the Nazi elite — that a choice group of intellectual or other leaders will tell the people lies for their own good….
We do not have to deceive the people at any time, in war or peace. If it was to please the Russians, I don’t see how you can please the Russians by telling them that we are fools…. We don’t win anybody’s friendship. We will only win their contempt, and as you know the Russians have been behaving like this.
Committee member Rep. John S, Wood (D-GA) suggested that the movie was needed to maintain Russian morale to keep them from being knocked out of the war, as they had been in the First World War. In that circumstance, he asked: “there is a pretty strong probability that we wouldn’t have won it at all, isn’t there?”
Rand would have none of it: “what relation could a lie about Russia have with the war effort? I would like to have somebody explain that to me, because I really don’t understand it, why a lie would help anybody or why it would keep Russia in or out of the war. How?”
When Wood persisted, Rand pushed back harder:
RAND: I don’t believe the American people should ever be told any lies, publicly or privately. I don’t believe that lies are practical….I don’t think it was necessary to deceive the American people about the nature of Russia. I could add this: if those who saw it say it was quite all right, and perhaps there are reasons why it was all right to be an ally of Russia, then why weren’t the American people told the real reasons and told that Russia is a dictatorship but there are reasons why we should cooperate with them to destroy Hitler and other dictators? All right, there may be some argument to that. Let us hear it. But of what help can it be to the war effort to tell people that we should associate with Russia and that she is not a dictatorship?
WOOD: Let me see if I understand your position. I understand, from what you say, that because they were a dictatorship we shouldn’t have accepted their help in undertaking to win a war against another dictatorship.
RAND: That is not what I said. I was not in a position to make that decision. If I were, I would tell you what I would do. That is not what we are discussing. We are discussing the fact that our country was an ally of Russia, and the question is: what should we tell the American people about it — the truth or a lie? If we had good reason, if that is what you believe, all right, then why not tell the truth? Say it is a dictatorship, but we want to be associated with it. Say it is worthwhile being associated with the devil, as Churchill said, in order to defeat another evil which is Hitler. There might be some good argument made for that. But why pretend that Russia was not what it was?
WOOD: Well –
RAND: What do you achieve by that?
WOOD: Do you think it would have had as good an effect upon the morale of the American people to preach a doctrine to them that Russia was on the verge of collapse?
RAND: I don’t believe that the morale of anybody can be built up by a lie. If there was nothing good that we could truthfully say about Russia, then it would have been better not to say anything at all.
WOOD: Well —
RAND: You don’t have to come out and denounce Russia during the war; no. You can keep quiet. There is no moral guilt in not saying something if you can’t say it, but there is in saying the opposite of what is true.
Paul Ryan first denied requiring his staff to read Ayn Rand when the story broke in April 2012, calling his devotion to her “an urban legend.” “I reject her philosophy,” Ryan told the National Review firmly. “It’s an atheist philosophy.”
The National Review story – with the headline: “Ryan isn’t a Randian – Refuting the Left’s favorite charge against Paul Ryan” — did not explain why Ryan in 2005 told the Atlas Society:
I just want to speak to you a little bit about Ayn Rand and what she meant to me in my life and [in] the fight we’re engaged here in Congress. I grew up on Ayn Rand, that’s what I tell people…. I grew up reading Ayn Rand and it taught me quite a bit about who I am and what my value systems are, and what my beliefs are….
It’s inspired me so much that it’s required reading in my office for all my interns and my staff. We start with Atlas Shrugged. People tell me I need to start with The Fountainhead then go to Atlas Shrugged [laughter]. There’s a big debate about that. We go to Fountainhead, but then we move on, and we require Mises and Hayek as well….
But the reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand…. Because there is no better place to find the moral case for capitalism and individualism than through Ayn Rand’s writings and works.”
In 2009, Ryan posted a video of himself talking about Ayn Rand on Facebook. Also that year he commented in regard to Obama’s policies, “It is the morality of what is occurring right now, and how it offends the morality of individuals working toward their own free will to produce, to achieve, to succeed, that is under attack, and it is that what I think Ayn Rand would be commenting on.”
After Rep. Wood gave up questioning Rand at the HUAC hearing, Rep. John McDowell (R-PA) had a brief colloquy with her about the smiling habits of Russians. Then, he asked, “Did You escape from Russia?”
Ayn Rand’s “escape from Russia” remains part of her legend, but her answer to the question under oath was simply, “No.”
McDowell tried again: “Did you have a passport?”
“Strangely enough, they gave me a passport to come out here as a visitor,” Rand answered, apparently meaning that she came to the US on a tourist visa: “I had some relatives here and I was permitted to come here for a year. I never went back.”
Perhaps realizing that Ayn Rand had been an illegal alien (she was naturalized as a citizen in 1931), McDowell said only, “I see.”
The chairman invited further questions. The freshman Congressman from California, Republican Richard M. Nixon said, “No questions,” and the hearing was over.