When Hollywood Was Actually Pumping Out Soviet Propaganda

Library of Congress
Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, left, appears with President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the Russian Embassy in Tehran in 1943.

It was movie night at the Kremlin. The date was May 23, 1943. The Red Army had defeated the Germans at the Battle of Stalingrad only three months earlier. For the first time, it looked like the Allies could win.

And now, to celebrate the alliance between the Soviet Union and the United States, Joseph Stalin had decided to throw a banquet at the Kremlin. Despite wartime rationing, there was no shortage of delicious courses. Vodka flowed freely, according to historian Todd Bennett.

After dinner, Stalin led the guests to his private movie theater. Joseph E. Davies, the former U.S. ambassador to the U.S.S.R. and an adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, sat next to Stalin. Then the lights went down and “Mission to Moscow” started.

The movie was pure Stalinist propaganda. It portrayed the dictator as a benevolent leader and the Soviet Union as a fraternal society free of repression. It presented the Moscow show trials, during which Stalin’s rivals had been framed, as fair hearings. And it charged Leon Trotsky – the Jewish Bolshevik murdered on Stalin’s orders in 1940 – with having been a Nazi agent.

But “Mission to Moscow” hadn’t been made by the Kremlin-controlled studios or vetted by Stalin’s censors. It came from a Hollywood studio, Warner Bros. Pictures, and was approved by censors from the U.S. government.

Today, conservatives accuse Hollywood of pumping out leftist propaganda. During World War II, Hollywood actually did just that. And it had the full backing of the U.S. government.

“Mission to Moscow” was part of a wave of movies made between 1942 and 1945 that lauded the Soviet regime. They included RKO’s “The North Star,” about Ukrainians repelling Nazi invaders; United Artists’ “Three Russian Girls,” about a Russian nurse’s romance with an American soldier; and Columbia’s “Counter-Attack,” about Red Army soldiers squaring off against the Wehrmacht.

“Mission to Moscow” was directed by Michael Curtiz, hot off helming “Casablanca,” but it was Davies’s brainchild. Based on his memoir, it dramatized his stint before the war at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. Walter Huston played Davies. In the film’s prologue, the real Davies assured viewers they were about to get an “honest” primer on the Soviet Union.

Stalin approved. He was “very generous” in his “praise of the picture,” Davies wrote in a letter the next day. Soon after, “Mission to Moscow” opened across the U.S.S.R.

It had come out stateside to great fanfare in April 1943, according to historians Ronald and Allis Radosh. The marketing budget was $500,000 – close to $9 million in today’s money. There had been a glitzy premiere in Washington, attended by political insiders and reporters.

The New York Times called it “the most outspoken picture on a political subject that an American studio has ever made.” “Mission to Moscow” certainly didn’t hide its agenda: to make Americans appreciate the Soviet Union, and rally support for the Soviet-American alliance.

This directive came straight from the White House. The filmmakers had “a governmental blessing,” Davies revealed later, and he consulted FDR several times during production. According to producer Robert Buckner, the president said “Mission to Moscow” should be made “to show the American mothers and fathers that if their sons are killed in fighting alongside Russians in our common cause, then it was a good cause, and the Russians are worthy allies.”

“Mission to Moscow” and the other pro-Soviet films of the era were made under the aegis of the Office of War Information, launched by Roosevelt in 1942 to “promote, in the United States and abroad, understanding of the status and progress of the war effort and of war policies, activities, and aims of the U.S. government.” In other words, it oversaw American wartime propaganda.

But MGM’s “Song of Russia,” a romantic drama released in 1944, was also made in cooperation with the Soviet government. The director consulted the Soviet ambassador before shooting, and the movie featured footage from Soviet newsreels.

It follows an American conductor, played by Robert Taylor, who tours the U.S.S.R. It’s anything but subtle. In one scene, he dines at a bustling restaurant in Moscow and exclaims, “I can’t get over it! Well, everybody seems to be having such a good time.” He then turns to his date, a beautiful Russian pianist, and tells her, “If I didn’t know that I’d met you in Moscow, you might be an American girl.” (The actress, Susan Peters, was born in Spokane, Wash.)

Midway through “Song of Russia,” the Nazis invade the Soviet Union, and Stalin gives a rousing speech to the nation. “Our war for the freedom of our country will merge with the struggles of the peoples of America for their independence, for democratic liberties and against enslavement by Hitler’s fascist armies,” he proclaims. (The real Stalin never waxed lyrical about American democratic liberties.)

The pro-Soviet films triggered a culture war on the home front – none more so than “Mission to Moscow.” Due to Davies’s close ties with FDR, it became a lightning rod in the political debate.

The New York Times praised its “boldness” and said it “should be a valuable influence to more clear-eyed and searching thought.” Several branches of the American Legion, a veterans’ organization, publicly supported it.

But there was a huge backlash. The philosopher John Dewey denounced “Mission to Moscow” as “the first instance in our country of totalitarian propaganda for mass consumption.” The novelist James Agee called it “a mishmash: of Stalinism with New Dealism with Hollywoodism … all mosaicked into a remarkable portrait of what the makers of the film think that the American public should think the Soviet Union is like – a great glad two-million-dollar bowl of canned borscht.”

Republicans were up in arms. The Republican National Committee dismissed the film as “New Deal propaganda.” Rep. Marion T. Bennett (R-Mo.) said Hollywood “had lost its head and gone completely overboard in its attempt to make Communism look good,” insisting that the Soviet-American alliance was only meant to be “temporary” anyway.

But Roosevelt hoped the alliance would outlast the war against the Nazis. He wanted a partnership with the Soviets, not a Cold War.

“I think we are all in agreement … as to the necessity of having the USSR as a fully accepted and equal member of any association of the great powers formed for the purpose of preventing international war,” FDR wrote British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in September 1944. “It should be possible to accomplish this by adjusting our differences through compromise by all the parties concerned,” adding that “this ought to tide things over for a few years until the child learns how to toddle.”

Roosevelt’s closest aide, Harry Hopkins, said after the Yalta Conference in February 1945, “The Russians had proved that they could be reasonable and farsighted and neither the president nor any one of us had the slightest doubt that we could live with them and get on peaceably with them far into the future.”

In this respect, movies like “Song of Russia” and “Mission to Moscow” served FDR’s foreign policy. They made the Soviet-American alliance palatable to Americans, many of whom loathed communism, and paved the way for continuing the alliance after the war.

U.S. censors were explicit about it. “Mission to Moscow,” the OWI said in a report, would “encourage faith in the feasibility of post-war cooperation.” In another report, the OWI hailed the film as “a magnificent contribution to the government’s motion picture program.”

Roosevelt’s death in April 1945 dealt a blow to a long-term U.S.-Soviet alliance and “weakened, perhaps fatally, the prospects for avoiding or at least mitigating the Cold War,” Frank Costigliola wrote in “Roosevelt’s Lost Alliances.”

Roosevelt’s successor, Harry S. Truman, didn’t believe Stalin could be trusted. Confronted with Soviet expansion into Eastern Europe, he proclaimed the Truman Doctrine. The United States, he vowed, “would support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.”

The Cold War was underway. Hollywood’s pro-Soviet films were relegated to the dustbin of history.

But they didn’t stay there for long. In 1947, the House Un-American Activities Committee investigated Hollywood, aiming to root out “communist infiltration.” Committee members held up “Song of Russia” and “Mission to Moscow” as proof that Hollywood was overrun with communist agents and Soviet sympathizers.

The committee called up Ayn Rand – the anti-communist novelist who had fled the U.S.S.R. in the 1920s – to testify. She explained how “Song of Russia” whitewashed Stalin’s regime. “I don’t think it was necessary to deceive the American people about the nature of Russia,” she said.

The committee also asked Jack Warner, the Warner Bros. president, why he had made “Mission to Moscow.”

“The picture was made when our country was fighting for its existence, with Russia as one of our allies,” Warner said.

Then, with an air of defiance, the mogul continued, “If making ‘Mission to Moscow’ in 1942 was subversive activity, then the American Liberty ships which carried food and guns to Russian allies and the American naval vessels which convoyed them were likewise engaged in subversive activities.”