Dark Victory: Ronald Regan, MCA and the Mob – Dan E. Moldea

MoldeaOf America’s forty-six presidents that have served in office, few are as popular as Ronald Reagan (1911-2004).  The 40th President of the United States is remembered for his time in Hollywood, his term as Governor of California and a presidential administration that had its share of controversy.  The Iran-Contra scandal remains inextricably linked to Reagan and is a stark reminder of U.S. foreign policy gone wrong.  The fallout in Central America from Washington’s influence and interference can still be felt to this day.  Reagan is long gone from office and deceased since 2004.  However, his name can still be found in conversations about politics in America, when discussing conservatism and the decline of Soviet influence across the globe.  Although known to be a fierce conservative, Reagan was able to use his actor’s skills to conceal this from the public.  But historians know all too well that there was dark side to the life of Reagan before and during his time in office.  Journalist Dan Moldea takes another look at Reagan, paying close attention to his time in Hollywood as president of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), its dealings with the Music Corporation of America (MCA) and the Italian American mafia.

I should point out that the book is not intended to be a full analysis of Reagan’s role as president.  And although Moldea does discuss Reagan’s time as president towards the end of the book, the focus remains on the early days of Hollywood and radio, where the mafia had infiltrated studios and strong-arm tactics by independent companies had become accepted behavior.  To remove all doubt that the book has a “happy ending”, Moldea lays out the premise early on:

“These records show that Reagan, the president of SAG and an FBI informant against Hollywood communists, was the subject of a federal grand jury investigation whose focus was Reagan’s possible role in a suspected conspiracy between MCA and the actors’ union. According to Justice Department documents, government prosecutors had concluded that decisions made by SAG while under Reagan’s leadership became “the central fact of MCA’s whole rise to power.”

After establishing the premise, the author discusses the formation of multiple corporations that became titans in radio and later in the film industry.  The formation of MCA is explained and that of the SAG where Reagan would find a home through his first wife Jane Wyman (1917-2007).  The information provided by Moldea is just what history buffs will be looking for.  And what he explains highlights just how far film and radio have come.  But in the 1920s, television was still in its infant stages and for the average artist, radio was the place to be.  In the 1930s, film started to gain in popularity and in 1933, the Screen Actors Guild was formed to give artists protection from what was clearly a racket. The ramifications of the organization’s creation are explained by Moldea and the information will aide readers later in the book as the U.S. Department of Justice sets its sights on film and radio.  Following his discharge from the military after World War II, Reagan soon found his calling in film and his marriage to Jane Wyman opened the doors to successful careers on the silver screen and in government, in ways that may not be fully understood.  As the book shows, there were many suspicious actions taken by Reagan as director of the SAG with regards to the Music Corporation of America, known to be affiliated with gangsters and other powerful figures not against breaking all rules.  The most infamous to whom we are introduced is a lawyer named Sidney Korshak (1907-1996), believed to be one of the most powerful men in Hollywood during his time.  Korshak is just one of many dark figures in the book that includes mobsters Alphonse “Al” Capone (1899-1947) and Johnny Roselli (1905-1976).  Moldea leaves no stone un-turned as he explores the many dark connections between Reagan and a whole cast of shadowy characters.

The crux of the case for Reagan’s implied dark dealings comes in the form of an unrestricted waiver given to MCA, permitting it to retain artists and other stars without conditions normally enforced by the SAG.  Whether Reagan himself decided to do so may be lost to history but the action was so unusual that it attracted the attention of the anti-trust division of the Department of Justice.  Regan himself gave testimony and readers might find it be questionable to say the least.  The relevant portions of his statements are included so that the words come directly from Reagan himself.  It is left to readers to decide what Reagan may or may not have left out.  And while there is a lot of smoke, some may feel that there is no fire or “smoking gun”. But what is clear is that what transpired between the SAG and MCA was anything but ordinary.  The true story might be even more surprising and suspicious than the one Moldea has told here.

During his time in office, Reagan became the star for conservatism and his administration shifted the nation towards the right politically.  One of the reasons for his conservatism is explained here and it was something I was not previously aware of.  Further, the story here shows again that the administration of John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) was more of a threat to those with hidden agendas than people realize.  While campaigning, Reagan called for getting tough on crime and fixing America’s cities.  He once stood in the burning rubble of the South Bronx and told residents that he was trying to help them, but he could not do anything unless he was elected.  Well, he was elected and his goals to fix America and get tough on crime did not go exactly as most voters thought. In fact, there were actions by his administration that stood in stark contrast to the good-natured poster boy image that the former actor portrayed publicly.  Moldea is even more blunt his assessment:

“The Reagan administration then severely curtailed the investigative and enforcement abilities of the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Internal Revenue Service, and the Justice Department’s Strike Forces Against Organized Crime—as part of its program to get the government off the backs of the people. The administration also attempted but failed to dismantle the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms of the Treasury Department, which had been extremely effective in the war against organized crime but had been opposed by the Reagan-allied National Rifle Association.”

Older readers may agree or disagree with the statement, but I do think Moldea is fairly accurate in his assessment.  I strongly advise those who find this to be a good read to also purchase Malcolm Byrne’s Iran Contra: Regan’s Scandal and the Unchecked Abuse of Presidential Power, which is an excellent analysis of the hostage for arms matter and money transfer to rebels in Central America.  It can be argued that no administration is without its scandals or embarrassing moments and that is true.  However, the depth of the scandals is what typically sets them apart.  In the case of Ronald Reagan, we are forced to confront two vastly different images of his life.  The public image of the easy going, jolly natured Commander-In-Chief is still widely accepted. But to independent journalists and researchers, the private Ronald Reagan kept many dark secrets.  Some undoubtedly went with him to the grave but others have been revealed as we can see here in this intriguing account by Dan Moldea.

ASIN : B01MV2ZDXN

Iran Contra: Reagan’s Scandal and the Unchecked Abuse of Presidential Power – Malcolm Byrne

contra1I still remember the video footage taken during the live testimony of Lt. Col. Oliver North (Ret.), as Congress sought to unravel  interconnected covert operations that revolved around Iran, Israel and Nicaragua. North appeared on television in full military dress, earing the sympathy and admiration of a large segment of American citizens.  There were some who felt he should have been incarcerated and that his actions were a dishonor to the very uniform he had on.   Regrettably, his testimony did little to help fully understand what had really taken place.  And even my father who follows politics and news religiously did not fully understand what had taken place.  What was clear, is that the administration of President Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) had engaged in questionable and possibly illegal activities that sent shockwaves of panic through Reagan’s cabinet and raised alarm bells on Capitol Hill.  As more information came to light, the media began to call it the Iran-Contra scandal and even today, it is still known by that description.  It remains one of the darkest moments of Reagan’s time in office.  Author Malcolm Byrne revisits the Iran-Contra scandal to tell the full truth about how and why it developed, and the actions of a president abusing the powers of the Oval Office. 

If you have decided to read this book, I am sure that there is a good chance that you are already familiar with the Iran-Contra scandal. But even if you are not, the story will still be of interest and easy to follow. The story begins by revisiting the events of October 5, 1986, when a C-123 plane carrying arms for the contras fighting the Sandinista government is shot down while over Nicaraguan airspace.  Several days later, a revelation on Iranian television sent Washington in panic mode.  Nearly everyone began to question the actions of Reagan and his cabinet.  The full story was carefully hidden from the public through omissions and in some cases, deception.   Here we have the whole account and Byrne take us on quite a ride as he peels back the layers of obfuscation employed by key officials close to the President.

Although prior knowledge of the events that gave way to the scandal is not necessary, I do believe that it will help if the reader has some prior knowledge of the political climate of Central America and the Middle East during the time period in which the scandal took place.  In fact, the histories of Nicaragua, Honduras, Israel, El Salvador an Iran are all relevant to the information that Byrne is presenting to the reader.   The fear of a communist expansion under the thumb of the Soviet Union, continued to shape U.S. foreign policy following World War II.  The rise of left-leaning and popular figures across Latin America had caused Washington to pay close attention and subvert several governments through the Central Intelligence Agency.  Central America became the next battle ground and as Byrne shows, Reagan intended to pull out all of the stops.

There are many acronyms in the book due to the complexity of Washington’s design with regards to intelligence and foreign policy.  Several departments play a role in the story and Byrne keeps track of them all, keeping the story flowing smoothly.  Chapters one through twelve alternate between Iran and Nicaragua. It was a good decision by the author, for it allows the reader to focus one part of the story before going to the next and then back again.  The two tracks eventually merge but not before Byrne provides a ton of staggering and shocking information.  When the tracks do merge, the book takes another turn as Reagan’s cabinet goes into damage control and the full weight of Congress comes down on his administration.

The hearings and testimony are summarized here so readers should not expect full transcripts but only snippets of the most critical statements.   In fact, the section regarding the hearings and prosecutions by the Department of Justice do not make up a large portion of the book.  The majority is devoted to the developments in Central American and the Middle East.  But that in no way diminishes the importance of the later chapters and they are just as surprising as the rest of the book.

One section in the book that caught my attention was the discussion about Reagan’s health.  Putting aside the attempted assassination in 1981, there were other health issues that arose during his presidency that caused many to question whether he was fit for office.  His actions and later testimony provide evidence that the conditions he later suffered from, had began to manifest as early as the 1980s. Byrne does not give Reagan a pass because of this but is equally mystified at how he was able to function.  He also makes a compelling point regarding Reagan’s mental state and his interactions with subordinates. It is certainly food for thought about the 40th President of the United States.

America has always said that it does not negotiate with terrorist.   On the surface it sounds tough and gives off the impression that the United States can take as hardline of a stance as anyone else.  However,  the events described in this book, challenge that position and Byrne’s research shows that negotiation became as common as public denials.  For many Americans, the scandal is an afterthought.  Reagan died in 2004 and the suriving members from his cabinet who are still alive had faded out of the public light, well into their later years in age.  However, I do believe that the story is still important in light of the recent events regarding the administration of Donald J. Trump.  Impeachment and investigations are two words that give rise to fear and concern but the founding fathers knew early on that such a system of governing was needed if the United States would truly be a democracy.  Future presidents may also want to read this book so that they too are never accused of abuse of power.

This account of the Iran-Contra scandal lays it all out for the reader to digest. It is an incredible and unnerving story about the very dark side of United States foreign policy.  Highly recommended.

ISBN-10: 0700625909
ISBN-13: 978-0700625901

Weakness and Deceit: America and El Salvador’s Dirty War – Raymond Bonner

BonnerFor the first time in a long time, I found myself emotional and angry as I finished this book about the relationship between the United States and the military dictatorship in El Salvador during the small Central American nation’s civil war in the 1980s.  I had expected the book to be a tough read and contain many facts that would be both uncomfortable and upsetting.  But I admit that I was not prepared for what I learned.  This is not the first book I have read or reviewed regarding  El Salvador.  There are many  other books that are very good but take different approaches to the subject matter.  It might be fair to say that the other books were a primer for what I was to learn here in this mind-blowing and deeply troubling book by Raymond Bonner, a former Marine who served in Vietnam and current staff writer for the New York Times.

Younger Americans will most likely have no recollection of the civil war that claimed the lives of thousands of El Salvadorans.   A friend of mine was born in El Salvador and has told me the story of her family’s departure from the country as government troops surrounding their town.  They found refuge in New York before making a home in New Jersey.  Although she has never spoken in too much detail about El Salvador, I am sure there are many memories that she has kept to herself from a time in her youth where death was certain but life was not.   Those who are old enough to remember the war in El Salvador and the actions both the Carter and Reagan Administrations, will find this book to be a thorough account of what really did happen as America became more entrenched in the affairs of Central America.

To help the reader understand politics in El Salvador, Bonner provides a brief history of the nation, including the settlement of the Pipil Indians and the Spanish colonization which has had long term effects on El Salvadoran society.  Coffee became a prized possession and still remains on the nation’s top exports.  The plantations, known to the locals as “fincas“, became a hot commodity and later actions by the wealthy upper class backed by ruling officials, set the stage for the adversarial relationship between the peasants and the Government that late reached deadly proportions.  The 1932 massacre or “matanza“, is discussed as well, so that readers can understand the long history of repression.

On October 15, 1979, President General Carlos Humberto Romero Mena (1924-2017) was overthrown in a military backed coup that marked a turning point for El Salvador and set the country down a dark path that still reverberates today.  At this point in the book, the pace picks up considerably.  The administration of Jimmy Carter found itself unsure on how to proceed with El Salvador, a nation of no strategic importance for the United States.  Fears of a left-leaning administration permeated the in Washington resulting in policy mistakes that later came back to haunt the United States.  Through Bonner’s work we can see how the mistakes developed but more importantly, why.  Relying on now declassified cables, other documents released to the public and his time in the country, a clearer picture of what did and did not happen has begun to take shape.  And it is a deeply troubling picture of ineptitude and complicity.   Or some might simply call it weakness.

On January 21, 1980, Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) took office as the 40th President of the United States and as Bonner show, events in El Salvador took an even darker turn that might cause some readers to revolt in disgust.  I warn readers that the book is not for the faint at heart and what is revealed during the administration of Ronald Reagan forced me to question all that I knew about El Salvador.  To be clear, there are no happy endings here but instead, the dark truth about events in El Salvador including the murders of Archbishop Oscar Romero (1917-1980) and churchwomen Ita Ford, Maura Clarke, Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan in December, 1980.   The heinous act was portrayed in the 1986 film ‘Salvador‘ by Oliver Stone, starring James Woods and Jim Belushi.  in 1989, the film ‘Romero‘ was released starring the late Raul Julia (1940-1994) as the late Archbishop Romero. Both films are powerful but there is far more to the story as told here.

It goes without saying that on all sides there were multiple players and it was no different in Washington and San Salvador.  The actions of the military commanders are horrific but what I found to  be even more disturbing as I read through the book, were the actions of many in Washington, including elected officials, cabinet members and officials in the State Department.  Misrepresentations and outright lies to the American public and Congress, coupled with covert plans to sent military aid to El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, which became ground zero in Washington’s battle against the left in Central America.  These actions are what would be called deceit.  That deception resulted in repeated tragedies that claimed the lives of thousands of people through failed U.S. policy that failed to fully understand El Salvador, Central America and the truth about the influence of communism.   The red scare was alive and well and Washington’s justifications for its actions are misguided and repulsive.   In the book, the paranoia surrounding it is eerily reminiscent of the mantra endorsed by U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy (1907-1957).  Bonner provides snippets of public states and cables to drive home the message so that it is loud and clear.

Surprisingly, to date there has never been a full investigation into Washington’s actions in El Salvador.  And as the gangs MS-13 and Barrio 18 (composed of a significant number of deportees from the United States) continue to tear the country apart, investigations into individuals of prior administrations are almost certain to never happen.  Many in Washington have made it a point to forget El Salvador but for the its people, the memories of the civil war will never fade.  This is their story, told by Raymond Bonner, of hope and disappointment, supplemented by death and terror under a military backed by America and determined to maintain its grip by any means necessary.

ASIN: B01FGHJ5MK