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In the 1930s, America saw Communist doctrine gaining a foothold, especially in Hollywood. As a response, the government was interested in identifying who was involved. But they needed help.
Stewart, who has served as an officer in the American Army Air Force Reserve Corps, was the perfect choice, but he turned down Army Intelligence’s request because he wasn’t interested in spying on his friends and colleagues.
That’s when J. Edgar Hoover, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigations, invited him to Washington.
“Jim thought he was going just as someone Hoover wanted to shake hands with because of his war record,” said Gloria McLean, Stewart’s wife. “The thing about Jim is that he is a real patriot… He wanted to shake Hoover by the hand and tell him what a good job the FBI was doing for the country.”
On his trip, Stewart got a personal tour of the FBI headquarters and dined with Hoover at his house.
This time when Stewart was asked to help the government, Hoover emphasized the nefarious work of the mafia in Las Vegas and Los Angeles and the need to be rid of them – something that Stewart strongly agreed with. Yet despite his desire to help, James made it clear that he would not be an informant or work in an official capacity for the FBI.
Due to the fairly visible clash between ideologies happening in the movie world, Stewart did provide the FBI with names, but only those who were outspoken about their beliefs about communism.
He said, “I often felt I wished I could have done more about helping to fight crime. I think I’d have liked being in the FBI. I always admired the work the FBI did . . . and I admired and liked J. Edgar Hoover.”
Around this time, Hollywood was also seeing the arrival of the House Un-American Activities Committee which would begin to search for and investigate for suspected Communists on its own.
On the list was none other than director Frank Capra, who had provided Stewart with his break-out role in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
Years earlier, Capra had signed a Communist Party election petition, and HUAC believed that his films critiqued capitalism.
The director himself said, “I had become jaundiced about the capitalistic system–working for [Columbia studio head] Harry Cohn will do that. I could see the virtues of the Communist system, but what stained it was the poor standard of living the Soviet people endured.”
Stewart was tasked with looking into Capra – something the actor didn’t do, despite misleading the FBI into believing he was. For Jimmy, his director friend was a true American.
In fact, later when Capra was presented with formal charges, Stewart not only wrote to the Defense Department but went to Hoover himself.
Gloria said, “It was one time when he couldn’t control his temper, and it really shook Hoover up.”
Later, Capra was told that it was Stewart’s defense which stopped the investigation.
Stewart was extremely cautious when dealing with the FBI. In fact, Ronald Reagan served as a liaison between the two. Stewart continued to provide limited help – always pushing for the FBI to take a serious interest in dismantling the mafia – until Hoover’s death.
Henry Fonda said, “For years, Jim almost idolized Hoover, and he thought the FBI was the greatest law enforcement agency in the world.”