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Julian Louis Reynolds and the Cold War

06/21/2013

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During the period of political and military tension between the United States and the Soviet Union known as the Cold War, the fear of communist infiltration within American society proved pervasive; for those segments directly engaged with the arms race, the threat seemed inescapable.

While processing the papers of Julian Louis Reynolds (JLR), an executive of Richmond’s own Reynolds Metals Company, I was struck by how seriously the business and manufacturing community took this threat. During the period, Reynolds Metals Company was targeted as an important supplier of goods for military production because it served as a defense contractor for both the U.S. military and the Atomic Energy Commission.

In viewing his papers, it became clear that JLR viewed the conflict as an ideological battle between democracy and communism, and he was genuinely concerned that subversion within the aluminum industry represented a real threat to national security.

This perspective was perhaps made most clear in the speeches he delivered to his workers and various community groups from the 1940s through the 1960s. For example, in “Time for Decision,” JLR argued that because of the ideological roots of the struggle, “A war of this nature would not be simply a series of militaristic battles. . . . It would be infinitely more insidious and complicated than anything we have been through before.” An indirect conflict, according to JLR, would rely heavily on espionage as a primary tactic. Communists, he warned, “knowing that the mind of a people is always in a plastic state, capable of being molded by a pressure to that philosophy most diligently applied, they sent agents here, backed with vast sums of money and trained in the art of using the most subtle methods available to mold the minds of our people to an acceptance of their form of government and their system of economics.”

Moreover, according to JLR, the aluminum industry was particularly vulnerable to such attacks. In celebrating the five year working anniversary of 500 workers at a Reynolds Metals plant in Arkansas in 1951, JLR stated that “[i]n time of war, this plant and three other plants like it in the country are all that stand between us and defeat by the Communists. Without these alumina plants, we couldn’t possibly defend these United States. We couldn’t help keep democracy in the world.” He further admonished his employees that

[t]his is a good time to give you a serious warning. This plant would be one of the strategic targets of the enemy…the greatest protection against sabotage in a country like this is you [emphasis in original]. The enemy doesn’t wear a uniform. He is different from the rest of the workers only in his thinking and his ideology. You are the best guards against such an attack. You know what the men you are working with think. In fact, I’m sure all of you loyal Americans here could spot a Communist in no time at all. The defense of this country is in your hands, and depends upon the way you stand watch. So keep your minds and eyes open.

Although these references represent just a small fragment of the fascinating relationship between American industry and Cold War ideology, it is significant to note that only a decade after these remarks were made Reynolds Metals Company openly engaged in business with communist nations, namely China. From 1961 to 1985, when it was headed by JLR, Reynolds International, Inc., entered into multiple operational contracts with the Peoples Republic of China. JLR himself visited the country on multiple occasions and sponsored various Chinese delegations to the United States.

It’s food for thought for the researcher: did the lure of business entice JLR away from his ideological opposition to the political state of the nation, or did changes in international relations allow for a transcendence of former tensions?

This collection is being processed thanks to a grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC).  Claire Hope is Project Archivist at the Virginia Historical Society.

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