The Cold War And Albert Canwell -- The 1948 Anti-Communist Hearings Earned The Freshman Legislator An Instant Reputation - And Shattered Lives
IT WAS A TIME of fear and suspicion, the advent of the Cold War, loyalty oaths and anti-communist crusaders.
It was a place of high passions, strong labor unions and outspoken college professors. So famous were we, one politician announced at the 1940 Democratic National Convention: "There are 47 states and the Soviet of Washington."
At the center of it all was one freshman legislator, Albert Canwell, a frustrated newsman and amateur spy who, by his own accounts, knew much more about the communist infiltration than the federal agents assigned to the job. Thrust into politics almost by accident, Canwell made just two promises: to fight any new taxes and do something about the communists in Washington state.
It was no idle rhetoric. Canwell was elected and found himself appointed chairman of the Legislative Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities, whose mission was to investigate communism at the state Pension Union and the University of Washington, using "all powers necessary and convenient" to uncover communist activity."
Nobody else wanted the job, Canwell says today. Soon the committee became known, simply, as the Canwell Committee. It had unbridled authority to interrogate professors, order them to name communists on the faculty, find them in contempt when they didn't and even toss them out of the hearings.
This was 1948. World War II was over. Soldiers returned home, started families, bought houses, enrolled in college. Boeing, crippled by a five-month strike, was desperate for workers. Summer dresses were selling for $7.95 at The Bon Marche. A UW rowing team was on the way to the Olympics.
And the headlines were consumed with communist threats. The Russians were blocking food deliveries into Berlin. The Soviets were suspected of sabotaging radio transmission of American pilots flying food to blockaded Berlin. Within a year they would test their own atomic bomb.
Europe was in turmoil. Federal loyalty oaths were put in place; admitting membership in the Communist Party was akin to treason.
It was a perfect stage for Canwell and his anti-communist disciples.
In July 1948, amid a media circus, the Canwell Committee convened in the Seattle Armory, now the Seattle Center House. In five days of hearings, 40 professors were subpoenaed, and 11 were actually called before the committee.
Three of them, Ralph Gundlach, Joe Butterworth and Herbert Phillips, refused to testify. The three were cited for contempt, and eventually all were fired, forever exiled from academia. Gundlach, a psychology professor, moved to New York and became a successful psychiatrist. He died in 1978. Phillips, a philosophy professor, found work as a laborer and died in 1978. Butterworth, who taught English, became a broken man, spending many of his days at the Blue Moon Tavern. Impoverished, he died in 1970.
Also swept into the anti-communist fever were Burton and Florence James, founders of the University District's Repertory Playhouse. Both refused to testify before Canwell's committee and were cited for contempt. Florence James was later fined $125; the sentence of her husband, also convicted, was suspended because he was ill. He died three weeks later.
With dwindling attendance the theater closed, and Florence James moved to Saskatchewan, where she became widely known in the Canadian arts community. She died in 1988 at 95. In February, former UW President William Gerberding dedicated a plaque to the Jameses.
One of the best-known cases involved UW philosophy professor Mel Rader, who faced accusations that he had attended a communist training school in New York. He later was vindicated by Seattle Times reporter Ed Guthman and wrote a memoir, "False Witness."
Today, 50 years after the hearings, Canwell makes no apologies for the lives he forever changed. But others say the events of the summer of 1948 left an indelible imprint on their lives. In their own words, here are some of the stories that have not been so widely known.
Albert Canwell Legislator at the eye of the storm
He's 91 or 92 - there's some dispute - and his hearing is at the mercy of fresh batteries. But he still lives in a spacious, airy farmhouse on the outskirts of Spokane, home for 50 years and a political lifetime. A fire crackles while the house cat curls up on the dining-room table, oblivious to those assembled around her. A pot roast simmers in the oven, the smell permeating the house.
Albert Canwell, dressed in a red flannel shirt, picks names from memory as if his time in the spotlight was just yesterday, not a half-century ago. His anti-communist zeal has not tempered; he makes no apologies and figures his ultimate reward is outliving his enemies. What is all this fuss, he wonders. Why all this attention to a one-term, has-been politician? But of course, he knows. This anniversary brings back the memories, the anger, his same steely resolve.
So how does he want to be remembered? "I haven't any desire to be remembered or not be remembered. I came and left. I did the job the way I think I'd do it again."
I knew what was going on because I'd been on the bum road freight trains and knew how the communists operated. I had no intention of running for the Legislature. Never particularly occurred to me as something I wanted to do or was qualified to do.
I was going on to the Far East; that's what I had in mind. The general idea is, we would develop news capability among the oil people in Southeast Asia.
(Spokesman-Review reporter) Ashley Holden and I ran into each other in Seattle the night before I was to leave for Hong Kong. We left the Seattle Press Club and went down to Fifth Avenue. All I remember is I got thoroughly sick. I thought I was going to die. So I missed the connection of the freighter.
So I decided to stay in Seattle and Spokane and try to make do with what I had here. The first person I encountered in Spokane became my longtime informant in the Communist Party. Her name was Betty Webster.
She started giving me all the inside information on the communist apparatus. I had far better sources of information in Spokane than the FBI did. I knew when the comrades were having a meeting, when they had a celebrity coming to town. All those things I had information before anyone else did.
It was surprising how they captured these intellectuals. They would target them for a project and then just overwhelm them with flattery and praise.
I told Ashley he ought to do something about these people. They're just taking over the country. He said, why don't I do something? Next thing I knew there was a piece in the paper that I might run for the Legislature.
Strictly unauthorized. No substance to it, except he just needed copy and he realized this communist thing was what was news and would be in the foreseeable future.
Next thing I knew, people were calling me and asking me what I'd do in the Legislature. Only two things I knew about, I wouldn't support any new taxes and I knew something about the communist scandal in the state. I made good copy.
When I started out, I intended to keep my promise that I'd do something about the communist scandal at the University of Washington and throughout the state, and so I set about doing that. Wherever I could find a vacant office I'd call a meeting and we'd have discussions of the communist situation, what could be done, how you'd do it.
I subpoenaed quite a batch of (UW professors). I think the legislative committee did a good job. We did a good job by keeping people quiet. People who agreed to serve on my committee agreed it would be a one-man committee.
I've said before, in studying the communists and their reaction to the legislative hearings, that they tried to make it good theater and they usually did. They stole the show. And they did in San Francisco and other places, so I decided that wasn't going to be done in Seattle.
I recognized that this was a contest. It was a contest between some strong personalities. I remember that I had in advance advised the State Patrol that we wouldn't put up with any speeches or nonsense. And I said when I give you the signal, throw 'em out. And they did. These giant state patrolman, some of them were real giants, I tried to get them placed next to the shorties in the Communist Party.
They sent up an attorney from San Francisco who was a very able man, and John Caughlan was an able man, but he didn't understand his limitations. For Caughlan was a person who could have been a great lawyer. He had the ability, but he had this communist override that just interfered with his law practicing.
I didn't put (the hearings) on the level that anyone should lose their jobs. That wasn't my function; it wasn't the function of the Legislature to give and take jobs. I left it to the (UW) regents.
There were professors who were arrogant, insolent and uncooperative, and I think we were very nice to them. I think the teaching staff at the UW came off a lot better than they were entitled to.
Someone said you shouldn't hate your enemies, you should outlive them. Well, I've done that quite effectively. I think they got what they deserved. Me.
John Caughlan Self-described "Commie Lawyer"
At 88, John Caughlan, self-described "Commie Lawyer," has decided to officially and formally retire. "Since I'm deaf and blind and feeble I'd better not subject any clients to the vagaries of my condition," says Caughlan, his white beard swaying as he chuckles.
Caughlan may be hard of hearing, and he won't run the sprints he once did for Ballard High School, but his mind has aged well. He quickly jumps back to the beginnings of his career defending communists, and to the summer of 1948, when he represented Herbert "Scoop" Phillips before the Canwell Committee.
Wiry, with wire-rimmed glasses and a shock of white hair, he pours himself a glass of white wine in his Madison Park home as he talks about one of the most interesting and pivotal years of his life.
The first time I represented communists was when they rented the Opera House, known at the time as the Civic Auditorium, for a meeting at which Earl Browder, the executive secretary of the Communist Party, was to speak in Seattle.
John Dore, who at that time was the mayor and a good Catholic, said no damn communists are going to speak in my Civic Auditorium, and ordered the building superintendent to cancel the lease which had been given quite openly to the communists.
So a few days before this was to take place, the building superintendent called up and said the lease was off.
I had just started practicing law. I graduated from law school in 1935. I had a couple of kids, and my arrangement with the firm was that I could handle any cases I wanted to on my own, and I would do a certain amount of work for the firm for which I'd be paid an hourly basis by the firm.
So I was asked to take this case because I was interested in the Communist Party, and the case was certainly a case of civil liberties.
The stenographer who took my dictation, who apparently was much better acquainted with firm policy than I was, took the dictation up to the senior partner, who also was an officer with the Knights of Columbus, and he held up the pleadings like he fished it out of the toilet. He said, `Did you dictate this?' I said, `Yeah, I did,' and he said, `Well, would you rather drop this case? If you do you can stay here until next Monday. But otherwise we'd like you to get out of the office right now.'
I always resented that, not being fired or anything else, but the idea that I didn't have any real choice. So that was my introduction into politics.
At the hearing (the judge) comes out and announces that such a matter really should hardly have ever gotten to court in the first place and that everybody knows that communists are out to undermine and overthrow the government and blah, blah, blah and denied the order. I said, what about the deposit?
It was the first time I ever represented anyone from the Communist Party. From then on I was known generally for years and years and years as the Commie Lawyer. I joined the Communist Party in about 1937 and remained a member.
It isn't very difficult for people to grasp the whole idea of what the mood was like in 1948: the specter of communism.
You could have a reasonable argument about communism in 1937 around here; you couldn't have one in 1940 or 1941. Now, one interesting facet about the Canwell hearings is that not only were these the first nationally published hearings, but also, so far as I know, the use of the Fifth Amendment by Joseph Butterworth in the Canwell Committee hearings in 1948 was the first time that that had been done.
Because basically the position of communists and non-communists who were progressive was that it was no crime; you weren't incriminating yourself to acknowledge you were a member of the Communist Party. The Constitution guarantees that people have the right to associate and speak the way they want to.
Phillips refused to testify, not on the grounds he'd be testifying against himself, but on the grounds it would violate his principles.
Before the hearings began it was very obvious what was going to happen. They were going to call a bunch of people and then expose them as communists.
Gundlach, who to the best of my knowledge never was a member of the Communist Party, was a very principled person. He was called in, and he told (UW President Raymond) Allen quite frankly that he didn't feel that was the business of the university to be an adjunct to an inquisition, and he didn't think the university should attempt to compel anybody to discuss their politics. Phillips, of course, had the same position.
There were many people at the university who knew that Scoop was a member of the Communist Party. It didn't surprise anybody that he was, because he was an avowed Marxist. But there was never the slightest suggestion from anybody ever that Phillips used his position as a philosophy teacher and philosophy faculty at the University of Washington to propagandize for any political point of view.
It's a little rough at times when you're known as the Commie Lawyer to have these people call up (your home) and say, Your dad ought to be strung up. Despite my better judgment, I tend to be optimistic about the fact that there is a possibility of saving the human race from itself. All you can really do is do your best.
Jean Gundlach Her brother was one who lost his job
She lives in a place of peace and warmth, of light and color, the A-frame house overlooking Puget Sound on the Tulalip Indian Reservation.
Two cats stretch as the sun beams through the tall windows. Strays, says Jean Gundlach, with affection. There's little room on the walls for a framed poster that rests on the floor advertising, "All Power's Necessary and Convenient," a new play dramatizing the Canwell hearings.
Gundlach's brother, Ralph Gundlach, was one of three UW professors who lost their jobs in the Canwell inquest. Now 85, she has spent much of her life seeking justice, finally persuading former UW President William Gerberding to issue a formal apology for the purge of 1948.
The buzzword was communism. It was just a buzzword. It didn't mean anything, just meant trouble. Trouble for somebody.
(The Pension Union) had gone through it the year before, and I don't know if anyone was aware it was going to hit someplace else. When it did, we just took it in stride. It's one of those things that happen. We tried to keep it from my mother. We kept newspapers from her; it was really hard to do.
There was no legality to anything (Canwell) did. There was no way you could answer it in public. There was no way the people he accused could answer it and stand up for themselves. There was nothing. Just accusations up in the air flying around. It was juicy, and it sold a lot of papers.
My boss let me have a radio so I could follow it. I wasn't allowed to go, but I had friends there. The Jameses were there, and I can still see the picture of Mrs. James when she got up to protest. The committee sat in a semicircle, and they each had a gavel and a mike in front of each one. Anytime anybody would get up to speak on any issue, they'd all go banging their gavels, so brrrrrrr all around the place. You couldn't hear anything.
So she got up to protest, and they told the (patrol) to take her out. The place was small; they were jammed in in single chairs, in this little tiny place. So they had to lift her up bodily. She was a spirited, wonderful lady.
My brother never showed any resentment, any anger.
Was he a communist? I don't know. I don't think so. We never discussed it. I don't think people realized how far it would go. That people could lose their jobs. Ralph came out better than anybody. He went back and had a very successful life in New York.
Jim Kinzel His grandmother was blacklisted
Two Irish setters romp through the wood-frame house in Vancouver, B.C. The irony that these dogs are red is not lost on Jim Kinzel, as he kneads a loaf of bread. On the wall is a portrait of his mother as a child, painted by famed artist Mark Tobey. His basement if full of pictures, posters and news clippings, a sad collection from his childhood.
Kinzel was just 4 when his grandparents, Burton and Florence James, were summoned before the Canwell Committee and cited for contempt when they refused to answer questions about communist affiliation. Their Playhouse Theater closed, his grandfather died - of a broken heart, says Kinzel - and his grandmother moved to Canada. Kinzel's family followed a few years later.
Today Kinzel, a building inspector, has nothing to do with the theater, other than the memories stored in his basement.
But he has been writing his stories, a kind of catharsis. "I think I have a lot more to say, a lot more to write."
My grandmother paid a lot of attention to me. In some respects she took me on as a project and, in later years, gave me books and wanted to talk to me after I read them.
She took a trip to Russia in 1934 to find out what they were doing in theater, opera and dance. She was quite excited about the Russian Revolution, which of course occurred when she was a young woman. And she saw a lot of hope.
My grandmother became very reticent to talk about her own politics. I asked her directly whether or not she was a communist, or had been a communist, and she said she didn't answer that question any more. It didn't serve me to know.
The Playhouse was committed to doing plays about organized labor, and I wouldn't be surprised if there wasn't a lot of discussion at the theater about politics. I'm under the impression (the hearings) lasted four to five years. I think that's because the fallout from the hearings lasted that long.
I can remember getting catcalled in the neighborhood. I remember getting called a commie, not with the understanding what a communist was.
My grandmother was a patriotic American. She really believed in the Constitution; she believed in the Declaration of Independence and could cite those things by memory. I remember at one point I was in conversation with my grandmother, and she stopped me. "Have you ever read the Declaration of Independence?" I said, no, and she pulled a book off the shelf, cracked it open and she started reading; she closed the book and continued with it. And then she stopped and sighed and said, "I wish the Americans would just pay more attention to their own history." I think that she really did believe in the American idea, the American dream, that everyone given the necessary opportunity could realize their potential.
I think she and my grandfather tried to live that in the context of the theater, and when this country turned on her she never quite got over it. There's some flaw in the American scenario that we fell victim to that's been operating since the beginning. That has to do with needing an enemy, and it just so happened in 1948 we fell into that category.
I was invited back to Seattle after my grandmother died by people who wanted to do something. This community was very torn asunder by the process, and the people were scattered all over the place. To some extent because we moved to Canada, to a totally new situation, we probably survived the aftermath a lot better than some of the people who were left behind who had to actually create new lives with the blacklist, who had to continue living in the situation that had turned on them.
Susan Gilmore is a reporter for The Seattle Times. Gary Settle is Pacific Northwest magazine's picture editor.
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