“Now I will ask you, are you, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party?” State Rep. Albert Canwell, chairman, Joint Legislative Committee on Un-merican Activities, 1948.
Before Joe McCarthy denounced spies in the State Department, before Ronald Reagan condemned Communists in Hollywood, even before the John Birch Society existed, Al Canwell hunted the Red Menace.
Fifty years ago, as a freshman state lawmaker from Spokane, he led a special legislative committee that tried to expose subversives and Communists.
His headline-grabbing hearings were among the first to demand suspected Communists in government and academia testify about their political past and name their associates.
Washington was among the first states to require government workers and teachers to sign loyalty oaths to keep their jobs.
And the University of Washington was the first academic institution to fire faculty who were merely suspected of being Communists.
“It was the coldest cold winter of our discontent, a pretty gruesome situation in a lot of ways,” said John Caughlin, an attorney who represented some of the six UW professors who eventually lost their jobs or were denied tenure.
The committee’s work even helped start the process that turned little-known former bureaucrat Alger Hiss into a nationally denounced traitor.
To his fans, Canwell was a patriot who rooted out subversives trying to undermine the country. To his critics, he was an ambitious politician trying to build a career by destroying people’s lives.
Canwell, now a 91-year-old great-grandfather, lives in a rambling white farmhouse along the Little Spokane River. The Berlin Wall has fallen and the Soviet Union disbanded, but he still collects information on people and groups he considers Communist.
“There’s a lot of people deeply concerned about the Communist threat,” he said recently. “They have a right to be.”
He remains controversial. He’s the subject of a 400-page oral history published last year by the secretary of state’s office. In it he claims prominent Spokane residents of the 1930s and ‘40s were known Communists.
His 1948 hearings are the basis of a new play and a three-week UW symposium to discuss his committee’s long-term impact on academic freedom. A few years ago, the university formally apologized to faculty members who were fired or punished after being tarred by the Canwell Committee.
“We look back on those days with shame,” then-president William Gerberding said in 1994. “They were disgraceful.”
Canwell cares as much about his critics today as he did 50 years ago. Which is to say, not at all.
“There was no time that we went overboard. I didn’t accuse anybody who wasn’t guilty as hell.”
‘The soviet of Washington’
Washington state has a history of supporting radical thinkers and Utopian socialists. During the Great Depression, some residents saw communism as an alternative to failing capitalism and looming fascism.
James Farley, a political adviser to Franklin Roosevelt, once quipped that the nation at that time consisted of 47 states and “the soviet of Washington.” West Side voters often supported candidates who were Progressives, Populists and even Communists.
Canwell was a product of Eastern Washington, where the farms and small towns bred conservatives much the way the unionized cities of Puget Sound spawned liberals.
The Spokane native worked on farms and orchards before becoming an itinerant journalist during the depths of the Depression. He sensed there was news in the growing radical movement, and money to be made selling stories about it to newspapers around the country.
While reporting on labor strikes, he became convinced Communists were taking over the unions and turning the Northwest into their base to conquer the country.
He began keeping his files on suspects. Those files grew later when he became a Spokane sheriff’s deputy who worked with what local and federal agents called the “Red Squad,” tracking suspected radicals.
In 1946, Canwell was watching a labor strike outside the Spokane County Courthouse with Ashley Holden, a longtime friend and the arch-conservative columnist of The Spokesman-Review. Canwell complained that someone should do something about the radicals.
Holden asked why Canwell wasn’t doing something.
“I said, ‘Well, I’m doing what I can. I’m telling you,”’ Canwell explained in the oral history. “And that’s what everybody did. They told somebody else, wanted somebody else to do the job, some other mouse to bell the cat.”
Shortly afterward, Holden wrote a column saying Canwell might run for the Legislature - without telling Canwell. A Republican in a traditionally Democratic district of north Spokane, Canwell said he didn’t expect to win. He spent little money and made only two promises: He wouldn’t raise taxes and he would do something about the Communists.
He was elected in a sweep that gave the GOP control of the Legislature for the first time in 12 years.
With Holden and other sympathetic journalists in Olympia chronicling his moves, Canwell set out to make good on the anti-Communist promise. He introduced a resolution to form a special committee to investigate subversives. The resolution passed, and the Spokane freshman was named to head the committee.
‘All powers necessary’
The committee’s charter to use “all powers necessary and convenient” was so broad that Canwell brought in witnesses from around the country. He traveled to California, where a similar committee had begun work, and to the East Coast to meet with other politicians and businessmen active in the anti-Communist movement.
At their request, he asked federal investigators to appear at a hearing and testify about a former State Department employee who some members of Congress suspected, but couldn’t prove, was a Soviet spy. Once the investigators named Alger Hiss in testimony in Washington state, the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee was free to call him and his accusers to testify about the allegation.
Hiss denied he was a Communist but was eventually convicted of perjury for denying he knew his accuser, Whittaker Chambers.
The Hiss case made a household name of a Canwell ally and freshman congressman on the House committee: Richard Nixon.
Canwell recently acknowledged Hiss had nothing to do with Washington. “He was connected to Washington state because I connected him. I could go almost anywhere for information.”
There was little opposition to Canwell in a state that had left the economic chaos of the ‘30s for the post-war boom of the ‘40s.
“Prosperity has broken out. The state’s economy is driven by mobilization for the Cold War. The University of Washington is looking to attract federal dollars for research,” said John Findlay, a UW history professor. “One way to get support is to not resist the Communist crusade.”
An iron hand
In July 1948, the committee opened hearings into allegations of communism at the University of Washington.
Canwell called it a response to “the demands of the people.” Parents were concerned about children going off to UW for an education and coming home quoting Karl Marx.
“This little group of Commies were the voice of the University of Washington … and a great many of the people throughout the state wanted something done,” he said.
The committee had federal investigators asking questions. State troopers enforced order inside the Seattle Armory building where the hearings were held.
“The place was so packed, people were shoved together, knees to the back of the chair in front,” recalled Jean Gundlach, whose brother Ralph Gundlach was a psychology professor called to testify and later fired.
Friendly witnesses were allowed to talk at length when they accused faculty members of Communist activity. Suspects were required to answer yes or no when asked if they had been a Communist.
Canwell “was determined to put people in jail,” said C.T. Hatten, Ralph Gundlach’s attorney at the time. “He controlled the hearing with an iron hand.”
Some professors named as Communists refused to say whether they had been party members. They faced charges of contempt.
Those who said they were not Communists faced charges of perjury. Those who said they had been Communists were asked to name others whom they knew in the party, and faced contempt charges if they refused.
Some reluctant witnesses eventually spent a month in jail.
Gundlach and two other professors were later dismissed from the university; three professors were denied tenure, either for refusing to say whether they ever belonged to the Communist Party, or refusing to name other party members after admitting past membership.
“There were some good lives of some good people that were really destroyed,” said attorney Caughlin, whose clients included philosophy Professor Herbert Phillips.
Dismissed from UW, Phillips was never able to return to teaching. He moved his family to Sequim and found work shoveling out barns at a dairy farm.
Someone had to be lying
A star committee witness was George Hewitt of New York, a former official of the American Communist Party turned government informant.
He accused Gundlach and Melvin Rader, another UW philosophy professor, of attending a special school for Communists in upstate New York in the summer of 1938.
As the committee’s second-to-last witness, Rader testified he had never been a Communist and never attended the school. Rader was adamant he spent that summer at a lodge near Everett with his wife.
A perjury charge was filed in King County against Hewitt, but the informant left the state before he could be arrested. He returned to New York and became a regular witness in federal investigations of Communists. A New York Supreme Court justice, saying he feared for Hewitt’s safety in Washington state, refused to extradite him.
Rader did not face UW sanctions like some of his colleagues, but the question remained: Who was lying?
The answer could either ruin Rader’s reputation or discredit the committee’s tactics. The Seattle Times assigned reporter Ed Guthman to find out.
He went to the Canyon Creek Lodge near Everett, found the former owner and asked to see the register from 1938. She said a committee investigator had taken it the previous fall.
The lawyer for the committee later found the register among its files, and Guthman discovered that evidence the committee had all along showed Rader and his wife were at the lodge in July 1938.
The reporter also found other records that showed the Raders had been in the state during the time Hewitt claimed the professor was in New York.
Confronted with the lodge’s guest register, Canwell contended it was poorly kept, missing pages and not competent evidence.
Rader was exonerated. Guthman won the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting.
A fading star
After the committee concluded its investigation, Canwell ran for the state Senate in 1948. He lost, and was turned out of the Legislature after just two years.
Republicans also lost control of the Legislature, in part as a back-lash to the committee’s investigation. The state never formed another such panel, and Canwell spent years defending the probe’s costs and fighting over control of its records.
“Canwell’s power diminished quickly - he was like a meteor going through the sky with terrible pyrotechnics, and then gone,” said Len Schroeter, former president of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Canwell ran for the U.S. Senate in 1950, and for the U.S. House in 1952 and 1954. He lost each time, even though some powerful political allies campaigned for him. Vice President Nixon stumped for him in 1954.
In 1963, Canwell and Holden, who was then the publisher of the Tonasket Tribune, were sued for libel by state Sen. John Goldmark, a state leader of the ACLU, which Canwell had denounced as a Communist front.
In one of the state’s most famous libel cases, a jury decided Goldmark had been libeled and awarded him $40,000, a record at the time. But the judge set aside that verdict, using a new U.S. Supreme Court standard for proving libel against public officials.
“I didn’t need to worry about libel,” Canwell said recently. “I’d walked all along the edge of it all my life as a newspaperman - that’s where the stories are.”
Canwell spent the rest of his working life running a private security business and bookstore in Spokane. Some of his records were destroyed in a 1984 fire, but he hints that he still has many documents that would incriminate prominent Spokane residents.
The Goldmark trial and the Canwell hearings have been the subject of several books - mostly critical of Canwell. He dismisses the critics as dupes or Communists.
Guthman, who once served as press secretary for then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy, said he’s not a Communist. But he’s been called one so often by Canwell that it no longer bothers him.
“It’s the talk of a terribly paranoid person,” Guthman said. “In a way, it’s sad, like a broken record.”
Some of Canwell’s targets were Communists, Guthman and others said. But some of the people he ruined were not.
Gundlach, despite all of Canwell’s charges, was never a Communist, said Hatten, his former attorney. He was merely a free-thinking radical.
Hatten knows, because he was a Communist for many years, although he was never asked the “are you now or have you ever been” question.
Canwell’s “broken record” is worth listening to, and his history is worth reading as a warning, Schroeter said.
“The oral history tells us how a community can be sucked into demonology, uncritically,” Schroeter said. “There are lessons to be learned.”
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