Un-Americanism in Seattle
The University of Washington, possibly the birthplace of McCarthyism, now shows some remorse

by John Ruhland
Free Press contributor

In 1948, 100 years after the publishing of the Communist Manifesto, the University of Washington (UW) in Seattle began a national trend by being the first school to fire tenured professors for their political affiliation with the Communist Party (CP), or for their refusal to cooperate with hearings. This set a precedent for the national purge to follow, including McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee which convened a few years later. In all, 80 hearings were held on campuses throughout the country.

The US government and the media had fomented anti-communist hysteria from the time of the Russian Revolution in 1917 until 1942. Around 1942 to 1943, there was a brief respite, as the US government tried to convince Americans that we wanted to be allies with the USSR. By 1947, the anti-communist frenzy was back with a vengeance.

The state legislature and the administration of UW used undemocratic tactics to suppress radical and progressive tendencies within the university and the greater community. Three tenured professors were fired, and many more were confronted and questioned by members of the Canwell Committee on Un-American Activities. Prior to the hearings, where fourteen people were subpoenaed to appear before the Canwell Committee, Ralph Gundlach wrote prophetically to several colleagues: "The strategy of the Canwell Committee is really to split up those who have been subpoenaed so that a number of persons may be fired, to the great relief of those challenged but missed who can then thankfully fight a losing battle for those discharged."

Gundlach was one of three tenured professors who were fired and who were never able to work in academia again. These three refused to answer any questions from the committee, because they felt speaking to them added legitimacy to the witch-hunt. Gundlach himself was never a member of the CP. Dr. Herbert Phillips, another of the three fired, was said to be one of the finest teachers that ever sat on the faculty of the UW. Gundlach was fined $250 and imprisoned for 30 days.

Garland Ethel, another professor forced to testify in the hearings, answered questions about himself and avoided being fired, however he did refuse to name associates in the party. Harold Eby and Melville Jacobs who testified after him were heartened by his resolve, and refused to name names. Ethel, Eby, and Jacobs were nearly fired because they denied past membership in the CP on the advice of their lawyers. They finally remained, but on probation for two years after being forced to sign an affidavit promising not to engage in outside political activities.

According to UW President Allen, the fired professors were "incompetent to teach" and "derelict in duty."

Members of the Canwell Committee included two Democrats and five Republicans. The hearings took place on the second floor of the armory, now the Center House of Seattle Center. Canwell had a list of forty faculty members he suspected of being communists. In the end, only nine UW professors and five others testified before the committee.

Canwell also accused Ted Astley who was in the administration as a Student Counselor, not on the faculty, and Rachmael Forschmieldt who worked for the City of Seattle Health Department. He also accused Burton and Florence Bean James and Albert Ottenheimer, who had founded their own theater company, the Seattle Repertory Playhouse. This allowed a negotiator for the University to intimidate the owner of the building holding the theater to turn it over to the University on overly generous terms. The negotiator stated that if they didn't, the building would be condemned.

A Brave Lawyer
John Caughlan, considered the lawyer for communists in Seattle during that time, with partner Barry Hatten and Sarah Lesser, was the civil liberties lawyer for some of the defendants, and is today still an activist in Seattle. Defending communists caused considerable negative effects on Caughlan and on his family.

Caughlan has an impressive history. He spent a year studying classics in a PhD program at Yale, but then changed direction and entered Harvard Law School in 1932. He entered a rather conservative law office, and he also became secretary for the ACLU in Washington state. Terms of his employment included that he could have private cases, but the law office threw him out because he accepted privately a civil liberties case representing the CP. The ACLU kicked him out as well, without due process. At that time the ACLU was afraid of being "tainted" by communism.Caughlan, who opposed Canwell, is clearly pleased that the events beginning in 1948 on the UW campus are now receiving publicity. But he was somewhat concerned that the focus of presentations at the recent UW "All Powers Project" was not what actually happened in 1948.

For example, the community theater was destroyed with the complicity of the university, and people's lives were destroyed. Discussion at the recent UW events seemed rather to focus on the fact that many people were falsely accused of being communists, rather than on whether people should be persecuted for their political affiliation. The actual issue before the tenure panel was whether it was possible for a member of the CP to be a good teacher. The tenure panel voted by substantial majority that membership in the CP wasn't a good reason for discharging anyone. The president and the Board of Regents saw to it that this recommendation was over-ruled.

The first step the UW made towards rectifying the tremendous mistake it made in 1948 was in 1994, when then-UW President William Gerberding officially apologized on behalf of the university, stating that what occurred was wrong.

After losing in the 1948 election, Canwell destroyed extensive files, reports, documents, and records of surveillance. He started the American Intelligence Service, where he kept files on hundreds of people alleged to have links with communism, and published a newsletter called "The Vigilante." Canwell is still living in Spokane, and according to the December 1997 edition of a UW publication entitled "Columns," expresses no regrets for his actions.

For more information, and to view photographs of the Canwell Committee and those accused,
visit the UW exhibit site: http://www.lib.washington.edu/exhibits/AllPowers/.

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Contents this page were published in the May/June, 1998 edition of the Washington Free Press.
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