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The McCarthy Period

Rainier Beach High School

May 24, 1990

 

I understand you have been studying the McCarthy period, which has also been described as a witch hunt. I looked witch hunt up in the Webster College dictionary where it is in part defined like this: "An investigation usually conducted with much publicity, supposedly to uncover subversive political activity, disloyalty, etc., but really to harass and weaken the entire political opposition."
I think that is a fair description of the McCarthy witch hunt. It was indeed for the purpose of weakening the entire political opposition to the Cold War against the Soviet Union. Since that country's revolution in 1919 which changed its capitalist economy into a socialist economy, the capitalist countries, particularly the United States and Great Britain plotted to overturn the new Soviet government, first by military intervention, in which they were joined by the French, and failing that, by trade boycotts.
However, when faced with the threat of Hitler Germany's invasion of both France and England, the United States, France and Great Britain became allies of the Soviet Union, the result of which Hitler's fascist army was defeated. After the war public approval of the Soviet Union's great contribution to the victory was at an all-time high. The U.S. General McArthur said: "Thank God for the Red Army."
To return to the pre-war agenda of destroying the socialism of the Soviet Union it was necessary to turn around the thinking of the general public. So, Winston Churchill, prime minister of Great Britain, made his famous speech at Fulton, Missouri, saying that the Soviet Union was the enemy that must be fought on all fronts. President Truman took up where Churchill left off and by executive action ordered that all government employees be forced to take loyalty oaths and declare they were not, nor ever had, been Communists.
Loyalty or disloyalty is a very private matter because there is no way, with or without oaths, can the secrecy of one's inmost thoughts be known. Therefore, it is obvious that the sole purpose of the loyalty oath was to intimidate people into suppressing their ideas of what they thought of the Cold War campaign. Many refused to take the oaths as a matter of principle, claiming that membership in the Communist Party was their right as citizens of a free country, just as was membership in the Democratic, Republican, or any other political party.
So, it was through the Democratic President, Harry Truman, that the Cold War was launched and it was carried through by the succeeding Republican presidents into the period of political repression known as the McCarthy period.
McCarthy was a senator from Wisconsin who was obsessed by the anti-Communist virus and carried on a hysterical campaign, supported by the newspapers, TV and radio for several tragic years, until finally his arrogance and extremism led to public refusal to take any more of it, and he went down to defeat. But not until damage was done to the lives of uncounted thousands of people.
The witch hunt penetrated into every part of our society. For example, the churches were ordered to have their governing members take loyalty oaths, stating they were not Communists. Most churches caved in. However, one church in Los Angeles, the Unitarian Church, refused to take the oath and was immediately punished by the Internal Revenue Service, demanding them to pay taxes on their church building and property, even though it was, and still is, the law that churches pay no taxes.
The church brought legal action against this injustice. After several years in court they won their case and the Internal Revenue Service was forced to return the taxes. That settled the matter for all other churches.
Unions were forced to take loyalty oaths that none of their officers was a Communist. Many, if not most, gave in to this pressure and actually expelled officers or members who had fought against corruption, racism or other discriminatory acts within the union. Seamen had to take loyalty oaths or their right to employment was forfeited. Thousands lost their jobs.
The Democratic Political party suffered loss of many good leaders through the witch hunt within the party.
All teachers were forced to take the oath or lose their jobs. Many were accused of having unpopular political opinions and found themselves unemployed and blacklisted. Hundreds of the best and most courageous teachers were lost to the schools, and, of course, to the students. But many fought back. For example, a number of professors at the University of Washington brought suit against the loyalty oath, and after a long court battle, won their case, thus making an important contribution to civil liberties in this country.
The arts came under attack. Among others the great African American baritone singer, Paul Robeson, was brought before the national Unamerican Activities Committee and questioned. He made a courageous and principled defense. Nevertheless, the government punished him by refusing to let him leave the country to give concerts abroad. On one occasion he was to sing at a convention of the Seamen's Union in Vancouver, B.C. but was not permitted to cross the border. So he returned to Seattle and sang to them over the telephone with some loud-speaker device. He promised to return to the Peace Park on the Canadian border, which he did. His open-air concert was attended by thousands of people from both Canada and the United States.
Charlie Chaplin, the great British comedian, who had made his residence in this country, where he made some of the world's most outstanding movies, was deported to England.
Ronald Reagan, who was then a B-rated movie actor and president of the Screen Actors Guild, led a movement to blacklist actors and technicians. The blacklist threw hundreds of them out of jobs with no hope of finding others in the movie industry.
A famous court trial of what was known as the Hollywood Ten, sentenced them to prison for refusal to take the oath or state whether or not they were or ever had been Communists. Among them were some of the finest artists.
One of the Ten, I think it was John Howard Lawson, wrote a movie under the assumed name of "Rich". It was entitled "Friendly Persuasion", a beautiful story of the Quakers in the Civil War. It won an Oscar and no one knew or heard of, or knew the whereabouts of Mr. Rich - until some time later. Public outrage at this injustice to talented writers of movie scenarios helped put a stop to this attack on the arts.
A whole crew of professional stool pigeons erupted, who for a fee, would appear in court or at governmental state and national Unamerican Activities Committee hearings, and swear that this, that and other accused was a Communist. It is interesting that the fee for men who testified was $50, while the women and Filipinos received $25.00. I always felt they should have joined a "Stoolpigeons" union and fight for better pay and no discrimination.
The known Communists came under special persecution. Even the lawyers who defended them were harassed and threatened with disbarment. Judges who were brave enough to rule according to law, if the law favored the accused, were threatened. Jury's were intimidated into handing down guilty verdicts or face the loss of jobs or pensions should they decide otherwise in view of the evidence.
There were Communists arrested all over the nation, five of them in Seattle. They were accused of plotting to overthrow the government by force and violence, but not one charge was ever proved against them, not one.
The trials were largely on what books they read and what was in the books. Many served prison sentences, but most, after a long court battle, were freed. Time was beginning to run out on the witch hunters due to a constant increase public outrate and disapproval. One example is the fate of the chairman of our state Unamerican Activities Committee, Senator Canwell of Spokane, who was soundly defeated the next time he came up for reelection.
I thought you might want to know what a Communist did from day to day. I joined the Party in about 1934, in the middle of the Great Depression (your grandparents no doubt well remember). Millions of families were unemployed. Teachers, engineers, actors, nurses, bookkeepers, secretaries, construction workers, carpenters, waiters, cooks and truck drivers - people in every walk of life And of all races. The depression bit deep. I, a single mother with a small daughter, was one of them. I was a secretary. At the beginning there was no welfare, no unemployment insurance, no social security for the retired worker, no industrial insurance for injured workers.
I, too, was dependent on an inadequate food voucher, which was all the help that was available. I came across a person one day at the food voucher station, who asked me to sign a petition to the state legislature. It petitioned the legislature to provide unemployment insurance to jobless workers. I had never heard of such a thing and neither had anybody else as far as I knew. I asked who drew up the petition (which I signed, of course) and was told it was drawn up by the Communist Party. That really interested me so I went to one of their meetings held in a home only to find out that the family was being evicted for non payment of rent. So I joined in what was occurring. As the Sheriff's men brought the furniture out to pile it on the sidewalk, the rest of us picked it up and took it into the house by the back door. This went on for quite a while until the sheriff and his men, who were not very enthusiastic in the first place, left in despair and frustration. We went inside for the meeting. I learned that the Communists were planning to organize the people at the voucher station to better things in general. From then on I was very busy. So busy, in fact, that I forgot my own very real problems. I no longer felt alone and helpless; matter of fact, it was even a sort of fun time.
We demonstrated down at Olympia, occupied the city hall for days, wrote letters to politicians and wherever needed. We struggled for food, for housing, for clothing, against racism and for the rights of women. We also helped organize a Senior Citizens Union which launched a petition to set up pensions on a state level for the elderly. This prompted the Postmaster General to say "The United States is made up of 49 states and the Soviet of Washington." This was the very first state pension ever paid in the United States, and remained in force until the national Society Security payments began to take the place of state pensions. Incidentally this pension union was placed on what was known as the Attorney General's Subversive Activities list, in an effort to destroy the union.
As the Depression began to thin out due to the hiring of people in government work programs, and later through preparation for the World War II, the activities of the Communist Party became less necessary and I lost interest and gradually stopped going to meetings and paying dues. About 1942 I was no longer a member although I never lost my respect for the work we did when I was, and I have many friends who still belong today.
Early in 1958, some 13 years after I left the Communist Party, I was arrested for deportation and charged with conspiring to overthrow the government by force and violence and with belonging to the Communist party thirteen years previously.
I was not a citizen, having been born in Victoria, in Canada. I might say that the foreign born were the earliest victims of the McCarthy witch hunt. The reason for this is that those who are foreign born do not have the protection that native born citizens have of the laws of the Constitution, so they are easier to prosecute. We had a number of foreign born, or aliens, in this country then. This arrest of foreign born had a great affect on all the non-citizens and hampered them in any effort they might make to join a union to better their lives. Our immigrants from Mexico, Central and South America, Asia and the Philippines are a source of cheap labor and agriculture and cannery projects owned by large corporation, want to keep it that way. They still have a hard and uncertain life.
Some 400 aliens who were Communists or suspected Communists were arrested throughout the country. Most of them were rescued by the courts.
When I was arrested I was put in a room with two other prisoners. The first thing they wanted to know was why I was in jail. I told them I had been accused of conspiring to overthrow the government. One of the young women said: "What a wonderful idea. The government ought to be overthrown. They had a jigsaw puzzle in the room which I started to work on because I hardly ever had a chance to finish one and here was my big chance. But it was not to be. My friends bailed me out before the day was over. So much for my being in the slammer.
My arrest caused a little flurry in the newspapers and reporters interviewed me. The first question was "What did I intend to do if I were deported?" I remember saying the first thing that crossed my mind: "I know I wont be deported, the American people wont let that happen" I could not have been more right. A committee was formed by volunteers, most of whom I had never heard of, calling themselves The Washington Committee for the Protection of the Foreign Born. Eventually we had some 14 cases in this state. Among them were four Filipinos, leaders of the Cannery Workers Union, who had fought corruption in the union and for a contract with the cannery companies, with great success. But the Immigration Department arrested them in violation of the law, and was not able to deport any of them after many months and even years of court action.
At one stage in my case Canada refused to accept me because I was no longer a citizen of that country due to the fact I had married an American. In those days when women married foreigners in either Canada or the United States, they lost their citizenship, while at the same time they did not take on the citizenship of their husbands. They were women without a country. This law has since been changed.
This decision from Canada was a low blow to the Immigration Service. Then, after licking their wounds a while, they attempted to deport me to England on the basis that my father was a British citizen, therefore I derived that citizenship from him.
As the case went from court to court, even to the Supreme Court of the United States, we lost each court battle, but in the end we won the war, because the McCarthy hysteria had died down through public pressure and even the Immigration Department decided that I wasn't going to overthrow the government after all, and they dismissed the case, after nearly twenty years. In 1970 I became a citizen.
During those some 20 years I went on with my life, working in a law office as secretary. My daughter grew up and had five children. They and my brother, sister and mother stood by me through it all.
During this time I had plenty of things to do besides worrying about something that might never happen. I got involved in the environmental movement, busy saving wildlife, protecting wilderness, working for pure air and unpolluted water, open spaces in cities, and the many issues that we face today due to destruction of so much of the earth on which we live.
I also became interested in Nicaragua, where our government was trying to overthrow a government that nationalized their tropical rainforests and thus sent the big timber companies out of the country; and banned the use of poisonous chemicals in farming, which cost United States chemical companies a bundle in lost trade; and many other acts that dug into the profits of corporations who wanted the cheap labor and natural resources of Nicaragua for their profits.
I visited the country four times since 1985; the last time was to observe their elections. During the question period I'd be glad to talk more about Nicaragua.
I understand you have been studying the McCarthy period in American history, which I think is good. We have times in our history that we can be proud of, but in far too many times where we can only be ashamed. We must have knowledge of these bad times, what caused them, and what we must do to keep them from occurring against. Otherwise we can make the same mistakes.
As you must know by what I have said, I never did try to overthrow the government, or if I did, I didn't do a very good job. America is my adopted country and I hope never to stand still to see our government violate our Constitution or discriminate against the foreign born, or the people of color, whether their forefathers came from Africa, Asia, Europe, or Latin America. I also resent discrimination against women in all its aspects. If that is interpreted as "overthrowing the government", so be it and I am all for it.
And, in a way, it is sort of a fun way to live.

Hazel Wolf

(Last updated October 24, 1998)


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