House Bill 2251, introduced recently by state Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, is a simple bill, but it matters to anyone who cares about constitutional rights. The bill would repeal a 1951 Washington state law that makes membership in a subversive organization a felony.
Passage of HB 2251 would mean a great deal to those who remember the bad old days of Joseph McCarthy, the Wisconsin senator whose name came to mean “guilt by association.” Repeal will also matter to those aware of Washington state’s large role in the witch hunts of the Cold War era.
The Washington act (Chapter 9.81 of the Revised Code of Washington) remains on the books, despite the fact that it was held unconstitutional years ago. Sadly, it evokes the years when people went to jail for refusing to implicate friends and associates for “un-American activities.” It reminds us that there were writers and artists who were branded as “Reds” and lost their livelihoods — blacklisted by employers and unable to find work. Those who refused to sign a so-called “Loyalty Oath” were flat out denied employment.
It was a scary time, an era when people were coerced into naming others who might have “communist leanings.”
And, although the depraved movement known as “McCarthyism” was mainly a Washington, D.C., abomination, Washington state had its version of the Red Scare. In fact, Washington’s law predated the major national excesses and set a pattern for them. This state’s version often went even further than the national witch hunts, intimidating hundreds into sacrificing individual freedoms.
News Tribune columnist Peter Callaghan rightly made the connection between the state’s subversive activities statute and the infamous Canwell Committee that spawned it. In 1946, Albert Canwell, a freshman Republican from Spokane, persuaded the Legislature to form the Joint Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities in Washington State. The Legislature made Canwell its chairman.
Canwell told audiences, “Because the University of Washington is located within the strategic invasion path from Russia, great efforts have been made by Reds to colonize it – with considerable success.” And so he set off to validate his claim by finding communists at the university.
The Canwell Committee hearings totally disregarded civil liberties and the Bill of Rights. Those hauled before the committee had no right to see evidence, no right to face accusers, and only limited rights to legal counsel.
Lives and careers were ruined without charges or proof. Three University of Washington professors were implicated, refused to testify, and were held in contempt. All were fired and never taught again. One of them, Ralph Gundlach, became a successful psychiatrist. But the other two had unfortunate early deaths. Herbert Phillips, a philosophy professor, became a dairy farmer and dockworker and died at 56; Joe Butterworth, an English instructor, fell into alcoholism and poverty and died in 1970.
A fourth professor, Melvin Rader, fought back and eventually was vindicated through the efforts of Ed Guthman, a courageous Seattle Times reporter who would win the Pulitzer Prize for his work clearing Rader. Guthman later became a journalism professor and editor, finishing his career at the Philadelphia Inquirer. Rader subsequently published False Witness, his own vivid account of his struggle to overcome the Canwell Committee’s rush to judgment.
Canwell, who lived to the ripe old age of 95, dying in 2002, never repented the havoc he caused. He penned an oral history for the Secretary of State’s office in 1997, claiming, “There was no time when we went overboard. I didn’t accuse anybody who wasn’t guilty as hell.” Later that year, he told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that he had no regrets and wished he had been harsher.
The university professors weren’t the only witch hunt victims. Others, too, suffered from the spread of Canwell-inspired McCarthyism. Terry Pettus, a progressive Seattle reporter and member of the American Newspaper Guild, was arrested in the summer of 1952 by FBI agents. He was charged with conspiracy to advocate the violent overthrow of the government. His crime was guilt by association, membership in the Communist Party (although when I interviewed him in the 1980s he told me that he’d started out as a card-carrying Republican). At the time of his arrest, he served as editor of “The People’s World.” He was one of the few who actually did time in jail — 60 days during his six-month trial — for refusing to implicate others.
In later years, Terry became a respected spokesman for the Floating Homes community and led the movement to clean up Lake Union. Today there is a small park in the Eastlake neighborhood named for the man who survived his brush with McCarthyism.
As for Canwell, he was voted out of the Legislature by the time the state act was passed in 1951. But the misbegotten crusade he launched lived on, picked up by Sen. McCarthy and perpetuated in the Washington state act that required all state employees to take loyalty oaths and confess any past association with “subversive organizations.”
There’s another sad footnote to this state’s red baiting era and its close link to McCarthyism. The Wisconsin Senator not only attacked writers and artists, but he became notorious for his pursuit of anyone with an alternative life style.
McCarthy went out of his way to target homosexuals, whom, he contended, were prone to associate with “fellow travelers.” At one point, he called one of his numerous Monday morning press conferences to berate the U. S. State Department, saying it was “infiltrated” by homosexuals.
It is altogether fitting in a year when the Legislature rightly seems poised to extend marriage rights to its gay citizens that the Legislature might also take the right step and repeal the subversive activities statute that was so destructive of civil right and liberties.
Maintaining this contemptible statute on the books gives Washington a black eye. The statute devalues the state code and serves as a sickening reminder of a time when many were forced to sacrifice their freedoms. Rep. Fitzgibbon has shown us the way. It is time to expunge permanently that regrettable period of mass hysteria and to say goodbye to Canwell, to McCarthy, and to the evil that lived with them.