Jack Tenney, Sam Yorty, and the Birth of the California Un-American Activities Committee
The California Un-American Activities Committee (CUAC) was established in 1941 and ended in 1971. During these thirty years, the committee produced or received thousands of documents, including fifteen published reports; unpublished reports and studies; newspaper clippings; photographs; hearing transcripts (pictured); correspondence; publications; depositions; audio recordings; and approximately 125,000 index cards tracking an estimated 20,000 individuals and organizations.
The CUAC files represent one of the most significant collections for a study of modern California history and politics and has importance for American and international history.
A number of Congressional committees pre-date CUAC, including the Fish Committee, which focused on communism throughout the United States in 1930 and the McCormack-Dickstein Committee, which operated from 1934 through 1937 and focused on Nazi propaganda and foreign subversion. The work of these two committees was folded into the Dies Committee, chaired by Representative Martin Dies of Texas in 1938. The Dies Committee continued through 1944 when it was replaced by the infamous House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1945, later chaired by Senator Joseph McCarthy.
It is interesting to note that California's attention to Un-American activities predates the McCarthyism of the 1950s. As the files reveal, however, there was a close and ongoing relationship between the California committee and federal authorities.
California Witch Hunt Part 1 is the first of the exhibit's three parts, all of which can be viewed on Google Arts and Culture.
The United States government had established diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union in 1933, but by that time, Joseph Stalin's totalitarian regime presented increasing difficulties for friendly relations with the West.
In the 1930s the small but growing popularity of communism in California was being tracked by state officials.
This map, dated July 1934, shows that the California Department of Penology’s Division of Criminal Identification and Investigation was mapping where alleged members of the Communist Party were active.
In 1934, the Department of Penology also developed this organizational chart of alleged communist controlled organizations in California. It asserted that many labor organizations were “communist controlled”.
A disclaimer at the bottom right of the organizational chart reads, “compiled from sources believed to be authentic”.
This uncertainty pervaded California government’s efforts to identify communists.
Jack Breckenridge Tenney was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri. In 1908, when he was ten years old, the Tenney family moved to California. After serving as a field clerk in France during World War I, Tenney returned to California and earned a law degree. Pictured is Jack Tenney at the Los Angeles County State Relief Administration in 1940.
While his day job was working as a defense attorney in downtown Los Angeles, his true passion was writing music. Tenney composed a number of songs including “Mexicali Rose,” which wouldn’t received much notice until years later when western movie star Gene Autry made it a hit.
With his hit song, “Mexicali Rose”, Tenney rose in stature. By 1936, Tenney wasn’t just a composer, he had become Vice President of the American Federation of Musicians Local 47 in Hollywood and had his eye on the union Presidency. As his influence grew he decided to run for office.
Tenney set up a meeting with Arthur Samish to discuss his political aspirations. Samish was Sacramento’s most powerful lobbyist and had enormous influence in the California legislature.
Samish's discussion with Tenney comes in several versions, but essentially he asked Tenney what experience he had. Tenney responded that he had written the song Mexicali Rose. “That’s good enough for me”, Samish is said to have replied. With a nod from Samish, Tenney became a viable candidate for the California State Assembly. After decades of pulling strings in the state capital, Samish was ultimately convicted of tax evasion, sent to prison, and was forced to pay the I.R.S. one million dollars.
Tenney and Sam Yorty, another aspiring politician in Los Angeles, were on the ballot in 1936. Seen here is the Statement of the Vote for California's 1936 General Election, showing both Tenney's (Forty-Sixth District) and Yorty's (Sixty-Fourth District) victories, as well as several candidates of the state's Socialist, Communist, and Progressive parties.
On November 3, 1936, the Los Angeles Times printed a sample ballot encouraging its readers to vote Republican. Pictured is the official Statement of the Vote, showing total votes cast at the General Election of 1936. This document illustrates that Communist Party members openly ran for election for many offices, as did members of the Democratic, Republican, Socialist, Prohibition, Progressive, and Commonwealth parties.
Both Sam Yorty and Jack Tenney won endorsements from a wide range of left-leaning organizations. According to the Los Angeles Times, in addition to his other support, Yorty won the endorsement of the Los Angeles Communist Party. Yorty and Tenney were both successfully elected to the California Assembly in 1936 and were seen as members of the Democratic Party’s “progressive left wing”.
Tenney and Yorty would face their first real challenge in 1938 when they, and three other members of the California Assembly, were accused of having been members of the Communist Party. The source of these allegations was Texas Congressman Martin Dies (pictured seated in center) who chaired the Dies Committee – a precursor to the House Un-American Activities Committee.
In August 1938, Tenney spoke at a rally of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League at which the dissolution of the Dies Committee was demanded, stating "Fellow subversive elements, I have just heard that Mickey Mouse is conspiring with Shirley Temple to overthrow the government and that there is a witness who has seen the "Red" card of Donald Duck. When the Dies Committee stoops to calling President Roosevelt a Communist, and says that Mrs. Roosevelt is a front for subversive elements, then I think the rest of us should be flattered to be put in this company."
Meanwhile, the Dies Committee had collected sworn affidavits from a man named Arthur Kent who had been arrested for a series of burglaries in Beverly Hills and Bel-Air. Kent would steal valuables from the wealthy and give 90% of the proceeds to the Communist Party.
While in custody at Folsom Prison, Kent, who the press had quickly named the “Red Robber," claimed he was the local membership chairman of the Communist Party. Kent proceeded to “name names” stating that Tenney, Yorty and others were members of the Communist Party from 1936 -1937.
Though Kent’s trustworthiness was suspect, Congressman Dies released the information just days before the California gubernatorial election in 1938. The Los Angeles Times was quick to print the allegations which were widely seen as an attempt to undermine Culbert Olson, the democratic candidate for governor, and other progressive democrats on the ballot. Despite the allegations, Olson was elected Governor and both Tenney and Yorty were re-elected.
Upon learning that he had been subpoenaed for the S.R.A. hearing, Paul Cline (pictured), then executive secretary of the Communist Party in Los Angeles, shared his thoughts with the Los Angeles Times.
“I see by the papers that I’ve been subpoenaed to appear before the Yorty “little Dies Committee” meeting in Los Angeles today and tomorrow. Fine! I hope Mr. Yorty doesn’t get cold feet, that he really means to let me talk because I’ve got plenty to tell! Ironically enough, the last time I had the pleasure of talking to Mr. Yorty and Mr. Tenney together was right in Mr. Yorty’s own apartment in Sacramento whither he had invited Mr. Schneiderman, state secretary of the communist party and myself to discuss certain “problems”, the nature of which I am not at all adverse to divulging.”
“In the course of the past election campaigns I’ve had a number of “pow-wows” with Messrs. Yorty and Tenney, and --- yes, come to think of it, with Culbert L. Olson.”. The Communist leader then charged the Assemblymen with “turning coat” and the Governor with “feebly lumbering along behind them.” “I hope Yorty and Tenney don’t try to gag me at their committee hearings. I want to discuss facts that the public ought to know. But I certainly don’t intend to lend myself to their campaign of personal vindictiveness and political heresy-hunting.”
Yorty later notified the press and said the Sheriff’s office was unable to serve certain communist party leaders with subpoenas and that he believed the witnesses had “hidden out.” No names were mentioned.
The next day, the S.R.A. hearing was packed and placed Los Angeles Assemblymen Yorty and Tenney in an awkward position as they proceeded to go after their own constituencies. Scheduled to go on all day, the hearing was cut short. It concluded with loud booing from the large crowd in attendance.
While the hearing garnered front page coverage in the Los Angeles Times, the larger development was that both men had made a dramatic shift. Not only did the hearing formally sever any alleged ties with the Communist Party, going forward they would establish themselves as outspoken anti-communists.
Pictured seated, second and third from left are Jack Tenney and Sam Yorty at the S.R.A. hearing in Los Angeles.
After the hearing, Yorty’s committee issued a report (1950 reprint of 1940 original, pictured) with alarmist chapter titles including, “Dominated by Russia," “Crisis Awaits”, “Communists Control State, County, Municipal Workers of America," “McWilliams Hires Communist,” and, most menacingly, a chapter titled, “Broader Scope Necessary.”
The Yorty report states, “One of the startling disclosures of the Yorty committee’s investigation was the fact that a large percentage of the communists working in the State Relief Administration were graduates of the state-supported University of California. In keeping with their plan, recruiting has been effectively done on the campus of the University of California.”
The Yorty report concluded with a short list of recommendations, including “a thorough investigation of all subversive activities in California be undertaken as soon as possible.” The other two recommendations focused on defending against “fifth column propagandists, columns of marauding international gangsters, and sabotage.”
Pasted to the binding of the Yorty report was the committee’s own elaborate Communist International organizational chart of alleged communist-dominated and influenced organizations in California in 1940. It suggested a global structure that permeated a vast array of organizations in the United States, all the way down to the local YMCA and YWCA.
The chart focused extensively on organized labor groups. Labor unions were actively struggling against California business interests to expand workers rights, benefits and protections.
Richard E. Combs (standing) had served as chief counsel to Yorty’s State Relief Administration investigation and would continue on with Tenney’s Joint Fact- Finding Committee on Un-American Activities. Combs played a significant role in the committee’s work. He not only prepared the scripts for each of the hearings, he did most of the questioning of witnesses both in closed and open session. He also was responsible for writing almost all of the committee’s periodic reports.
While there were times when Tenney was engaged in the questioning of witnesses, for the most part Tenney would open things up and then defer by saying, “Mr. Combs?” Combs would then proceed through his list of prepared questions, with committee members chiming in as they deemed fit.
Along with the closed and opened hearings, Combs also served as the representative of the committee before state panels and even committees of the United States Congress.
Former President of the University of California, Clark Kerr, an open critic, states in his memoirs that Richard Combs, “worked from his house in Three Rivers, a small town near Fresno. He collected secondary material on alleged subversives and was the welcoming recipient of unconfirmed rumors and suspicions.”
Combs’ self-perceived role with the committee was laid bare early on during a hearing in 1941 when he told a witness that he had “been in charge of this investigation for a period of some months.”
Pictured from left to right, Joseph E. Nolan, Senator Hugh M. Burns, Assemblyman Jesse R. Kellems, Assemblyman Randall F. Dickey, Chairman Jack Tenney, and Chief Counsel Richrad E. Combs (standing), questioning Pedro B. de la Villasenor.
It is difficult to overstate the powers of the Joint Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities in California. Unknown to most Californians, a privilege of legislators is to be free from arrest or civil process for what they do or say in legislative proceedings. This privilege has been carefully preserved in the formation of both our state and nation. The privilege exists even if the motives of legislators are improper.
The legislators’ privilege was legally challenged with the case of Tenney v. Brandhove [341 U.S. 367 (1951)], to no avail.
In addition, the “elastic” powers of the committee were found to be “exceedingly helpful to other law enforcement agencies”. They “cut through the technical restriction of other investigative units which are primarily law-enforcing in character rather than fact-finding”. The committee had the power of subpoena and could examine witnesses under oath while not being bound by the rules of evidence.
With these powers and exemptions, the committee could badger, accuse, and even destroy the reputation of a witness, in many cases making them unemployable. This would become particularly evident in the committee’s efforts targeting Hollywood writers and organized labor.
Pictured is an excerpt from the committee's 1943 report, describing some of its powers.
While Jack Tenney had numerous investigative tools at his disposal as chairman of the Un-American Activities Committee, he was significantly empowered by Rena Marie Vale.
Born in Arizona in 1898, Vale graduated from Northern Arizona Normal School in Flagstaff and taught school for two years before moving to California. While she held a number of jobs, including selling men’s hosiery and free-lance writing for various newspapers and journals, she also wrote short stories and motion picture scenarios, which was clearly her forte. Impressively, she won a prize of $5,000 in a nationwide scenario writing contest conducted by Paramount and Photoplay.
Vale had a genuine interest in socialist and communist organizations, discussing them with Communist Party members while working at Universal Studios as a secretary to writers. However, by 1936 she was unemployed and had registered with the California State Emergency Relief Administration. By December she had a job at the Works Progress Administration at which time she joined the Communist Party. She was then directed by the Communist Party to transfer to the the Federal Theater Project. There, she worked on a play titled, "The Sun Rises in the West," which had links to John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.
By 1938 Vale was sufficiently disenchanted with the Party that she mailed in her resignation. There are, no doubt, many reasons why Vale left the Communist Party. Possibly, one of them was being relegated to the role of stenographer and assistant due to her gender. At the Federal Theater Project, she was demoted and her salary was cut.
Rena Vale didn’t just leave the Communist Party. Ever the writer, she agreed to write an affidavit - a first person account of all she had witnessed as a Communist Party member. She also provided Tenney and federal investigators with a veritable cornucopia of leads and would find employment with both the Dies committee and the Tenney committee.
Tenney’s first committee report, released in 1943, included the complete fifty-three page affidavit of Rena Vale (its first two pages pictured). It laid out a road map for tracking down communists throughout the Los Angeles region, including the methods of recruitment and the names of scores of alleged communists. Her affidavit helped stoke the flames of a communist threat.
Tenney and Combs had an oft-repeated saying, “Subversive organizations wither and die under the penetrating searchlight of publicity.” This statement suggests that the committee’s purpose was not so much fact-finding as it was to accuse, oppress, and crush the progressive movement. It also garnered Tenney constant attention. "Red Baiting," which is essentially accusing someone of being a communist, became a mainstay of the Tenney committee.
The Tenney Committee’s first 445-page report (pictured) was issued in 1943. In the report, the committee asserted that journalist and writer Eugene Lyons had written brilliantly in defense of red-baiting in his book, “The Red Decade.” The Tenney committee announced its full-throated endorsement of the practice:
“The Committee investigating Un-American activities in California has not only said 'Boo!' to the hobgoblin red-baiter-taboo but has actually found courage to subpoena the medicine men of Communist Voodooism and compel them to testify in public hearings. The jungle drums of the Communist press have roared and sent up great turmoil. New names have been invented and hurled with special venom at the committee and its members; distorted news items and lying editorials have been generously indulged in, but the spell has been broken. The committee is happy to report that the citizenry of California and of the United States may successfully risk “red-baiting” and the terrible appellation of “red-baiters.”
In 1941, Tenney began his tenure as chairman of the committee, and did so by addressing a personal grievance. The very first witnesses called before Tenney’s Un-American Activities Committee were the leadership of Local 47 of the American Musicians' Union (hearing transcript pictured), whose membership had ousted Tenney less than two years earlier.
Tenney questioned five key members of the union and requested they provide copies of the union's by-laws of 1939 and 1940 - the window of time in which Tenney’s ouster took place.
He also introduced Assembly Bill 1545 in his first year as chairman which “related to labor organizations and the procedures to be followed in fining, suspending, and expelling members thereof.” The bill, which included elaborate requirements that trade unions or labor organizations had to follow if they wished to expel a member, died in committee without further action.
In the first official report of the committee released in 1943, Tenney Red-baited the Musicians Union with this statement, “The Musicians’ Union of Los Angeles may definitely be said to be under the control and domination of the Communist Party and is presently being used to carry out certain parts of the Communist Party program.”
Resources and Methods of Investigation
While the majority of the Tenney committee hearings and activities were conducted in Los Angeles, the committee had two full-time undercover investigators, Thomas L. Cavett in Southern California and Harry T. Machell in Northern California.
The committee augmented staff when needed by hiring additional investigators. It also relied on the assistance of volunteer investigators, attachés, and an extensive network of supportive individuals and organizations, particularly the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars. According to the committee’s 1943 report, “Many other patriotic and civic organizations who do not desire publicity, likewise rendered invaluable service.”
All of this information was used not only to track suspected “communists” but also “fellow travelers” - individuals who were suspected of being associated with communists.
To come under suspicion one had only to attend a meeting where a suspected communist or fellow traveler was also present. Examples of this are pictured here: a report from an investigator named Quink, who had infiltrated an American Youth for Democracy meeting; a letter to Tenney from a citizen claiming to have seen suspicious activity at a nearby residence; and a letter to Tenney from investigator Thomas Cavett regarding a suspected organization.
The Committee Collected Election Documents
The California Un-American Activities Committee files are expansive and include copies of election documents. These documents would not only be used to identify Communist Party members, but also individuals who had signed nominating petitions, signed on to be a proxy, or any number of common political party activities.
The forms featured here were used to appoint individuals to the state central committee of the California Communist Party. The committee files include hundreds of communist party election documents. The documents are signed by William Schneiderman and Pettis Perry, both of whom would become important leaders in the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA).
The Un-American Activities Committee staff constantly gathered pamphlets and circulars, and subscribed to “subversive” publications to track writings, activities and events of alleged communists and sympathizers. In order to receive notices of coming events, they signed rosters under false names to get on the mailing lists of groups they believed were “communist front organizations."
The investigators, and sometimes even local citizens who supported Tenny’s efforts, would attend meetings, take notes, and later type up reports and forward them to Tenney and Combs.
Pictured is a letter from an Oakland citizen, who attended a meeting organized by Barney Conal of the Progressive Citizens of America, informing Tenney of the information she gathered in her attempts to assist the committee.
Stake outs and Surveillance
In their relentless pursuit of communists, committee investigators and their associates not only infiltrated meetings, they tailed vehicles, staked out homes, and conducted extensive surveillance. During public hearings, the committee would often open up their interrogation by providing detailed information about the individual, their comings and goings, their license plate number, the color of their car, their phone number, who had visited their home recently, specific private phone calls or communications they had conducted, even details about their marital relationship, with the clear goal of intimidation.
Pictured here are two pages of the committee's June 22, 1943 hearing, where Carey McWilliams was called as a witness. McWilliams, who self-identified as a New Deal Liberal, was an author, lawyer, former state official in Culbert Olson's administration and a favorite target of the committee. Here, Tenney is questioning him about a personal call he had made several months before inviting a few "personal friends to the Biltmore to meet a personal friend," indicating that Tenney had ordered surveillance on McWilliams.
Up until 1954, being a communist in the U.S. was perfectly legal and the party’s advocacy for civil rights, housing, and employment struck a cord with some. After President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Communist Control Act of 1954 (68 stat. 775, 50 U.S.C. 841-844), the new law outlawed the Communist Party in the USA (CPUSA) and criminalized membership in, or support for, the party.
But in 1945, Communist Party membership in California was estimated at 3,200. There were many other “fellow travelers” who, while not being card-carrying members, were sympathetic to the party’s agenda.
Pictured are photos taken in 1943 featuring Communist Party leaders. In the photograph on the left is Earl Browder, then head of the CPUSA. In the photograph on the right are, left to right: William Schneiderman, who would go on to lead the Communist Party in California for a quarter century; Earl Browder; Pettis Perry, Chairman of the California Communist Party; and Carl Winter, a Communist Party leader who was also editor of The Worker, a Communist Party newspaper, and would later be imprisoned for violation of the Smith Act.
The Communist Party of the United States had a committed following. Speeches by Earl Browder, the leader of the party from 1934 -1945, drew huge crowds. This photograph was taken on January 17th, 1943, at the Los Angeles Philharmonic Auditorium, where Earl Browder spoke before a packed audience.
This concludes Part 1 of "California Witch Hunt: Jack Tenney, Sam Yorty, and the Birth of the California Un-American Activities Committee." To continue, please click here for Part 2 on Google Arts and Culture,
which features sections on the committee's Investigation Card Files, which documented the activities of thousands of individuals; investigations into the "Hollywood Ten" and other entertainment groups; Jack Tenney as legislator; the committee and Japanese-American internment; the Sleepy Lagoon case; Zoot Suit Riots; the committee and organized labor; and increasingly angry responses from citizens alarmed by the tactics of Tenney and the committee.
California State Archives
Unless otherwise cited, all images are from records held by the California State Archives.
Original exhibit by Bill Mabie (2018).
Digital exhibit by Lisa C. Prince (2018). Imaging by Lisa C. Prince (2018).
California State Archives
A Division of the California Secretary of State's Office
1020 O Street
Sacramento, CA 95814
Reference Telephone: (916) 653-2246
General Information: (916) 653-7715
Fax: (916) 653-7363