Jack Tenney, Sam Yorty, and the Birth of the California Un-American Activities Committee
In California Witch Hunt parts 1 and 2, this exhibit explored the powers, functions and reports of the California Un-American Activities Committee. In the third and final part of this exhibit, the committee’s work continued, and its chairman would ultimately fall from power.
In 1947, upon learning that the controversial Gerald L. K. Smith was returning to speak in Los Angeles, the Progressive Citizens of American (PCA) decided to hold a counter-event at Gilmore Stadium on May 19.
The event featured the candidacy of Henry Wallace for President. Wallace was vice-president under Franklin Delano Roosevelt during his third term. Under the banner of “Mobilization for Democracy” - 29,000 progressives attended the event.
Tenny’s L.A. investigator Thomas Cavett not only attended the Gilmore Stadium event in 1947, he took copious notes. His May 20, 1947 report on the event which he forwarded to Committee Chairman Tenney provides a view into the racist nature of both Tenney and Cavett.
While name-calling was common in the committee’s confidential reports, and invectives like pinks, reds and commies were commonplace, the Gilmore Stadium report stands out.
In his report (pictured), dated the day after the Gilmore Stadium event, Investigator Cavett lets loose an awful tirade against the large and diverse crowd.
He refers to attendees as “riff raff from the cesspools of Europe and scum of the Seven Seas,” and people “of illegitimate descent”. He writes that he expects to “see them at any moment pull a herring or an onion out of their pocket and start munching on it, or pull a few leaves of red cabbage out of their pockets.”
In his report Cavett insults Linus Pauling who was the first speaker at the event. “It was announced this great scientist worked on the atomic bomb and is now going to be a teacher at Oxford. What a terrific loss this will be to the education system in America. He rambled along for a while on a speech which had evidently been written for him by some left-winger,” Cavett wrote.
It is notable that Pauling would later earn the Nobel Prize in Chemistry and the Nobel Peace Prize for his peace activism. He joined an elite group of three others who have won two Nobel Prizes, one of whom was Marie Curie.
Later in the report, Cavett rails against Dr. H. Claude Hudson, an African American candidate for the Board of Education and vice president of the NAACP, as well as African American Communist Party leaders who Cavett calls “more or less illiterate and look and act and speak like they just swung out of a coconut tree.”
That the Chair and its lead investigator communicated in such a manner illustrates the open racism of the committee. Over time, the racist nature of Chairman Tenney himself would become even more evident.
The real headliner of the event, however, was Katherine Hepburn whose speech was so compelling that even the committee investigator Thomas Cavett, had to acknowledge its effectiveness.
“Onto the stage swept a woman whom the writer heretofore had admired very much, that is as an actress on screen and stage, Katherine Hepburn. She was dressed in a red gown, very appropriate considering the occasion. Her speech was evidently written by Dalton Trumbo or one of that group. And what she said about some people, especially Jack B. Tenney and his committee and the Rankin-Dies-Thomas committee, the writer wouldn’t even say about Joe Stalin,” wrote investigator Cavett in his report.
“If ever there were any doubt in anyone’s mind where Katie stood, her speech which is to be printed in pamphlet form and distributed by the P.C.A., will soon be on the market and is really a master piece,” Cavett added.
Pictured here is the cover of the pamphlet distributed by the P.C.A. which included Hepburn’s entire speech.
Meanwhile, investigator Thomas Cavett shared his concern with Tenney that some people believe that he was about to give Frank Sinatra “a clean bill of health regarding his alleged un American Activities” (pictured).
The Tenney committee had a file on Sinatra and Tenney would later testify before the House un American Activities and assert that film stars John Garfield, Charlie Chaplin, Fredric Marsh and Frank Sinatra were possible communist sympathizers.
This document is a partial list of Sinatra’s activities that investigators compiled and apparently considered questionable, including donations to the National Citizens Political Action Committee, writing a letter against anti-Semitism and conducting a nationwide tour of talks against discrimination.
A Nose for News
Tenney understood that through his committee work he could gain increased name recognition which would benefit him at election time.
One of Tenney’s legislative proposals was called the “Dry Cleaners and Dyers Act”. This bill (pictured) would have required that the Chief of the Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation in Sacramento develop a method of marking clothing accepted by dry cleaners to facilitate the owner’s identification by law enforcement agencies.
Clearly any bill that seeks to have the government mark all articles of clothing is unworkable, so Tenney, in his efforts to drum up press coverage sought to tie the bill to the high profile case of the "Black Dahlia" suggesting that marks on clothing could have assisted the search.
The Raid of a Democratic Party Meeting
The political tensions in post-war Los Angeles were on full display on the night of November 14, 1947. Twenty men, at least one of whom was reportedly armed, interrupted a meeting of the Crescenta-Canada Democratic Club in a private residence and ordered those in attendance to leave. The men were later arraigned on misdemeanor charges of disturbing the peace. Surveillance of the Crescenta-Canada Democratic Club by law enforcement would continue for years. By 1949 the anti-subversive detail of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department had infiltrated the club. (pictured)
The Testimony of Reuben Borough
Reuben Borough, an attorney, was a strong and outspoken progressive. He played a critical role in the End Poverty in California movement (EPIC) of Upton Sinclair. In his testimony before the Tenney committee, Borough was direct in his disdain for the committee and its tactics.
In these pages from the transcript, Borough is asked if he agrees with organizations he supports that “condemn those actions of the Dies, Yorty and Tenney Committees and the F.B.I., which disregards civil rights.”
Boroughs calls it as he sees it: “I may state it a little differently, however, I do basically agree that these so-called anti-Red committees perform no useful function. They spread allegations and charges, they never arrive at conclusions, and their purpose can be proven to be primarily to smear those who are essentially progressive in their point of view and that’s why I don’t waste any time with these committees.”
In March of 1948, Tenney and his committee sent a letter (pictured) to Governor Goodwin Knight and members of the Senate, advising them that the Senate Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities was created.
Why was this news? Because it would no longer be a “Joint” Fact Finding Committee. The California State Assembly had withdrawn from Tenney’s committee. It was a dramatic move.
Going forward, the State Senate would have to go it alone and face the full burden of a growing opposition to Tenney’s activities.
Pictured here is a partial list of alleged Communist front organizations, with a brief description of each, which were included in the committee's 1948 report. Many more names of well-known organizations were added to this list, as noted in the previous panel.
Describing the Communist front groups, the report states, "The mere fact that a person appears as a sponsor or endorser of a number of Communist front groups does not, by any means, indicate that he or she is actually a member of the Communist Party. While it certainly indicates a sort of unusual stupidity, it may, as a matter of fact, only mean that the individual is a good intentioned 'sucker' for Communist deceit and deception."
"On the other hand, the fact that a name may appear but once, or comparatively few times, is no indication that the person is not a member of the Communist Party. It may be indicative that he or she is a most important member of the secret, conspirative, illegal section of the party."
Pictured is a March 13, 1947 letter from the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom to Assemblyman Thomas W. Caldecott, opposing and supporting several pending bills in the legislature.
Tenney responded with a request for his investigator, Thomas Cavett, to begin investigating the names appearing on the organization's letterhead to determine if this well-known and internationally respected group was a Communist front group, or if any of its members listed were Communists.
As seen in Cavett's brief note to Tenney, he completed the investigation in three days after creating an investigative file on the group and its members.
As if Tenney’s creation of a list of 172 “Communist Front Organizations” wasn’t dramatic enough, Tenney was just getting started.
In early 1949, Tenney introduced legislation to “subject the University of California to legislative control”. This move provided him serious leverage when he requested that UC President Robert Sproul expand the existing UC loyalty oath to include an anti-communist clause. Tenney clearly had additional tools at his disposal as well. If Sproul did not comply, Tenney could advance a stronger loyalty oath in the legislature or attempt to hold hostage the University’s budget.
When the Regents met on March 25, they followed President Sproul’s lead and approved his proposal to revise the oath.
Nowhere were Loyalty Oaths more offensive than within the ranks of University of California faculty, many of whom saw the oaths as a threat to academic freedom. There was significant opposition to the new oath and a protracted debate ensued.
Those who refused to sign the new oath, the “non signers”, were ultimately threatened with termination. While Mr. Sproul requested that 157 faculty be terminated, only 31 actually were. The “non-signers” took the issue all the way to the California Supreme Court (Tolman v. Underhill, 1952), which ruled in their favor and ordered the University to reinstate them. Years later, one of the “non-signers”, David Saxon, would become University of California President.
Pictured is Royce Hall at UCLA.
In preparing the 1949 report, Tenney broke from past practices and hired Edward H. Gibbons, who was an “anti-subversive public relations specialist.” Gibbons’ job would be to “compile, edit, and supervise the printing of the entire 1949 report of the Committee.” Gibbons, a strident anti-communist, was also publishing, at state expense, an anti-communist newsletter titled, Alert Against Communism in California (pictured).
In May, as he was working to win passage of his loyalty oath bills during a committee hearing, Tenney was asked if he knew any legislator who was a Communist. “Yes,” Tenney said. “Ed Elliott." Assemblyman Elliott entered the room a minute later. When he was told about Tenney’s accusation he said, “The charge is an unmitigated, vicious falsehood.” Then Tenney charged: "You are a liar. You are a communist. Go ahead and sue me – I hereby waive all my legislative immunity.” Elliot then called Tenney a “Nazi liar” but before fists were thrown, the sergeant at arms intervened.
The very day of the fracas between Tenney and Elliot, Democratic Assemblyman John Evans of Los Angeles introduced a resolution asking the Senate to remove Tenney from the chairmanship of the Un-American Activities Committee (pictured).
A few days later, Senator Gerald J. O’Gara, a former legislative seatmate of Tenney’s, was one of the legislators who asked for an investigation into the propriety of using committee resources for Gibbons’ newsletter. O’Gara and others charged that Tenney had hired Gibbons to smear legislators and that he was the “No. 1 hatchet man in the country” for the conducting of smear campaigns.
The Senate Rules Committee agreed to investigate Tenney. And, while the use of the funds was determined to be “not improper,” discontent among members of the legislature was growing stronger.
Sam Yorty had been serving in World War II as a captain in Combat Intelligence in the United States Air Corps from 1942 – 1945. Upon his return, he ran for Mayor of Los Angeles as a veteran but came up short before returning to his law practice. Then, in March of 1949, he reclaimed his seat in the California State Assembly.
Yorty had chaired the original investigation into communism in the State Relief Administration back in 1940. Upon his return to the Assembly, it is clear Yorty neither approved of the committee that Tenney had created, nor the methods of its chairman.
On June 3, 1949, Assemblyman Yorty rose to speak about his vote on Tenney's loyalty oath bills.
The following are excerpts.
“Many persons have asked my opinion of the bills, due to the fact that I was the first chairman of the state legislative committee to combat subversive activities. Senator Tenney, then an Assemblyman, was originally appointed to the committee as a result of my suggestion…”
“When we completed the job for which the legislative committee was appointed, we disbanded the committee. I did not return to the Legislature, and Senator Tenney who had been vice chairman of the original committee, succeeded in having a new committee appointed for the purpose of further investigating subversive activities.”
Then came Yorty’s takedown of his former friend Jack Tenney.
“Senator Tenney has headed this for almost 10 years. He has worked very hard and faithfully, at this tiresome, nerve-wracking, and thankless job. It is obvious to me that he is completely exhausted, and that his constant scrutiny of Communist activities has resulted in distortion of his perspective, causing him to have an exaggerated opinion of the immediate threat of Communist success in the United States.”
“If I were convinced that the Tenney bills were necessary to preserve our Democracy, and that they would effectively stop Communist activity without sacrificing the fundamental principles of our Constitution, I would vote for the bills, but I am not convinced that the bills are either necessary or wise. In fact, I am convinced that they are ill-advised, far too broad in scope, and that they propose a dangerous departure from democratic procedures.”
“Certainly we do not want to destroy the constitutional guarantees of homespun radicals, whose proposals which may have seemed radical during one era have sometimes proved acceptable during a later one.”
“Young people should be given the opportunity to outgrow youthful ventures into questionable programs without being permanently branded as Communists.”
Pictured is the first page of Yorty's six-page statement to the State Assembly.
In her 1974 study titled, "Jack B. Tenney and the 'Parasitic Menace': Anti-Communist Legislation in California," Ingrid Winther Scobie describes what happened next.
“Gibbons continued to publish Alert with Tenney’s blessings. Also, with Tenney’s permission, Gibbons distributed copies of Alert each week to legislators. In a May, 1949 issue, Gibbons attacked over a hundred legislators and prominent members of the Democratic Party, including San Francisco District Attorney Edmund “Pat” Brown and James Roosevelt, national Democratic committeeman.” (Pictured is the May 9, 1949 issue of Alert).
And then, to further compound the uproar, in early June, Tenney’s committee's fifth report was released.
In the words of historian Kevin Starr, “the report exploded like a supernova before collapse. The fifth report saw nothing less than a worldwide conspiracy coming to fruition in California. …the report listed more than 700 individuals and scores of organizations in California who, according to the Tenney Committee, revolved within the various Stalinist orbits… An argument could be made, in fact, that you were nobody in California unless you had made the Tenney list.”
Pictured are letters from citizens to Tenney in response to the committee's 1949 fifth report, and its smearing of "respectable, distinguished Americans." Note that "8 x 5 file" is written on each letter, indicating that the committee started an investigation file for each respondent.
Newspapers across the state reported that several Hollywood film stars were named in both a secret FBI report, and in Tenney's fifth report, with charges of being communists, or having communist leanings. In Tenney's report, many were named as being under the influence of the "Stalinist orbit."
Below are responses from several well-known Hollywood film stars, directors, and writers:
Film star, Fredric March called the charges "an unmitigated lie," stating further, "My record and conscience as an American and as a man are clear. The allegation that I was a 'C.P. member in 1947' is the most absurd thing I've ever heard of. That goes for my wife (actress Florence Eldridge) too."
Actor Edward G. Robinson responded, "I am not nor have I ever been a member of the Communist Party or even remotely connected with it. These accusations, innuendos, and character assassinations emanate from sick and diseased minds."
Actor Gregory Peck stated, "I have denied it many times and will deny it again. I am not a Communist or Communist sympathizer."
Director John Huston remarked, "Tenney is guilty of wanton abuse of his position. I challenge him to make any statement connecting me with the so-called Stalinist program, outside the protection of his senatorial privilege."
The confluence of Tenney’s and Gibbons’ attacks on legislators, the paltry support for Tenney’s anti-communist proposals, his over-wrought communist conspiracy theories, and his bullying of legislators who didn’t support his bills, alienated enough of his colleagues that individuals and institutions reached a critical mass and were openly questioning his goals and methods.
The five most outspoken were Assembly members Sam Yorty, Assembly Speaker Sam Collins, Gerald O’Gara, John Evans and Thomas Maloney.
Tenney recognized he was was facing a reckoning and alerted members of his committee that he could no longer be an effective chairman and would be stepping down from the Un-American Activities Committee. The committee members supported his decision unanimously and he was promptly replaced by Senator Hugh Burns who had served as vice chair from 1947 - 1949.
But Tenney’s departure as Chair would not be a swan song.
Only seven of Tenney’s twelve bills passed the Senate. Of these, only four ultimately cleared the Assembly and two of them were dispatched by Governor Earl Warren himself.
Tenney was left with just two bills that passed. One that required the dismissal of any public employee who advocated the overthrow of the U.S. government by force or violence, and another that required instruction in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and other civics prior to social studies.
We find Tenney, in the final pages of what would be his final official report (pictured), lamenting its own ineffectiveness.
“The recommendations in the 1947 third report were almost identical to those made in the 1943 and 1945 reports and they were accompanied by additional voluminous analysis and factual documentation of the need for legislation to combat subversive activity. Virtually no action was taken on the 1947 proposals.”
“The committee presented at the 1948 legislative session bills to accomplish the recommendation that had been made in the previous reports and it also presented in a 393-page 1948 fourth report a definitive analysis of Communist front activity and an alphabetically arranged report on 172 Communist front activities. Virtually no action was taken on legislative recommendations.”
After all that had occurred, Tenney still had to face the press. For months he had been coy about whether he would retain his chairmanship of the California Un-American Activities Committee.
“I have decided that 10 years is enough. I think a new target for Reds to shoot at will assist the Committee in its work ... I will say that the mere fact I will not be a member of the Committee in no way lessens my continued fight against subversive individuals and organizations. I am not resigning, as they hoped, from the present Committee. That Committee merely dies with this session of the Legislature and a new committee will be formed.”
Days later he accused famed lobbyist Arthur Samish of hastening his demise. Considering his influence, Samish may very well have orchestrated the coup.
Pictured are members of the Senate Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities. Standing from left are senators Louis Sutton and Hugh Burns. Seated are senators Clyde Watson, and Jack Tenney.
Despite his fall, Tenney remained a State Senator.
He ran for congress in 1952 with the support of Gerald L.K. Smith, founder of the America First Party. He lost, though his open association with Smith confirmed what most had come to suspect.
The same year, Tenney was the Christian National Party candidate for Vice President which had an anti-Semitic platform that sought to preserve America as a Christian nation, oppose immigration, and support segregation.
By the time Tenney ran for re-election for his State Senate seat in 1954, Republican Party leadership was dubious about him. He was defeated in the Republican primary election by Mildred Younger (pictured at center), a dynamic woman the L.A. Times called "a striking spitfire." Her husband was Evelle Younger, who would go on to be California Attorney General and make a bid for Governor.
Mildred Younger’s victory in the primary was not only attributed to her strengths, she had lifelong experience in politics and her father was a lobbyist, but also to Tenney’s obvious weaknesses. During the campaign, Tenney lied about his association with Gerald L.K. Smith and the fact that his image had been on the cover of the Christian National Crusade’s magazine, The Cross and the Flag.
Tenny’s loss in 1954 was seen as a bellwether. The defeat of the “junior McCarthy” was a harbinger of a time beyond McCarthyism.
In 1962, Tenney ran for congress one last time. Again, he lost.
No longer an elected official, Tenney would show himself to be a virulent anti-Semite. In the following years he dedicated his time to writing many anti-Semitic books, including: The Anti-Defamation League & The Fight to Save America; The Zionist Network; Zion’s fifth column: A Tenney Report; among others. He also published material from the committee reports and sold them under his name.
Pictured is Tenney's booklet, published in 1952, well after he was ousted as the chairman of the Un-American Activities Committee. The booklet is Tenney's own version of events surrounding the committee's work. Found in the introduction is this quote from General Charles Andrew Willoughby, bemoaning the possibility that he would be attacked by the Communist press and "Red cells" around the world and smeared by "pinko columnists." But perhaps Willoughby's last line was most relevant for Tenney, reflecting how he perceived his unfair treatment:
"It is better to fail in a cause that must ultimately succeed, than to succeed in a cause that will ultimately fail."
Despite all the hearings, accusations, and damage done, not to mention the time and money spent on the committee, not a single person was ever indicted or convicted of subversion as a result of the Tenney committee’s work.
Tenney’s replacement, Senator Hugh Burns, would usher in a new era of investigations with behind-the-scenes dismissals of students, staff and University of California faculty. He would maintain the close relationship Tenney had built with Hoover’s FBI and develop his own program to weed out subversives by calling for the appointment of a “contact man” at every California college “to help screen faculty."
The Senate Fact Finding Committee on Un-American Activities in California would continue its investigations of their fellow Californians for another twenty years, through the fearful 1950s and the turbulent 1960s.
The committee released its final Fifteenth Report in 1970, the same year that Burns retired his chairmanship.
Seen here are letters that accompanied the committee's final report that Chairman Hugh Burns sent to President Richard Nixon, and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.
Senator Hugh Burns, in one of his final acts as chair of the Senate Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities, also sent a copy of the Fifteenth 1970 report with this letter to Rena M. Vale. She was the former member of the Communist Party who had left the party decades before and had given testimony about her experience to the committee and worked closely with it for years.
In his letter, Burns mentions that "what the future of the Committee will be is unknown right now, although we think public demand will insure its continuation."
In 1971, legislative efforts to re-establish and fund the committee died without further action.
In the end, the legacy of the committee under the chairmanship of Tenney is described in scathing reviews. In 1951, Constitutional Law professor, Edward L. Barrett Jr., author of The Tenney Committee: Legislative Investigation of Subversive Activities in California," described it this way:
"One thing is certain. By the middle of 1949 the Tenney committee had lost the respect not only of the left but also of important segments of the community on the middle of the scale. Republican leaders treated the committee with embarrassed silence, many of them privately deplored Tenney's leadership."
"The personality and approach of Senator Tenney added much that was irrational to the hearings."
"Gradually, the committee came to assume that any unfriendly witness, called before it in public hearings, were agents of Russia and actual traitors to their country. From this assumption resulted most of the extremes in the committee's conduct of hearings. Tenney's attacks, directed as they were at individuals and organizations widely known and respected in the state, were in large measure responsible for the eruption of public sentiment which led to the reorganization of the committee and the defeat of its legislative program."
"Not content with mere exposure, the committee sought to punish alleged subversives and their sympathizers, taking upon itself the function of prosecutor, judge, and jury."
The San Francisco Chronicle published an editorial stating, "We think Tenney's flagrant and arrogant methods of so-called investigations have put his fellow committeemen, the Senate, in fact the whole legislature, on the spot. We think the determined resistance of public opinion to the Tenney loyalty-oath bills illustrates the distinction the people make - even if the Tenneys are unable to make it - between real fact finding and phony, hysterical thought control."
And finally, former University of California President, Clark Kerr, offered this summation of the Tenney committee:
"... despite all this attention, there was no clear definition at either the national or state level of who was "un-American" and why. In practice it came to mean someone thought to be liberal or socialist or communist, with whom you did not agree and whom you wished to injure. The real target was the liberals."
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 Sebastian Nelson and Lisa C. Prince (2018).
Imaging by Sebastian Nelson and Lisa C. Prince (2018).