California Witch Hunt Part 1

Jack Tenney, Sam Yorty, and the Birth of the California Un-American Activities Committee

Cover page of Hearing Transcripts and Witness List (1943) by California Un-American Activities Committees Records (93-04-12). California State ArchivesCalifornia State Archives

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these thirty years, the committee produced or received thousands of documents, including fifteen published reports; unpublished reports and studies; newspaper clippings; photographs; hearing transcripts (pictured); correspondence; publications; depositions; audio recordings; and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. In the early 1950s, Senator Joseph McCarthy chaired the Senate's Committee on Government Operations where he launched even more expansive investigations of alleged communist infiltration of the U.S. government.

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.

Poster of Russian Soldier (1942) by United States.Office of Facts and Figures. Government Printing Office. University of North Texas Libraries, Digital Library. Posters WW2 OFF 7California State Archives

U.S. Russia Relations and the Communist Party in America

This exhibit focuses on the genesis of the California Un-American Activities Committee, its powers and functions, the reports it produced, the Committee chairman's inclination to indoctrinate Californians into believing in his definition of “Americanism,” and ultimately, the fall of  that chairman. A brief understanding of U.S. – Russian relations from the 1920s through the 1940s helps provide some context. As stated by the U.S. Department of State's Office of the Historian, "Although relations between the Soviet Union and the United States had been strained in the years before World War II, the U.S.-Soviet alliance of 1941–1945 was marked by a great degree of cooperation and was essential to securing the defeat of Nazi Germany. Without the remarkable efforts of the Soviet Union on the Eastern Front, the United States and Great Britain would have been hard pressed to score a decisive military victory over Nazi Germany.”  Pictured is a poster of a smiling Russian soldier issued by the U.S. Government's Office of Facts and Figures in 1942.

Map of Communist Groups in California (1934) by California Department of Penology, Division of Criminal Identification and Investigation. California State ArchivesCalifornia State Archives

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.

Organizational Chart of Communist Controlled Organizations in California (1934) by California Department of Penology, Division of Criminal Identification and Investigation. California State ArchivesCalifornia State Archives

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.

Sam Yorty at Los Angeles County Relief Administration (1940) by Los Angeles Daily News. University of California, Los Angeles. Library Special CollectionsCalifornia State Archives

Sam Yorty and Jack Tenney

The birth of the California Un-American Activities Committee can be traced back to two men in Los Angeles, Sam Yorty and Jack Tenney.

Samuel William Yorty was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1909. Both his parents had an interest in politics which clearly rubbed off on Yorty, who moved to California after completing high school.

Yorty admired President Woodrow Wilson and William Jennings Bryan. It was Bryan who famously stated, “Destiny is no matter of chance. It is a matter of choice. It is not a thing to be waited for, it is a thing to be achieved.”

In California, Yorty went to night school and ultimately earned a law degree at UCLA. He then set his sights on running for office as an Upton Sinclair liberal.

Later in life, the Los Angeles Times quoted him as saying, “I don’t think I ever had any other idea but to go into politics.”  Pictured is Sam Yorty at the Los Angeles State Relief Administration in 1940.

Jack B. Tenney at Los Angeles County Relief Administration (1940) by Los Angeles Daily News. University of California, Los Angeles. Library Special CollectionsCalifornia State Archives

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.

Statement of Vote, General Election, Nov. 3, 1936 (1936) by California Secretary of State, Frank C. Jordan. California State ArchivesCalifornia State Archives

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.

Registration, Voting Precincts and Total Vote Cast at General Election, November 3, 1936 (1936) by California Secretary of State, Frank C. Jordan. California State ArchivesCalifornia State Archives

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”.

Assembly Bill 311, 1937, to Repeal the Criminal Syndicalism Law (1937) by California State Legislature. California State ArchivesCalifornia State Archives

Riding the Wave of New Deal Liberalism

In their first term, both Yorty and Tenney quickly established themselves as reliable, progressive, pro-union legislators. Between the two of them they carried a number of bills including making incompatibility a basis for divorce, and arbitration as a means of mediating labor disputes. They advocated for lifting the arms embargo on Loyalist forces in Spain, and Tenney repeatedly signed on to resolutions seeking the pardon of accused Preparedness Day bomber Tom Mooney. Both Tenney and Yorty worked to increase support for the unemployed and destitute, and signed on to a bill (AB311, pictured) that sought the repeal of the Criminal Syndicalism Act of 1919, which had been used against agricultural workers in the 1930s.

Chairman Martin Dies (1938) by Harris and Ewing, Photographer. Library of Congress, Prints and Photograph DivisionCalifornia State Archives

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.

Jack Tenney and Sam Yorty at Los Angeles County State Relief Administration (1940) by Los Angeles Daily News. University of California, Los Angeles. Library Special CollectionsCalifornia State Archives

The State Relief Administration Investigation

In the wake of the allegations, 1939 proved to be a tough year for both men. Yorty lost his bid for Mayor of Los Angeles, in no small part due to the defection of Communist Party support. Meanwhile, Tenney, who was then not only a member of the State Assembly, but also President of the Musician’s Union in 1938 and 1939, was ousted as union president. The impact on Tenney was profound. California’s esteemed historian Kevin Starr summed it up this way, “Then in August of 1939, Tenney lost the union presidency – his job, his income, his prestige, his identity – in a closely contested election. Tenney blamed the communists for organizing his ouster. He returned to Sacramento a bitter man: he, Jack Tenney, the composer of “Mexicali Rose”, bounced from Local 47!” In a pivot of epic proportion, Sam Yorty sought and received legislative approval for a hearing to investigate communist infiltration at the State Relief Administration (S.R.A.) in Los Angeles. Yorty recommended to legislative leadership that Jack Tenney be made a fellow member of the committee because of his labor union experience. It was the era of the Great Depression, and the S.R.A. existed to distribute state and federal funds and unemployment support to people struggling throughout the state. Key S.R.A. personnel and Communist Party leaders were subpoenaed to testify at the hearing. Seen here are Tenney and Yorty at the Los Angeles County Relief Administration hearing in 1940.

Paul Cline at Los Angeles County State Relief Administration Hearing (1940) by Los Angeles Daily News. University of California, Los Angeles. Library Special CollectionsCalifornia State Archives

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.

"Little Dies Committee" at the Los Angeles County State Relief Administration Hearing (1940) by Los Angeles Daily News. University of California, Los Angeles. Library Special CollectionsCalifornia State Archives

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.

Report of Assembly Relief Investigating Committee on Subversive Activities (1950) by California Un-American Activities Committees Records (93-04-12). California State ArchivesCalifornia State Archives

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.”

Communist International Organizational Chart (1940) by California Un-American Activities Committees Records (93-04-12). California State ArchivesCalifornia State Archives

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.

Assembly Concurrent Resolution No. 13, 1941 (1941) by California State Legislature. California State ArchivesCalifornia State Archives

Tenney Gets His Own Committee

Despite his best efforts on the campaign trail, Sam Yorty lost his bid for U.S. Senate in 1940. He went on to join the military at the onset of World War II and served in Congress from 1951 to 1955. He would return to the California State Assembly for one consequential year in 1949 and was ultimately elected Mayor of Los Angeles in 1961, serving four terms.

Meanwhile, his friend Jack Tenney, though having been ousted as president of the musicians’ union, remained a member of the California State Assembly.

Likely recognizing the raw power and publicity inherent in the S.R.A. investigation, and the opportunity to target enemies both real and imagined, in 1940 Tenney requested legislative authority to establish a new committee with enormous scope and powers - the Joint Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities in California.

His request was approved in January,1941. The committee would consist of three members of the Senate and four members of the Assembly, appointed by their respective legislative leaders.

Jack Tenney would be the chairman. Pictured is Assembly Concurrent Resolution 13, which established the committee in 1941.

Richard E. Combs, Chief Counsel to the Committee (1943) by Herald Examiner Collection/Los Angeles Public LibraryCalifornia State Archives

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.

1943 Report of the Joint Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities in California,Page 8 (1943) by California Un-American Activities Committees Records (93-04-12). California State ArchivesCalifornia State Archives

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.

Affidavit of Rena M. Vale (1943) by California Un-American Activities Committees Records (93-04-12). California State ArchivesCalifornia State Archives

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.

1943 Report of the Joint Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities in California (1943) by California Un-American Activities Committees Records (93-04-12). California State ArchivesCalifornia State Archives

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.”

Page of Committee Hearing Transcript, Musicians' Union (1941) by California Un-American Activities Committees Records (93-04-12). California State ArchivesCalifornia State Archives

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.”

Jack Tenney (1937) by Los Angeles Daily News. University of California, Los Angeles. Library Special CollectionsCalifornia State Archives

In 1942, Tenney, a Los Angeles Democrat, ran for California State Senate as a Republican and won. With his victory he had completed his full transition from being a Democrat who had been accused of being a communist, to a Republican who accused others of being communists.

Letters to and from Jack Tenney regarding University of California staff members (1943/1944) by California Un-American Activities Committees Records (93-04-12). California State ArchivesCalifornia State Archives

Coordination with the Federal Government

There were other factors that also made the Tenney committee powerful. Committee reports make clear that the committee “at all times” worked closely with intelligence units of the armed forces, the FBI, and other federal departments. These letters demonstrate the timely transfer of information from the University of California to Tenney, who quickly forwarded it to the FBI.

Letters from Quink, Mrs. H.M. Morrison and Tom Cavett (1947/1949) by California Un-American Activities Committees Records (93-04-12). California State ArchivesCalifornia State Archives

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.

Communist Party State Central Committee Member Appointment Forms (1936) by California Un-American Activities Committees Records (93-04-12). California State ArchivesCalifornia State Archives

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).

Letter from Louisa S. Rilea to Jack Tenney (1947) by California Un-American Activities Committees Records (93-04-12). California State ArchivesCalifornia State Archives

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.

cuac_028 (1943) by California Un-American Activities Committees Records (93-04-12). California State ArchivesCalifornia State Archives

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.

Earl Browder speaking at a Communist Party event, and standing with William Schneiderman, Pettis Perry and Carl Winter (1943) by California Un-American Activities Committees Records (93-04-12). California State ArchivesCalifornia State Archives

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.

Audience at the Communist Party event at the Los Angeles Philharmonic Auditorium, January 17, 1943 (1942) by California Un-American Activities Committees Records (93-04-12). California State ArchivesCalifornia State Archives

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.

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To continue, please click here for Part 2 on Google Arts and Culture

California State Archives
Sacramento, CA
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
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