Washington State Legislature passes the Un-American Activities bill on March 8, 1947.

  • By Greg Lange
  • Posted 7/10/1999
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 1484
On March 8, 1947, the Washington State Legislature passes House Concurrent Resolution No. 10, which creates a Joint Legislative Fact-finding Committee on Un-American Activities in the State of Washington. The committee is charged with investigating groups and individuals that "foment internal strife, discord and dissension; infiltrate and undermine the stability of our American institutions; confuse and mislead the people, and impede the normal progress of our state and nation either in war time or a peace time economy" (Session Laws). This resolution is passed during the "Red Scare," when many believe that Communists are infiltrating all levels of government.

The Resolution

The Resolution stated: "These are times of public danger; subversive persons and groups are endangering our domestic unity, so as to leave us unprepared to meet aggression, and under cover of the protection afforded by the bill of rights these persons and groups seek to destroy our liberties and our freedom by force, threats and sabotage, and to subject us to the domination of foreign powers."

The resolution quoted J. Edgar Hoover, Director of the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation): "During the past five years American Communists have made their deepest inroads upon our national life. Their propaganda, skillfully designed and adroitly executed has been projected into practically every phase of our national life. The Communist influence has projected itself into some newspapers, books, radio and the screen, some churches, schools, colleges and even fraternal orders have been penetrated, not with the approval of the rank and file, but in spite of them ... ."

The resolution created a Joint Legislative Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities in the state of Washington which was to "investigate, ascertain, collate and appraise all facts concerning individuals, groups or organizations whose activities are such as to indicate a purpose to foment internal strife, discord and dissension; infiltrate and undermine the stability of our American institutions; confuse and mislead the people, and impede the normal progress of our state and nation either in war time or a peace time economy ... ."

The committee was to further investigate "the activities of groups and organizations whose membership includes persons who are communists, or any other organization known or suspected to be dominated or controlled by a foreign power, which activities affect the conduct of this state, the functioning of any state agency, unemployment relief and other forms of public assistance, educational institutions of this state supported in whole or in part by state funds, or any political program ... (Session Laws, 1947, p. 1378-1379).

Canwell and Stevens

On February 26, 1947, Representatives Albert F. Canwell of Spokane and Sydney A. Stevens of King County north of Seattle (Stevens was a 48-year old mattress and furniture dealer) introduced the Resolution to create the Un-American Activities committee of the Washington State House of Representatives. The resolution passed the House on March 3, 1947 (by a vote of 86 yes, 8 no, and 5 abstentions). The Senate approved the resolution on March 8, 1947 (by a vote of 33 yes, 12 no, and 1 abstention).

Republican Albert Canwell (Spokane Republican), elected in November 1946, stated in an interview decades later that he ran for State Representative on two planks, "I wouldn't vote for any new taxes and I'd do something about the Communists" ("Seeing Red," p. 17). The November 1946 election changed the House from a 63-36 Democratic Party majority to a 72-27 Republican Party majority.

The Committee on Un-American Activities, also known as the Canwell Committee, formed. Albert Canwell served as chair and chief inquisitor. The Canwell Committee held many hearings during the spring and summer 1948 on the second floor of the Seattle Field Artillery Armory (In 1999 the Armory is the Seattle Center House on the Seattle Center grounds). They investigated the Building Service Employees' Union, the Washington Pension Union, the Seattle Repertory Theatre, and University of Washington faculty. Many individuals accused of being Communists lost their jobs. Organizations considered subversive were forced to close and disband.

The Red Scare

These investigations took place in context of a national post-World War II "Red Scare" in which, for the second time since the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, Communists were thought to have infiltrated and endangered American institutions. (The first "Red Scare" occurred in 1919.) The investigations paved the way for the Hollywood Blacklist and destroyed the careers of thousands of people, Communists and non-Communists alike. The process in the U.S. Senate unfolded after 1950 under the leadership of Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose name was attached to the period as the "McCarthy era" and a school of political action called "McCarthyism."

The First Amendment

"McCarthy Era" investigations have been looked back upon as hysterical "witch hunts" that disregarded the right of United States citizens to the freedom of speech provided by the First Amendment of the Constitution. The First Amendment reads:

"Congress must not interfere with freedom of religion, speech or press, assembly, and petition. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

Sources: Nancy Wick, "Seeing Red," Columns: The University of Washington Alumni Magazine Vol. 17, No. 4 (December 1997), p. 16-21; Charles Gates, The First Century at the University of Washington: 1861-1961 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1961), 197; Washington State Legislature, Session Laws of the State of Washington: Thirtieth Session Convened January 13, Adjourned March 13, 1947, (Olympia: State Printing Plant, 1947), 1378-1379; Washington State House of Representatives, House Journal of the Thirtieth Legislature of the State of Washington, Convened January 13, 1947: Adjourned March 13, 1947, (Olympia: State Printing Plant, 1947), 449, 572-573; Washington State Senate, Senate Journal of the Thirtieth Legislature of the State of Washington ... Convened January 13, 1947, Adjourned March 13, 1947, (Olympia: State Printing Plant, 1947), 661; Joint Rules, Rules of the Senate and Rules of the House of the State Legislature of Washington Session of 1947 (Olympia: State Printing Plant, 1974).

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