Federal Writers' Program in Washington is terminated after years of controversy on March 7, 1940.

  • By John Caldbick
  • Posted 7/12/2021
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 21271

On March 7, 1940, Carl W. Smith, the acting director for the Works Projects Administration (WPA) in Washington state, closes the state's Federal Writers' Program (FWP) after months of controversy centered on the FWP's Seattle office. Smith is barely a month into his job when he decides to terminate the program after internal disputes and credible allegations of Communist influence persuade him that it is politically more trouble than any good it is doing. The state FWP's primary project, Washington: A Guide to the Evergreen State, remains uncompleted, and only the last-minute intervention of the Washington State Historical Society prevents years of research and writing from going to waste.

Aiding the Arts

On May 6, 1935, with the country still deeply mired in the Great Depression, the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) launched the Works Progress Administration (WPA), later called the Work Projects Administration. Under the initial leadership of longtime Roosevelt aide Harry Hopkins (1890-1946), its primary goal was to employ millions of the unemployed, mostly unskilled men, on public-works projects.

Hopkins, a social worker originally from Iowa, insisted that the WPA reach far beyond public works in the sense of such things as roads and bridges. In August 1935 he unveiled Federal Project Number One (popularly, "Federal One"), four components of which greatly expanded the government's support for the arts -- the Federal Art Project (FAP), Federal Music Project (FMP), Federal Theatre Project (FTP), and Federal Writers' Project (FWP).

Unpopular from the Start

The Federal Writers' Project never enjoyed the wide public acceptance accorded the art, theatre, and music components of Federal One, for a variety of reasons:

"While the Federal Arts Program and the Federal Theatre Program were both well received by the public, the FWP garnered more criticism than praise. Most of the New Deal work relief programs had visible results to show the public with each day’s work. Many Americans took in the research done by members of the FWP and considered it mere 'boondoggling,' a waste of time and taxpayers’ money" ("The Federal Writers’ Project").

It didn't help that those working in the FWP were paid up to $100 a month, more than many participants in other programs. But mostly, there was politics. Although the post-World War II McCarthy era was the high-water mark for anti-Communist sentiment (some would say hysteria) in America, it really dated back to the 1917 Russian Revolution, taking a short and grudging recess only while the U.S. and the Soviet Union were allied against Nazi Germany. Despite their general popularity with the public, the Federal One projects faced a significant level of hostility from conservative politicians and commentators, who thought the program "was a haven for communists (especially with respect to the Federal Theatre Project), and, for southerner representatives, a 'dangerous' promotion of racial mixing" ("Federal Project Number One ...").

It was the prevailing opinion among opponents that government subsidization of the arts in itself was un-American, and smacked of Communism. In 1938 these and a host of similar concerns led Texas Rep. Martin Dies Jr. (1900-1852), a conservative Democrat, to establish the first iteration of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), which targeted, among many other things, several WPA programs. (HUAC sprang back to life with a vengeance after World War II during what became known as the Second Red Scare, and would not be fully dismantled until 1975.)

The Federal Theatre Project caught the most political flack nationwide, and the most attention from HUAC, but in Washington state, the Federal Writers' Project became the favored target. Criticism was not limited to allegations of Communist influence, but also to the quality and accuracy of the work produced under the FWP's auspices. To further complicate matters, there were bickering factions within the ranks of the FWP, a situation that eventually, and inconveniently, became very public.

First Sign of Trouble

The American Guide Series was the largest national undertaking of the Federal Writers' Project and the centerpiece of its accomplishments. Published volume by volume in the late 1930s and early 1940s through a cooperative effort of federal and state writers' organizations, each guide provided detailed information about one of the 48 then-existing states (plus the territories of Alaska and Puerto Rico), replete with generous illustrations and photographs. There were also guides to many of the major cities, and some smaller ones, and a series that focused on interstate travel and adventures. It was a massive and unwieldy undertaking by any measure. Washington state's contribution was plagued by trouble almost from the start.

The numerous writers (approximately 50, according to most estimates) who were gathering information and writing initial drafts for the Washington volume of the American Guide (which would be titled A Guide to the Evergreen State) had barely started when the first controversy arose, and the criticism came from within. On April 15, 1936, Dorothy Edmondson, the assistant state director of the project, resigned, departing with a scathing denunciation of the work done to date. Claiming that much of the writing completed so far was "pure fiction," Edmondson warned that the writers "are putting material into this publication that will make Washington State a laughing stock" ("High WPA Official ..."). She alleged that some of the writers claimed their work had been read and approved by various reviewers, when in fact it had not. Finally, and a harbinger of worse to come, Edmondson claimed, "There is also a definitely radical element with the local project that is handicapping and interfering with the work" ("High WPA Official ...").

Edmondson's criticism of the quality of the research may have been valid. In June 1937 it was announced that Washington's contribution to the American Guide was getting a "last checkup," and that its "three millions words will be edited down to about 300,000 words" ("State Guide Book ..."), still 100,000 words longer than the federal guidelines. This "last checkup" was to take four years -- A Guide to the Evergreen State wasn't published until 1941, and it came close to not being published at all. Between 1937 and 1940 its writers and editors would be accused by a respected liberal Democrat in the state Senate of being Communists or of being dominated by Communists; endure factional fights in their ranks that generated some really bad press; have almost all of their funding stripped in 1939; lose their primary sponsor, the Washington State Planning Council, shortly thereafter; and be shut down completely by the state director of the WPA in 1940. But that was not quite the end.

The Red Menace

Investigations into suspected Communist (and to a lesser extent, fascist) influence in the FWP did not start in Washington state, but rather with the Dies Committee shortly after its creation in 1938. Before the year was out, Dies disclosed that "three government employees" had charged that "the W.P.A. Federal writers' project is being used by radicals to disseminate Communist propaganda and foment class hatred." One witness, identified only as "a woman," testified that "the propaganda efforts are directed through 'Communist teachings and phraseology' inserted in various state guide books published by the federal writers' projects" ("Writer Project Declared 'Red'"). This testimony brought the ongoing development of the American Guide Series directly into contention, and a controversy that had been bubbling in Washington state's FWP since Edmondson's resignation two years earlier erupted anew.

Less than three months after the Dies Committee's accusations, a remarkable, four-day series of articles in both Seattle newspapers indicated that the state's American Guide project, and particularly its Seattle office, was in considerable disarray:

February 16, 1939 -- A leading Democratic liberal in the state Senate, Mary Farquharson (1901-1982), representing Seattle's equally liberal 46th District (today part of the still-liberal 43rd District) discloses that at her request the WPA had launched an investigation into "'increasing Communist influence' in the Washington State Federal Writers' project" ("State Solon Bares ..."). As reported in The Seattle Times: "The Senator said the plan is to make applicants for jobs as writers believe that if they become members of the Communist Party their jobs' performance is assured" and that "in a least one instance an attempt was made to discharge a writer who refused to be sympathetic to Russia and the Communist Party" ("State Solon Bares ...").

Farquharson was no Red-baiting firebrand, but on this same day, as reported in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, W.P.A. officials in Washington D.C. reported that "the inquiry had been made, and that it disproved Mrs. Farquharson's charges" ("WPA Clears Writers ...").

February 17 -- Anne Windhusen, a former teaching fellow in English at UW and state director of the FWP, declares that she was never made aware of the charges of "Communistic influences" or of an investigation. She goes on to say, "Had I known about it I would have paid no attention as there was nothing to investigate" ("Chief Unaware ...").

February 18 -- Seattle newspapers report that Ray Young, a former assistant editor of A Guide to the Evergreen State, had on the previous day visited the writers' project headquarters at the Chamber of Commerce Building in Seattle. A disgruntled Young claims he had been promised the job of state director, but that "they pulled a fast one and gave Miss Anne Windhusen the job." He says that while he was having "a long talk with her about getting back on the project ... several workers began criticizing me. They gathered around me in a circle and one fellow grabbed me by my coat tail and started pulling and fighting so I started swinging. The next thing I knew I was seeing stars. Someone had hit me on the head" ("WPA Writers' Project in Riot"). When several police cars responded to a riot call from the office they found furniture strewn around and Young with a serious cut on his head. The only other casualty was one of his alleged attackers, who had fainted.

Young told police that he was accused by his attackers of "being responsible for the Works Progress Administration investigation into charges that a Communist influence dominated the project" ("Writers' Project 'Riot' ..."). No charges were filed, but Young was warned by police not to return to the office.

February 19 -- The Seattle Times reported that Ray Young earlier had resigned from his job as an editor because, in his words, "Communistic" writers had described missionary pioneer Marcus Whitman as "just a real estate salesman" and "made martyrs" of I.W.W. members killed in what was known as the 1919 Centralia Massacre ("W.P.A. Writers Slur Marcus Whitman ...").

The former state director of the guide, James Egan, whom Windhusen had replaced, was quoted in the same article as saying he had been told by the national director that, "I could not keep Communists out of the project, as the W.P.A. does not draw any distinction in political beliefs of its workers." He went on to opine that some writers made attempts to "introduce -- let's call it -- 'heavy leftist' material," into the guidebook, but he didn't think "any of it got into the final manuscript" (the work was nowhere near final, but still more than two years from publication). In the same article, Young was given the last word on the events at the Seattle office: "Why should I apologize because a bunch of Reds jumped on me and beat me up" ("W.P.A. Writers Slur Marcus Whitman ...").

Remarkably, it appears that matters calmed down in Seattle after that, or at least calmed down enough that the local press found nothing newsworthy enough to report. But things were still deteriorating out of public view, and the writers' program in Washington had not much time left. When the end came, most of the action was again in the state's largest city.

The Axe Falls

When started in 1935, Federal One projects did not need to have financial sponsors other than the federal government, although local sponsors often participated voluntarily, sometime with money, sometimes with non-monetary support. In the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1939, an antagonistic Congress forbade any federal funding for the Federal Theatre Project, killing what it viewed as the most subversive of the Federal One programs. It also severely cut funds for the other programs (i.e. art, music, and writing) by directing that "no funds be spent after August 31, 1939 for the operation of any project sponsored solely by the WPA" (Ch. 252, 53 Stat. 927). The "sponsored solely by" language was key -- if the surviving programs could find local sponsors to help cover their costs, they would no longer be "solely sponsored" by the WPA and could continue to receive limited support from the federal government.

The funds cut-off came into effect in August 1939 as promised, just months after the Seattle brouhaha of the previous February. Although the chronology is hard to track, it seems likely that the original local sponsor for the American Guide (which was the only FWP project in the state still alive) was the Washington State Planning Council, but it withdrew in 1939, claiming that it dropped out after the stopping of federal funding "because of demands that the council make financial payments as part of the sponsorship" ("Sponsor Writer Project, County Urged"). It is not clear what they thought sponsorship entailed if not financial support, but the planning council denied that the controversies swirling around the writers' group had anything to do with the decision. The denial was not widely believed.

False Hopes

In mid-February 1940, the state office of the WPA appealed to the King County Council to provide funding to enable the completion of A Guide to the Evergreen State. A spokesman said the county was picked because all editorial activities of the writers' program were going to be centralized in Seattle. In fact, by this time the only editorial activity the program had was trying to hammer the guide book into an acceptable form.

The request for county funding brought state Senator Mary Farquharson back into the fray, and she explained to the county commissioners why she objected to any such funding, saying, inter alia:

"I have been on record many times as defending civil liberties for Communists as well as others. Of course I believe a person should not be fired from a job because he is a Communist.

"However, on some of these WPA projects it has reached the point where instead of a person's job being threatened if he is a Communist, frequently he can't hold the job unless he does join the Communist Party" ("County Funds for Writers' ...").

The apparent end of the Federal Writers' Program in Washington was suitably shambolic, given its history. On March 7, 1940, the state director for the WPA, Carl W. Smith, announced he was closing the program because of a lack of a sponsor "and to end further bickering among those seeking to control it ..." ("County Adopts W.P.A. Writers"). He held out some slight hope, saying, "Later on we may resume the work if a suitable sponsor is found. But there has been too much bickering over it in the past, and too much criticism" ("WPA Director Ends Writers' Project ...").

Two hours after Smith's announcement, the King County Commissioners voted unanimously to approve emergency sponsorship of the project. However, and crucially, Commissioner Tom E. Smith told the press that the county, in accepting sponsorship, would put no money into the project, but act only in an advisory capacity. This was not nearly enough to change Smith's mind.

Just When You Thought It Was Over

There was one not-so-little problem: A Guide to the Evergreen State. It had been in preparation since 1936, and it was far from finished, despite a few rosy predictions now and then by those responsible for getting it done. Without sponsorship, there was a real possibility that Washington would be the only one of the 48 states (not to mention Alaska and Puerto Rico) to not be a part of the American Guide Series. This was simply unthinkable.

The exact date is unknown, but sometime soon after Smith had shut down the program, the Washington State Historical Society stepped in to finish the job. In the foreword to the first publication of A Guide to the Evergreen State in 1941, the acting president of the society, O. B. Sperlin, made it clear that the society got involved only reluctantly. He referenced the withdrawal of the planning council's support, then wrote, "The Washington State Historical Society, after much urging, finally accepted the sponsorship." He then alluded to the question of the guide's accuracy, emphasizing that the historical society had not "been concerned with planning the work, nor with compiling and writing," but was concerned only "with the question of accuracy and inclusiveness" ("Foreword").

He continued, in a tone of near-apology: "The members of the Project had written well, but errors are inevitable in a work of this magnitude ... It is not claimed that the Society has caught all errors; in fact it would be virtually impossible in any State guide -- and we have studied thirty-six -- to be wholly free from error. We have done this work for Washington as a labor of love ..." ("Foreword").

It had been a tortuous process, finally finished only when the reluctance of the last possible sponsor was overcome by a sense of public duty. The publication of A Guide to the Evergreen State in 1941 came five years after the work began, four years after the manuscript was said to be getting its "final checkup," two years after federal funding was ended, and one year after the WPA ostensibly brought it to an end. Sponsors shunned the project, and it is quite possible that if the historical society had not taken on this arduous "labor of love," the Washington guide may never have been published at all. It's good that it was -- even today (2021), the guide's 686 pages are a valuable resource that exhaustively, and mostly faithfully, depicts Washington and its people as they were 80 years ago.


Sources:

"Federal Project Number One (Federal One) (1935)," Living New Deal website accessed July 4, 2021 (https://livingnewdeal.org/glossary/federal-project-number-one-federal-one-1935-1939/); "The Federal Writers' Project," Utah State University Library website accessed July 2, 2021 (http://exhibits.usu.edu/exhibits/show/americanguideseries/greatdepression/ newdealwpa/federalwritersproject); Washington: A Guide to the Evergreen State (Portland, Oregon: Binfords & Mort, 1941), ; David A. Hecker, "The Impact of the New Deal on the Arts," Columbia magazine, Vol. 5, no. 1 (Spring 1991) pp. 23-31; "Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1939," Ch. 252, 53 Stat. 927 (1939); "High WPA Official Quits as Protest," The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 16, 1936, p. 1; "State Guide Book Gets Last Checkup," Ibid., June 7, 1937, p. 5; "WPA Clears Writers' Group of 'Reds' Charge," Ibid., February 17, 1939, p. 3; "Writers' Project 'Riot' Calls Police," Ibid., February 18, 1939, p. 7; "County Funds for Writers' Project Hit," Ibid., March 6, 1940, p. 4; "WPA Director Ends Writers' Project Here," Ibid., March 8, 1940, p. 3; "Writer Project Declared 'Red,'" The Seattle Times November 27, 1938, p. 29; "State Solon Bares W.P.A. Red Inquiry," Ibid., February 16, 1939, p. 2; "Chief Unaware of W.P.A. Probe," Ibid., February 17, 1939, p. 4; "W.P.A. Writers' Project in Riot," Ibid., February 18, 1939, p. 13; "W.P.A. Writers Slur Marcus Whitman and Hail I.W.W.," Ibid., February 19, 1939, p. 9; "Sponsor Writer Project, County Urged," Ibid., February 17, 1940, p. 2; "County Adopts W.P.A. Writers," Ibid., March 7, 1940, p. 2.


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