Most Washingtonians have never heard of Harry P. Cain. For those who have, he is little more than a footnote in the history of mid-twentieth-century America, a colorful, controversial, and unpredictable man who for 30 years lit up the political landscape of both Washington state and the "other" Washington as a trailblazing mayor of Tacoma, World War II war hero, U.S. Senator, and chairman of the Subversives Activities Control Commission in the Eisenhower administration. A civil libertarian, Cain played a key role in eliminating the McCarthy-era federal loyalty oath in the 1950s. His actions cost him his job but sealed his reputation as champion of personal freedom. Even in semi-retirement in Florida, he fought for bilingualism and LGBTQ+ rights as a member of the Miami-Dade County Commission. In 2009, the City of Tacoma renamed a portion of the Broadway Plaza next to its new convention center the Harry P. Cain Promenade. It is a fitting location for a memorial to Cain because in 1941, the street was the center of Tacoma’s Japanese American business district, which he had protected as mayor following Pearl Harbor. This essay is largely excerpted from the author's 2008 book Raising Cain: The Life and Politics of Senator Harry P. Cain.
Out of Tennessee
Commercial banker and civic promoter, trailblazing Tacoma Mayor, decorated World War II war hero, controversial U.S. Senator, defender of civil rights and individual freedom, Harry Cain lit up the political landscape of both Washingtons for more than 30 years, yet he remains largely unknown. He was born on January 10, 1906, to George William Cain and Grace Elizabeth Pulliam in Nashville, Tennessee, and named for his mother’s brother, Harry Pulliam, the former editor of the Louisville Commercial and later president of the National Baseball League. A twin brother, also named George William Cain ― but known as Bill ― was named after their father. An older sister died in infancy. The family was of Scots-Irish descent and migrated from Virginia, Kentucky, and Alabama to Nashville in the mid-nineteenth century. Both sides of the family included large property owners, and his grandfather had owned and operated a tobacco warehouse in Nashville. Relatives on both sides served as officers in the Confederate Army. Harry's father, known as Will, held important administrative positions with the Methodist Church in Nashville. Both parents were professional writers.
Trim and athletic throughout his life, Harry Cain projected a personal magnetism, a certain boyish enthusiasm and charisma, and a deep, rich speaking voice that could not be ignored. He defined who and what he was as he went along. Beyond his colorful prose and booming oratory, he was a man who cared deeply for his nation and the rights of others. He believed fervently in defending both.
Moving to the City of Destiny
In 1910, Will Cain relocated his family from Nashville to Tacoma, promoted as the "City of Destiny." There, he joined a respected trade publication called the West Coast Lumberman and eventually becoming its president. The Cains quickly became active members of Tacoma’s literary and social scenes, though Grace Cain did not adjust well to life in Tacoma. Increasingly suffering from depression, she committed suicide in 1917 when her twin boys were 11 years old. Her death devastated Harry, who was particularly devoted to his mother. Shortly after she died, Harry contracted Bell’s palsy, which within hours left him with partially paralyzed and sagging muscles on the left side of his face. For months he could not speak. He later told an interviewer that in order to speak again he drove himself "relentlessly speaking with pebbles in my mouth, practicing in front of mirrors to control my facial muscles, going off where I could talk loudly and shout" (Derieux, 16). That he later became one of the leading orators of his era testifies to his efforts.
After his wife’s death, Will Cain made sure that his boys grew up with an understanding and appreciation of their Southern heritage and experienced the influence of female family members. He accomplished both by taking his sons on an annual Christmas pilgrimage to a 2,500-acre cotton plantation on the Elk River near the Alabama-Tennessee state line owned by the family of one of his sisters.
It was decided that the boys would attend Hill Military Academy in Portland, Oregon, where both excelled. Harry was a star athlete; Bill was considered the class brain. An adept writer like his father, Harry was associate editor of the school’s yearbook and editor of the student newspaper. In his senior year, he was named Cadet Captain and president of the "H" Club for student athletes, while Bill was named Cadet Major, the highest honor at the academy. After graduation, Harry remained in Portland to study practical journalism as a police reporter for the now-defunct Portland News-Telegram. Bill went on to Oregon State University, where he received degrees in electrical engineering.
From Journalism to Banking
In 1925, after consultations with his father, Harry enrolled at the prestigious University of the South, located in Sewanee, Tennessee. Sewanee was, and remains, a unique institution. The lofty physical location of the campus ― situated atop the Cumberland Plateau, 900 feet above the valley below ― provided a sense of remoteness, and its quaint traditions and strictly enforced code of personal honor insured that students became fully immersed in its academic and social life. Cain studied history, philosophy, literature, German, and classical languages, was a varsity athlete in four sports, a member of the drama society, a varsity debater, and editor of the school’s newspaper. His fine work at the school paper, The Purple, attracted the attention of an editor of the Nashville Tennessean who arranged for an offer of employment as a reporter at The New York Times upon his graduation in 1929.
Returning home to Tacoma after graduation for what he thought would be a short visit before leaving for his new job, he learned that his father was suffering from severe hypertension and would have to retire from his job. Regretfully, he turned down the offer from the Times and moved back to Tacoma to be with his father. Within a month ― probably with his father’s help ― he was hired as a clerk on a trial basis by the manager of the Tacoma branch of the Bank of California. That choice proved to have interesting consequences for his future political career, since many of his new customers were local Filipino and Japanese American truck farmers and small-business owners. The stock market crash occurred four months later. "I ran from bank to bank, with checks that were by that time no good, and I learned an awful lot about the personalities of those in the banking business and the misery and sorrow that was so much a part of the business in 1929" (Cain interview with Kappes). Over the next 10 years, he was promoted to more responsible positions and ultimately worked in the trust department and as the bank’s director of business development.
Never previously politically active, Cain worked "like a demon" to elect Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 and quickly became the president of the Pierce County Young Democrats organization, making more community contacts along the way. However, he became increasingly disillusioned with what he considered to be the intrusive and centralized nature of FDR’s "second" New Deal and his attempt to pack the Supreme Court. "I had respect for Roosevelt at first. His program was bold and imaginative ― just what we needed when the country was sick. But he continued to treat us as sick even when we had become well again. I thought the third term was a terrible thing" (Berman).
Cain had nurtured a fondness for the theater since his college days. He starred in several Tacoma productions and served as president of the Tacoma Drama League. He was also an avid golfer who played to a four handicap most of his life. In September 1934, he married Marjorie Dils of Seattle after a whirlwind romance. She was the director of one of the rival local theaters, and also an avid golfer. In 1935, he convinced his bank to grant him a year-long leave of absence to study European banking methods in England and on the continent, but the trip also doubled as a belated honeymoon, allowing them to combine their shared love of the theater and golf. They carried a couple of bags and a portable typewriter, on which Harry recorded each day’s activities in multiple single-spaced pages. He studied at the London School of Economics and listened with great interest to the debates in the House of Commons during the 1935 parliamentary elections, and at Hyde Park Corner.
They spent a week in Scotland at St. Andrews, the birthplace of golf, which was the high point of their trip. They spent the second six months in Europe during the German occupation of the Rhineland and at the 1936 Summer Olympic Games. At one point, Harry wrote that he sat "not twenty feet" from Hitler during a Munich rally. He returned to Tacoma convinced of the need to sound the alarm about Hitler’s Germany. He began by talking to local groups, then to statewide audiences. Some felt that he was an alarmist; all thought that he was an engaging and entertaining speaker. Because he was always good copy, Cain was able to establish close ties to local newspaper and radio reporters, who frequently asked him for interviews. It was said that he never met a camera or a microphone he didn’t like.
Cain’s banking career was interrupted again in 1939 when a group of local business leaders convinced his bank to loan him to lead the state’s upcoming Golden Jubilee Celebration. Cain proved to be a tireless and enthusiastic promoter, assembling an extravaganza that is still remembered. The highlight of the celebration was a theatrical pageant, "Saga of the West," which covered the history of Washington, performed in Tacoma’s Stadium Bowl before sellout audiences. Six visiting battleships were visible, sitting at anchor in Commencement Bay.
A growing awareness of Cain's leadership capabilities led to suggestions that he run for mayor. The previous mayor had died in office in April 1939, and a special election was scheduled to be held in 1940. On November 1, 1939, Cain announced his candidacy, saying, "Tacoma has been called a 'City of Destiny.' She has been almost that, and certainly there will be an ample opportunity for her to fulfill that destiny in the future" ("Cain Out For Mayor"). His 11-point platform included calls for more industrial jobs, better marketing of the city, a new civic auditorium and more parks, greater cooperation between Tacoma and Seattle and Olympia, a more effective planning commission, and better governmental transparency. Cain placed a close third in the special January primary, but was elected mayor when the leading candidate died during a debate a week before the general election and his supporters then backed Cain, who won the election.
Cain was unlike any previous mayor in Tacoma’s history. He was young ― only 34 at the time of his election. He had very little experience but lots of ideas and an infectious belief in Tacoma’s future. He quickly earned a nickname, "Hurry" Cain.
He may have been elected mayor, but under Tacoma’s Commission form of government his formal responsibilities were limited to running the Health, Welfare, and Sanitation Departments. He understood that if he was going to have a power base, it was going to have to come directly from the people. He courted the media. He staged stunts like walking across the nearly completed Tacoma Narrows Bride four days after he assumed office ― replete with a starting gun, an official timekeeper, newspaper photographers, and a welcoming committee at the finish line. He was the first Tacoma mayor to have a weekly radio program. He wrote and typed all of the scripts himself. His schedule included three or four formal speaking engagements a week.
Cain’s years as mayor were unusually eventful. Only a month after he took office, both the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and the army airbase at McChord Field were dedicated. In October, he staged a series of events to celebrate the premier of the film Tugboat Annie Sails Again, which was held in Tacoma because of Cain’s personal request to studio head Jack Warner. A month later, on November 7, 1940, the Narrows Bridge fell into Puget Sound. The biggest thing happening in Tacoma, however, was the buildup toward World War II. Cain had joined the Army Reserve upon graduation from Hill Military Academy in 1925 and was commissioned when he was 21. As mayor, he socialized with senior officers at Fort Lewis, meeting men such as Kenyon Joyce, Mark Clark, and Dwight Eisenhower, with whom he would later serve in World War II. By the time Cain became mayor, Tacoma shipyards were building ships for the U.S. Navy. In October, President Roosevelt signed the Selective Training and Service Act, paving the way for 45,000 new draftees to come to Fort Lewis for training.
Tacoma’s rapid growth put significant strains on its government. Cain pushed through a new pension plan. He created the city’s first public housing authority and began to plan with Seattle Mayor Arthur Langlie (1900-1966) for what would become Seattle-Tacoma Airport to be located between the two cities. He created a Long-Range Planning Council and then provided it with a wish list of projects that he had proposed during his campaign for mayor.
Like many historically wide-open port cities, Tacoma was a hotbed of gambling and prostitution, particularly after the expansion of the nearby military bases. When venereal disease rates climbed to unacceptable levels, he devised a scheme whereby he drafted a letter for the base commander at Fort Lewis to send him, threatening to place Tacoma off-limits if something wasn’t done. That set the stage for one of Cain’s favorite stories. On July 24, 1941, he summoned 31 local madams to his office, military ultimatum in hand, and offered them a deal: As of that moment, they were out of business, but if the venereal disease rate did not drop significantly within six months, they could re-open. It did, and they did not.
After Pearl Harbor
All of that seemed somehow less important after Japan attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbor on Sunday, December 7, 1941. Later that evening, in a special radio broadcast, Cain appealed to his listeners to "stay calm" and "not to surrender reason to racial intolerance" (Kappes radio interview). Almost immediately, the local Japanese community began to experience discrimination. Cain had signs printed that could be placed in store windows, reading: THIS BUSINESS IS OPERATED BY AN AMERICAN-BORN JAPANESE AND IS UNDER THE PROTECTION OF THE MAYOR.
On December 13, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt arrived at Cain’s office on a previously scheduled West Coast tour promoting civil defense. He arranged for her to meet with four Japanese American students who were attending the College of Puget Sound. Cain’s local efforts, however, were not enough to stem the spread of fear and recrimination that swept the West Coast and the nation. By February, President Roosevelt had approved Executive Order 9066, paving the way for the evacuation and incarceration of almost 120,000 Japanese Americans. Cain was one of only two elected officials on the West Coast to publicly oppose the internment of Japanese American citizens during the war.
In 1942, Cain sought his first four-year term as mayor. He won the primary in a landslide, making a general election contest unnecessary. It was the largest plurality ever recorded in a Tacoma municipal election, before or since.
The Army Calls
As much as Cain enjoyed being the Mayor of Tacoma, he knew that after Pearl Harbor the real action was elsewhere. In May 1943, he arranged a leave of absence from his duties, and Mayor Cain of Tacoma became Major Cain of the U.S. Army. He was the first sitting mayor to be recruited to attend the Army’s new School of Military Government at the University of Virginia. Upon graduation from the course, Cain reported to the 15th Army Group, with headquarters in Algiers and commanded by British General Sir Harold R. L. G. Alexander. After a short orientation there, he was attached to the 325th Glider Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division, which had participated in the invasion of Sicily. Within weeks he contracted malaria and was confined to a field hospital in Palermo.
In September 1943, U.S. and British forces began the invasion of Italy. Facing furious resistance to the amphibious landing at Salerno, Lieutenant General Mark Clark called on his strategic reserve, the 82nd Airborne Division. Cain was plucked from his bed and transported to the beach at Salerno while it was still under fire. As the Allies moved forward through the mountains between Salerno and Naples, Cain moved forward with them, often under fire. He was on assigned to AMGOT – the Allied Military Government for Occupied Territories. With a small staff, he was responsible for the administration of the mountainous region inland from the beachhead, consisting of 29 towns and cities, many of them still being contested by the Germans. His duties included finding food to feed the largely displaced civilian populations and trying to restore basic services in communities that had been largely destroyed.
In November, Cain was re-assigned to the skeleton headquarters of the newly-created Allied Control Commission (ACC) for Italy, which was located in the southeastern port city of Brindisi, along with the barest nucleus of the Italian Government waiting for the future fall of Rome. Cain’s responsibilities included public relations, staffing, and civil administration of the new organization. His boss was none other than his old friend and acquaintance, Major General Kenyon Joyce, who had commanded IX Corps at Fort Lewis between 1940 and 1942.
His frequent letters to Marj described his activities, including a near mid-sea airplane crash, the German bombing of the hotel in port city of Bari, where he was attending a conference, and a "convoy crash" that required a short stay in a British field hospital. In January 1944, he was transferred to the headquarters of Mark Clark’s Fifth Army at Caserta, where he observed two of the major battles of the Italian campaign: the assault on the German Gustav Line and Monte Cassino, and the near-disastrous Allied landing at Anzio.
In March he was promoted and assigned to General Dwight Eisenhower’s Supreme Allied Headquarters (SHAEF) in London, where he was responsible for the psychological warfare and public relations divisions of the civil affairs staff as they prepared for the invasion of Normandy. In this position, he met with the leading military and political figures of the day, along with most of the top war correspondents in London, including Ernest Hemingway and Edward R. Murrow.
A Senate Bid From England
Then, in the middle of a war and 7,000 miles from home, Cain was contacted by Washington Governor Arthur Langlie and urged to run for Washington’s vacant U.S. Senate seat as a Republican. The idea appealed to Cain’s ego, but it could hardly have come at a worse time. He would recall, "I had long hoped that were I to be successful in politics, I might someday aspire to, and be elected to, the United States Senate. At a time when I was giving the subject no thought at all, it was suggested to me by a variety of friends that I run in absentia on the Republican ticket in 1944 ... I had never heard of a suggestion which had so little to recommend it" (Cain interview with Kappes).
A curious campaign ensued in which four-term Democratic congressman Warren G. Magnuson (1905-1989), just returned from duty on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific, was challenged by Lt. Colonel Harry P. Cain in London, who agreed to run only on the condition that he would answer no political questions while he remained in the Army, would not leave the Army to campaign if nominated, and would not serve until the war was over if elected. He beat 11 candidates in the Republican primary, but lost to Magnuson by 88,000 votes.
Final Defeat of Germany
After the invasion of Normandy, Cain was eager to leave London and join a tactical command for the final defeat of Germany. He was appointed G-5 (Civil Affairs and Military Government) on the staff of Major General Matthew Ridgway’s XVIII Airborne Corps. They were in the Ardennes sector of eastern France recovering from the disastrous Market Garden offensive when, on the early morning of December 16, 1944, the whole of the German Fifth and Sixth Panzer Armies attacked across a 60-mile front. The American defenses quickly crumbled, and Ridgway’s divisions were ordered to plug the gap. The next several days were some of the most eventful in Cain’s life. At one point he and his staff were pinned down for more than a day with only the contents of a nearby disabled train full of champagne available. Another time, he found himself trying to find food and shelter for thousands of freezing, displaced civilians trapped between the two armies. For his efforts in the Battle of the Bulge, Cain received a battlefield promotion to full Colonel for, as he later put it "outlasting everyone else" (Cain interview with Kappes). From there, he helped plan the airborne operation across the Rhine, the elimination of the Ruhr pocket, including the capture of 300,000 German troops, and the final advance into northern Germany as part of British General Bernard Montgomery’s 21st Army Group.
Cain’s war ended with a bang, literally. Only 24 hours before the end of hostilities on May 7, he was hit in the left elbow by shrapnel during an engagement with German troops. The next day, in spite of his wounds, he was asked by Ridgway to perform a duty that he would never forget. A small concentration camp had been liberated near the town of Hagenow, located 25 miles east of the Elbe River. The bodies of 200 prisoners had been recovered and prepared for burial. Local authorities and citizens were rounded up to view the bodies. Ridgway asked Cain to speak. He remembered, Harry drove those Germans to tears. "His speech was one of the most effective I have ever heard" (Ridgway, 147). It was during this period that Cain was credited with rescuing 10,000 American prisoners of war who were trapped in a nearby POW camp controlled by the Russians.
At the end of the war, Cain was re-assigned back to SHAEF, where he became a field inspector responsible for reviewing military government procedures used by the Allied occupation forces. One of his first assignments confirmed General George S. Patton’s use of former Nazi officials to administer the regional and local governments.
From Tacoma to Washington, D.C.
Returning to Tacoma at the end of 1945, Cain announced that he would seek the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate seat to be contested in 1946. This time he was successful, defeating the incumbent Democratic Senator Hugh B. Mitchell (1907-1996) in the post-war Republican congressional landslide.
Cain went on to serve a single, highly controversial term in the Senate, highlighted by a series of personal crusades which, while they may have represented his personal convictions, alienated large blocks of his constituents. These included a vote for the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act, a vote against the creation of an 80-Group Air Force in the buildup to the Cold War, and a historic, nonstop, six-and-a-half-hour filibuster against the nomination of former Washington senator Mon Wallgren (1891-1961) to be chairman of the National Security Resources Board.
Cain became one of the more reactionary anti-communist members of the Senate, often supporting the allegations of Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy, and defending General of the Army Douglas MacArthur’s recommendation to use Chinese Nationalist troops against the North Korean and Chinese Communist armies in Korea. Cain held the view that he had been elected to the Senate to vote his conscience, not necessarily represent the views of his constituents. By his own admission, he spoke too much and listened too little. He was defeated for reelection by congressman Henry M. Jackson (1912-1983) in 1952.
Appointed to the Subversive Activities Control Board at the height of the McCarthy-era Red Scare by President Eisenhower, his former commander at SHAEF, Cain remained unpredictable. To the dismay of friends and foes alike, he vehemently opposed the Administration’s internal security program and its reliance on the Attorney General’s List of Subversive Organizations, a practice that was at the root of many of the worst civil liberties abuses during the McCarthy era. In particular, he opposed the loyalty oath that government employees – including even teachers in local school districts – were required to take. He defended high-profile individuals such as author Arthur Miller against government allegations. Not surprisingly, Eisenhower decided not to reappoint him to the SACB, but Cain had won the appreciation of civil libertarians, editorial writers, and the families of the individuals from throughout the country whose rights he sought to protect.
Cain spent the final 20 years of his life in Florida, where he became chairman of the Miami-Dade County Commission and a deeply involved community activist, supporting one of the first smoking bans in public buildings in the country, making bi-lingualism official in county government, and working for quality housing for senior citizens. He made periodic trips back to Tacoma, including one in November 1963 in which he testified for the defense at the libel trial of several individuals and a newspaper who had called former state legislator John Goldmark a communist "tool" (Kershner). He returned again in December 1977 to receive a special award from Tacoma’s Japanese American community in recognition of his help in the dark days of World War II.
He died in 1979. At his request, he was cremated, and his ashes were scattered along a fairway at the Burning Tree Country Club in Bethesda, Maryland. He wanted "to be able to spook his friends in the middle of their backswings" (Tingstad).