University of Wash. 150th Anniversary Series: A Professor Falls Victim Of The Red Scare
In the 1950s, America was caught up in a communist scare. Suspected communists and left–wing activists were rounded up and forced to testify before Congress.
Excerpt from government propaganda film, circa 1950: "In recognizing a communist, physical appearance counts for nothing. If he openly declares himself to be a communist, we take his word for it."
A couple years before that, Washington state was involved in its own Red Hunt. Hundreds of liberal–minded people were detained and questioned about their activities in left–wing organizations.
One of those was a University of Washington professor, named Melvin Rader. In the spring of 1948, he came under investigation by a state legislative committee. Melvin Rader's daughter, Barbara, was 10 years old at the time.
Barbara Rader: "My father was liberal. He was not a communist, per se, but as a philosopher he believed in exploring all philosophical ideas. Well that very openness, to look at other options, is not something that is promoted by, well, particularly the religious conservatives. They talked about the godless, atheist, communists. Those all go together."
Barbara now lives near Seattle, in Lake Forest Park. She's in her 70s. She has bright eyes and laughs easily. That's in contrast to the fear she remembers as the daughter of a suspected communist.
Rader: "There were telephone calls threatening the family, threatening to kill us, or kidnap us. There was somebody, I don't know if it was an individual or group of individuals that just kept calling and calling and calling, over and over, and keeping the line busy. And my mother was fearful because of the threats, that they would keep her busy and then snatch the children. There was a real craziness about it."
The Rader family was taunted and shamed. They were scapegoated by their friends, colleagues, and even the children's teachers.
Rader: "I got up in class to give one of the little kids reports on the United Nations. I was very idealistic about the United Nations and I worked very, very hard on this report. And I'd just started, barely gotten started, and the teacher told to me sit down, that she wouldn't have communist ideas talked about in her classroom.
Walker: "Wow, so it really extended into every part of your life."
Rader: "Yeah, I was just a little kid, and the United Nations was just being formed, and it was supposed to keep war from ever happening [laughs]."
Walker: "So as a ten–year–old, what do you make of that, when your teacher tells you to sit down in the middle of a report?"
Rader: "It was mostly that I was just shamed. I thought I'd done something wrong. But I didn't really have a good idea about what I'd done wrong."
In the 50s, the Congressional hearings were led by Senator Joe McCarthy. But previous to that, in Washington state, they were led by a Republican Representative from Spokane, named Albert Canwell. He formed a legislative committee to investigate un–American activities. It was called the Canwell Committee. Its mission was to use "all powers necessary and convenient" to root out communist influences.
At the UW, a number of professors were brought before the Canwell Committee. Melvin Rader was of them. He was falsely accused of going to a Communist training school in New York in 1938.
Years later, Rader's testimony caught the attention of another UW professor, Mark Jenkins. Jenkins is in the school's drama department, and is also a playwright. In the late 90s, he adapted Rader's story for the theater.
Excerpt from play: "Mrs. James, I will ask you if you are, or if you ever have been a member of the Communist party?"
"Mr. Houston, I resist with everything I have your right to ask that question."
Jenkins' play is called "All Powers Necessary and Convenient."
Jenkins: "And then there were people like Melvin Rader who was sort of the darling of the committee, certainly within the liberal strata of Seattle society, because he certainly was not a communist, but he was very liberal. They described him as being sort of Lincolnesque because he stayed very calm when he was being interrogated in front of these hearings."
Three of the UW professors lost their jobs. Rader and two others were put on probation. Jenkins says the committee transcripts show Rader stood out in the hearings.
Jenkins: "But he sort of beat them at their own game. They would ask him a question and he would respond in such a massively detailed and articulate way, he would go on and on, and they finally got bored of listening to him. And he was the last witness, they sort of pulled the plug on the hearings, and he turned the hearings around without ever accusing them. He was able to rhetorically undermine the whole premise of the committee. It was a great, great theatrical and authentic event, I think, in Seattle history."
Jenkins's play was a big success. In fact, the play has been revived twice in Seattle.
Excerpt from play: "We wish to advise you, so that there be no mistake that we expect a direct answer to that question. And we will proceed against you for refusing to testify if you do so. And I'm going to be sure you understand the possible penalties for refusal to testify. You may answer yes or no, or we will cite you for contempt."
The Canwell Committee hearings ended in July 1948. But the lives of Melvin Rader and his family were changed forever. Here again is his daughter Barbara.
Rader: "I think that all of us, because of this, we're much more concerned about invasion of privacy. Little things, that I realize are just my little protests, that it doesn't mean anything. I won't use cards you know, like at grocery stores where they can keep track of what you buy. I insist on paying cash and I just don't go to those stores at all, unless I have absolutely no other choice. I don't want them collecting information on me. I won't use Facebook or any of the social media sites, other than every once in a while I'll look at something. But I don't want to post anything personal."
Walker: "And you feel like that's really because of the way you felt during your childhood?"
Rader: "I think so, I'm real concerned about it."
UW professor Mark Jenkins says what the Rader family went through was tragic. And unfortunately, the Red Scare ripped apart the lives of many people during that era.
Jenkins: "The scary part was that this could happen in America. And that people would assassinate character just for political gain, or for their own paranoid beliefs. And I thought this was such an aberration in American history, I mean how could this have happened. And I thought, everyone's going to say, how could this happen."
But Jenkins does see elements of that still happening.
Jenkins: "I think the political campaign today, the kind of vicious exaggerated character assassination, it's like hearing the words again that are from the transcripts. People are exaggerating at least, if not downright lying, and distorting reality for their own gain."
In her bedroom, Barbara Rader puts one of her cats in her lap. The expression on her face turned serious. She says she's not crazy, but she does hold onto her suspicions.
Rader: "I think I have a lot of paranoia about the power of government. I don't think it's an unhealthy paranoia, but you know, who knows. I mean I just think that the government has an awful lot of power and if you, you know as long as you're below the radar, it doesn't affect you. And I think people get very complacent. But if you really get up into a situation where you're trying to make changes, I think there's a lot of really vicious attacks on people."
For KUOW News, I'm Meghan Walker.
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