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Tell This Sordid Tale

With caution, 'Red scare' files can and should be released

April 18, 1998

From 1940 through 1970, the official documents came out every two years or so, bound appropriately in red. The reports of the California Senate fact-finding subcommittee on un-American activities meticulously laid out the supposed activities of Communist Party members, sympathizers, fellow travelers and front organizations.

In its later years, the subcommittee targeted student activists, civil rights groups and labor unions. In the case of anything suspected of being "Red," the subcommittee was particularly skilled in the low art of guilt by association. Join a group, sign a letter or be "affiliated with" the wrong people and you could appear in the next volume.

The issue is back in the news because of requests that the Senate release the subcommittee's sealed background files on some 20,000 people. Senate leaders decided to keep the files unopened for now after Senate President Pro Tem John L. Burton (D-San Francisco) concluded they contained little more than "garbage . . . drivel [and] the rankest form of heresy." But the issue should not remain closed.

Many of those named in the subcommittee's published reports were celebrities: Lee J. Cobb, Marlon Brando, Leonard Bernstein, Norman Mailer, Frank Lloyd Wright, Linus Pauling and Orson Welles. The 1948 report cataloged what it said were 176 Communist front organizations. The 1965 report listed the names and addresses of all 800 students arrested in the "invasion" of Sproul Hall at UC Berkeley in 1964.

Coincidentally, Robert G. Sproul, the UC president for whom the hall was named, appeared in an earlier report because his name was on a letterhead of the Writers' Congress held at UCLA in the summer of 1943. The report said that "a superficial investigation of the project soon disclosed its Communist inspiration and guidance."

The subcommittee was abolished in 1971 and its files were sent to the state archives.

While the material may remain confidential until liability issues and procedures for release are settled, the Senate at least should develop a system for allowing those who were investigated to see their own dossiers.

The needs of historians or other academics also should be considered. The record is important for what it will tell us about the tenor of those times and the grossly overblown domestic threat of Communism.

There is ample precedent. The files of the Stasi, the East German secret police, were thrown open after the Berlin Wall was breached, and now a court has ordered access to the state of Mississippi's Sovereignty Commission, which probed civil rights activists in the 1960s.

Senate leaders fear they might be subjected to lawsuits for invasion of privacy by subjects of the investigations or their families. Perhaps that issue could be settled by a friendly lawsuit and judicial guidance on opening the files.

A footnote: The archives' copy of the 1945 report is inscribed by the subcommittee chairman, Sen. Jack B. Tenney, "to his excellency Earl Warren, Governor of California, with best wishes and warmest regards." Within a decade, Tenney's far-right allies were vilifying U.S. Chief Justice Earl Warren and seeking his impeachment.

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