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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Clifford Durr, December 29, 1974. Interview B-0017. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Red hysteria and the FCC in the 1940s

Durr discusses how the burgeoning "Red hysteria" affected his work at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) during the 1940s. In particular, Durr focuses on how the Dies Committee (led by Martin Dies) wanted the FCC to fire one of its employees, Godwin Watson, for alleged Communist activities. Durr describes his reaction and the FCC's decision to not fire Watson. The decision, along with his wife's activist activities, brought him increasingly under close examination during those years.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Clifford Durr, December 29, 1974. Interview B-0017. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

CLIFFORD DURR:
Running through this whole business was the Red hysteria. We came through the war with the thing pretty well intact except for this thing out in California. Again, we didn't get worked up as much as we did during World War I when anybody that had a German name was in danger of his life. During World War I, it was pretty awful, but I did get involved, I won't go into that in detail, I had just been appointed to the Commission when Martin Dies, the Dies Committee, made an attack on the Commission employees, a man by the name of Godwin Watson, who had come down from Columbia. He was a social psychologist and was there to head of the propaganda analysis section. Well, I had nothing to do with hiring him, he had been on the job for several months and done an excellent job when Martin Dies writes to the Commission and says, "This man is socialistic and belongs to the following Communist front organizations and I demand that he be fired forthwith." This was about December of 1941, right after Pearl Harbor. He didn't call us quietly and say, "I've got some information and you'd better check into it," but he hands the letter to the press before he puts it in the mailbox. So, we hear about it first in the Washington Post and then we get complaints. Because I had had nothing to do with hiring the man, the other members of the Commission asked me to check into it, the charges. I didn't even know this man, so first I sent for his personnel folder and he had some very strong recommendations from solid people, at least in the academic field. We were doing this propaganda job as a service, it wasn't going out to the public, we were doing it for the White House and the State Department and the military. He had been commended a number of times from the military. He had even culled some general military moves from their propoaganda that were issued. He had put things together and done quite an effective job. So, then I said, "Maybe I had better see what this guy is like before I go any further," so I gave him call and he came over and said that he knew nothing about these Communist front organizations. So, I started questioning him quite seriously for five or six minutes and then I began to suspect that I had something funny going on here and maybe I had better know something about these Communist front organizations. This fellow impressed me as being a pretty substantial character, I wouldn't say the ordinary run of the mill person, because he was a hell of a lot brighter. So, I sent for some of the staff and said, "Bring me in some of the literature of some of these organizations." The cause sounded good and there were respectable people on the letter head and you could give them two or three dollars and that would constitute membership. I said, "Let's see who else are members and if their cause is what the purport to be." Well, the next day they were back with their first Communist front organization, The League for Non-Participation in Japanese Aggression. The chairman was Henry L. Stimpson, the vice-chairman was Admiral Yarnell. It was an outfit that was setup right after Japan invaded China and the general idea was to put an embargo on oil and scrap iron going to Japan because if we didn't, she was going to be throwing it back at us, which of course she did. The next was the Council Against Intolerance in America. The co-chairmen were William Allen White of the Emporia Gazette … have you ever heard of that small town newspaperman who attracted a good deal of attention? He was a Republican but wrote a very lively editorial page. The other was, I believe, Senator Warren Barbour of New Jersey, a very conservative Republican, on the national board was Al Smith, who was still alive, you know the one who ran for President. Then Tom Dewey, William Green of the American Federation of Labor, Senator Carter Glass of Virginia, who was a little to the right of Senator Taft and about every religious leader who had a national reputation, Protestant, Catholic and Jewish. The best I could figure out, their function was to sponsor Brotherhood Week. Well, the long and short of it is that I got this little list and went down the list and it ended up that when I reported back to the Commission, I said, "I don't know, these Communists are supposed to be such liars that you can't trust them and even if they tell you they are Communists, they may be lying. Let's just check the membership." Well, I had among the members of these organizations twelve senators, every member of the cabinet, twelve senators led by Carter Glass of Virginia who was about the most conservative man in the Senate, thirty-six members of the House, in cluding Jerry Voorhies, a member of the Dies Committee, who was a Communist on three counts, five members of the U.S. Supreme Court, led by Charles Evans Hughes … on the Marian Anderson Concert Committee. You remember old Chief Justic Hughes and how the Daughters of the American Revolution had Constitution Hall, that was the only hall big enough for a Marian Anderson concert, the great Negro singer, and they wouldn't let her have Constitution Hall because she was black. So, old Hughes got annoyed about that and got busy and organized the Marian Anderson Concert Committee and staged a concert for her on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where she had about twenty times the capacity of Constitution Hall. That was supposed to be a Communist front organization. Well, the long and short of that was that the Commission refused to fire this man by a four to three vote. We issued a public statement giving answers to these charges and we said that we could not be consistent with our oaths of office to support and uphold the Constitution of the United States and fire a man on charges such as this. The other three's attitude was, "Well, this is all absurd, this man is doing a good job, but we will have a hard time finding someone to take his place, but what does one man matter anyway? We've got to consider our relations with Congress. Let's fire him." So, we refused to fire him by a four to three vote and the next thing we knew, a rider was on our appropriation bill, "no part of this appropriation may be used to pay any compensation to Godwin Watson." Well, I got busy with this thing and you know, it was pretty well oiled in the rules committee, Cox from Georgia and Howard Smith from Virginia, [unclear] I believe was chairman, but he was pretty well in his dotage and an old man. So, I got busy and got all the information together and began to lobby in the Senate, including Harry Truman, whom I knew well and had done some favors for, and Alvin Barkley, the majority leader and young Bob La Follate and old George Maurice and a few of that type. When this bill hit the Senate, the Senate rejected it unanimously. Senators were making speeches and saying, "We don't know what this man thinks, that's not our business and when the Congress of the United States began to concern itself with a man' politics and what he thinks, we are going down the sroad of Nazi Germany and we will have no part of that." So, they rejected it unanimously and the next thing I knew, I was being investigated by the FBI and in the EBI report, I was respectable, but my wife, according to the Communist Daily Worker, had appeared before a committee of Congress and made a speech, given a statement in opposition to the poll tax as a prerequisite to voting in national elections. According to the Washington Post, the Washington Star, the Baltimore Sun, the New York Times, well, it wasn't according to them, it was according to the Daily Worker and no FBI agent was paying attention to what the capitalistic press had to say. So, that made me very conscious and the next year they tried it again and this time, House conferees refused to receive it and the thing finally went to the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court held … well, seven said that it was unconstitutional to fire this man and two of them said that you don't even have to reach the constitutional issue, but the majority opinion was that this ex post facto bill of attainder, and due process and about everything that you could think of should be applied here. So, we relaxed and thought that things were fine throughout the rest of the war. Then, President Roosevelt died and the a tom bomb came along and again hysteria began to build up. Well then, Hoover started sending us … not exactly little dossiers, but items applicable to radio stations or news commentators and that sort of thing. He would pass it on and when I saw them, I began to fret about that a little bit. Then finally, it came to a head, this thing had been going on. You know, Hoover had his key men on Congressional committees. Congress was scared of him. They didn't like him. Now, we had been in a constant battle ever since I had been on the Commission over wiretapping, the wire tapping legislation came under the Communications Act and every year, almost, he would try to get some legislation through there authorizing him to wiretap. He would put in about national security and emergencies and all that. Frye was a good tough civil libertarian, if nothing else and we licked it in Congress every time.