McCarthyism Laid to Rest?
By Michael Munk ’56
His obituary was among those I scan increasingly often these days in the Oregonian, and his name, William Earle Lewis (1919–2006), evoked the dark crisis that McCarthyism visited on Reed in my time. I never knew Lewis or his widow Barbara Lair (both ’49). The February obit described a “gentle man” who “led by the quiet example of his own life and values.”
But as if it were still wiser to avoid more than 50 years later, the obituary omitted one especially courageous example: Of the 11 Reed alumni, faculty, and staff called before the House Un-American Activities Committee’s hearings in Portland in June 1954, he was one of eight who refused to cooperate. I had finished my sophomore year that tumultuous spring, and later joined many alumni and faculty in urging the college’s leadership to apologize for forcing professors Stanley Moore and Lloyd Reynolds and instructor Leonard Marsak to choose between their jobs and addressing the political accusations made against them before HUAC. The death of Bill Lewis reminded me that we have paid too little attention to the victims of McCarthyism from Reed who did not become cause célèbres.
Lewis was one of five former Reed students, all World War II vets, who, like the faculty members, defied HUAC. When asked if he had ever been a student at Reed, he refused to answer and asked instead whether “Reed College is now or will shortly be on the attorney general’s list [of subversive organizations]?” The interrogator called the response “facetious and insulting.” The HUAC hearings were broadcast on radio and TV; Lewis, 35 and raising a family, was immediately fired from his job as a clerk at Mitchell Brothers Truck Lines.
John MacKenzie ’50 (1923–1999) also took the Fifth. Not only did he lose his job as assistant produce manager at Fred Meyer, he was sentenced to 10 months in prison for contempt of Congress. (The government later admitted before the U.S. Supreme Court that it had wrongly prosecuted him and he was spared jail time.) John’s widow, Mary Mathisson MacKenzie ’53, has shared with me a memoir of their life. She says the family was left “isolated” in an “atmosphere of crisis.” She describes how the FBI harassed her husband’s potential employers as late as the 1970s, how he withdrew from most social interactions in fear of informers and made charitable donations anonymously to avoid scrutiny.
Three other former students—Spencer Gill ’42, David Gregg ’54, and David Lapham ’60—confessed to HUAC that they had gone to Reed, but also took the Fifth about their politics.
A blacklisted screenwriter once observed that almost all those who challenged McCarthyism suffered temporarily, but many who cooperated carried a burden for the rest of their lives. That’s certainly the case of M. Brewster Smith ’39, who told a Senate panel in 1953 that he had joined the Young Communist League at Reed and named names at Vassar College, where he later taught psychology. In a collection entitled Red Scare, Smith later shared this sentiment about his “unheroic” action: “The only [victims] you hear about are the people who were heroic, went to jail or lost their jobs. But a lot of other people tried to compromise and were hurt. They’ve just laid low because they felt so badly.”
Reedies Homer Owen ’50 and Majorie Emery Owen ’49 testified before HUAC in 1954 that they had been members of the John Reed Club of the Communist Party while at Reed, and named 21 former classmates to the committee. Dean of Students Robert Canon (1919–1997), who named professors Moore and Reynolds to HUAC, later told friends and relatives whom I interviewed for an article in the Oregon Historical Quarterly that testifying was the worst thing he’d ever done; they believe Canon cooperated only because the FBI threatened to expose his homosexuality.
Today, we face threats to civil liberties and academic freedom that are potentially no less grave than those that I believe brought out the worst in Reed’s trustees and administration, but the best from its academic constituencies, five decades ago. The government’s widening use of electronic surveillance and increased classification of data could again ensnare members of the academic community. If a professor pursued research that the government deemed a threat to the war on terror, or a student gathered information from a source overseas that appeared on a watch list, and investigators came knocking, how would Reed react? Would we emulate the courage of people like Lewis, MacKenzie, Moore, and the others who resisted McCarthyism, and stand by our students, faculty, and alumni—and our country—this time around?