The Journal of San Diego History
SAN DIEGO HISTORICAL SOCIETY QUARTERLY
Fall 1989, Volume 35, Number 4
Thomas L. Scharf, Editor
by Paul J. Eisloeffel
James S. Copley Award San Diego History Center 1989 Institute of History
The end of the Second World War brought about a new shape of things. The defeat of fascism by the Allied forces ushered in a fresh political and economic era. With the maps of Europe and Asia reformed, the world stood as a renovated arena for the geo-political games of the major powers. In America, an unbridled self-confidence set in, encouraged by its dominant role in the outcome of the hostilities.
But with this confidence came a distinct uneasiness with the new shape of things. With the common enemy vanquished, the differences in western and eastern political ideologies became more apparent, and the possibilities of nuclear technology rose as a frightening threat to continued peace. In America, this post-war fear turned steadily and quickly by the early 1950s in to a national campaign. This was a time of loyalty oaths, sensational government investigations and reactionary legislation. It was the “Cold War” era, a period dominated by intolerance and in which non-conformity with an ambiguous public standard of loyalty proved particularly conspicuous, even dangerous.
There were many whose lives were dramatically disrupted during this time. Among these was Harry C. Steinmetz, long-time professor of psychology at San Diego State College and local political gadfly. In the winter of 1954 college officials dismissed Steinmetz from his position on the grounds of insubordination, stemming from allegations of subversion and communist affiliation.
Although this scenario seems all too common for the times, the professional demise of Professor Steinmetz constitutes a special case among the casualites of the Cold War. In this instance, California law was significantly altered for the express purpose of effecting his dismissal. While it is true that the ensuring legislation was fully in keeping with the reactionary climate of the Cold War era, he was preceived as a threat and was clearly its intended target.
Professionally, Steinmetz was innocuous enough. A native of Seattle, he held degrees in psychology from Purdue University, the University of Maryland, the University of Southern California, and the University of California at Berkeley. He began teaching at San Diego State College in 1930, as an instructor in the summer school program. He became an associate professor of psychology, and served for a time as chairman of the psychology department. In his profession, he could be described as average: He attended to his duties consistently, and with no particular zeal of dynamism.
But Steinmetz became conspicuous soon after he joined the teaching staff at San Diego State College, as a result of his participation in local politics quite apart from his work on campus. An outspoken advocate of liberal political views, he was often involved in local protests. In 1935 he ran unsuccessfully for mayor of San Diego on a socialistic platform, and in 1948 was a candidate for Congress. He held high offices in local labor organizations and was ousted from one for alleged communist connections.1 Of course, Steinmetz’s position as an educator, publicly regarded as an influence on the minds of the local youth, made him all the more conspicuous.
As early as 1936, the stage was set for the inevitable clash between Steinmetz’s outspoken off-campus liberalism and the strong conservative elements in San Diego. The first formal action against him case that year, from the San Diego County posts of the American Legion and the Disabled American Veterans. It took the form of a resolution to the governor and the state board of education calling for the investigation of Steinmetz, citing “alleged subversive activities” that “seriously reflected upon the San Diego State College. “Among the signatories were Harry L. Foster and George W. Fisher, local Legion officals who would later lead other such action. The resolution was ignored.2
The end of the Second World War brought about an even stronger patriotic conservatism, particularly in areas with strong military ties like San Diego. In the late 1940s the controversy surrounding Steinmetz developed new impetus. Attacks from local patriotic groups became more vehement as Steinmetz’s name became increasingly associated with radicalism. In 1949 the San Diego Daily Journal ran an article on Steinmetz and his political activism.3 Calling him a “prophet to some, the devil incarnate to others,” it represented the professor with more objectivity than had previously been the case in the local press. In it, Steinmetz contended that his activity had always been confined to his private life off campus and was “based on issues rather than parties. “In summing up the controversy surrounding Steinmetz, the article suggested that there was a difference between social reformers and communists, and that the concern over SDSC being a “hot-bed of communism” was unfounded. But articles of this tenor were not common, and generally a more conservative view was advanced.4 Foster of the American Legion boasted his perception that “the town was pretty much solid” in its opposition to the radical Steinmetz.5
The next attack against Steinmetz, again from the American Legion, came in 1951 after he had appeared at a San Diego Peace Forum meeting at which the main speaker allegedly criticized America and extolled the Soviet Union. This time the request to State Director of Education Roy E. Simpson asked not only for an investigation but demanded Steinmetz’s removal as well. Simpson responded by denying a hearing and asserting that the law did not provide for action against teachers for off-campus activity.6
But this attack was significant in that it reopened the controversy that had for so long surrounded Steinmetz. Although still untouchable by the law, he was now brought to the attention of California legislators in the new political climate of the 1950s, a climate that would be characterized by its willingness to enforce its own intolerance of non-conformity.
This attention was revealed most dramatically in a legislative proposal made by State Senator Fred H. Kraft of San Diego. Kraft had been a member of the California Legislature’s Investigating Committee on Un-American Activities ever since his election in 1942, and as a resident of San Diego was aware of the Steinmetz controversy. The furor created by the latest American Legion protest and Simpson’s subsequent admission of the law’s impotence in such matters prompted Kraft’s introduction of Senate Bill 1836 in 1951. The bill would have provided for the “dismissal of employees of state colleges” by expanding “unprofessional conduct” to include “presistent active participation in public meetings conducted or sponsored by” a communist front organization, and “willful advocacy of communism, either on or off campus.”7 Further, it provided that dismissal proceedings could be initiated by anyone filing a complaint. The Kraft Act passed overwhelmingly in the legislature, but Governor Earl Warren vetoed it because of its obvious design “to fire a particular professor at San Diego State College,” and that its passage could encourage “any spiteful person” to take action against a faculty member.8 American Legion officials reacted strongly to the veto with renewed demands for Steinmetz’s ouster, but these went unheeded.
For almost two years after the Kraft Act veto in July of 1951 Steinmetz enjoyed a period of comparative obscurity; no new attacks occurred and his name, having frequently appeared in the local press, fell from the public eye. As indicated by Warren’s veto, the political climate had not yet reached the point where such legislation could be fully embraced. Even such loyalty laws as did pass met with opposition. California’s Levering (Loyalty Oath) Act, for example, was argued on the floor of the legislature and revised to delete direct mention of the Communist Party.
But in both the nation and the state, the fear of communism was rising. The early 1950s saw the decline of the Democratic Party power base and the increasing popular support of the republican hard-line approach to communist aggression. The Korean conflict generated further fear of a rising tide of communism, as did continued and more vigorous activity by legislative investigation committees. Senator Joseph McCarthy’s sensational and much-publicized methods and charges by this time went virtually unchallenged. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was placed under the chairmanship of Representative Harold R. Velde, a former FBI official who promised an active schedule of hearings. In California, HUAC hearings continued to expose communist involvement in the motion picture industry. California’s own Senate Committee on Un-American Activities prepared its seventh biennial report, while the Senate Committee of Education worked on its eleventh, this one dealing exclusively with “opposition to loyalty.”9
The years 1953 and 1954 represented the height of the reaction to the alleged communist threat. Hearings and reports of California’s senate committees reiterated the threat, solutions were proposed in the legislature, and coverage in newspapers attested to the concern of the day: ferreting out communists and purging them from society. In 1953 a new wave of loyalty legislation swept through Sacramento. The proposals that emerged went through months of revision, but it was clear that the time for such legislation had come. It was in this bold new reactionary climate that the controversy surrounding Professor Steinmetz again came to the forefront of local news and within the course of a year, from March 1953 through February 1954, intolerance prevailed.
The turning point came on March 26, 1953, when Steinmetz received a subpoena from the Velde Committee. The HUAC, which had been meeting in Los Angeles, would not disclose what they expected from Steinmetz’s testimony, although the San Diego Union, long an opponent of Steinmetz, made a point of recapping his liberal activity. Steinmetz characteristically admitted interest in this opportunity to see if his constitutional rights “may be maligned or violated by current congressmen.”10
The subpoena touched off new local debate about Steinmetz’s political affiliations and what to do with him. Dr. Malcom A. Love, President of SDSC since 1952, issued a statement in which he said he was “unsympathetic” toward professors who would not cooperate with investigating committees, and that any professor who would do so was “not only failing in his citizenship responsibilities but also was doing great harm to his profession.”11 Steinmetz, of course, did not agree.
The confrontation with HUAC took place on the morning of April 7, 1953. Steinmetz was the first witness of the day. The questioning at first centered on asserted communist infiltration of the teaching profession through the American Federation of Teachers, a union in which Steinmetz had once held office. But Steinmetz repeatedly refused to cooperate. He explained in a lengthy prepared statement that he accepted neither the methods nor the purpose of the committee, and wished to protect himself from possible self-incrimination by invoking the Fifth Amendment. At last the anticipated question was asked; Was he a member of the Communist Party? Steinmetz refused to answer. But the dialogue had degenerated long before, and he was dismissed as an uncooperative witness.12
During a recess Steinmetz offered information to a reporter that he had denied the committee: he was not a communist. When asked further if he had even been one, he replied simply, “Whatever I have been I am ashamed of nothing.”13
The reaction to the events of the hearing was immediate. Steinmetz’s use of the Fifth Amendment was front page news in both the San Diego Union and the San Diego State College Aztec. A wave of related articles and editorials began to appear, many calling for Steinmetz’s immediate dismissal. The official reaction was confused. President Love, careful to protect the rights of his faculty, promised to act on Steinmetz’s case only upon assurance of his legal authority from the State Department of Education. The SDSC Board backed Love’s stance on teacher loyalty, but regretted that the College had no power to settle the matter locally and called on the State Department of Education to settle the case. From Sacramento came the vague statement to Love promising “an immediate determination of all cases within their preview.”14
In fact, no legal authority did exist for action against Steinmetz. His refusal to answer the committee’s questions did not constitute “unprofessional conduct” as it was then defined by California law. No mention was again made of the case in the local press until July 21, when State Attorney General Edmund G. Brown announced officially that Steinmetz’s refusal was not sufficienty grounds for dismissal.15 During this quiet interval Steinmetz continued to teach unharassed at SDSC, but in Sacramento the legislature was in the final weeks of a most significant session. Several bills were passed that were designed to eliminate Communist Party members and “fellow travelers” from public institutions. Notable among these in terms of their impact on Steinmetz were two in particular: Senate Bill 1367, presented by Senator Nelson S. Dilworth of Riverside, and Assembly Bill 3508, authored by Assemblyman Frank Luckel of San Diego.
Senator Dilworth, chairman of the State Senate Investigating Committee on Education since 1947, showed through his committee’s contributions a strong desire to purge the public education system of communists.16 Such was the purpose of his S. B. 1367, an amendment to the California Education Code, introduced on January 16, 1953.17 Briefly, the act began by acknowledging world communism as “a clear and present danger,” and asserted that in order to advance their objectives communists would engage in “concerted efforts” to infiltrate the public school system. The act established an oath for employees and, most significantly, made it compulsory for school district employees to appear when subpoenaed before any legislative committee or school board and to answer any questions regarding Communist Party affiliation or membership since September 10, 1948. Refusal to answer for any reason would constitute grounds for dismissal. It was clear that the Dilworth Act was conceived in the spirit of the legislative investigation committee. It was also clear that the act was a defense against the use of the Fifth Amendment since it stipulated that refusal to cooperate for any reason could lead to dismissal. The act passed the legislature in June.
The second act, A. B. 3508, authored by Assemblyman Frank Luckel of San Diego, figured most prominently in the Steinmetz case. A retired naval commander and long-time San Diego resident, Luckel won a seat in the California Assembly in 1946. He served on several standing committees, but never on one directly concerned with education, state employees, or the investigation of communism. Nevertheless, it is certain that he was familiar with the details of the Steinmetz case. His interest was evidenced by the nature of his A. B. 3508 and the timing of its introduction.
The Luckel Act was introduced in the Assembly on May 4, 1953.18 Although Luckel was its author, the initial presentation was endorsed by sixteen other assemblymen, including Levering (author of the California’s loyalty oath) and two other representatives of the San Diego area, Ralph R. Cloyed and Edwin S. Bulin. It was further supported by an intial vote of approval in the Assembly: sixty-one members voting in favor, and none against.
It is important to note the connection between the Luckel and Dilworth Acts. Dilworth’s proposal amended the Education Code to purge communists specifically from California public school districts, which at the time encompassed public primary and secondary schools and community colleges; indeed, these had been had the main focus of the investigation of Dilworth’s Senate Committee on Education. But by specifying employees of school districts alone, the Dilworth Act excluded employees of the state college system, and for that matter all other employees. In light of Steinmetz’s previous appearance before the HUAC and the subsequent search for legal authority on which to prosecute his case, it was clear that the Dilworth Act would not provide it. But it did provide the perfect framework for dealing with those who would refuse to cooperate with investigating committees, even by invoking the Fifth Amendment as Steinmetz had done. The solution, for Luckel and his supporters, was to extend the provisions of the Dilworth Act to include all public employees by amending the Government Code. So it was that the Luckel Act, in wording almost identical to the Dilworth Act, was introduced before the Assembly, less than a month after Steinmetz’s much-publicized HUAC apperance.
Although the Luckel Act passed without any particualr fanfare, in the course of subsequent events it gained national notoriety as California’s “answered or be fired” law.19 Like the Krafts Act of 1951, its immediate intent was clear. Foster of the American Legion later openly admitted that it was designed for Steinmetz’s dismissal. Some called it the “Anti-Steinmetz Act,” and Steinmetz himself viewed it as an unexplained vendetta against him by Luckel.20 Luckel was silent on the matter, but his motive was nevertheless obvious. His introduction of the bill so soon after Steinmetz refusal to cooperate with the HUAC, his own lack of affiliation with committees which would normally sponsor such legislation, and the original wording of the bill’s title (a specific mention of “teachers” was stricken in the amending process) confirmed the intended target of the Luckel Act. The bill passed easily through the legislature and the governor received it for approval in June.
The Dilworth and Luckel Acts, along with many other bills, were signed into law by Governor Warren and took effect September 9, 1953. Warren’s approval, particularly of the Luckel act, is curious since only two years before he had vetoed the similar Kraft Act, which was also aimed at Steinmetz. The reasons for the change are worth noting. First, the new political climate under the republicans took a more aggressive approach to communism, as noted before; this alone could have been sufficient motivation for Warren, a republician who often acted in the political, mainstream, to sign the loyalty legislation. Secondly, while the Kraft Act was ambiguous in its method the Luckel Act provided clear guidelines for determining insubordination. A third reason, suggested in hind-sight by Steinmetz, involved presidential hopeful Dwight D. Eisenhower’s promise of the next U. S. Supreme Court vacancy in return for campaign support. With his sights set on a court appointment and being careful to avoid any action which might jeopardize his approval by the McCarthy-dominated Senate, Warren signed the legislation into law.21
Whatever the reasons, Warren’s signature established the legal authority by which the state’s views of loyalty could be enforced on its employees. But the law was not retroactive, and would not go into effect until September. Based on past criticisms, Steinmetz was still untouchable.
Doubtless aware that he was now at greater risk, Steinmetz remained silent on political issues for nearly the rest of the year. But on December 7, with characteristic bravado, Steinmetz broke his silence in an inflammatory talk before a SDSC student-run political science club. Attendance exceeded 300 people — four times the membership of the club — and accounts of the event appeared in local newspapers and over radio. Steinmetz’s comments included a heated attack on legislative investigations, and he repeatedly referred to the HUAC as the “Un-American Committee.” Citing his own experience before the HUAC he advocated the right of a witness to refuse testimony if so desired, on the grounds that only the judicial branch may demand a citizen to render such an accounting such an accounting. he said that a HUAC witness had only two options: Becoming” either a tattle-tale or a martyr.” He recommended that it was best to refuse to talk, for one admission could lead to “further discussion” which might damage others. While fielding questions Steinmetz commented that he believed communists actually commanded little influence in the United States, making all the present anti-communist reactionism un-necessary.22
Reaction to Steinmetz’s comments was Vehement. George Fisher, on behalf of the American Legion, demanded that State Director Of Education Simpson act to remove Steinmetz from the San Diego State College faculty. On the following day Simpson announced his plan to question Steinmetz under the Luckel Act, which made refusal to cooperate grounds for dismissal, and that he was only waiting for Attorney General Brown’s recommendation as to which board should conduct the questioning. Brown determined that the State Board of Education should preside over the hearing, which was then scheduled for January 4, 1954. SDSC President Love, no doubt relieved that the matter was legally out of his hands, refused comment.23
Steinmetz’s attorney requested and received a postponement. The hearing took place on January 28 in Los Angeles, with six of the ten members of the State Board of Education present.24 Foster of the American Legion (who had never before that day actually met Steinmetz) and Director of Education Simpson also attended. Steinmetz was instructed by his attorney, A. L. Wirin of the American Civil Liberties Union, to stand on his right to freedom of speech and the Fifth Amendment. This he did, in spite of advice to the contrary from attorney and friend Bob Kenney.25 Before questioning began, Steinmetz and his counsel received copies of extracts from the Luckel Act, so that all could be satisfied that he knew its stipulations and consequences. From the state’s point of view the hearing would determine Steinmetz’s fitness as a public employee and teacher. To Steinmetz, the hearing represented an illegitimate use of authority and a repression of the Bill of Rights that could not possibly determine his loyalty or his ability to teach.
The transcript of the hearing records that Board President William L. Blair asked Steinmetz just six questions. The first two proved most crucial:
Q. Are you now knowingly a member of the Communist Party?
A. Mr. Chairman, I am sorry, but I find it necessary to refuse to answer this question as I would if you asked me if I were a member of any other party, because I do not believe that there is authority in the act under which you are proceeding for asking such a question.
Q. Have you at any time since September 10, 1948, knowingly been a member of the Communist Party?
A. In all good conscience, I must give you exactly the same answer now that I gave you a moment ago, sir.
Q. That is, that you decline to answer?
A. Yes, sir.26
The remaining four questions, dealing with advocacy of the violent over-throw of the government, Steinmetz answered in the negative, as was consistent with his personal philosophy of non-violence.27
Steinmetz requested that the board await a court test of the Luckel Act to determine its constitutionality before acting on his testimony. The board declined, contending that it was not a judicial body and therefore could not make judgments on the validity of state law. After Steinmetz left, a motion was made to recommend his dismissal for his refusal to answer two of the questions put to him. It was seconded and passed unanimously. With this vote, Steinmetz became the first pubic employee entrapped by the terms of the Luckel Act.
Since this was an unprecedented action, Education Director Simpson, to whom the board had made its recommendation, was reluctant to act. Instead, he gave SDSC President Love instructions to maintain Steinmetz on the faculty for the Spring semester pending legal action.
In the following week came a confusion of legal maneuvers and conflicting reports. Even as early as the day of the hearing Steinmetz’s attorney filed an appeal of the board’s decision in order to block dismissal proceedings, but withdrew it the next day in favor of an arrangement made with Simpson. As Steinmetz understood it, Simpson agreed to suspend his impending dismissal while the constitutionality of the Luckel Act was tested in the courts. The San Diego Union even reported on February 3 that the Third District Court of Appeals in Sacramento had issued a restraining order halting the dismissal, but this report was false. With the application for appeal withdrawn, the way was clear for Simpson to act. Only the ambiguous agreement with Simpson, that “action will be withheld for a few days pending a test of the Luckel Act,” kept Steinmetz on the state payroll.28
Perhaps because of the impending start of the Spring semester at SDSC Simpson decided to wait no longer. Certainly he felt expectant pressure from Luckel Act supporters, particularly the American Legion. In any case Simpson acted, to Steinmetz’s dismay, within a week of the hearing. On the after-noon of February 4, while advising students on registration procedures, Steinmetz received Simpson’s letter of dismissal, effective at the close of business, February 5, 1954.29
In reaction, Steinmetz’s supporters were shocked that the Luckel law had actually been taken to its limit. The long -time leaders of the effort to have him ousted expressed satisfaction that a significant beginning had been made to curb subversion in San Diego. Many responses reflected the wary uncertainty often associated with the setting of a precedent. SDSC officials commented only that Steinmetz’s classes would be reassigned to other faculty.30
Steinmetz’s colleagues made a surprisingly meager response. The future of academic freedom was at issue, but the SDSC faculty, for the most part, reacted with indifference. Professor Harry Ruja, one of Steinmetz’s strongest sympathizers, later surmised that as much as seventy percent of the campus faculty was unconcerned, and that the remainder was evenly split on the issue.31 Not one in favor of the dismissal said so in the local press, and only a few against it made public statements.32 Notable among the reactions was that of UCLA Psychology Professor John P. Seward, who cancelled a State Board of Education lecture engagement at SDSC in protest. He explained:
The action…is more than an injustice to an esteemed colleague. It is a threat to the basic right-and -duty-of every teacher to think and speak for himself, a further step down the path of thought control…33
Certainly the strongest reaction came from students. For nearly two months after Steinmetz’s dismissal every issue of the weekly campus newspaper, the Aztec, contained editorials and letters to the editor concerning some aspect of the case. All the editorials supported the State’s action, reflecting a decidedly conservative strain among the paper’s editors, while nearly all of the letters presented rebuttals in support of Steinmetz. One student criticized the Aztec editors for being “swept along in the tide of public hysteria,” and another made this observation on the political climate of the times:
It is a tragic commentary upon our age that intellectualism is linked, indubitably, with subversion — that to be a liberal is to be a disloyal American….Academic freedom has come to mean the freedom to conform or be discharged.34
But it is expected that students, colleagues, and Steinmetz’s opponents, all of whom were particularly close to the consequences of the events, should be vocal in their reaction. More significantly, the response of the general public was negligible and had been so throughout the controversy. This is curious, since for years Steinmetz had been prominently portrayed in the local press in the context of his political radicalism and his open defiance of established authority. Indeed, the events of Steinmetz’s case and eventual dismissal were generally considered worthy of front page headline status in the San Diego Union. It was presumably for the protection of the public that their elected representatives had engineered Steinmetz’s ouster to begin with.
In fact, the reactionism of Cold War political actions was often encouraged by a phenomenal public silence. Through fear or indifference, the reluctance of the public to get involved in effect gave support to the dominant mentality of intolerance.35 For this reason Foster could boast that “the town was pretty much solid” against Steinmetz, whether or not it was actually so. Thus it was that editorials were frequent, but letters to the editor, even against Steinmetz, far less so. At every major step, the voices of reaction were those of an isolated few, usually the consistent and established critics of Steinmetz. Never had the public in general shown evidence of an appreciable stand on the issue of non-conformity, and they did nothing to break that trend now that the dismissal had finally been accomplished. As was characteristic of this era, the action in this case had been played out by a relative few.
Steinmetz’s own reaction to his dismissal was one of contempt and dismay. In a statement he called the action “educational sabotage” and referred to the Luckel Act as “a shameful bit of McCarthyite legislation.” He could not accept his dismissal as final. The next day, as he cleaned out his desk, he promised to appeal the decision.36
Steinmetz spent the next two years in appeals, with the State Personnel Board, the California Supreme Court, and finally the United States Supreme Court. In each case his lawyers challenged the constitutionality of the Luckel Act. The first two appeals ended in failure: both the law and his dismissal were upheld. Voting six to two against him, the U.S. Supreme Court denied his request for a hearing. Justice Warren, who as governor of California had signed the Luckel Act into law, disqualified himself, while only Justices Douglas and Black supported the application.37
Just what had transpired in the dismissal of Professor Steinmetz? Examined individually, the issues of the case are revealing. Was Steinmetz a communist? Although this was always strongly implied in the American Legion attacks, it was oddly enough not significant. Foster admitted that no proof existed of Steinmetz’s alleged Party affiliation and that this issue was never a serious point of contention.38 It is curious, then, that Steinmetz was fired for not responding to questions that exclusively concerned the subject. Did Steinmetz constitute a threat? Foster contended that although Steinmetz may not have been a threat to national security, he was definitely one in terms of the subversion of his students.39 It was this charge of subversion around which the American Legion’s repeated demands for dismissal revolved; yet the charge was never verified by Foster, who based his charges on dubious second-hand information,40 and Steinmetz’s professional ethics were often upheld by students and colleagues who were familiar with his methods. The charge of subversion was generally cloaked in the phrase “unprofessional conduct,” which was, conveniently, grounds for dismissal; but this too could not be substantiated since Steinmetz carried out his responsibilities conscientiously.41 Some argued that the State had a right to demand the loyalty of its employees; but Steinmetz had signed and had abided by the State’s loyalty oath in his duties as a state employee. In the final analysis, the suggestions of communist affiliation, subversion, of students, unprofessional conduct and violation of the Levering Oath were never supported. On campus, Steinmetz was spotless.
But this did not stop his critics. Quite simply, intolerance of nonconformity bred from a reactionary climate dictated that Steinmetz the activist/educator must be silenced — even though his activism was confined to his private life — and if existing methods could not be used then others would be fabricated.42 Where the national campaign against subversion was concerned, this was a time in which the end justified the means. The means were provided by legislated intolerance, and the end was an event at once deceptive in its simplicity and sobering in its implications: a man was fired for refusing on principle to answer two questions, both dealing with a subject for which he could not be seriously accused.
By late 1954, with moderate elements in the U.S. Senate emboldened by McCarthy’s loss of credibility in the televised “Army-McCarthy hearings,” and with the public hysteria ebbing, the climate of intolerance began to abate. The prosperity of the late 1950s helped to steer the public’s mind away from alleged subversion. Literature critical of the conservative reaction became more and more prevalent. By the early 1960s many of the major investigating committees, once the government’s major weapon against subversion, were dissolved.
Assemblyman Luckel, one of the oldest members of the California Legislature, retired in 1962. The Luckel Act was prominently included among his long list of achievements, but upon his retirement he admitted that the climate that had allowed its passage had changed.43 Harry Foster continued to be active in the American Legion, and in later years confessed some guilt over his part in the damage done to Steinmetz’s career.44
Section 1028.1 of the Government Code of the State of California (the Luckel Act) was amended once, in 1957, by its original author. The amendment merely expanded slightly the statute of limitations and the topics on which a state employee could be questioned.45 As many as 10 other state college system employees after Steinmetz were also discharged by means of the Luckel Act. In1968, the controversial Luckel Act was ruled unconstitutional.
Harry Steinmetz spent the rest of his working career, as he put it, “hiding out.” He continued to be active in left-wing causes. He practiced psychology in San Diego and Los Angeles, lived for a time in Europe, and secured teaching positions in Canada, Michigan and Georgia. But the pay was never as good as it had been in California. After his retirement in the late 1960’s he moved back to San Diego. Although he failed to win reinstatement as a full professor he eventually received the nonpaying title of Professor Emeritus. And despite periodic appeals to the Legislature for his dismissal. He continued to be active in the political and academic life of San Diego. He worked on his claim for reparation, planned an autobiography, and taught courses on world affairs through the extension program at SDSU right up until his death on February 15, 1981, at the age of 82. In one of his last interviews,46 he noted with some pleasure that he had always been a “thorn in the establishment’s side” — but it could also be said that the establishment had equally been one in his.
1. Interview with Harry Steinmetz, conducted by Clare V. McKanna, Jr., October 2, 1980, in San Diego State University Archives; and San Diego Union January 17 and 19 1936. For a detailed account of Steinmetz’s labor activity in San Diego, see Frederick L. Ryan, The Labor Movement in San Diego (San Diego State College Bureau of Business and Economic Research, 1959).
2. San Diego Union, January 21, 1936. Some students at SDSC did circulate a petition in support of Steinmetz; see ibid., January 23, 1936.
3. San Diego Daily Journal, October 28, 1949.
4. The liberal San Diego Daily Journal’s circulation was small and its life-span short (1944-50) compared to the area’s major daily, the conservative San Diego Union. The Union, according to Steinmetz, was one of his major opponents is San Diego. See Steinmetz interview.
5. Interview with Harry Foster, conducted by Clare V. McKanna, Jr., October 1, 1980, in San Diego State University Archives.
6. San Diego Union, May 15, 1951 and May 23, 1951.
7. Ibid., July 25, 1951. For text of S.B. 1836 see California Legislature, Senate, An Act to Add Sections 20393.1 and 20393.2 to the Education Code, Relating to Dismissal of Employees of State Colleges, 1951 Regular Session.
8. San Diego Union, July 25, 1951.
9. California Legislature, Senate Committee on Education, Opposition to Loyalty, in Appendix to the Journal of the Senate, 1953 Regular Session (Sacramento, 1953), Vol. 2..
10. San Diego Union, March 27, 1953; Aztec (San Diego State College), March 27, 1953.
11. San Diego Union, April 5, 1953.
12. Ibid., April 8, 1953.
13.Ibid. Many years later Steinmetz was to admit that he had indeed been “an undisciplined one” fifteen years before but had refused to answer on principle. See Harry C. Steinmetz, “Half Century of Non-Conformity,” San Diego Evening Tribune, November 21, 1979.
14. San Diego Union, April 8, 1953 April 10, 1953.
15. Ibid., July 22, 1953.
16. See in particular: California Legislature, Senate Committee on Un-American Activities, Seventh Report of the Senate Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities, in Appendix to the Journal of the Senate, 1953 Regular Session (Sacramento, 1953), Vol. 3, pp. 163.
17. For text of S.B. 1367 see California, Statutes 91953, 2:3339-44.
18. For text of A.B. 3508 see Ibid., 3366-68.
19. New York Times, July 6, 1955.
20. Foster interview; and interview with Harry Ruja, conducted by Paul Eisloeffel, October 26, 1981, in author’s collections.
21. Steinmetz interview.
22. San Diego Union, December 9, 1953; and Aztec, December 11, 1953.
23. San Deigo Union, December 10, 1953 and December 11, 1953.
24. Among the board members present were two San Diegans, Mildred Hale and Max Oslo.
25. Wirin himself was associated with leftist activities. He was listed in four legislative committee reports as a member of communist front organizations; see San Diego Union, January 29, 1954. Kenney, who was Steinmetz’s attorney at the HUAC hearing in 1953 and defense attorney in the famous “Hollywood Ten” hearing, advised him that “the Bill of Rights had been suspended” in such investigations; see Steinmetz interview.
26. San Diego Union, January 29, 1954.
27. Ibid. Steinmetz had often acknowledged his belief in peace, as many of his former political associations had illustrated. In one reply, he openly defended his own loyalty by reaffirming the Levering Oath.
29. For complete text of the letter see San Diego Union, February 5, 1954.
31. Ruja interview.
32. Aztec, February 26, 1954.
33. Aztec, March 19, 1954.
34. Aztec, March 5. 1954.
35. By way of explanation, it must be noted that it is not unusual for the public to remain silent over such controversial issues during a climate of fear. This topic is discussed in Cedric Belfrage. The American Inquisition, 1945-1960 (Indianapolis, 1973), pp. 3-4.
36. San Diego Union, February 5 and 19, 1955.
37. Ibid. June 23, 1954, July 6, 1955, and April 24, 1956.
38. Foster interview.
40. Foster and Ruja interviews. In his interview, Foster refused to name his sources.
41. Ruja interview.
42. Foster admitted these tactics by ultimately regretting that Steinmetz had really been fired for the wrong reasons. See Foster interview.
43. San Diego Union, April, 19, 1962.
44. Foster interview.
45. Statutes, pp.3730-31.
46. Los Angeles Times, February 23, 1981.
THE PHOTOGRAPHS are from The San Diego History Center’s Title Insurance Trust Collection.