Paul Allen Unplugged.

Party Politics: Jacobs' Communist Past Prompted UW Probation

As an undergraduate student at the College of the City of New York, Melville Jacobs majored in history. Later, as an anthropology professor at the University of Washington, he played a reluctant part in it.

Targeted by the controversial Canwell Committee, Jacobs was one of several UW professors whose past membership in the Communist Party thrust their names into the spotlight and their careers into jeopardy during the start of the Cold War.

"In many ways, (the Canwell Committee) was a defining episode of the whole Red Scare," says Jane Sanders, '71, '76.

Anthropology Professor Melville Jacobs records the voice of Annie Miner Peterson with his newly bult portable electric phonograph during his visit to Charleston, Ore., in July 1934. Photo courtesy MSCUA, University of Washington Libraries, Negative #UW23239z. Insert photos of recording artifact and notebooks by Mary Lewis.


State Rep. Albert Canwell holds up an information card in this 1948 photo. Photo courtesy Seattle Post-Intelligencer Collection, MOHI.

Sanders, a UW graduate and current district director for Congressman Jim McDermott (D-Seattle), is the author of Cold War on Campus: Academic Freedom at the University of Washington, 1946-64.

The Canwell Committee was created by the state Legislature in 1946 to determine to what extent the Communist Party was influencing public and private institutions within the state. In 1948, it turned its attention to the UW.

Like more than a few folks—especially intellectuals—Jacobs had at one time believed the Communist Party represented the best response to the Depression and the rise of fascism, says Sanders. However, after belonging to the party from approximately 1935-45, Jacobs became disillusioned and gradually drifted away.

When confronted by the Canwell Committee, Jacobs admitted his past involvement but refused to name any other party members. For that—and for initially concealing his party membership from UW President Raymond Allen—he was disciplined.

While the discipline was temporary—two years probation —its impact was permanent, says Sanders. "He stayed away from political activity for the rest of his life, pretty much," she says.

In her book, she wrote, "Jacobs remained especially bitter about the fact that Allen singled him out for lying. Always an active scholar, Jacobs told how he could not concentrate enough to write during his probationary years, and his anger intensified because he received no raises or promotions. Finally, he forced himself to eat daily at the Faculty Club and eventually found a good deal of reward in the form of faculty support. Throughout the remainder of his teaching years, he would not sign anything even remotely political."

Today, Sanders is pleased that Melville Jacobs is once again making news—only this time for his research and not his politics. "I've always hoped he didn't just become a footnote in history ... known simply for being somebody who was at one time a member of the Communist Party," she says.—Brad Broberg

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