Fair Play and a Free Press: The Triumph of Melvin Rader

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"The story is one that should be retold frequently, for it is a reminder of how, even in America, good citizens can be falsely persecuted under the guise of patriotism."

--Wenatchee World, Nov. 13, 1969

UW philosophy professor Melvin Rader is best known as a principal target back in the late 1940s of the Washington State legislature's Committee on Un-American Activities, also called the Canwell Committee, chaired by Representative Albert Canwell of Spokane.

In 1948, the Canwell Committee charged Rader along with several other professors with being Communists. Rader not only denied the charges and refused to name names, but with the help of some investigative reporting by a Seattle Times journalist, managed to clear his name and keep his job. Others were not as fortunate. According to a Times article, three other men lost their jobs and never were able to teach on a campus here again:footnote 2 Ralph Gundlach, a psychologist, moved to another state. Herbert J. Philips, a philosopher, became a ship's scaler on the Seattle waterfront. Joseph Butterworth of the English department never was employed again.

The reporter whose painstaking investigative work helped to exonerate Rader, Ed Guthman, won a Pulitzer Prize for the best national reporting of 1949. The story was picked up by newspapers and magazines around the country.

The book was an indictment of a society he saw as more interested in scapegoats than in truth, and a warning to those who sacrifice individual rights and freedom to achieve political ends.

--Seattle Post-Intelligencer, on False Witness footnote 1

Rader spent some 15 agonizing months trying to clear his name. His book, entitled False Witness, published in 1969 after his retirement from the University, chronicles the ordeal. The Committee had produced a witness, George Hewitt, who claimed to be a former Communist and who had attended a school for would-be Communists in New York for six weeks during the summer of 1938. Hewitt testified that Rader had attended the same school that summer. When Rader testified he had spent the summer in question at Cougar Creek Lodge in Snohomish, Washington, the records mysteriously disappeared--later turning up in the files of the Committee, with the pages neatly removed that should have contained Rader's name and proved his innocence.

I was deeply stirred by these events, not only because I was personally vindicated but because justice prevailed. As I stated to Guthman: 'Thanks to the fact that I live in a democracy and that many people have helped me, I have been able to clear my name.' In this one instance at least, misrepresentation and blind prejudice had been defeated by fair play and a free press."

--Melvin Rader, quoted in the
Bremerton Sun, Feb. 9, 1970

With the help of Guthman, Rader was able to present other evidence: a record proving Rader visited his optometrist on August 15; proof that he had voted in a Seattle primary election on September 13. Finally, Guthman found the most definitive proof: A library card with Rader's signature on it for a book he had checked out of the Suzzallo library on July 29.

Canwell finally admitted he had known all along that Rader was no Communist. Hewitt was discovered to be a professional informer who traveled the country accusing citizens of being members of the Communist Party. In 1950, the ordeal finally ended when State Attorney General Smith Troy exonerated Rader.

It has been said that "refutation is never as potent as the smear. No matter the effort made to publicize the aftermath, many people will never remember anything about the case except its beginning." footnote 3

But Melvin Rader transcended that rule; for Rader emerged from the ordeal a hero. He defied the Canwell Committee, and he won. "And in the process he helped open many people's eyes to the tactics employed by petty politicians in the name of Americanism," noted an article in the Daily two years after his death in 1981, upon the establishment of an annual Melvin Rader Memorial Lecture Series on Civil Liberties at the UW.footnote 4

The sensationalism did perhaps obscure in the public's eye the many scholarly accomplishments and civic service that Rader contributed over the years. Rader was very active in the American Civil Liberties Union, serving as president of the state chapter, and, in 1973, receiving its Bill of Rights Award.

Rader was born in Walla Walla, Washington in 1903, and received three degrees from the UW: an undergraduate degree in 1925, a master's degree in 1927, and a doctorate in 1929. He joined the UW faculty in 1930. He earned national distinction for his work as a humanist and scholar in the field of esthetics. His book, Ethics and the Human Community, published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., discusses the social implications of art and the universal standards of human values. His Modern Book of Esthetics has been widely used as a text at such schools as Stanford University, the University of Chicago, the University of Michigan, New York University, the University of Iowa, and the University of Wisconsin.

  1. "Professor Melvin M. Rader dies," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 15, 1981.
  2. "Scars of era linger for retiring U.W. professor," Shelby Gilje, Seattle Times, July 27, 1971.
  3. "Old Canwell Committee Has a Message for Today," Wenatchee World, Nov. 13, 1969.
  4. "UW prof beat the witchhunt," Cynthia Flash, The Daily, Oct. 25, 1983.

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