Albert F. Canwell
Albert Franklyn "Al" Canwell (January 11, 1907 – April 1, 2002) was an American journalist and politician who served as a member of the Washington State legislature from 1947 to 1948. He is best remembered as the namesake of the Washington legislature's Canwell Committee to investigate communist influence in Washington state, patterned after the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) of the United States Congress.
Albert Franklyn Canwell, known as "Al" to his friends, was born January 11, 1907, in Spokane, Washington.
Canwell's paternal grandfather, James Canwell (1840-1876), was a farmer from the New England state of Maine who served on the Union side in the American Civil War in the 1st Maine Cavalry before being taken as a prisoner-of-war. His father also served in the U.S. Cavalry as a member of the 1st Cavalry Regiment and later of the 4th Cavalry Regiment. He served at various cavalry forts in the Arizona Territory and Territory of Alaska as well as at Fort Walla Walla in Washington state.
His father mustered out of the cavalry in 1900 and with his wife, Ingeborg Christina Espelund Canwell (1876-1967), the Norwegian daughter of immigrants to the United States, decided to settle in a rural part of Eastern Washington near the city of Spokane.
Due to their physical distance from the facility Canwell was held out of the local one-room school until the age of 8, being taught to read and write at home under the tutelage of his mother. The family moved to Spokane in 1916, where his father would ultimately become a member of the Teamster's Union. Albert passed the years of World War I as a schoolboy in various public schools of the city.
In the years after the war, the young Canwell took time off school to work as an itinerant fruit picker, earning money and traveling to see the states of the Pacific coast. He also worked briefly as an assistant to an explosives specialist in the construction of a dam on the Hood River. He would continue traveling seasonally, working somewhat more lucratively as a fruit and produce packager until 1928 — a trade which included short stints riding freight trains and staying for a day or two in hobo camps.
"The Wobbly organization or IWW was very, very prominent and very active. In general they were not a very desirable lot. I remember one incident. I was coming home from the Kennewick area. I had worked down there and ended up with a little money — not very much — and decided to ride a freight train back to Spokane. I boarded a flatcar and somewhere along the line a couple of fellows were working the train. You either had to have a Wobbly card or get off the train. That's cold turkey — supposed to pay a dollar for a red card, and that wasn't the sort of think I was likely to do. In Kennewick, I had bought a regular horse pistol. It was a .45 Colt; badly worn and dangerous to shoot, but I bought it for five dollars and I had this. When I was confronted with 'Either pay for this red ticket or get off the train!' I decided that wasn't the way it would be and I displayed this firearm that should have had wheels on it. Anyway, these two guys just took off, jumped off the train into the sagebrush head-over-heels. That's all I saw of them. That was one of my experiences with labor organizing."
After 1928, Canwell left produce packing for good, taking a job as an employee of a large Spokane bookstore for two years before going to work for the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Montana selling books door-to-door. In 1932 Canwell moved to Yakima and later to Ellensburg, where he worked for a regional advertising newspaper and in job printing. He soon made his way to Western Washington, settling in the Seattle area, where he made important contacts with the publisher of the Seattle Star and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
Canwell became a general assignment news reporter for International News Service, for whom he covered such fare as ongoing labor disputes in the Detroit auto industry and the 1933 Chicago World's Fair. He continued to maintain a home base in Yakima throughout this period.
In covering the sometimes sensational labor strife in the Upper Midwest during the Great Depression era, Canwell again came face to face with radical labor organizers, this time in the orbit of the Communist Party, USA. In the process of interviewing auto workers, Canwell began to observe what he believed was dissonance between the actual perspective of rank-and-file workers, who in general did not express "any resistance to management that had substance" and the agenda of the union leadership. Canwell felt that the turmoil was "created by professional radicals who were, in general, Communists and Communist-trained labor leaders." He later declared:
"I don't think there would be any organized activity back here in the labor field in the way of strikes without the Communist experts working there. I remember discussing the thing with John L. Lewis...[and] he, among others, said that the ablest organizers and the ablest leadership in labor was provided by the Communist element; they specialized in it."
Canwell emerged as a dedicated conservative Republican, viewing the New Deal of President Franklin D. Roosevelt as "a socialist venture and a repudiation of our free-enterprise, capitalist system." He would remain a committed anti-communist for the rest of his life.
In 1938 Canwell returned to his native Spokane, motivated to do so by his co-thinker Ashley Holden, political editor of the Spokane Spokesman-Review. In addition to his written journalism, Canwell began developing as a photo-journalist, taking numerous photographs of prominent people. He also began systematically collecting and organizing files of radical publications and maintaining research notes on leading participants in the radical movement.
In the early 1940s, Canwell worked as the chief of the Spokane County Identification Bureau, attached to the Spokane County Sheriff's Office, replacing an individual who had been called up for military service during World War II. He also simultaneously worked for one year with the Identification Office of the Federal Narcotics Bureau. Although he anticipated being drafted himself, Canwell was never called into military service during the war years. With the end of the war Canwell left the employ of the Sheriff's Office and took up life as a small scale cattle rancher.
Election to legislatureEdit
Canwell was elected to the Washington state House of Representatives in November 1946. He made two primary promises to the voters of his Spokane district during the 1946 campaign — to oppose new taxes and to take action against the spread of Communism in America. In an effort to fulfill this campaign promise, Canwell actively participated in helping to write the House resolution which established a Washington State legislative committee to investigate the activities of the Communist Party USA in the state.
On March 8, 1947, the legislature's House Concurrent Resolution No. 10 established a Joint Legislative Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities. Speaker of the House Herb Hamblen — also hailing from the Eastern Washington city of Spokane — tapped Canwell as the chairman of this interim committee. The committee consisted of 5 Republicans and 2 Democrats. The committee consequently became known as the Canwell Committee among the public and in the press.
Subsequent political careerEdit
In the election of 1948 Canwell attempted to move from the House to the State Senate, running as the Republican nominee in the November general election. He was defeated in that bid.
In 1952, Washington was awarded another seat in Congress as a result of the census of 1950 and Canwell ran for the new at-large seat. Although he emerged victorious in the Republican primary, he was defeated by Democrat Don Magnuson in the November general election.
Following his electoral defeat Canwell continued as a professional anti-communist, launching a business called the American Intelligence Service from a downtown Spokane office. In this capacity he published an anti-communist newsletter called The Vigilante and emerged as a leading West Coast supporter of Senator Joseph McCarthy in the Second Red Scare.
In 1963 Canwell was the subject of a $225,000 libel suit when he intimated that Washington state representative John Goldmark and his wife were Communist agents. The suit gained national media attention and resulted with the jury finding in favor of the defendants on 5 of 9 primary claims and awarding $40,000 in damages — at the time one of Washington's largest defamation verdicts.
Death and legacyEdit
Canwell died on April 1, 2002, in Spokane of an unspecified illness. He was 95 years old at the time of his death.
- Albert F. Canwell with Timothy Frederick, Albert F. Canwell: An Oral History. Olympia, WA: Washington State Oral History Program, Office of the Secretary of the State, 1997; pg. 1.
- Frederick and Canwell, Albert F. Canwell: An Oral History, pg. 7.
- Frederick and Canwell, Albert F. Canwell: An Oral History, pp. 5-6.
- Frederick and Canwell, Albert F. Canwell: An Oral History, pg. 43.
- Frederick and Canwell, Albert F. Canwell: An Oral History, pg. 50 and passim.
- Frederick and Canwell, Albert F. Canwell: An Oral History, pg. 64.
- Frederick and Canwell, Albert F. Canwell: An Oral History, pg. 68.
- Frederick and Canwell, Albert F. Canwell: An Oral History, pp. 71, 74.
- Frederick and Canwell, Albert F. Canwell: An Oral History, pg. 68, 74.
- Frederick and Canwell, Albert F. Canwell: An Oral History, pp. 86-88, 92.
- Frederick and Canwell, Albert F. Canwell: An Oral History, pg. 89.
- Frederick and Canwell, Albert F. Canwell: An Oral History, pp. 92-93.
- Frederick and Canwell, Albert F. Canwell: An Oral History, pg. 105.
- Frederick and Canwell, Albert F. Canwell: An Oral History, pp. 98-99.
- Frederick and Canwell, Albert F. Canwell: An Oral History, pg. 98.
- Frederick and Canwell, Albert F. Canwell: An Oral History, pg. 99.
- Frederick and Canwell, Albert F. Canwell: An Oral History, pg. 101.
- Frederick and Canwell, Albert F. Canwell: An Oral History, pg. 102.
- Frederick and Canwell, Albert F. Canwell: An Oral History, pp. 105-106.
- Frederick and Canwell, Albert F. Canwell: An Oral History, pg. 135.
- Frederick, "Foreword" to Albert F. Canwell: An Oral History, foreword pg. 1.
- Frederick, "Foreword" to Albert F. Canwell: An Oral History, foreword pg. 2.
- Albert F. Canwell with Timothy Frederick, Albert F. Canwell: An Oral History, chronology pg. 2.
- Jim Kershner, "Albert F. Canwell (1907-2002)," HistoryLink.org, July 28, 2011.
- "Albert F. Canwell, 95; Anti-Communist Zealot," Los Angeles Times, April 8, 2002.
- Jim Camden, "Seeing Red: Northwest Communist Hunter Offers No Apologies 50 Years Later," Spokane Spokesman-Review, Jan. 18, 1998.
- Verne Countryman, Un-American Activities in the State of Washington: The Canwell Committee. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1951.
- Jane Sanders, Cold War on Campus: Academic Freedom at the University of Washington, 1946-64. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 1979.
- Ellen Schrecker, No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1986.
- Jim Kershner, "Albert F. Canwell (1907-2002)," HistoryLink.org, July 28, 2011.