14 June 2021
14 June 2021,

Photographs (clockwise from bottom left): Syd alongside the minesweeper he commanded in World War Two, Syd with my father in their San Francisco apartment (circa 1939), Syd with my father in London in the 1970s, Steve with Michael, Cathy, Lew and Richard Williams in Berkeley in 2018. 

Cutting: The front page of the Cincinnati Enquirer on September 29, 1953.


Continued from Part 1: I submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the FBI to obtain records relating to my father, Brandon Howell, on April 4, 2015, once I had gathered together the necessary supporting documents. The process of battling to get as much information as they would release or had not destroyed would take just over four years, about which I write in Part 3 of this series. While this was going on, I did some more research on Syd Williams and was provided with extensive extracts from his FBI file by his family. Here’s the story.


Syd Williams was an unlikely person to be at the centre of the US’s first public vote on the witch-hunt in the equally unlikely setting of Cincinnati. Yet his dismissal as the city’s director of planning in September 1953 became the defining issue of municipal elections two months later and generated enough heat nationally to embarrass even J Edgar Hoover, the FBI’s fearsome director.

Syd was the antithesis of Hoover. He was mild mannered and didn’t hold strong ideological convictions. He could get passionate about the design of buildings or cities but he had only briefly, some years earlier, gone along to Communist Party meetings in San Francisco.

Syd and my father, Brandon Howell, became friends as teenagers in Berkeley in the early 1930s. My father lived with his mother, a French teacher and devote Christian Scientist from Omaha, Nebraska who was widowed by the Spanish flu epidemic. Syd was the son of a builder whose business had been crushed in the Depression. His daughter Cathy says he went to school in threadbare, out-of-style clothes and was an outcast at High School “until Brandon befriended him”.[1]

After graduating in architecture from Berkeley, the two of them shared an apartment in the North Beach area of San Francisco. It was 1939, and they were not alone among young professionals in grappling with their role amidst the inequalities and upheavals around them. They began discussing the creation of a new group with other like-minded people, among them Garrett Eckbo and Vernon de Mars[2] who were both working for one of the big projects of the New Deal, the Farm Security Administration (FSA), designing new settlements in California for homeless farming families migrating from the mid-West.[3]

Drawing 20 or 30 people into their discussions, they adopted the name Telesis – Greek for ‘planned progress’ – and decided to organise an exhibition to promote their ideas. Held at the San Francisco Museum of Art in 1940, it attracted the interest of Rexford Tugwell, one of President Roosevelt’s closest associates, who was visiting the city and came to see it. “You’re on the right track, keep at it,” he told them.[4]

Specifically, the track Telesis was on was the rejection of “the social costs of unplanned development” and advocacy of “co-operation to create a physical environment that favoured the development of all”.[5]

The group was recognised in 2001 by American Planning Association as a ‘pioneer’ of the profession, but in the 1940s its goals were too close to socialism for the FBI’s liking and some of its members – including Syd – would soon be put under surveillance.

At this point, my father must have eluded the FBI’s emerging interest because, shortly after the exhibition, he married his first wife Bea and left San Francisco, first, to work for an architect in Santiago, Chile and then – as mentioned in the first instalment of this series – for Tugwell, once Roosevelt had appointed him Governor of Puerto Rico.

Syd, meanwhile, married Mary Merrill, who he’d met while they were students at Berkeley, and took a job as a planner for San Mateo County. Then, after the US entered the war, he joined the navy and served as a lieutenant on a minesweeper in the central Pacific. On his return to San Francisco in 1945, having been honourably discharged, he soon picked up the threads of his career and by 1947 was chief of the division producing a master plan for the city.

Three years later, another Telesis member, Jack Kent, who had become chair of Berkeley’s new department of city and regional planning, enlisted Syd’s help in developing a curriculum and appointed him visiting associate professor.

By then, the witch-hunt was in full swing and the University of California – of which Berkeley is a part – had adopted a loyalty oath requiring academic staff to declare that they were not a member of the Communist Party. Dozens of professors refused to sign and were either dismissed or resigned.[6]

For Williams, however, the issue did not arise until his post was made permanent in 1952. Rightly or wrongly, as he wasn’t a communist, he decided to sign. But what Williams did not realise was that the FBI had had been watching him closely for 12 years.

His FBI file reveals that the surveillance was triggered in 1940 by an informer and included tracking his newspaper subscriptions in 1942 and observing his car outside the venue of a Communist Party meeting in 1945. One entry says: “On February 1, 1946, confidential source (blank) advised that the subject was at that time affiliated with the Communist Party Housing and Planning Club and was Fair Employment Practices Committee Director of the Club.”[7]

When Syd signed the oath, the FBI seized their chance to ‘out’ him. They went to Berkeley’s chancellor, Clark Kerr, with details of meetings he’d attended. Syd argued that his political involvement had ended five years earlier, after his children were born. However, Mary was still an active communist and, faced with an FBI threat to denounce him publicly, he decided to resign and look for a job outside California.

Out of work with three young children, Syd was desperate. But his past political interests were still something only the FBI and a few friends knew about, and his professional CV was impeccable. In April 1953, just two months after leaving Berkeley, he was appointed director of the Cincinnati City Planning Commission by two city councillors, despite sharing a diluted version of his FBI troubles with them.

The councillors, Wallace Collett and Henry Bettman, did not think the saga had any bearing on the job they wanted him to do and chose not to divulge it to anyone else. But the FBI was still on Williams’s tail: its Cincinnati office had been alerted and asked headquarters in Washington for permission to obtain a “blind memorandum” from San Francisco. According to Syd’s FBI file, this information was to be passed on to Wilbur Kellogg, city manager of Cincinnati, who had been used before and “found to be reliable”.[8]

Blind memorandums were a tactic widely deployed by the FBI as part of a secret operation known as the Responsibilities Program. From 1951 to 1955, the FBI used them to disseminate information on at least 908 people in academic and public posts.[9] They had to be untraceable because it was illegal for the FBI to divulge intelligence outside the executive branch of government. Williams’s memorandum was probably unusual, however, in that much of it was about Mary’s continuing political activity, which was causing a rift between them.

Syd was never, of course, actually told of the existence of the memorandum, never mind given an opportunity to defend himself. Typed onto blank paper, it was left on Kellogg’s desk during an FBI ‘courtesy call’ on September 17, 1953.  The trusty city manager then spread the word among the Republican members of the planning commission, lining up their support to sack Syd and force Bettman and Collett to resign.

Within two weeks, Kellogg had secured Syd’s dismissal. However, as US-wide media interest intensified, Kellogg revealed the role of the FBI in the affair. Hoover, under pressure from critics of his methods, was furious at being drawn into a politically partisan dispute and covered his back by sending a curt note saying head office should in future ‘pull in the reins’.[10]

With city elections looming, Bettman and Collett escalated the drama by saying they would not resign until voters had had a chance to give their verdict. While not opposing blacklisting outright, they and the Charter Party – as the Democrats were then known in Cincinnati – stood their ground on the appointment of Syd and fought the election explicitly on the question: Do you support or oppose Senator McCarthy’s tactics in dealing with ‘communists-in-government’? The answer – on an unprecedented voter turn-out – was clear: the Charterites won a majority on the city council and within weeks Kellogg had resigned.[11]

For Syd, however, the scars were too deep to heal in the city where they had been inflicted. His marriage to Mary was also all but over. The whole family returned to California, where he eventually found work as a private planning consultant.

In the 1960s, having remarried, he visited us in London several times with his second wife, Margaret, and their son, Richard, but the Cincinnati sacking was never mentioned in my presence. The first I heard of it was many years later.

Cathy, who was only six when Syd was sacked, still can’t bear to read about what she calls the Truman-Eisenhower purges. She says the family witnessed “the destruction of Syd” and remembers in particular a drunken “night of rage” in the 1960s when he went to a filing cabinet, took out files full of correspondence and cuttings relating to what happened in Cincinnati, and threw them onto a fire.

Destroying people to put fear into others was central to the witch-hunt. The blind memorandum on Syd describes him as “a threat to internal security of the country”, but the FBI will have known that – even by their own criteria – he posed no such threat. It’s likely they chose him precisely because he didn’t and they calculated they could exploit his weaknesses. But, thanks to the integrity of two local politicians and the voters of Cincinnati, the FBI suffered a rare defeat. And three years later, when the FBI tried to recruit Syd as an informer, he told them where to go.[12]


Steve Howell

Part 3 of this four-part series will be posted on Friday 17 June, 2021.

Steve is author of Game Changer, an insider’s account of Labour’s dramatic 2017 election campaign, and two novels – the latest of which is Collateral Damage, the story of a Palestinian woman’s search for the truth about the death of a fellow activist. Follow Steve on Twitter to keep in touch: @fromstevehowell 

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[1] Interview with Cathleen Williams, 4.8.2018.

[2] The Library of Congress has photographs and drawings of their work. Vernon de Mars would go on to become one of California’s foremost architects. Garrett Eckbo similarly became well known as a landscape architect. His book Landscape For Living was published in 1950 and republished in 2002.

[3] The plight of families fleeing the Dust Bowl was, of course, immortalised by John Steinbeck in Grapes of Wrath, which Eckbo described as their bible.

[4] A Life In Architecture, Vernon de Mars, UC History Series, p215

[5] Progress Intentionally Planned: Telesis and the Modernist Agenda, Peter Allen, The Urbanist, 1.7.2009, see www.spur.org

[6] See, for example: The Year Of The Oath, George R Stewart, Doubleday, 1950.

[7] From an unpublished book: Planning and Politics in Cincinnati During the McCarthy Era, Professor Laurence C Gerckens, Ohio State University. This was supplied to me by the Williams family and contains substantial extracts from Syd’s FBI file.

[8] Ibid, p32.

[9] Subversives, Seth Rosenfeld, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012, p35.

[10] Gerckens, p38.

[11] McCarthyism in Cincinnati: The Bettman-Collett Affair, Wallace T Collett, a personal account published by Collett in 2002.

[12] Gerckens, p166.