24 June 2021
24 June 2021,
 Off

Left: The first page of the statement by my father’s former wife Bea (Beatrice Martin) to the FBI on August 21, 1950.

Centre top: Gordon Stephenson at his desk at the Ministry of Housing just after the war.

Centre bottom: My father, Brandon Howell, with his mother, Margaret Rustin Howell, outside the house where I was born in Wallasey.

Right: The memo from J Edgar Hoover to the CIA, sent a few days after Bea’s interview. At this point, they don’t know that my father had taken a job at Liverpool University and was living in Wallasey. He had also been given a research grant by the Whitney Foundation. Note that the final sentence is redacted – the US intelligence services continue to want to hide the ‘sources and methods’ they used.

 

In 1972, as I started my gap year, I was stopped on arrival in Chicago and taken to be searched and interviewed by the FBI. I now know that this happened because my American father, Brandon Howell, had been under surveillance for most of his adult life.

This final instalment of the four-part story takes us to Wallasey where, in the spring of 1950, my newly-married parents had moved into a flat having decided to live in Britain because of the witch-hunt in the United States. My father had got a job at Liverpool University and would take the Mersey ferry and then walk to his office in Abercrombie Square believing, no doubt, he was no longer under surveillance. What he could not have known was that a storm was brewing 5,000 miles away that would lead to renewed FBI interest in him and the blacklisting of an outstanding British professor. Here’s the story.

 

James Harvey Lasater and Gordon Stephenson were both academics but they could hardly have had less in common in their values and perceptions of loyalty.

Lasater was a clinical instructor in psychiatry at the University of Washington[1] at the same time as Stephenson was professor of civic design at the University of Liverpool. My father’s first wife, Bea, was among Lasater’s private patients, while my father, Brandon, was a lecturer in Stephenson’s department

Their acrimonious divorce in 1949 had left Bea feeling she needed the help of a psychiatrist. But when she went to Lasater with her story, his response was to go running to the FBI in Seattle.

According to a memo they sent to FBI Director J Edgar Hoover on January 12, 1950, and copied to the San Francisco and San Juan field offices, Lasater told them that Bea had “furnished information to him” that my father had been “a prominent participator in communist party activities in Puerto Rico” and that her divorce from him “resulted in part” from her objection to his political sympathies. The memo concludes by asking Hoover for instructions on whether or not Bea should be interviewed and suggesting that, if an interview did go ahead, she should “not be apprised of the assistance given by Dr Lasater”.

It’s hard to overstate how precarious my father’s position was at this point. The witch-hunt was going full tilt: 11 leading US communists had been convicted three months earlier and sentenced to jail terms of three to five years; the Hollywood 10 were in the final stages of an unsuccessful appeal against their convictions for ‘contempt of Congress’; behind the scenes, the FBI was preparing Smith Act prosecutions against ‘second tier’ communists; and that year would see the singer, Paul Robeson, stripped of his passport.

On February 9, 1950, a little-known senator from Minnesota jumped on the witch-hunt wagon. In a Lincoln Day speech, Joseph McCarthy nailed his name to the hysteria by claiming that the State Department was “thoroughly infested with communists” and calling for “a moral uprising” until “the whole sorry mess of twisted warped thinkers are swept from the national scene”.[2]

Amidst this hysteria, Lasater’s tip-off triggered an FBI decision to mount a new investigation into my father involving a ‘look-out’ notice in case he returned to the country, tapping the long-distance calls of his Berkeley family, contacting a ‘reliable source’ at the University of California for information on his student activities and re-visiting the 15 reports produced on my father since 1945 by 10 different special agents across four field offices.

By July 1950, Lasater had obtained Bea’s consent to an interview and Hoover was ready to authorise it on the basis that its goal was ‘admissible evidence’ in the form of a signed statement and with the stipulation that it should be conducted by two experienced agents. The intention was clearly to prosecute my father under the Smith Act, the precedent having been established that proving membership of the communist party was enough on its own for a conviction.

The interview took place in Seattle in August 15, 1950. Bea’s seven-page statement, which ends with a declaration that she has been informed that it may be used in a judicial proceeding, confirms that my father had been a party member and was responsible for cartoons that appeared in left publications in Puerto Rico under the pen names Pepe and Diego Munoz. She says he had “read all of Marx’s books” and that when she asked him why he did not go to Russia he had replied that “he thought communism in the United States, when it came, would be entirely different.”

Her statement continues: “I do not know whether or not he would be a traitor or spy to the United States in war time, but he has stated that dedication to the Communist Party came before anything else to him and was worth giving up his life. He feels that he is working for the poor and downtrodden.”

Bea’s ‘interviewers’ were not content, however, with nailing only my father. They extracted from her the names of 33 other people. Some were the known communist leaders in Puerto Rico, such as Cesar Andreu Iglesias and Jane Speed, but others were from a wider circle of friends and acquaintances in San Juan, New York and London, some of whom were not party members. The London names included Harold Laski, a well-known figure on the left of the Labour party, and Oliver Thornycroft, with whom they had lived in Golders Green and who Bea describes as “a Laborite”. Markings on my father’s file indicate that 26 of the 33 were either already or went on to become subjects of FBI investigation.

Being in Britain, my father was technically outside the jurisdiction of the FBI. But, within days of the interview, Hoover had fired off memos to the chief of security at the State Department, Jack D Neal[3], and to the CIA for the attention of assistant director Colonel Robert Schow[4] alerting them to my father’s whereabouts. The memos are in the file but, in both cases, the final few lines are redacted ‘to protect intelligence sources and methods’, presumably because they shed light on US spying activities in Britain that are still sensitive seven decades later.

The address Hoover gives them for my father is the Hendon home of my maternal grandmother, Winifred Fisher[5], but this was out of date because he had already started working at Liverpool University. Hoover’s source, Bea, wouldn’t have known anything about the lecturing job, but the CIA – probably aided by British secret police – soon tracked him down and established where he was working and who he was associating with.

One memo reports that my father had attended a meeting of the Merseyside branch of the British-China Friendship Society and “appeared to be on friendly terms with all the local officials of the Communist Party”. In another item, a senior State Department official suggests that “Howell’s travels abroad” are “inimical to the best interests of the United States”, which confirms that my father was right to assume that, if he went back across the Atlantic, he would probably suffer the same fate as Robeson and not be able to return.

For my father’s British boss, however, the problem would prove to be getting into the US in the first place. Professor Stephenson was one of the best-known architect-planners of his generation. Prior to becoming an academic, he had been a central figure in the 1945 Labour Government’s radical policies for green belts and new towns, the first of which – Stevenage – was planned under his direction.

Not surprisingly, in the early fifties, Stephenson found himself inundated with offers of work abroad. What appealed most was a visiting professorship at Berkeley in 1954-55 followed by a five-year appointment as chair of planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). It must have seemed perfect: his wife Flora was from Boston, they had met while both studying at MIT, and their three daughters, who had dual nationality, could get to know the other half of their heritage and family. Without hesitation, he resigned his Liverpool post, sold their house on the Wirral and took some temporary consultancy work in Perth to give the family a chance to visit Australia before starting the Berkeley job in September 1954.

Stephenson had travelled to the US regularly as a visitor, and it did not occur to him that there would be any problem obtaining a work visa. His private letters in the Liverpool University archives[6] reveal that the first hint of trouble came on July 2 1954, just five weeks before the family was due to fly to San Francisco, when he contacted the US Consul in Perth, Stephen Winship, only to be told that “investigations arising from his application were incomplete”.

By mid-August, having given up hope of the visa coming through in time for the start of term, Stephenson wrote to Berkeley professor Fran Violich to warn him. This panicked Violich. Such was the McCarthyite atmosphere, he replied saying Stephenson should tell the University’s Chancellor, Clark Kerr, that his reason for pulling out was “positive demand” for his services in Perth rather than visa problems. The department had already had enough “unpleasant rumours” because of the Syd Williams affair[7], Violich said.

Stephenson complied with this request but wrote back saying he felt he had made himself out to be “a bit of a heal” for blaming his pull-out on other work. Urging Violich not to allow “fear to come into your thoughts”, he struck the defiant note that would epitomise his coming battle with the US authorities. “There are evil men in the world who are relying on the minds of others being sickened by fear,” he said. “The technique failed in 1939. I’ve no regrets for anything I’ve done – good, bad or indifferent – and, even though upset, I certainly refuse to be frightened.”

Confirmation that Stephenson would not be given a visa came at the end of September, 1954 when Winship wrote to him saying he had been excluded because there was “reason to believe” he was seeking to enter the country “to engage in activities that would be prejudicial to the public interest or endanger the welfare, safety or security of the United States”.

Stephenson was staggered by this claim. He had never been a communist or a member of any party, and he was not given any indication of the ‘evidence’ against him other than that he had “associated with known communists”. There was no process for appeal, but Flora – as a US citizen – took up the fight with a strong letter to Winship. And Professor James Killian, the President of MIT, who later became the scientific adviser to presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy, weighed in by writing to the State Department defending Stephenson’s “integrity and loyalty to democratic ideals as well as his professional and personal qualifications for the position”.

It was not until April 27, 1955 – nearly 10 months after their first meeting – that the US Consul in Perth finally named the ‘communists’ with whom Stephenson was ‘associated’. One was a Czechoslovak called Sammer, who he had met while working for the architect Le Corbusier in Paris in the 1930s but hadn’t heard from since just after the war. The other was my father.

Stephenson wrote to Winship a few days later explaining that my father’s appointment was actually made by a University committee after an independent academic review of his published work. He protested that he was being prevented from taking up a post in “a great American institution” because of “administrative justice (that is) ill-related to the natural justice gradually accepted over a long period of time as basic to the American and British ways of life.”

To his credit, Stephenson defended my father. In the same letter, he said his teaching recorded was “satisfactory in every way” and argued that “it is an age-old tradition that a man may hold any views outside the university but that his teaching and research must be objective”.

Stephenson’s battle against being blacklisted would continue for many years. In 1956, he won the small concession of being allowed to visit the United States as a tourist, provided he notified the authorities in advance of the date and place of his entry, the purpose of his visit, the names of anyone he would contact and his departure date. By then the MIT post had gone to someone else, and Stephenson was teaching at the University of Toronto. He remained at Toronto until 1960 when he became professor of architecture at the University of Western Australia in Perth where he settled permanently.[8]

My father, meanwhile, remained under surveillance and became the subject of yet another “security investigation” six years after leaving the United States. On September 25, 1956, the FBI placed its third ‘look-out notice’ on him, this time “on the entire Eastern Seaboard” so that “Howell’s return to the United States (is) afforded maximum coverage”.

By 1956, my father had taken a job with London County Council and was working with architect Graeme Shankland, later to establish the international firm Shankland Cox, who was then a communist and under British security surveillance.[9] In what is probably a reference to Shankland, among others, a memo was sent to Hoover in Washington saying that – as in Wallasey – my father “appeared to be on friendly terms with” local communists.

It seems unlikely, however, that this would in itself trigger a new alert. A more probable explanation for the third look-out notice is that the FBI had embarked on another round of Smith Act prosecutions. After the conviction of the 11 communist leaders in 1949, the FBI had targeted ‘second-tier’ activists and indicted 132 people in three waves – 1951, 1954 and 1956. Of these, 105 were convicted and served a total of 418 years in prison.[10]

Andreu, who had been among those named by Bea, was in the 1956 wave of indictments. However, his case was dropped after a 1957 Supreme Court ruling upholding an appeal by Californian communists against their Smith Act convictions. In making clear the Act did not cover advocacy of an opinion, Justice Hugo Black said: “Governmental suppression of causes and beliefs seems to me to be the very antithesis of what our Constitution stands for.”[11]

This ruling was fiercely attacked by Hoover, but it wasn’t the end of the witch-hunt because the FBI could still keep activists under surveillance and supply the information needed for blacklisting purposes and HUAC hearings.

In 1959, HUAC turned its attention to Puerto Rico, holding sessions in San Juan where the 13 people subpoenaed included Andreu and two other activists named by Bea, Juan Santos Rivera and John Hawes.[12] My father was still in touch with Andreu and, while he could not have known about the new look-out notice, the hearings must have increased his fear of what would happen if he set foot on US soil.

By then, he had three children and a fourth on the way. Keeping his head down, he ploughed on with his career and declined his mother’s offers to pay for the family to visit her in Berkeley. He didn’t end his exile until she became terminally ill in 1967 and he went to Berkeley to spend some time with her. The FBI’s surveillance of him undoubtedly continued for several more years, as evidenced by my interrogation in Chicago in 1972, but it’s unlikely Hoover still viewed him as an important target. An FBI memo in 1965, says “a confidential source abroad” has reported that “there is no information denoting that Howell is openly active in Communist Party affairs at the present time”.

My father had not, however, abandoned his socialist convictions. My mother’s family were Labour stalwarts, and he joined them in reviving Hendon Central ward, roping me in too. We were so active in the 1966 Labour election campaign that the local agent wrote to say that it was a pleasure “to see a hitherto dead ward suddenly come alive” and she was “most grateful to the Howell family for this”. He remained a Labour member until his death in 1987 and those later years saw him protest against the Vietnam War, support the 1984-85 miners’ strike and oppose the use of US bases in Britain for the 1986 air strikes on Libya.

My father also remained close to many of those who had been part of his earlier political journey. Andreu, Williams and other Americans and Puerto Ricans whose names litter his FBI files were people I’ve met, and it’s been eye-opening to appreciate more fully the scale of the witch-hunt mounted against them and thousands of others. It is also both odd and saddening to realise that the FBI knew so much more about some periods of my father’s life than I did, and that it is now too late to change that or for me to hear his version of those events.

 

Steve Howell

 

Steve’s new novel, Collateral Damage, deals with themes of state spying on progressive activists. He is also the author of Game Changer, an insider’s account of Labour’s dramatic 2017 election campaign.

 

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[1] See 1949-50 University of Washington Catalogue, p42.

[2] Senator McCarthy’s speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, February 9, 1950.

[3] The division of security came within the State Department’s office of consular services, which would keep records of US citizens working abroad.

[4] Robert A Schow would rise to the rank of Major-General and become the US army’s head of intelligence in 1956.

[5] In his autobiography, The Third Man, Peter Mandelson refers to my grandmother and my aunt, Sylvie, as having “suggested that we rekindle the dormant local branch of the Young Socialists” (p48).

[6] All the Gordon Stephenson letters quoted in this piece are from the University of Liverpool archives. In an online note about the archives, the university states that Stephenson was “refused a visa by the McCarthy House Un-American Activities Committee”. This is not the case. He was not the subject of a HUAC investigation. The correspondence in the archive itself shows that the refusal was by the State Department based on his association with two people, one of whom was my father. This reference to McCarthy and HUAC reflects the common misunderstanding in Britain about the nature of the witch-hunt, which was actually led by the FBI and started before McCarthy even became a senator.

[7] See Part 2 of Feds Under The Bed for the Williams story.

[8] Buildings on both the Perth and Liverpool university campuses are named after him.

[9] According to files released by the UK National Archive.

[10] In addition, numerous people, such as Trumbo and Hammett, were imprisoned for contempt of either Congress or court.

[11] In Yates v the United States, 1957, the Supreme Court upholds the appeal of 14 California communists by a 6-1 margin.

[12] House Un-American Activities Committee, Annual Report, 1959.