Camera Roll: 314:19-23
Sound Rolls: 314:10-12
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Dean McHenry , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on February 4, 1992, for The Great Depression . Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of The Great Depression.*
OK, so if you could tell me about the Depression in '34.
Well, the Depression hit California pretty hard. We had among the highest unemployed in the country, and the state financial situation was not strong. A great many people were hungry and without shelter, and this was a very low ebb, 1934 might have been the lowest, '33 might rival it, but by '34 we assumed it was going to be a fairly long recession, turned into a depression.
What was your experience working with people who were unemployed, without jobs, at that time?
Well, I saw the best of them, I suppose, because I worked with the State Relief Administration in the summer of 1934, largely with self-help cooperative groups, and these were in some way the elite of the unemployed, because they banded together to do things together, to minimize the lack of foodstuffs by producing themselves, either by farming or manufacturing, or providing some service that was of value.
Can you explain to me what the—can you explain to me what the co-op movement was all about?
Yes, it was—
If you could start by, instead of saying "yes", "the cooperative...?
Yes. The cooperative was a self-help, voluntary grouping of people who were unemployed to work together. It began largely as a scavenger group, going out into the fields and saying to farmers who were unable to market their crops, "Instead of plowing under that field of carrots, would you let us harvest them for people who are hungry?" The farmers usually said yes, and they brought them back to a central place and shared them. They did this in many commodities, farm commodities, and by cooperating together they had something of a standard of living, a low one, but better than none.
But it was kind of a barter system, right?
Yes, in a way.
Actually, from your impression, you were young, you were a graduate student at that point, you could have done anything that summer, what interested you, what drew you to the cooperative movement?
It wasn't a case of being able to do anything. Jobs were scarce. Indeed, when I graduated from UCLA in '32, there were so few jobs that I went to graduate school as an alternate, and I liked graduate work and stayed in, but even in the summer of 1934, I had few other opportunities. But here was a very promising line of work. Thanks to Clark Kerr, my graduate school roommate, I had become interested in the self-help co-ops. He had done his master's thesis at Stanford on this matter. When federal money became available to the State Relief Administration to support self-help cooperatives, then we were both employed, and I had the job of a field-agent, going 'round from one to another of these self-help groups.
OK, I'm going to ask you actually to repeat just kinda the last part of what you said, but just refer to yourself, since we won't know, by that point—
Nobody else. Yes.
Yeah. So if you could tell me that when the federal relief money came...?
Yes. When the federal relief money became available to the State Relief Administration, I was given the opportunity to serve as a field-agent, and my job was to go out and locate these unemployed co-ops, to review the roster, and look for some promising way in which they could do something that would raise the standard of living of unemployed people generally, who were so associated.
I mean was, what was, like, the philosophy behind this, was this instead of relief, I mean, what was the whole idea that people, behind the co-ops?
Mutual aid, pooling skills.
Can you tell me again? Begin with a sentence.
I didn't quite understand.
Oh, can you start again about what was the...?
Oh, I see, so it's usable. Yes, I see. Well, the idea behind it all was mutual aid, people working together to produce something that might not have been produced or distributed otherwise. Some of it was simply this harvesting of crops that would otherwise not be used, but we quickly found out as we went through the rosters, that there were people who had a special talent. For example, I found one in which three of the women had been seamstresses, in the garment industry, and the garment industry was in a bad way in Los Angeles, and so we conceived the notion of buying sewing machines for them, and getting a supply of cloth, and manufacturing something. One of the things, the first one, seamstress, when we formed, was a pajama factory, no joking, it was a pajama factory, and we had perhaps eventually 10 or a dozen women with sewing machines, making pajamas for the unemployed who were in these self-help units, all over Southern California.
Can you, can give me a sense of these people, I mean, [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] were they, what kind of people were involved in the self-help movement?
Well, they were typically Anglo-Saxon, Scandinavian European, descendants of European, immigrants, many of whom had settled in the Middle West, especially in the Southwest, and had come upon hard times, in the Dakotas, and the area from which my forebears came, Missouri, Kansas, and then on down into the South, the Arkies, the Okies. They were almost all white, and they were almost all native English-speaking people, and they were almost all people who had ambitions for themselves and for their children.
Great. Tell me about how you first became involved, how you first heard about Upton Sinclair and EPIC, what attracted you to that.
Well, I knew about Upton Sinclair because I was an avid reader, and I had read a good many of his novels. I also knew something of his political activity: he had filed for public office on several occasions, on the Socialist ticket. Other than that, I don't suppose I knew very much about his ideas.
But you weren't a Socialist, at that time.
No, I was an hereditary Republican. The Republican Party in California, from 1910 on, was very strictly split between a progressive wing, and an old-guard reactionary wing. The leader of the California Progressive movement, who became governor the year I was born, 1910, was Hiram Johnson, who then went on to the U.S. Senate, and served there for decades. Now, I belonged to the Progressive wing of the Republican Party, and was a registered Republican. When the reactionary wing began to take over in the early 1930s, I became somewhat disenchanted, and after the nomination of Sinclair as the Democratic candidate for governor, I changed my registration.
Wasn't that a big leap for you, at that time?
Well, it wasn't so much, because many of the same considerations were involved. I was in favor of social insurance, and in favor of a better tax system than we had in California, and I think the move was gradual, but once I moved I stayed with the Democrats, as almost a knee-jerk, but not quite a knee-jerk, Democrat.
I'm just curious from when, somebody like yourself changes from a Republican to supporting Sinclair, did that surprise your family or friends?
Oh, I think not greatly. My change was from Republican to Democratic, and the fact that Sinclair was the candidate had some attraction, but I shifted from one old party to another old party, and with it came a great deal of baggage.
Tell me about your attraction to Sinclair, what did he, you told me about reading his books, but what about the EPIC campaign or his candidacy, was what, is there any one thing that drew you in?
Well, we were pretty desperate, you know, by mid-1934.
There weren't very many signs of recovery, and California hadn't changed politically very much, despite the fact that Franklin Roosevelt was President, and there was some New Deal legislation that was rolling.
** But I think a lot of young people are idealistic. I had always been interested in utopias. There even was a utopian society at the time, which was joined by many, many people. We thought that there might be some better society that was possible, and Sinclair raised those hopes a good deal.
Describe to me a little bit of the kinds of elements that were part of Sinclair's plan.
Well, I think the main one, and the one that was
my chief interest, was simply the notion of production for use.
** It seemed so ridiculous to many of us that there was so much good land in California that wasn't being farmed, so many factories that were empty and silent, and so many able people who could have worked those farms and factories. We just thought of the waste,
** and then the notion of the self-help co-ops stirred our imaginations even more, and we had for a time, a matter of perhaps two years' time, an actual example of how this was done, that you could put unemployed people at productive work, and they could sustain themselves. The worst thing, of course, it seemed to us, many of us, that people accepted the dole, accepted charitable relief and did nothing in return for it.
—why you were attracted to EPIC, you were telling me before, there was this situation of the haves and the have-nots, can you describe...?
Well, almost all the have-nots were attracted to Sinclair, and very few of the haves. Among the have-nots were people of lesser skills, people who were unlucky, made transfers at the wrong time, had poor employers, or ill-health. Then there were some people who had a particular axe to grind, there were the remnants of the technology movement, technocrat movement, there were vegetarians, and all kinds of littles isms. Sinclair attracted almost all of them, except communism. The communists put up a full ticket against Sinclair's ticket and the Democrats, and worked hard and made fun of Mr. Sinclair, just as the Republicans did.
Can you tell me, when you, a little bit about the Republican reaction? Was it a strong reaction, what was he faced, what was the Sinclair campaign facing?
Oh, when the returns of the 1934 primary election came in, and it became apparent that Sinclair had won, he won overwhelmingly against the traditional Democrats,
the alarm bells began to ring everywhere,
** and looking back on it, it's quite obvious that people who "had", who owned, the bankers and merchants and manufacturers, and all, who were used to a given system, felt threatened
** by the fairly drastic reforms that some of the Sinclair people, at any rate, advocated. People thought their bank accounts might be confiscated and they'll be taxed out of existence, and the like. So, that alarm led to a very thorough anti-Sinclair organization. It pervaded virtually all the industries of California, including the motion picture industry.
What did that, how did that manifest, what kinds of things did you see in terms of the Sinclair opposition?
The avalanche of literature, motion pictures, posters, billboards against Sinclair was tremendous. It was the most "anti" campaign I can remember in all my long years. Every avenue in every medium was utilized. The newspapers were virtually unanimous in denouncing, the , the of San Francisco and Los Angeles, and the other newspapers, all of them were anti-Sinclair. The motion picture industry pitched in by putting out some news-reels, or utilizing some news-reels that were actually from feature films, scenes of unemployed people jamming the freight cars coming to California because they were going to live in the New Jerusalem that Sinclair would create in California, after he was governor.
When you saw these things, and experienced this anti-Sinclair campaign, did you understand why they would be, why the reaction would come, or did it make you angry? I mean, how did you feel when you saw it?
Well, I thought they over-did it, but I thought they had every right to plead their case. I think some of the interest fudged by mis-representing Sinclair's—
I want you to start this again, and instead of saying "they", tell me who you're, help me understand who you're speaking about.
I think that the right wing, represented by the Republican Party and the anti-Sinclair campaign, overdid, they fudged, they went beyond the reasonable level of criticism, and misrepresented the Sinclair program. But they were frightened and I understand why they did it, but there are, of course, many observers who feel that that anti-Sinclair campaign became a model that was used repeatedly in the decades that follow, in dirty politics.
Good. OK, OK, can you tell me a little bit of your involvement, what were some of the ways that you were involved in the Sinclair campaign?
Well, I was a very minor factor in the whole thing. I was in Berkeley as a graduate student, I had a part-time job in the Bureau of Public Administration, it was called then, and it was a time in which I worked very hard, on my own time, to try to organize something in Northern California. Not to get votes, but to set up a safety net, so that Sinclair, if he were elected, would not be helpless, and without support.
OK, I want you to explain that again, in terms of, you know, did he have this kind of plan, if he got elected what would happen, and your response to that.
Yes. Well, if I were to analyze his plan, the only of part of it that I'd be very enthused about was the production for use side, which would have been an elaboration of what we had done in the relief administration, in the Bureau of Self-Help Cooperatives.
** a lot of other ideas, like "funny money", some new medium of exchange that
** the state might foster, and a good many other notions that were not, from my point of view, feasible.
** But I was alarmed—
OK, so you were telling me about your reaction to Sinclair's plan and what you were proposing to do.
Mr. Sinclair proposed to do a number of things that I felt were beyond the pale. The development of a state-authorized medium of exchange, coinage power, the power to print money belongs to the national government, I felt. But the overwhelming reason why I thought supporting him was required for me was that, the notion of production for use, putting unemployed at gainful employment, and I had felt that in our little capsule of experiment with the self-help co-ops, there was the germ of an idea that would work.
So what did you decide to do with, tell me about setting up the brain-trust.
Well, I was much concerned that if Sinclair were elected, that he'd just be helpless when he got to Sacramento. With all virtually of the industries and organized groups arrayed against him, I couldn't see how he could get much through the legislature, and how a sensible program could be worked out. So I spent a bit of time in September, October, and the first week of November, organizing what I called the "Northern California Group". It was a list of names of people who, in one way or another, were concerned enough about the future of the state, that they were willing to give some time and thought about what a Sinclair legislative program would look like. There were some of the leading academics in the state, who participated in one way or another. Nearly all were afraid to appear publicly in favor of Sinclair, but most were willing to say, "I'll do a memorandum on this or that, as background material." This was a little like a brains trust.
OK, can you, what was their fear, why, what was, what was the fear of being associated with Sinclair?
Well, if you go back over the records that there are, the files in the Bancroft Library at Berkeley and so on, and look at the correspondence, and it'll be even greater when the files of the Bank of America and other corporations are made available, we find that people who appeared weak in terms of supporting the existing political and economic system were frowned upon, and the academics felt they wouldn't make promotions or advancements, and the people in business worried about their jobs.
OK, I would like you, if you can, to tell that to me again, but from your own experience at the time because you, I mean, when you looked at these letters, you saw that some people wouldn't sign things under a letterhead, you knew then, don't analyze it, but you knew then that people were afraid or concerned about their jobs or promotions.
There was plenty of evidence as I went 'round persuading professors at Berkeley or Stanford or elsewhere that they should help draw up a program for the state, if Sinclair were governor, there was plenty of evidence that they didn't want to do it publicly, that their own careers would be jeopardized if they did. But they were helpful privately, and many of them were standing by after election day to put in some time working out the details. For example, we proposed in the Sinclair campaign a number of taxes that were new to California. We didn't have an income tax, a state income tax, in '34, and we didn't have a severance tax on, say, the extraction of minerals or oil from the earth, and having sensible proposals in time for the opening, the inaugural and the opening of the legislature in 1935 was a very important step.
You talked to all these people that were scared about their jobs, were you affected, were you afraid of any negative publicity upon yourself?
I wasn't, perhaps I should have been, but I was young, single, and I felt that my own little niche, which justified a salary at that time of $65 a month, was reasonably secure.
OK, and you weren't afraid of being called a socialist, or a communist, or a Red [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] ?
Oh, I suppose I was nervous about being billed as an extremist, but other than that, I felt that what I was doing was legitimate.
Great. And I need you to tell me, one more time, actually in a very short statement, that you helped set up this brain trust, because I interrupted you when you were saying it before.
Yes, yes. Well, I felt it was, the thing I could help most, was to contact members of the faculty and some businessmen, and to ascertain their views toward Sinclair, and to ask whether they would cooperate in drawing up a program. I covered perhaps two dozen people, in many cases, people I had known either as a graduate student at Stanford or at Berkeley, to some extent people at UCLA from my undergraduate experience, and I built up a list. When we had a meeting or two, rather few showed up, and gave various reasons in terms of, I remember one Stanford professor said, "I can never take on anything else during term time, when I'm teaching". Somebody else said, "It wouldn't be discreet for me, given my position, to do this publicly". That sort of thing took place.
OK, can you use the words again, that you established, the words "brain trust"?
We sometimes referred to ourselves as "the brain trust".
OK, very good, can you tell me about your speech at Berkeley, when you were asked to speak on behalf of Sinclair?
Yes. In those days, indeed, for decades, the University of California has, had organized public events in such a way that they kept political speakers off the campus, but this time, there was a great deal, in 1934, of pressure to have candidates come on the campus themselves, at Berkeley and UCLA. The President, Robert Gordon Sproul, felt obliged to keep the rule against politicians running for office speaking on the campus, but he was pressed to have some expression, and eventually he decided that there would be a public meeting on the campus, and that representatives of the candidates could speak. He asked me, I'd known him because I had been a student leader at UCLA in his earliest days as President, he asked me if I were a supporter of Sinclair, and I said yes, and then he invited me to speak for Sinclair. I never had any authorization from the organization, at all, I was just an individual who was invited to speak for him, and I did so, in a very large public meeting in Wheeler Hall, the largest auditorium on the campus. There were spokesmen for Governor Merriam, who was running for re-election, and a third-party candidate named Raymond Haight, and it went off very well, and I don't think I said anything that offended anybody very strongly. I spoke primarily about the production for use.
Were you pleased about that opportunity to speak?
Yes, I was, and I—
OK. So, you were talking about how you were pleased, I asked if you were pleased when you gave the speech at, the speech for Sinclair, how you felt about that.
The public meeting on the Berkeley campus went off very well. I felt that a good share of the audience, which was a student audience, most of them not able to vote, were favorable to the "Democratic cause", as I called it then. I heard, I met people on the campus following the talk, who remarked favorably about it, and I was pleased that President Sproul had yielded that much, bent the rule, or allowed this as an exception. Actually, it wasn't made a precedent, however, and it was a long time before the university really opened up to political controversy.
OK. Yeah, can you remember, what did you think of Merriam as a candidate, as a politician or as a candidate?
Well, he was a stick.
OK, who was "he"?
I, sorry. Frank Merriam was a genial sort of fellow. I had known a little bit of him through my folks' interest in a lodge or two. I believe he was sort of typical of the sort of people who came out of the Middle West. I think he was an Iowan. He was not particularly glib, nor do I think he had any great mind, but he was a good sort of figurehead of conservatism, and he had worked his way up in politics, from the Assembly to Lieutenant Governor, and then took over on the death of Rolph, the former mayor of San Francisco.
But you, you had said, but you must have been very concerned about him as a candidate, because you switched your affiliation to Democrat, right?
I switched following a period in which I tried to be a Progressive Republican, and I had a friend, now deceased, who was a state senator from Santa Clara County, and—
OK, so you want to tell me about this, the tabloid, and why it made you so angry?
Among the most scurrilous pieces of literature issued by the anti-Sinclair forces was one called "Thunder Over California", a tabloid that told a lurid story about a man who left the state during the election campaign and worked overseas for a number of years, and then returned, or tried to return to California, and found that it was a Soviet Republic, and armed guards refused to let him in to see his daughter. He crashed the barricades and came in anyway, and rescued his daughter. This was a tabloid of 10 or 12 pages, it was widely given away over the state, and it was probably the most despicable piece of anti-Sinclair literature issued during the campaign.
Why did it make you so angry, why do you remember it so much?
Well, I think it's extreme that it went beyond the bounds of fair play, it was so ridiculous and made out of whole cloth, and didn't at all picture the kind of reforms that Sinclair had in mind and advocated.
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You ready? OK, can we begin again?
The most scurrilous piece of campaign literature during the Sinclair campaign of 1934 was this piece, called "Thunder Over California". It was a tabloid of 10 or 12 pages generally distributed over the state.
OK, that's fine. Good. OK.
In campaigning, stratified electioneering is very important, and the anti-Sinclair forces published pamphlets that appealed to people in the churches, the different religious denominations, especially worked on the Catholics, and at Mass on Sunday morning they covered the parking lots with pamphlets quoting what Sinclair's characters in his novels had said about the Catholic Church, and they were very offensive. This was peddled as what Sinclair thought of the Catholics rather than what the characters he created in his imagination said about Catholics. Similarly, in the Protestant Churches, they had pamphlets that went out at the 11 o'clock church service in the parking lot, and what Sinclair thought about the Bible and what he thought about Jesus, and so on, and then they quoted from his novels, and what some character had said. So, the moral was, if you're going to run for office, don't write a novel.
What impact did this have on his campaign?
Oh, I think it added to the "anti" group significantly, because it was frightening, when someone's beliefs of a lifetime are challenged that way, and they said, "Why, it's in print, it must be true."
Very good. Can you tell me about, you remember seeing a newspaper article that half the, that Sinclair said half the unemployed would come to California if he was elected? What do you remember about that?
Well, several newspapers carried alleged quotes from Sinclair about California being so attractive, it would bring many people, including many unemployed people, to the state, because this was going to be kind of a junior-grade utopia. That was frightening enough for those who were already here, and already unemployed.
OK. Do you remember, I want to ask you again, the fake newsreels that you saw, why were those effective, what was the purpose, what was the way that news reels were used in the theaters?
Well, in the campaign, they took from a feature film or two, well, , I believe, was one of them, of migrants coming freight cars, bums coming across the border, and some of that was used in newsreels, some of that footage as an actual fact, whereas it was a feature film. People were frightened because there was already so much unemployment, and indeed, not long before this, the Los Angeles Police Department had stationed officers at the entry points of the state in Southern California, urging people who were trying to migrate to California to go back where they came from. Then the American Civil Liberties Union put lawyers beside the policemen and said to the migrants, in effect, thumb your nose at that officer and drive on, he can't do anything about it. And that was good legal advice.
OK. What did you feel about election night, what do you remember about the election and what you felt, and what you were doing right before the election?
Well, the night before the election, another graduate student and I in International House, covered the precincts—
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The night before the election, in 1934, another fellow who also lived in International House at Berkeley and I went out and canvassed the houses of that part of Berkeley, leaving Sinclair literature and giving a little fight-talk on the way, and then the next day, election day, we were apprehensive, and in the evening, after the ballots were counted, we were listening at radio and I was very busy hoping that if Sinclair got elected, he would surround himself with people who knew what they were doing, and I had my list of people in the Universities and other areas, who said they would be willing to help put together a program that would be feasible economically.
Did you think Sinclair was going to win?
No. I don't think at any time I felt he could win, once the barrage began to build up, and the campaign against him mounted to a crescendo, I thought the electorate was too frightened to put him in the governorship. But the ticket embraced some people and some offices in the Assembly and the Senate who were true believers and who kept this thing alive, especially the new Senator from Los Angeles County, was Culbert L. Olson, who subsequently became governor.
But, but you said you didn't believe he would win.
But at the same time, you devoted a lot of time preparing for the fact that he may win.
Well, it was a precaution, I think I used the words "safety net", so that he wouldn't fall flat on his face, by people of respectability not coming in and lending a hand.
But, so there was always a chance that he could win, right? I mean, you hadn't given up on him, you were—
Oh no, one doesn't even if he's got a losing cause, one doesn't give up, you keep trying. But I truly didn't believe he could win, given the odds against him.
OK. One last quick thing, you, do you remember when Upton Sinclair went east, to Hyde Park to meet with Roosevelt, do you remember that?
Yes, I do, I read about it.
Tell me what you remember and what was important about it.
Well, I remember that he went to Hyde Park, and—
Wait, who? Instead of saying "he", can you say "Sinclair"?
I'm sorry. I remember when Sinclair went to Hyde Park, and cooled his heels a good long time, and the scales were loaded against him. McAdoo, who was senator, one of the senators from California, said two or three words that were favorable, at least the Sinclair people thought so, but he never crashed through, Sinclair never crashed through the various layers of the White House that surrounded Roosevelt.
Do you think it was a good thing for Sinclair to have gone to Roosevelt to try and get support, or do you think it was a futile effort?
I'm inclined to think that Sinclair needed to make a try, and he probably would have been elected, but once he failed to get the support, or even a benign neutrality, it looked hopeless.
OK, I'm going to ask you actually to say that one more time, and refer, use the name of Sinclair and the name of Roosevelt when you're explaining to me that you felt that Sinclair had to make a good try.
Yeah. I'm glad Sinclair made a try to reach President Roosevelt. He went there and cooled his heels, and didn't really break through, but I do believe he needed that Presidential endorsement, or at least, his benign neutrality.
And do you think that Sinclair would have won if he had received some signal from Roosevelt?
I think a favorable nod from the President, saying he's made a legitimate case for change, it would have been so helpful, that Sinclair could then have campaigned with the notion that the President of the United States had semi-endorsed him.
OK, and what was the problem and, why, why, you know, do you have any feelings on why Roosevelt didn't want, didn't give any signal?
I have no indication why Roosevelt didn't, except that this was an extreme wing of the Party, and a new one, and the interests that are behind, the financial interests that are behind the party treasurers of both parties, just have to watch out for too great deviation from the center.
OK, great. Do you have anything else you want to say? I asked you a lot of questions.
I think not.
OK, thank you.