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David Hawkins’s Interview – Part 1

David Hawkins was a philosophy professor who became the administrative aide at the Los Alamos Laboratory in 1943 and the Manhattan Project’s historian in 1945-46. In that role, he had free access to all the top people involved, including project director J. Robert Oppenheimer and physicist Edward Teller. In this interview, Hawkins describes his encounters with lawyer Cliff Durr after the war, when he, like Oppenheimer, was facing suspicion from the U.S. government for his involvement with the Communist Party. The rest of the interview is a discussion of the nature of the Communist community in Berkeley before the war. Hawkins describes a familial group of intellectuals from a plethora of disciplines, and recalls some of his friends who were Communist Party members, including Frank Oppenheimer and Phillip Morrison. He recalls ideological debates and distinctions as well as the eclectic personalities of some of the era’s key players. Hawkins also describes Oppenheimer’s remarkable ability for getting people to agree with each other, as well as his wide-ranging interests and need for one-upmanship.

Date of Interview:
June 5, 1982
Location of the Interview:


Martin Sherwin: On June 5th, 1982. Well, now, John, why don’t you start and ask questions about the relationship with Cliff, because I think the [J. Robert] Oppenheimer relationship might be able to go on forever, and we’ll never get to your questions.

John S. Rosenberg: Okay. Well, first, how did you come to meet? What was the nature of your original coming together?

David Hawkins: I first knew of Cliff Durr because he was a lawyer in Washington willing to appear as counsel for Frank Oppenheimer, when Frank was called before the Un-American Activities Committee.

Although I was not in touch with Frank at that time—he was still at Minnesota, as you know—I knew about Clifford Durr, because there were very few Washington lawyers at that point of any consequence who were willing to stick their necks out in defending or in helping people. It was not defending, just offering personal legal counsel. Somebody to stand alongside of you when you appeared before these people. So I knew about him in that connection.

Then he came to Denver. I think one component of his decision to come there was not just that he was offered a job with the National Farmers Union, but that he was finding it increasingly difficult to earn a living in Washington, because he was being boycotted for his activities.

Sherwin: What was the date?

Rosenberg: I know when he went to Denver.

Hawkins: What was the date? Tell me. 1950?

Rosenberg: Late 1950.

Hawkins: Yeah.

Sherwin: Frank was already there at the time?

Hawkins: Frank had at that time gone to Pagosa Springs, near Pagosa Springs, where he had a ranch. He bought a ranch having renounced university life. He was disgusted with what had happened to him, and didn’t want to try to spend time getting back in and said, “I’m going to become a rancher.”

I think the reason we first met Cliff and Virginia Durr was through friends of ours, one of whom was Rudy Gilbert, a Unitarian minister, who maintained in Denver an open pulpit where people that were normally considered too dangerous to allow into your church were allowed to speak. I don’t remember the actual first meeting with Cliff Durr, but I know we were delighted to meet him, because we’d known about him from the Oppenheimers, from Frank and Jackie.

I was soon in trouble with the same committee. I can tell you when I was in trouble. He came in 1950. I was in trouble with the Un-American Activities Committee late in 1950. Frank’s appearance before them was 1949.

 That was just before Christmas, 1950. I remember that quite vividly, because that was the something-or-other as Congress would cease to exist as a legal entity at the end of that; the recess came toward the end of December. They could no longer accuse me of contempt of Congress, because they didn’t exist. I would have to have been recalled and made to testify again if they were going to cite me for contempt, which they never did.

I came back to Boulder and having told the university what was going to happen, they released the testimony, which had been taken in secret. So that was in January sometime that they released it.

Sherwin: The committee or the testimony?

Hawkins: The committee released my testimony and my wife’s.

Sherwin: When did you appear? When was this testimony?

Hawkins: It was in December of ’50.

Rosenberg: In December. Did Cliff have anything to do with that?

Hawkins: No.

Roseberg: He wasn’t representing you or you had any connection with him for that appearance?

Hawkins: No. No. Then when the publicity broke, there was a big hue and cry, in the Denver Post primarily. Somebody there had it in for the university. So I was being attacked, or the university was being attacked, because they were hiring, or they were not firing, dangerous people like me. The university had told me that I would have to go through a hearing before the privilege and tenure committee as a result of this, because of charges that were actually charges that the president of the university invented.

Sherwin: Were you a tenured professor at the time?

Hawkins: Yeah, I was fortunately, a not-too-long-before tenured professor [laughter.] It was at the time that I knew I had to appear, I was looking for a lawyer. A lot of the faculty got together and decided they would raise money so that I would have a lawyer. Then I was looking for a lawyer and it was very hard to find one.

Cliff couldn’t do it, because he was flat on his back at that point with a back problem. Anyway, I’m not sure he would have been able to, because he was working full-time for the Farmers Union. If he had been well, he would have been working fulltime with the Farmers Union. I spent quite a lot of time with him. He gave me advice, very interesting advice, some of which I took and some of which I didn’t. I have always rather regretted that I didn’t take some of his advice.

Rosenberg: Do you remember his advice?

Hawkins: Oh, yes. First thing was, we went all around the constitutional issues. He was very clear about the fact that the claim of the Un-American Activities Committee could only be justified on the ground that they were developing new legislation, which they weren’t in fact doing, and, that it was an abuse of power and so on and so on.

The other thing I remember vividly was that he had expert knowledge of the Book of Exodus, and one of the commandments, which is not in the list of ten, is “Thou shalt not go up and down the land as a tale-bearer among thy people.” That was one that he was particularly fond of in my case.

They made a list of charges, which in retrospect I think were formulated partly because the president knew they would all be refuted. He was not my enemy, but he had to put me through this thing to placate the wolves in Denver.

Cliff Durr wanted me to demur to all of these charges, legally demur on the ground that they were all irrelevant to my tenure. I didn’t do it, I think partly from a calculation of convenience that it would have added another three weeks or a month to the length of the trial I had to undergo, and I was just not able to sustain it. So I didn’t demur to the charges, but simply denied them all. But he helped me a great deal in writing the sort of brief that I wrote. Then I did finally find a lawyer in Denver who was courageous enough to come and sit with me and give me advice [laughter.]

But Durr was at that point, you know, just a terribly good friend. Willing and lying on a couch flat on his back, willing to talk for two hours and give me ideas and read a draft that I wrote and criticize it.

Sherwin: What was his strategy of “demurral?”

Hawkins: Demur. Because he said, “The university has no right to put you on trial for things that are [irrelevant to the tenure process.]” The university laws would make that fairly clear. You can be denied, even have your tenure revoked for incompetence or moral turpitude. He said, “None of these charges go to either of those, so you should simply say they’re not relevant.” But I was partly aware of the fact that in denying their relevance, I would be by many people considered to be granting their truth.

Rosenberg: It’s the academic equivalent of a Fifth Amendment.

Hawkins: Right. And although I had steadfastly refused to take the Fifth Amendment in the Un-American Activities Committee, in a sense I was just being consistent. “I’m willing to talk about myself, anything you want to know, but I won’t talk about my friends.”

Sherwin: Did you take the First Amendment?

Hawkins: No. Oh, I made a show, I think I mentioned the First and Fourth Amendments. The Fourth has something to do with protecting family.

Sherwin: Privacy.

Hawkins: Privacy. They might have asked questions about my—in fact, they did ask me questions about my relatives, one or two of my relatives, or my wife’s relatives. They got confused about who was my relative and who was Frances’s relative, which was comical. That had to do with the publisher of that time. If you know, William Sloan Associates was for a time a very successful publisher. He’s my brother-in-law, and they thought that his wife, who happens to be my sister, was Frances’s. You know, that kind of confusion. Very comical stuff that didn’t amount to much. But they were really gunning for Robert Oppenheimer when they invited me to appear.  

Sherwin: So that brings us to another point. 

Hawkins: I think they were. They never explicitly asked me about him.

Sherwin: Oh, really?

Hawkins: No, but they asked me about a lot of things that I knew could be connected to him.

Sherwin: Well, maybe then instead of diverting you and—

Rosenberg: Okay, go in to that.

Sherwin: Okay. What were the charges against you and how did they relate to Oppenheimer, in your own mind?

Hawkins: The charges against me in the university, you mean?

Sherwin: Well, why did HUAC call you up in the first place?

Hawkins: Oh. Well, they never told me there were any charges. They simply started interrogating me. A long day, actually, a long, long thing. I think I’ve lost my copy of the hearings, but it was, you know, it was a good many pages. Then they called Frances up in the evening, and hers was very brief. They weren’t after her.

They wanted to know about my membership in the Communist Party. They wanted to know if I ever had left the Communist Party and what evidence I could offer that I had, if I had. They asked me about a great many people, “Did I know so-and-so and was so-and-so a member of the Communist Party?” I always simply refused to answer about people’s political affiliations. I was willing to talk about my own, that’s why I couldn’t use the Fifth Amendment.

They didn’t ask me about Robert Oppenheimer, but they asked me a lot about the Berkeley campus and Berkeley, Oakland Communist Party affairs. Lots of people, including certainly two or three people known to Robert Oppenheimer. Steve Nelson—

Sherwin: Did they ask you about Phil Morrison?

Hawkins: Not at that time.

I’m trying to reconstruct. I haven’t been thinking about this for a long time, but I’d remember it all.

Sherwin: You first met Oppenheimer at Berkeley. What year was that?

Hawkins: I went to Berkeley as a graduate student in philosophy in 1936, I think.

Sherwin: Where did you come from?

Hawkins: I came from Stanford. I’d been a graduate student there and gotten a Master’s degree there.

Sherwin: You were from California?

Hawkins: No, New Mexico. But, I went to Stanford as an undergraduate.

Rosenberg: Yeah. I was at Stanford forever, too [laughter.] 

Hawkins: I stayed for six years. I got my Bachelor’s degree and then I stayed a couple of years more and got a Master’s degree, after some hemming and hawing.

Sherwin: Were you involved in political activities prior to ’36?

Hawkins: No. I was involved in political activity as a result of being in Berkeley and through people I met there. Phillip Morrison, for one. He was a student of Robert Oppenheimer. Other people that you may know or know about, David Bohm. A man who was subsequently in a great deal of trouble also, Joseph Weinberg.

Sherwin: [Rossi] Lomanitz?

Hawkins: Lomanitz I didn’t know well, but I knew him. He was around, I knew him, I don’t remember. Another philosopher, Stanley Moore, I don’t whether you’ve come across him. If you get around to California—hmm?

Sherwin: M-o-o-r-e?

Hawkins: Yes. He’s back I think in Berkeley or some place in the East Bay. He was a graduate student, I think maybe the same year or maybe a year ahead of me getting a degree, and was himself then in trouble later when the Un-American Activities Committee visited Reed College.

This great liberal institution insisted on putting him on an academic trial. He thumbed his nose at them, said, “You have no basis for inquiring into my past politics. You promoted three times or something, and you have investigated my teaching very carefully.” He really was maximally intransigent. As a result, Reed fired him. They would have kept him if he had just been willing to appear [laughter.] He came to New York and lived the life of an independent scholar for a good many years.

He’s a great authority on the history of political philosophy, and in particular has a great scholarly mastery of Marx. He knows everything Marx has ever written, and he was in Russia during World War II and took full advantage of the chance to study at the Marx-Lenin Institute [laughter.] We always said the Army would make a man of him, but in the end, he took over the Army and made it do his will. He’s a fine, interesting character who’s written two or three very good books. But his great work, which is probably three volumes on Marx, has never been published. He says the time isn’t right for it.

He’s a Marxist in a very good sense that he’s extremely critical of Marx. His last book is about the fact that Marx never had any basis for the transition from market socialism to communism. That that was a utopian thing of Marx, and, in Stanley’s view, responsible for most of the troubles of the Communist Parties in the world since then.

Sherwin: Were issues like this discussed in 1936?

Hawkins: Oh, yes, yes. We were endlessly theoretical and historical and world historical. Berkeley was a remarkable place in terms of the number of people who were very knowledgeable, [the] number of graduate students who were very powerful, Phil Morrison being a very good example himself.

Sherwin: One of the things that I want to do with this book, that is different from the previous Oppenheimer biographies, is very much to talk about Berkeley in the ‘30s in a way that’s different from—well, to take the worst example, the first segment of the seven-part series on Oppenheimer. Did you see that?

Hawkins: I saw most of the first show and gave it up after that.

Sherwin: Well, you know, all I can say is that the others—

Hawkins: Are just as bad?

Sherwin: No, no, are better.

Hawkins: Oh, are they?

Sherwin: Which isn’t to say that they’re good.

Hawkins: Oh, I’m sure there’s some interesting stuff in it.

Sherwin: I mean, the first one is just—

Hawkins: People ask me about it, and I always feel a little sorry I didn’t take the time to watch more of it.

Sherwin: Yeah. But, given that as a problem, let me just say that it is the hardest nut to crack.

Hawkins: Oh, I’m sure.

Sherwin: I mean, what was going on. Because there’s a certain hesitancy or there are a lot of people, you know, forget some things. Nobody kept carbon copies of letters at the time. It’s different than the post-war period. So let me try to drag as much out of you as I can. Anything that you can contribute to what that environment was like, that is, who was there, what you talked about, what the issues were, how the network of friends developed.

Hawkins: You’ve talked to some people. Have you talked to Phil Morrison himself?

Sherwin: I have talked to Phil somewhat, not enough.

Hawkins: Because he knew him [Oppenheimer] earlier, and as a student, far better than I did.

Sherwin: How did you first meet?

Hawkins: I think through his students. I went to Berkeley, I think I knew him in a vague way, because I’d met him. I remember I belonged to the Teachers Union and he was an active member of the Teachers Union along with a man named Haakon Chevalier, and various other characters that were around. Not many from the faculty, but some. I didn’t know anything about his past then. I later heard stories about how he became involved in left politics and so on.

Sherwin: Let’s focus on the Teachers Union for a minute. Do you remember anything specific about his role there?

Hawkins: No, I really—

Sherwin: Were meetings in rooms this size with twenty seats, or were there meetings in big auditoriums with 200 seats?

Hawkins: I think I remember some discussions about the Teachers Union taking some kind of positions on some political issues. The most obvious things that it was concerned with were bread and butter issues. The university assistants and readers was a sub-branch, and they got $600 a year for half-time labor, and that wasn’t enough to live on even then [laughter.]

I think he was always sort of interested and sympathetic with things of that sort. I don’t remember for sure, maybe it had something to do with the campaign in California to free Tom Mooney, but that may have been earlier. See, I’m getting vague about some of these things. At any rate, there were some state political issues, and perhaps national political issues. I would guess that he was interested in some form of political statements coming from the union, and spoke. I remember hearing him speak, before I knew him very well.

Sherwin: How would you describe his speeches?

Hawkins: Oh, very clear, very persuasive, very cogent. Elegant in language and able to listen to what other people said and incorporate it in what he was saying. Already the impression that he was a good politician in the sense that if several people spoke, he could summarize what they said and they would discover that they agreed with each other as a result of his summary. A great talent, which had become very conspicuous in his administration of Los Alamos.

But I don’t have very clear memories of that period. Then I came back to Berkeley. I was away for a year at Stanford having gotten my degree. I taught for a year at Stanford, where I got to know Frank Oppenheimer. By now I was a member. I joined the party in, I think late ’37, somewhere around there as I recall.

Sherwin: Were you married at the time?

Hawkins: Yeah, yeah.

Sherwin: And your wife did, too?

Hawkins: Yeah, yeah. We lived at that time in San Francisco. No, we didn’t, no, no, we were married in ’37. I think we joined the party in late ’37 or early ’38. Then were involved in some campus communist group, and then went to Stanford for a year.

Sherwin: How did you join? Frank tells the story that he and his wife, they had been involved in politics all along, clearly sympathetic. Finally one day they just clipped out a “Join the Communist Party,” coupon from Theater World, I guess.

Hawkins: Signed up.

Sherwin: Signed up, and they were members of the party. The party was doing everything—

Hawkins: No, we were both influenced by activists at Berkeley and Stanford. I think part of it was the aftermath of the general strike in San Francisco. That was two or three years before, but there were echoes still very loud around the Bay Area of that. Part of it was the development in the later part of the Depression of really nasty kinds of vigilantism in the agricultural valleys of California, which we all got somehow involved in trying to do something about. It was primarily local activism, concerns of that kind.

Sherwin: When you say “activists,” do you mean your contemporaries or the professionals?

Hawkins: Our contemporaries, yeah. I never knew any full-time Communist Party members for quite a long time. It was all amateur.

Sherwin: Steve Nelson?

Hawkins: I met Nelson in probably 1940.

Sherwin: Oh, that late?

Hawkins: Yeah.

Sherwin: Well, was Chevalier, for example, one of the other people who—

Hawkins: I never knew Chevalier as an active Communist Party member. He was simply an assistant professor of French Literature, who was a very active left-wing figure and a good friend of Robert Oppenheimer.

Sherwin: Weinberg?

Hawkins: Joe Weinberg I knew as a fellow graduate student and had many philosophical discussions with him. We were all very much interested in historical materialism and the theory of history and economic theory. I can remember finally getting dissatisfied with things I heard about Marxist economics, and I began to develop some mathematical models of my own of an economic system. Discovered that you couldn’t just be an under-consumptionist, you know, and all this kind of stuff. In fact, it became a real hobby with me, mathematical economics.

Sherwin: Now, Phil was very active.

Hawkins: Phil was very active in Berkeley. As you can imagine, very cogent in his discussions of Marxism and of the state of the world. He had already then a tremendous knowledge of military affairs, and used this to the full. Most of us didn’t know anything about it at all. I was very much impressed by Phil, and he and I became close friends and have been so ever since.

Sherwin: Did he educate Robert Oppenheimer, to a certain degree? 

Hawkins: I don’t know anything. I never knew, and I never was curious in the sense about where Robert Oppenheimer got these ideas. I think he was self-propelled. Robert Oppenheimer was very self-propelled. There undoubtedly were personal influences of some kind, but I don’t know what they were.

I came on the scene in Berkeley in ’41, back to Berkeley, and had an instructorship there after a year’s instructorship at Stanford. Then I was involved in campus politics again, but now as a junior faculty member.

Sherwin: Before we go on to that—back in the ‘30s, in terms of the group, Weinberg and Morrison, etc. Somebody has told me about various teas or get-togethers in certain evenings where, you know, talk about anything from the problem of migratory workers to general problems of physics. Were you in on any of those?

Hawkins: A few of those, and I think that may have been going on for quite a while before I was back in Berkeley. I can remember some sessions of that kind in various people’s houses; Robert Oppenheimer’s, for one. I don’t remember much of the content. I remember some discussions with him about philosophy, when I discovered he knew quite a bit about the history of philosophy. Also got some impressions of him, because he was a great one-up-man at times.

Sherwin: A characteristic he never lost.

Hawkins: I was sitting next to a bookshelf once, and I had been reading some of Plato’s dialogues as a graduate student in philosophy. I looked up and there was one of the volumes I’d been reading, and so I pulled it off the shelf and said, “You know, I’ve been reading the Cratylus.” A vivid memory of this. “I’m interested that you have them here.”

“Yes,” he said, “I read Plato, but I found the Indians deeper.” Wow! [Laughter]

Sherwin: The Bhagavad Gita in original Sanskrit!

Hawkins: Years later, when I told—

Sherwin: Did he say anything about reading it in the original Greek?

Hawkins: No, he didn’t. But I think he actually could read Sanskrit.

Sherwin: Yes.

Hawkins: He had studied under that famous Sanskritist there in Berkeley, or studied with him.

Years later, I told this story to a good friend of his and mine, Victor Weisskopf, who said that he told a joke about the three orders of monks who get together to compare notes; a typical Jewish story about the Catholics, you know. Here are three different orders of monks and they get together and each is very curious about the other’s orders.

Sherwin: Oppenheimer told this story?

Hawkins: No, no, Viki Weisskopf told the story. The Dominican says, “We are the great administrators and organizers,” and so forth. The Jesuit says, “We are the guardians of the faith,” etc., etc., The Franciscan says, “And we are tops in humility.” He said that [laughter.]

Sherwin: That was Oppenheimer.

Hawkins: But Viki also added, in a very compassionate way, that Oppenheimer in the end lived up to that claim of humility. In his later, very tragic times, it became pretty genuine, I think it did. A complex character. I’m fascinated that you’re doing a biography.

Sherwin: How would you describe that complexity?

Hawkins: Well, you saw the telly thing? He’s presented there as a person who must be, of course, a great scientific genius. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be there. But also as a person who was rather foolish, naïve about human affairs and could be manipulated by women and so on. I think that was the impression I got from that; they stereotyped him that way. Certainly not true.

He was immensely perceptive and immensely subtle. I never got a really adequate clue about him from knowing him. He always seemed to be a very ambiguous and puzzling figure, to whom I was very devoted for a time, as many of us were, including Phil. An extraordinary ability of being right about a lot of things. He was not lacking in perceptiveness.

I think the most revealing clues are in his letters that Alice Smith edited, those early years of that child and that youth, very revealing to me. Imagine coming from that kind of family background and the standardized anti-Semitism of Harvard and so on. I think he was a person who learned very profoundly the arts of pleasing people, as well as the one-upmanship and a lot of that. When he wanted you to like him, you ended up liking him. He was very much aware of people’s talents and their virtues.

Sherwin: And their soft spots.

Hawkins: Yeah. He could put people down viciously, too.

Sherwin: Do you recall any specific examples?

Hawkins: No. I mean, funny, little things like that story I told, which was certainly a putdown for me. But no, that was just standard one-upmanship.

Sherwin: I want to quote something to you that [Isador I.] Rabi told me about Oppenheimer, and see how you react to it. When I asked Rabi the question about understanding Oppenheimer, he said that—you can imagine the way Rabi would say it, “If you want to understand Oppenheimer, you should understand that he should have studied the Talmud instead of Sanskrit.” I had the same reaction to try and follow that up. I asked him what he meant.

His elaboration was that he [Oppenheimer] didn’t know who he was. That he was never comfortable with being Jewish, that he was a man who was always trying to straddle. Then Rabi went on to compare him to himself and he felt he knew exactly who he was, and so he didn’t have any of the problems that Oppenheimer had. Do you give much credence to that, or does it fit with your instinct?

Hawkins: I don’t have that judgment, but I think it’s a judgment that I might be able to make if I were a Jew. He certainly didn’t have any visible identification with a Jewish background. He certainly never had any appearance of denying it, either. I mean, it was as though he were not aware of it. And yet from his biography, I mean, from his letters, it’s very clearly that he was.

Sherwin: Yes.

Hawkins: Frank would be a better example, a person who genuinely wasn’t. Frank was an utterly different child, and utterly different adult from Robert. Open and not manipulatory at all. I don’t think I know how to respond to the Rabi thing. I can see why he would say that.

Sherwin: Yeah. I just wanted to see if people who knew Oppenheimer, how they respond. Because it touched a spark in my thinking, something I hadn’t quite formulated. I realized that I had been thinking about Oppenheimer in this way partly as a result of the kinds of studying I did. Partly as a result of reading Ronald Steel’s biography on Walter Lippmann, who also came from an upper class German-Jewish family and kept Judaism at a distance. Lippmann, with many more conscious efforts, you know, to do that. But Steel describes this problem. Of course, German Jews are particularly, especially in that period, I suppose you could call it vulnerable or inclined towards that kind of orientation. But let me go back to the group.

Hawkins: I should say one thing. I remember now that Robert Oppenheimer was very early very conscious of the significance of the Nazi anti-Semitism. That was not concealed from him at all. He would have shown a great sense of concern and loyalty to the German Jews.

Sherwin: Yes, he did. As a matter of fact, he brought some relatives over. I mean, I don’t want to put him and Lippmann in the same—

Hawkins: No, no. I understand.

Sherwin: Lippman, while he writing that column in the 1930s, can you imagine? The column, “Today and Tomorrow,” what was it, came out three times a week, something like that. For all the years between 1933 and 1941, never once mentioned anything about the Jewish problem.

With Phil Morrison’s activities, for example. How were things more or less organized in terms of— Frank told me about efforts to integrate the Pasadena public swimming pool, for example. I remember that, when he was still a graduate student at CalTech. What were the kinds that were done in Berkeley? Was Phil a communist?

Hawkins: Phil?

Sherwin: Yeah.

Hawkins: Yeah. Yeah, sure. Oh, I remember—it’s funny, I really lost—part of it I think was, that I was never personally very much involved with local issues, with picketing or stuff like that. So I don’t always remember.

I remember agitating for something called the California Youth Act, which was a state copy of the NYA, National Youth Act, which was to provide monies for youth that didn’t have employment during the Depression, and to provide jobs. I remember in particular the university got some of this money from the Feds, and I don’t remember about the California. But I remember agitating for it, and I think all of us were involved in that. I don’t remember Robert Oppenheimer being concerned with that particular kind of issue.

I remember, again, some political international and national political issues, which we felt we had to speak out on. I don’t remember Robert Oppenheimer in my time there being directly involved in anything like that. All I remember, I remember political discussions. I don’t remember him in any way being involved as an activist of any kind.

Sherwin: What were the activities of the party? For example, one of the things that has to be sort of dealt with by historians who are interested in the ‘30s and the ‘40s and the ‘50s and all this, is to try to get across what this Communist Party—

Hawkins: Yeah. I can tell you what the major concerns were. One of them was clearly during this period the Civil War in Spain. That was a very powerful organizing kind of influence. We all raised money for it, we all heard about, we read everything we could about it. We got the latest news. There were people in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade that either we knew or our friends knew.

Sherwin: Anybody from your group?

Hawkins: No, not that I know of.

Sherwin: But you did get to know Steve Nelson?

Hawkins: Yeah, yeah. When I was back in Berkeley, I forget what his title was—I guess he was a county organizer or something like that. My friend, Kenneth May, I don’t know whether you’ve come across him, was—

Sherwin: Is he still alive?

Hawkins: No, he died of a heart attack just three, four years ago. He was at this time a mathematician, first in Carleton College and then in Canada. Well, anyway, that was one very important affair.

Sherwin: Let me just ask you about Kenneth May. He then taught in Canada?

Hawkins: After the war. 

He was a very interesting man. He was a hero in the ski troops in Italy during World War II. He was a great skier, mountaineer, and got promoted in the field several times and became a captain. Having enlisted as a former communist, they never gave him any rank. He was a PFC or something, you know. Then he was promoted in the field, and as soon as he would get back they would demote again, because of his political record [laughter.] A fine mathematician, teacher. No, I don’t know much more about him.

I think I was called Educational Director, or something like that. I was a theoretician. In the end, and I was Educational Director in San Francisco. We lived there; I commuted to Berkeley.

Sherwin: You were Berkeley’s John Reed.

Hawkins: I got in trouble because I proposed a theoretical argument that said that professional trade unions shouldn’t just be trade unions, they should be professional associations that took responsibility for the quality of their professional work, things like that. This went up through channels and came back down denouncing me.

That was one of the reasons I left the party, but not the main one. The main one had to do with the invasion of the Low Countries, and the French and English and American Communist Party’s inability to cope with the fact that there really was a war going on.

Sherwin: You said that one was the Spanish-American War [misspoke: Spanish Civil War].

Hawkins: The other was the Depression. My description at the time, I remember having a lot of discussions about this and a lot of arguments, because I was never in any genuine sense a believer in something called revolution. I thought it was a phenomenon of the nineteenth century, and I didn’t see how our society could undergo something called a revolution without really totally falling apart. I could see it falling apart, but I couldn’t see the ordinary notion of revolution. I think lots of communists felt that way. They had a tradition of, “You have to believe in revolution,” but I don’t think they really did. It wasn’t the realistic—

Sherwin: Not the academics, at least. 

Hawkins: Not the academics, but I think a lot of people were aware of the fact that the centralization of a technological society made it very hard to think about barricades in the streets and so on. But anyway, we were in a sense self-consciously kind of a left-wing component of the New Deal. We were pulling the New Deal to the left. That was our mission in life. I think it would fit pretty well most of the campaigns and activities and so on.

There were tenuous liaisons with people in the New Deal. For example, Henry Wallace was to the left of Roosevelt, and there were people who had the ear of Henry Wallace. It was that kind of thing. Henry Wallace was a man of science, and we respected him. We were pro-Roosevelt, pretty much. Except there was a period, of course, of what was called “the phony war,” when there was not much going on.

The communists were taking the same kind of position as the America Firsters, essentially an isolationist position, “Keep out of the war.” But that had to do both with international affairs and with the Roosevelt regime, and that may have represented a time when there was kind of a break with that regime.

But before that, we had been ardent New Dealers. I remember most of the arguments I ever had with people had to do with the New Deal, not with anything to the left of it much.

Sherwin: Well, were there people who had the same vision that you had, that of a New Deal society that is a society more inclined towards the welfare state than what things had been, but who refused to join the Communist Party? And what were the arguments or the discussions that—

Hawkins: Well, the arguments, as I recall, had to do with the fact that they perceived the Communist Party—somewhat correctly, I might say—as being subservient to Moscow. Not that it had to be, but it chose to be. It was an election. Not taking an independent socialist point of view, having lots of jargon and lots of residual organizational characteristics and attitudes and slogans and so on that were borrowed from standard international communist sources, but were not locally invented. I can remember being very much concerned about the fact that I didn’t always know how to translate this into standard American political language.

I was very admiring of people, some of the left-wing Democrats who could go out into the countryside and talk to farmers and get their votes for things that I considered quite radical. Like Senators [Edward] Costigan and [Burton] Wheeler and so on, the TVA, people who promoted that. They were very powerful people. I was wondering, “Why can’t we be more like them?”

In our aspirations, we would have said, “The only way you can gain credibility to go farther to the left is to support the popular left and predict its failures. You have got to be loyal to it, but you have got to constantly be critical of its limitations.” I think that was the standard view. That was the popular front view.

It was the opposite of the view that, you got to make things get worse before they can get better. It was the view that you got to help try to make things get better, and hooray if you succeed. You probably will fail, but in the meantime, you have gained the confidence of the people that you have worked with to pull them farther to the left.

Sherwin: A very sensible political doctrine.

Hawkins: Yeah, yeah. It always has annoyed me that we of that period never get credit for having done anything sensible. We did a lot of foolish things, but—

Sherwin: What was your group? I mean, was it a club of fifteen people, twenty people?

Hawkins: It varied.

Sherwin: Was it formal, formalized by the party, and this was a—

Hawkins: It varied.

Sherwin: Did you refer to yourselves as a cell?

Hawkins: Oh, no, no, never.

Copyright 2005 Martin J. Sherwin. This transcript may not be quoted, reproduced, or redistributed in whole or in part by any means except with the written permission of Martin J. Sherwin. Rights granted to Atomic Heritage Foundation.