Initial reaction to the Levine broadcast was extremely positive, with articles across the country and an editorial in the New York Times praising the broadcast. Four days later, a U-2 spy plane captured clear photographic evidence of ballistic missile facilities established in Cuba. Levine was quickly forgotten. The United States began a military blockade of Cuba. Kennedy announced that he would not permit offensive weapons to be delivered to Cuba and demanded that the weapons already in Cuba be dismantled and returned to the USSR. In our coverage we broadcast discussions that included Paul Baran, a Cuban sympathizer. Members of the Senate Subcommittee on Internal Security said they were horrified.
On December 17, 1962, Harry Plotkin, our loyal Washington attorney who was personally appalled by some of what he heard on Pacifica, received a subpoena to appear before the Senate Subcommittee on Internal Security. SISS was apparently unaware that as the Foundation’s attorney, Harry Plotkin was immune from testimony.
On the 18th, two members of Pacifica’s board of Directors living in Berkeley received telegrams announcing that subpoenas (which they had never received) were being postponed. A couple of weeks later Dr. Peter Odegard, another member of the board (and formerly an Assistant Treasurer of the United States and President of Reed College) and Mrs. Dorothy Healy, Chairman of the Southern California Communist Party, also received subpoenas.
Trevor Thomas, who was the Foundation’s acting President, called SISS’s chief counsel, Jay Sourwine, and asked him the purpose of the hearings. Sourwine replied that the committee wanted to find out how it was possible for a member of the Communist Party to broadcast on an American radio station. Thomas explained that Mrs. Healy was one of about twenty different commentators who, between them, covered the political spectrum from the extreme right to the extreme left. Trevor added that in line with Pacifica’s policies and FCC rulings – Mrs. Healy was identified as a communist. The next day, Trevor received a subpoena.
By the time the hearings finally convened on January 10, 1963, subpoenas had also been served on Jerry Shore, our new executive director, Joseph Binns, Station Manager of WBAI in New York City for just two weeks, and Mrs. Pauline Shindler, a subscriber to the Los Angeles station.
Before the hearings convened, the Foundation notified SISS and the press that as a public institution its records were open for examination. Its programs could be heard by anyone and most were scheduled in a program guide. Thomas objected to the coercive subpoenas and once again asked for some kind of explanation. None was forthcoming.
Pacifica then requested that the hearings be held in public and contemplated broadcasting them live, in the belief that all relevant information ought to be made public. Despite the support of both California senators, Clair Engle and Thomas Kuchel, SISS replied that its rules forbade an open hearing.
On January 10, when the hearings began, Senator Dodd issued a seven-page statement which each witness was required to read before testifying. The statement dealt with possible communist infiltration of American communications media. It then continued: “Recently, there have come to the attention of the committee reports of possible communist infiltration or penetration of an important radio chain, the stations of the Pacifica Foundation. We are here today to seek information, from witnesses whom we believe to be in a position to supply it, respecting facts which may shed light on the question of how much substance there may have been to these reports. This is our major objective.”
By 1963 Pacifica was a small but secure part of American broadcasting. Its three stations, in three major population centers (the San Francisco Bay area, Los Angeles, and New York City), had enough subscribers to produce a wide range of programming, hire an executive director and contemplate moving into new territories. SISS and HUAC had lost their teeth. Legally speaking, congressional committees are authorized to hold hearings to gather information necessary to enact legislation. But as the records of SISS and HUAC made clear, they never served any serious legislative function.
Instead, they subpoenaed witnesses, forced them to testify about their beliefs and then publicized their testimony in a context that made the witnesses appear unAmerican. The only way to avoid such was exposure, was to cooperate by confessing your sins and giving the committee the names of your fellow sinners. You couldn’t read a statement, you didn’t have access to testimony made against you, you couldn’t cross examiner HUAC or SISS attorneys.
Most informed Americans had rejected the committees by 1963. SISS and HUAC couldn’t hold public hearings outside of Washington. After the 1960 San Francisco hearings, the city government announced it would no longer make its facilities available to HUAC.
The Levine broadcast had been a huge success. It seemed to many of us to be an ideal time for Pacifica to refuse to cooperate.