Knowland, William Fife, 1908-1974

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William Knowland
The Forgotten Leader

In 1953, the convergence of unusual circumstances gave the Democrats the plurality of the Senate's membership while the Senate Republicans maintained their majority party status. The situation made it impossible for the new Republican leader to control the legislative agenda. Indeed, Senator William Knowland lamented his ineffectiveness on the Senate floor, "Mr. President, ... I have the responsibilities of being the majority leader in this body without having a majority." The minority leader, Lyndon Johnson, shot back, "If anyone has more problems than a majority leader with a minority, it is a minority leader with a majority." Though witty, the retort was hardly accurate. Johnson had few difficulties handling the Senate or trumping the nominal majority leader.

A half century later, few people outside of Northern California recall his name, let alone know that William Knowland led the Senate for less than one term between the more impressive reigns of Robert Taft and Johnson. Political historians rarely acknowledge the former senator except to point out the obvious: Knowland was no Taft. He was no Johnson. He was no Everett Dirksen, his successor to the position of Republican leader. Still, Knowland made his mark on the Senate, standing firm on Cold War foreign policy even in opposition to his party. In an attempt to fulfill his presidential aspirations, however, he left the institution prematurely. Later termed a "political suicide," the act foreshadowed a more tragic display of self destruction.

Born in 1908 in Alameda, California, Bill Knowland grew up in a household devoted to two entities: the Republican party and the Oakland Tribune, the newspaper owned and operated by his family. As a young child, he witnessed the workings of Congress firsthand. From 1903 to 1914, his father, Joseph R. Knowland, served in the House of Representatives. After graduating from U.C. Berkeley in 1929, Bill Knowland co-published the Tribune as he pursued his own career in politics. In 1932, at the age of twenty four, he won election to the California state assembly. Three years later, Knowland entered the state senate. At the same time, he became an active member of the Republican National Committee and assumed a top leadership position in 1941.

World War II briefly interrupted Knowland's political career. Drafted into the army, he attained the rank of major after officer training at Fort Benning, GA. In 1945, Knowland was serving in France as a military writer when Senator Hiram Johnson died, leaving California a vacancy in the U.S. Senate. Joe Knowland, a major campaign contributor, had the Republican Governor Earl Warren appoint his son to the remainder of Johnson's term. Bill Knowland took an honorable discharge and rushed to Washington to be sworn in. He assumed his seat on August 26 and, the next year, won the election for a full six-year term.

Humorless and "bullheaded," Knowland built his reputation on his role in post-war foreign policy. Following a trip to the Far East, he focused his attention on China, defending its nationalist government against the communist regime. An adamant member of the "China lobby," he opposed the country's entrance into the United Nations after the fall of Chiang Kai-shek.

In 1952, Knowland ran on both the Republican and the Democratic ticket to easily win his reelection to the Senate. The same election brought Republican Dwight Eisenhower to the White House and gave the Republicans control of the Senate, elevating Robert Taft to majority leader. In the first months of the 83rd Congress, Taft worked closely with Eisenhower, while Knowland countered the new administration on its foreign policy in Asia. Still, he got along with Taft, who appreciated his gruff personality and principled determination. That spring, however, Taft was diagnosed with cancer and, within weeks, he was too ill to perform the functions of his position. Rather than choose the party whip, Leverett Saltonstall, to replace him, Taft made Knowland the acting majority leader, on the grounds that "nobody can push him around."

Before Taft died in July 1953, the GOP held the Senate majority by a 48-47 margin with one senator, Wayne Morse, listed as an Independent. In November, a Democrat, Thomas Burke, was appointed to fill Taft's seat in the Senate. The balance of power remained 48-47-1, but now the Democratic party possessed the one-member advantage. To make matters even more confusing, a total of nine senators died during the 83rd, and the ratio of Republicans to Democrats shifted several times. Senator Morse, however, promised to vote with the Republicans to organize the Senate. Thus, with Vice President Richard Nixon available to cast a tie-breaking vote, Knowland's "minority" party held onto its "majority" status until the start of the next Congress in 1955.

In the meantime, the Republican caucus elected Knowland to be the official majority leader, while the Democratic floor leader, Lyndon Johnson, had already begun to take command of the Senate.

Outmaneuvered by Johnson and cut out of policy discussions with Eisenhower, with whom he often disagreed, the "blustery" Knowland had little leverage in his position. While he got Earl Warren, the future chief justice, appointed to the Supreme Court, he scored few legislative victories.

The rift between the majority leader and the administration widened as moderate Republicans distanced themselves from Senator Joseph McCarthy's aggressive tactics as chair of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Knowland shared the senator's concerns over communists in the government and defended his right to interrogate witnesses testifying at hearings. Nevertheless, he allowed the formation of a special bipartisan committee tasked with determining the necessity of censuring McCarthy. Although the Senate voted for the public condemnation, Knowland's support for the discredited senator never wavered.

When the Democrats took back the chamber in 1955, Knowland became the Senate minority leader. He had one notable success in this position: he was the floor manager for the bill that became the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the first major legislation to address voter intimidation in the South. Johnson, however, took both the credit and the criticism for the Senate amendments that significantly curtailed the bill's intent.

Knowland decided not to campaign for reelection in 1958, as he hoped to eventually run for the presidency and believed that he had a better chance at the White House if he first served as California's governor. After a rough primary, Knowland lost the gubernatorial election by more than a million votes. His political career essentially dead, the former Senate leader resumed his publishing duties at the Oakland Tribune. In later years, he worked for the economic development of the Bay Area while his personal life dismantled around him. Heavily in debt and facing a second divorce, Knowland died in 1974, the apparent victim of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
referencedIn Dwight D. Eisenhower Library Oral History Collection. 1962 - 1998. Oral History Transcripts. 1962 - 1998. Oral History Interview with Harry Darby
referencedIn Paramount Pictures, Inc., Collection. 1951 - 1951. Motion Picture Newsreel Films. 10/1941 - 3/1957. PARAMOUNT NEWS [SEPT. 14]
referencedIn Lyndon Baines Johnson Archives Collection. 1931 - 1968. Congressional Correspondence Files
referencedIn Paramount Pictures, Inc., Collection. 1951 - 1951. Motion Picture Newsreel Films. 10/1941 - 3/1957. PARAMOUNT NEWS [JUNE 28]
referencedIn Dwight D. Eisenhower Library Oral History Collection. 1962 - 1998. Oral History Transcripts. 1962 - 1998. Oral History Interviews with McIntyre Faries
referencedIn Fox Movietone News Collection. 1957 - 1963. Motion Picture Newsreel Films. 1957 - 1963. MOVIETONE NEWS, vol. 41, no. 89
referencedIn Dwight D. Eisenhower Library Oral History Collection. 1962 - 1998. Oral History Transcripts. 1962 - 1998. Oral History Interviews with William F. Knowland
referencedIn Columbia Broadcasting System, Inc., Collection. 1953 - 1982. Motion Picture Films. 1953 - 1982. Presidential Inaugural
referencedIn Younger, J. Arthur (Jesse Arthur), 1893-1967. J. Arthur Younger papers, 1951-1968. Stanford University. Department of Special Collections and University Archives
referencedIn Dwight D. Eisenhower Library Oral History Collection. 1962 - 1998. Oral History Transcripts. 1962 - 1998. Oral History Interview with Paul Manolis
referencedIn George Creel Papers, 1857-1953, (bulk 1896-1953) Library of Congress. Manuscript Division
referencedIn General Records of the Department of the Navy. 1941 - 2004. Moving Images Relating to Military Activities. 1947 - 1980. OPERATION BIG SWITCH - NAVY SPORTS
referencedIn Paramount Pictures, Inc., Collection. 1951 - 1951. Motion Picture Newsreel Films. 10/1941 - 3/1957. PARAMOUNT NEWS [NOV. 13]
referencedIn Dwight D. Eisenhower Library Oral History Collection. 1962 - 1998. Oral History Transcripts. 1962 - 1998. Oral History Interviews with George Christopher
referencedIn Smith, George Howard Edward, 1898-1962. George Howard Edward Smith papers, 1917-1962 (inclusive). Yale University Library
referencedIn Rayburn, Sam, papers 92-172, 92-257, 92-389, 92-415, 94-017, 96-066, 96-177, 97-347, 98-130, 2008-225, 2009-008. 29749116., 1831, 1845, 1903-2007 Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin .
referencedIn Letter from President Eisenhower to William F. Knowland Dwight D Eisenhower Library
referencedIn Paramount Pictures, Inc., Collection. 1951 - 1951. Motion Picture Newsreel Films. 10/1941 - 3/1957. PARAMOUNT NEWS [JAN. 21]
referencedIn Paramount Pictures, Inc., Collection. 1951 - 1951. Motion Picture Newsreel Films. 10/1941 - 3/1957. PARAMOUNT NEWS [AUG. 12]
creatorOf Knowland, William F. (William Fife), 1908-1974. Reminiscences of William Fife Knowland : oral history, 1970. Columbia University in the City of New York, Columbia University Libraries
referencedIn Parsons, Charles, 1889-. Charles Parsons papers, 1880-1965 (inclusive). Yale University Library
referencedIn George Howard Edward Smith papers, 1917-1962 Yale University. Department of Manuscripts and Archives
referencedIn Dwight D. Eisenhower Library Oral History Collection. 1962 - 1998. Oral History Transcripts. 1962 - 1998. Oral History Interview with Estelle Knowland Johnson
referencedIn Peter Gulbrandsen Papers, 1917-1954 Bancroft Library
creatorOf Knowland, William F. (William Fife), 1908-1974. [William F. Knowland at the Commonwealth Club] [sound recording]. UC Berkeley Libraries
referencedIn Manolis, Paul. Remembering William F. Knowland : oral history transcript / tape-recorded interviews conducted in 1979 by Ruth Teiser for the Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, California, 1981 : and related material, 1979-1981. UC Berkeley Libraries
referencedIn Paramount Pictures, Inc., Collection. 1951 - 1951. Motion Picture Newsreel Films. 10/1941 - 3/1957. PARAMOUNT NEWS [JAN. 23]
referencedIn Fox Movietone News Collection. 1957 - 1963. Motion Picture Newsreel Films. 1957 - 1963. Movietone News, Vol. 40, No. 45
referencedIn Blair Moody Papers, 1928-1954, 1934-1952 Bentley Historical Library , University of Michigan
referencedIn Dwight D. Eisenhower Library Oral History Collection. 1962 - 1998. Oral History Transcripts. 1962 - 1998. Oral History Interviews with Frank Carlson
referencedIn Hearst Metrotone News, Inc., Collection. 1937 - 1942. News of the Day Motion Picture Newsreel Films. 10/1963 - 12/1967. News of the Day (Sept. 13)
referencedIn Celler, Emanuel, 1888-1981. Papers of Emanuel Celler, 1924-1973 (bulk 1945-1973). Library of Congress
referencedIn Paramount Pictures, Inc., Collection. 1951 - 1951. Motion Picture Newsreel Films. 10/1941 - 3/1957. PARAMOUNT NEWS [JULY 13]
referencedIn Nicolson, John, 1927-. John Nicolson correspondence, 1942-1979. UC Berkeley Libraries
referencedIn Dwight D. Eisenhower Library Oral History Collection. 1962 - 1998. Oral History Transcripts. 1962 - 1998. Oral History Interviews with John Walton Dinkelspiel
creatorOf William Fife Knowland Miscellaneous Papers, 1956 Hoover Institution Archives.
referencedIn Knight, Goodwin, 1896-1970. Goodwin Knight correspondence with Paul Mason, 1943-1970. Stanford University. Department of Special Collections and University Archives
referencedIn Records of the U.S. Information Agency. 1900 - 2003. Moving Images Relating to U.S. Domestic and International Activities . 1982 - 1999. PRESIDENT EISENHOWER'S SECOND INAUGURATION
referencedIn California State Government Oral Histories California State Archives
referencedIn Creel, George, 1876-1953. George Creel papers, 1857-1953 (bulk 1896-1953). Library of Congress
referencedIn Caspar W. Weinberger Papers, 1910-2005, (bulk 1951-2005) Library of Congress. Manuscript Division
referencedIn Parsons, Charles, 1889-. Charles Parsons papers, 1880-1965 (inclusive). Yale University Library
referencedIn Charles Parsons papers, 1880-1965 Yale University. Department of Manuscripts and Archives
referencedIn Dwight D. Eisenhower Library Oral History Collection. 1962 - 1998. Oral History Transcripts. 1962 - 1998. Oral History Interview with Emelyn Knowland Jewett
referencedIn Arthur H. Vandenberg papers, 1884-1974, 1915-1951 Bentley Historical Library , University of Michigan
referencedIn Olindo R. Angelillo papers, 1925-1983 The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens Manuscripts Department
referencedIn Paramount Pictures, Inc., Collection. 1951 - 1951. Motion Picture Newsreel Films. 10/1941 - 3/1957. PARAMOUNT NEWS [AUG. 25]
creatorOf Knowland, William F. (William Fife), 1908-1974. William F. Knowland miscellaneous papers, 1956. Stanford University, Hoover Institution Library
referencedIn Dolwig, Richard J. 1908-. Oral history interview with Richard J. Dolwig, 1987. Transcript. / by Carole Hicke, University of California, Berkeley for the State Government Oral History Program, California State Archives. California State Archives
referencedIn Herbert Brownell Jr. Additional Papers. 1897 - 1996. Photographs
referencedIn Leary, Mary Ellen. Collection of press releases and newspaper clippings chiefly concerning California politics and government, 1944-1958. UC Berkeley Libraries
creatorOf Brown, Edmund G. (Edmund Gerald), 1905-1996. Edmund G. Brown speeches from campaign for governor of California [sound recording]. UC Berkeley Libraries
creatorOf Knowland, William F. (William Fife), 1908-1974. William F. Knowland papers, 1900-1974 (bulk 1946-1959) UC Berkeley Libraries
referencedIn Keesling, Francis Valentine, b. 1877. Francis V. Keesling papers, 1906-1957. Stanford University. Department of Special Collections and University Archives
creatorOf Nolan family. Oakland Tribune records, 1908-1965. UC Berkeley Libraries
referencedIn Dwight D. Eisenhower Library Oral History Collection. 1962 - 1998. Oral History Transcripts. 1962 - 1998. Oral History Interview with William F. Knowland
referencedIn New York Times Company records. Arthur Hays Sulzberger papers, 1823-1999 New York Public Library. Manuscripts and Archives Division
referencedIn William Harrison Standley Papers, 1895-1963, (bulk 1940-1960) Library of Congress. Manuscript Division
referencedIn Emanuel Celler Papers, 1924-1973, (bulk 1945-1973) Library of Congress. Manuscript Division
referencedIn Francis Valentine Keesling Papers, 1906-1957 Stanford University. Libraries. Dept. of Special Collections and University Archives.
referencedIn Wiley, Alexander, 1884-1967. Papers, 1913-1967. Wisconsin Historical Society, Newspaper Project
referencedIn Paramount Pictures, Inc., Collection. 1951 - 1951. Motion Picture Newsreel Films. 10/1941 - 3/1957. PARAMOUNT NEWS [JULY 29]
referencedIn Weinberger, Caspar W. Caspar W. Weinberger papers, 1910-2005 (bulk 1951-2005). Library of Congress
referencedIn Smith, George H. E. (George Howard Edward), 1898-1962. George Howard Edward Smith papers, 1917-1962 (inclusive). Yale University Library
creatorOf Knowland, William F. (William Fife), 1908-1974. William F. Knowland interview on KMPC, October 29, 1963 [sound recording]. UC Berkeley Libraries
creatorOf Henry, Walter Hughes, 1871-1934. Walter Hughes Henry papers, 1892-1935. UC Berkeley Libraries
referencedIn Standley, William Harrison, 1872-1963. William Harrison Standley papers, 1895-1963 (bulk 1940-1960). Library of Congress
referencedIn J. B. Matthews Papers, 1862-1986 and undated David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library
referencedIn Fox Movietone News Collection. 1957 - 1963. Motion Picture Newsreel Films. 1957 - 1963. Movietone News, Vol. 40, No. 30
creatorOf Affairs of State with William F. Knowland [sound recording]. UC Berkeley Libraries
creatorOf Knowland, William F. (William Fife), 1908-1974. William F. Knowland letter to Earl Pomeroy : Wash., D.C. : LS, 1954 June 30. UC Berkeley Libraries
creatorOf Fry, Amelia R.,. Earl Warren's Campaigns : oral history transcripts / tape recorded interviews conducted 1969-1975 by Amelia R. Fry for the Regional Oral History Office, the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, California, 1976 : and related material, 1969-1976. UC Berkeley Libraries
creatorOf Knowland, William F. (William Fife), 1908-1974. Senator William F. Knowland at the Commonwealth Club [sound recording]. UC Berkeley Libraries
referencedIn Dwight D. Eisenhower Library Oral History Collection. 1962 - 1998. Oral History Transcripts. 1962 - 1998. Oral History Interviews with Herbert Brownell
referencedIn Dwight D. Eisenhower Library Oral History Collection. 1962 - 1998. Oral History Transcripts. 1962 - 1998. Oral History Interview with Keith McCormac
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
associatedWith Angelillo, Olindo R. person
associatedWith Brown, Edmund G. (Edmund Gerald), 1905-1996. person
associatedWith Celler, Emanuel, 1888-1981. person
correspondedWith Creel, George, 1876-1953. person
associatedWith Dolwig, Richard J. 1908- person
associatedWith Edwin, Ed, person
associatedWith Flanders. person
associatedWith Francis Valentine Keesling person
correspondedWith Gulbrandsen, Peter, 1890- person
associatedWith Henry, Walter Hughes, 1871-1934. person
associatedWith Keesling, Francis Valentine, b. 1877. person
associatedWith Knight, Goodwin, 1896-1970. person
associatedWith Knowland, Helen. person
associatedWith Leary, Mary Ellen. person
correspondedWith Matthews, J. B. (Joseph Brown), 1894-1966 person
associatedWith Moody, Blair, 1902-1954 person
associatedWith New York Times Company corporateBody
correspondedWith Nicolson, John, 1927- person
associatedWith Parsons, Charles, 1889- person
associatedWith Pomeroy, Earl S. (Earl Spencer), 1915-2005. person
associatedWith Rayburn, Sam, 1882-1961 person
associatedWith Republican Party (U.S. : 1854- ) corporateBody
associatedWith Smith, George Howard Edward, 1898-1962. person
correspondedWith Standley, William Harrison, 1872-1963. person
associatedWith State Government Oral History Program (Calif.) corporateBody
associatedWith Tribune Publishing Company (Oakland, Calif.) corporateBody
associatedWith United States. Congress. corporateBody
associatedWith United States. Congress. Senate. corporateBody
associatedWith Vandenberg, Arthur H. (Arthur Hendrick), 1884-1951 person
associatedWith Weinberger, Caspar W. person
associatedWith Weinberger, Caspar W. person
associatedWith Wiley, Alexander, 1884-1967. person
associatedWith Younger, J. Arthur (Jesse Arthur), 1893-1967. person
Place Name Admin Code Country
Alameda County CA US
Guerneville CA US
Subject
Cold War
Legislators--Interviews
Presidents--Election--1952
Presidents--Election--1956
Internal security
Presidents--Election--1960
Occupation
Senators, U.S. Congress--California
State Senator--California
State Assemblyman--California
Function

Person

Birth 1908-06-26

Death 1974-02-23

Male

Americans

English

Information

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