William F. Knowland

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The Honorable
William F. Knowland
William F. Knowland headshot.jpg
United States Senator
from California
In office
August 26, 1945 – January 3, 1959
Preceded by Hiram Johnson
Succeeded by Clair Engle
Senate Majority Leader
In office
August 4, 1953 – January 3, 1955
Deputy Leverett Saltonstall (whip)
Preceded by Robert A. Taft
Succeeded by Lyndon B. Johnson
Senate Minority Leader
In office
January 3, 1955 – January 3, 1959
Deputy Leverett Saltonstall
Everett Dirksen (whips)
Preceded by Lyndon B. Johnson
Succeeded by Everett Dirksen
Personal details
Born William Fife Knowland
(1908-06-26)June 26, 1908
Alameda, California
Died Script error: The function "death_date_and_age" does not exist.
Guerneville, California
Nationality American
Political party Republican
Spouse(s) 1) Helen Davis Herrick (divorced) (1907–1981) 2) Ann Dickson (survived) (1931–1984)
Children Emelyn Davis Jewett
Joseph William Knowland
Helen Estelle Knowland
Kay Sessinghaus Paolinetti
Steve Sessinghaus
Alma mater University of California-Berkeley
Religion Methodist
Military service
Service/branch United States Army
Years of service 1942–1945
Rank Major
Battles/wars World War II
File:Senator on Elephant.jpg
Senator William F. Knowland atop elephant at a circus in Orange County, California, during his ill-fated run for California governor 1958

William Fife Knowland (June 26, 1908 – February 23, 1974) was an American politician, newspaper publisher, and Republican Party leader. He was a U.S. Senator representing California from 1945–1959. He served as Senate Majority Leader from August, 1953 to January, 1955 after the death of Robert A. Taft. As the most powerful member of the Senate and with his strong interest in foreign policy, Knowland helped set national foreign policy priorities and funding for the Cold War, the policy regarding Vietnam, Formosa, China, Korea and NATO, and other foreign-policy objectives. He opposed sending American forces to French Indochina (Vietnam) and was a sharp critic of communist China under Mao Zedong. Knowland represented the right wing of the GOP and considered some of President Dwight D. Eisenhower's policies too moderate.[1]

After the GOP lost its majority in the 1954 election, he served as Minority Leader from 1955–1959. He was defeated in his 1958 run for California Governor. He succeeded his father, Joseph R. Knowland, as the editor in chief and publisher of the Oakland Tribune.


William F. "Bill" Knowland was born in the City of Alameda, Alameda County, California. His father, Joseph R. Knowland, was serving his third term as a U.S. Representative. He was the third child, with an older sister, Elinor (1895–1978), and a brother, Joseph Russell "Russ" Knowland, Jr. (1901–1961). His grandfather, Joseph Knowland (1833–1912), had made the family fortune in the lumber business. His mother, Elinor Fife Knowland, died on July 20, 1908, less than a month after his birth. His father's second wife, Emelyn S. West, raised Knowland as her own son.

A young Knowland made campaign speeches for the 1920 Republican National ticket of Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge at the age of 12, married at 19, became a California State Assemblyman at 25, entered the United States Senate at 37, and became a grandfather at 41.

Early political career

Knowland, president of the student body, graduated from Alameda High School in the Class of 1925. He graduated with a political science degree in three and a half years from the University of California, Berkeley in 1929. He was a member of Zeta Psi fraternity. California Governor C. C. Young and University of California President William Wallace Campbell praised Knowland's political activities as a university student.

Knowland attended the 1932 Republican National Convention. He watched from the gallery, the California delegation which included his father, J. R. Knowland, Earl Warren, Louis B. Mayer and Marshall Hale. The Republicans in Chicago renominated President Herbert Hoover and Vice President Charles Curtis.

In November 1932, he was elected to the State Assembly, serving two years, and in 1934 to the State Senate, serving four years. He did not seek re-election in 1938, but remained extremely active in the California Republican Party, serving in a number of roles. He was also influential on the national scene, serving as the chairman of the executive committee of the Republican National Committee from 1940 to 1942. Knowland campaigned for 1940 Republican presidential candidate Wendell L. Willkie.

World War II

In June 1942, Knowland was drafted into the U.S. Army for World War II service. After a few months service as a private and sergeant, he went through Officer Candidate School and was commissioned as a second lieutenant. He served as an aide to Brigadier General M. L. Stockton, then attended military government school. He was sent to Europe in 1944, landed in France a month after D-Day, and served in various rear-echelon duties, rising to the rank of major.

World War II Awards

American Campaign Medal ribbon.svg American Campaign Medal
European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign ribbon.svg European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal
World War II Victory Medal ribbon.svg World War II Victory Medal
Army of Occupation ribbon.svg Army of Occupation Medal

United States Senator

Hiram Johnson, the senior U.S. Senator from California, died on August 6, 1945. On August 14, 1945, Governor Earl Warren appointed Knowland to fill Johnson's seat. Warren first offered the Senate seat to Joseph R. Knowland, who declined Warren's offer, saying: "I lost the Senate Seat in 1914, I have the responsibility of the Oakland Tribune, Bring my boy, Billy home." Major William F. Knowland was serving on special duty with the Army Public Relations Section as part of the European Occupation Forces in Paris. Knowland always said he learned of his new job from an article in Stars and Stripes; Knowland's wife Helen tried to telephone him with the news, but she couldn't get past the military censors, who said it was not essential government business.

Knowland was sworn in as a freshman Senator of the 79th Congress September 6, 1945, the day the Senate adjourned in memory of Hiram Johnson. He was assigned membership in the Commerce Committee, the Irrigation and Reclamation and Immigration Committee, and the National Defense Committee (formerly the Truman Committee).

In 1946, in a special election for the last part of Johnson's term, Knowland defeated Democrat Will Rogers, Jr. by 334,000 votes. The special election featured a blank ballot, whereby electors had to write in the name of their choice.[2] He also defeated Rogers in the general election by nearly 261,000 votes, winning a full term in the Senate in his own right.

Knowland became a caustic critic of the Harry S. Truman administration. He was critical of the actions in the "loss" of China to Communism and the Korean War. However, Knowland admired the former Senator from Missouri personally. A firm believer in legislative authority under the U.S. Constitution, as Senate leader Knowland sometimes also was at odds with his party's president, Dwight D. Eisenhower. In his diary, the President wrote that Knowland "means to be helpful and loyal, but he is cumbersome," also describing the Senator's foreign policy views—particularly on Red China—as "simplistic."[3] Fellow conservative Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater described Knowland as "a very determined man, and a very highly principled one, and as long as he and Eisenhower agreed on the legislation that Ike wanted, Bill would fight his head off for it."[4] In 1954, for example, Knowland voted in support of Eisenhower's initiatives 91 percent of the time.[5]

Knowland sometimes was called the "Senator from Formosa" (now known as Taiwan) for his strong support for Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalist government in China against Mao Zedong and the Communists. A keen opponent of China's accession to the United Nations, Knowland tangled with Indian statesman V. K. Krishna Menon over the issue, leading the latter to acidly recommend psychiatric treatment to the former.[6] In later years, Knowland moderated his position, praising President Nixon's diplomatic overture to China in 1972.[7]

At the 1948 Republican National Convention, Knowland made the nominating speech for Governor Warren as the Vice Presidential candidate, and was seen on the podium with presidential candidate Thomas E. Dewey.

In the June 1952 primary election, Knowland "cross-filed," running for both the Republican and Democratic nominations. He got 2.5 million votes to 750,000 for his Democratic opponent, Clinton D. McKinnon, and won both nominations. In the general election he was opposed only by an "Independent Progressive," and won with 88% of the vote, carrying 57 of the 58 counties.

The 1952 Republican National Convention met in Chicago. General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower and U.S. Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio, were the two main candidates. On July 8, 1952, Taft asked Bill if he were interested in the vice presidency. Eisenhower was nominated and selected for his ticket California's Junior U.S. Senator Richard M. Nixon.

On September 23, 1952, Republican vice presidential candidate Richard Nixon gave the Checkers speech, a response to allegations that Nixon had maintained a secret fund of political donations from business leaders. (It was reported that Knowland said after the Checkers speech, "I had to have my picture taken with that dirty bastard, crying on my shoulder!") Republican presidential candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower's aides contacted Bill Knowland, and persuaded him to fly from Hawaii to join General Eisenhower and be available as a potential replacement running mate. However, seeing public opinion, Eisenhower retained Nixon on the 1952 GOP ticket.

When Senator Robert A. Taft died on July 31, 1953, Knowland was chosen to succeed him as Senate Republican Leader (Majority Leader from 1953 to 1955; Minority Leader from 1955 to 1959). At age 44, he is the youngest senator to occupy the position of Majority Leader. The Republican majority during Knowland's stint as majority leader was tenuous. Taft's Senate seat was filled by a Democrat, giving Democrats 48 seats compared to the Republicans' 47. One Senator, Wayne Morse of Oregon, who dropped his Republican affiliation to become an independent, pledged to vote with the Republicans on organizing the Senate in 1954, bringing the Republican tally to 48 seats. The constitutional provision for the Vice President to cast a tie-breaking vote gave Republicans a working majority to organize the Senate. Knowland's Democratic counterpart was Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas. Knowland and Johnson shared a cordial and respectful political relationship, often working in tandem on policy and procedure, including co-authoring a resolution in 1957 in an unsuccessful attempt to limit the filibuster, the practice of allowing minority viewpoints to use everlasting debate to obstruct the passage of legislation. "To completely block the legislative process of government is too much power for any responsible person to want, and far too much power for any irresponsible person to have," Knowland said of the filibuster.[8]

Knowland called the Senate the "most exclusive club of 96" (there were 48 states at the time). He was slow to criticize its most infamous member, Wisconsin's Republican junior Senator Joseph McCarthy. In 1953, McCarthy questioned the "integrity and good faith" of U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, leading Knowland to denounce McCarthy publicly.[9] McCarthy later was condemned by the Senate for "conduct contrary to Senate traditions" in his vehement investigation of alleged communist infiltration of the U.S. government.[10]

Amid speculation that Eisenhower might not run for re-election, Knowland briefly floated his candidacy for President in 1956, but withdrew when the President decided to seek a second term. On appointing Knowland as delegate to the Eleventh General Assembly of the United Nations in 1956, Eisenhower wrote: "Knowland brings to his leadership post an absolute, unflinching integrity that rises above politics. In the councils of government, he inspires faith in his motives and gives weight to his words."

Knowland had a long-running battle with Richard Nixon, with whom he served in the Senate from 1951 to 1953, for influence in California Republican Party affairs. Nonetheless, he gave Nixon the constitutional oath for Vice President of the United States January 20, 1953 and January 21, 1957 on the East Portico of the U.S. Capitol. In 1968, as Nixon came across the Bay Bridge from San Francisco to Oakland, when an aide pointed out the Oakland Tribune Tower, Nixon replied, "Bastard."[11]

Knowland was Temporary Chairman of the 1956 Republican National Convention, held at the San Francisco Cow Palace.

Knowland and Johnson crafted and passed, in the Senate, the watered down[12] Civil Rights Act of 1957. It was the first such law since Reconstruction. After the bill was passed, Knowland wept because the bill's perceived weakness in protecting civil rights.[13]

Gubernatorial Campaign Catastrophe

File:William Knowland, Edmund Brown Newsreel.ogv
Senator William Knowland announces candidacy in the Republican primary for Governor of California

In 1958, Knowland decided to run for Governor of California instead of re-election to the Senate. His father was shaken by the decision. The elder Knowland cherished the U.S. Senate seat, which voters had denied him in 1914.

Knowland secured the Republican nomination for governor after a brutal contest with incumbent Goodwin J. Knight. In the "Big Switch," Knight agreed to run for Knowland's U.S. Senate seat while Knowland ran for governor. Many felt Knowland would use the governorship to control the California Republican delegation in 1960, and try to deny Nixon the Presidential nomination and take it himself.

A critical issue in the campaign was Proposition 18, an initiative to enact a Right-to-work law in California. Knowland endorsed Proposition 18 in excessive language, but in fact Proposition 18 was highly unpopular and the endorsement hurt Knowland. He was soundly defeated in the general election by the Democratic candidate, California Attorney General Edmund G. Brown by a 59% to 40% margin. (Representative Clair Engle defeated Knight for Knowland's senate seat.) This effectively ended Knowland's political career. After dominating California politics for over half a century, many other California Republicans were also defeated for statewide offices. Among Joseph R. Knowland's protegés, Representative John J. Allen, Jr. lost his House seat to Jeffery Cohelan. and Alameda County Supervisor Kent D. Pursel lost his race for the State Senate to John W. Holmdahl. To pay off some of Knowland's campaign debts, his father had to sell his Oakland Tribune radio station KLX to Crowell Collier Broadcasting. William F. Knowland never again ran for any elective office.

After politics

William F. Knowland's brother Russ died on October 6, 1961. William Knowland became the sole successor to his father and to control of the Oakland Tribune.

The 1964 Republican National Convention, again in San Francisco's Cow Palace, nominated Barry Goldwater for President. Knowland backed the Goldwater-Miller ticket and spoke for the Arizona Senator across the country. While giving speeches in the Deep South, Knowland saw traditional Demorcrats embrace the conservative values of the Republican Party. This shift in the Solid South, from Southern Democrats to Southern Republicans, at last was realized by Reagan's third, successful try in 1980.

Knowland was the titular head of the California Republican Party from 1959 to 1967, when he passed the party leadership to the new governor, Ronald Reagan.

Knowland became President, Editor, and Publisher of the Oakland Tribune in 1966, after the death of his father. Knowland typically was called "Senator" by the Tribune Staff after his return to the paper from Washington. He kept the editorial pages of the Tribune solidly Republican. However, he took steps to add a bipartisan bent to the news pages, including the appointment in 1969 of a political editor with Democratic Party leanings.[14] His son, Joseph W. Knowland, was Assistant Publisher with the position of Assistant General Manager.

In a cost-cutting move that ultimately hurt the Oakland Tribune, the Southern Alameda County and Contra Costa County editions were trimmed. This opened the areas to Floyd Sparks (1900–1988), owner of the Hayward Daily Review, and Dean Lesher (1902–1993), owner since 1947 of the Contra Costa Times. In early 1968, Oakland Tribune circulation rose because the major San Francisco newspapers were on strike. When the San Francisco Chronicle and San Francisco Examiner returned, Tribune sales fell in home delivery and on-the-street sales.

As editor and publisher, Knowland took an interest in local affairs along with this job; no more would his mind have to be on national and foreign policy. During his tenure as newspaper executive, Oakland and the East Bay Area were changing, with the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley, the Black Panthers, and "white flight" to the suburbs. He offered a $100,000 reward for the conviction of those responsible for the 1973 murder of Marcus Foster. The Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) claimed responsibility. The SLA subsequently kidnapped Patricia Hearst and Atlanta Constitution editor J. Reginald Murphy. These acts made Knowland fearful for his own safety.

The Tribune turned 100 years old on February 21, 1974. Knowland spoke on the occasion: "For 100 years this newspaper has participated in the growth of Alameda and Contra Costa counties.... Now as we look into the future it becomes ever more important that newspapers here and in other cities keep the public adequately informed." He went to all departments on that Thursday. At the banquet at Goodman's Hall, Governor Ronald Reagan praised the Tribune and the Knowland Family.

The Oakland Tribune was sold in 1977 by the Knowland family. After four ownership changes, it is today a daily newspaper of the Bay Area News Group (BANG), a subsidiary of MediaNews Group.

Personal life

William F. Knowland was married to Helen Davis Herrick, whom he had met in the sixth grade. They were married on New Year's Eve in 1926. They were divorced on March 15, 1972, citing irreconcilable differences, a quiet reference to his affairs. Knowland then married Ann Dickson on April 29, 1972, but the two were estranged by the end of that year.

He and Herrick had three children: Emelyn K. Jewett, Joseph William Knowland, and Estelle Knowland. He had two stepchildren, Kay and Steve Sessinghaus, from his marriage to Dickson. He was known as Big Da, to his family, so named by his first grandchild, Emelyn Grace Jewett.


On February 23, 1974, Knowland died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, an apparent suicide, at his summer home near Guerneville, California. His personal life had dismantled around him. Heavy gambling took all his money and more. He died owing over $900,000 to banks and impatient mobsters.[15]


At the Main Mausoleum of the Mountain View Cemetery, in Oakland, California on Floor I, M8J, N2, TI. Sen. W.F. Knowland, 1908–1974 is with his first wife, Helen Knowland Whyte, 1907–1981 and her mother, Estelle Davis Herrick, 1881–1963 also contained are the remains of Ruth Lamb Caldwell Narfi, 1909–2003 and her first husband, Hubert A. Caldwell, 1907–1972 and second husband, Gaetano "Tani" Narfi, 1905–1996.

At the Chapel of Memories in Oakland, California, two tiers down from his father, Joseph R. Knowland in the Serenity Section Tier 4 Number 6, a double book urn has only one side inscribed, U.S. Senator William F. Knowland, 1908–1974.


  1. Gayle B. Montgomery, and James W. Johnson, One Step from the White House: The Rise and Fall of Senator William F. Knowland (1998) pp 166-80
  2. Washington Post, "Murkowski appears to make history in Alaska", Debbi Wilgoren, 3 November 2010 (accessed 3 November 2010)
  3. Beatty, Jack (2004). Pols: Great Writers on American Politicians from Bryan to Reagan. New York: PublicAffairs. p. 240.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Goldwater, Barry (1979). With No Apologies. New York: William Morrow. p. 68.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Montgomery, Gayle; Johnson, James (1998). One Step From the White House: The Rise and Fall of Senator William F. Knowland. Berkeley, CA: University of California. p. 172.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. "World: Menon'S War". TIME. 1961-12-29. Retrieved 2013-04-22.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. Montgomery, Gayle (1998). One Step From the White House. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. p. 281.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. "Curbing the Filibuster". The New York Times. 10 January 1957.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. White, William S. (26 March 1953). "BITTERNESS MARKS DEBATE ON BOHLEN; TAFT DEFERS VOTE: Knowland Assails McCarthy--Foes of Nominee Question Integrity of Dulles Again" (Page 1). The New York Times.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. "The Censure Case of Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin". U.S. Senate. Retrieved 24 May 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. Montgomery, Gayle; Johnson, James (1998). One Step From the White House: The Rise and Fall of Senator William Knowland. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. p. 267.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. Caro, Robert (2003). Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson. Vintage Books. p. Ch. 37–41.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. Branch, Taylor Parting the Waters p. 221
  14. Montgomery, Gayle (1998). One Step From the White House: The Rise and Fall of Senator William F. Knowland. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. p. 280.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. Montgomery and Johnson, One Step from the White House: The Rise and Fall of Senator William F. Knowland (1998) pp 283-305

Further reading

  • Montgomery, Gayle B. and Johnson, James W., One Step from the White House: The Rise and Fall of Senator William F. Knowland. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1998. ISBN 0-520-21194-4. Online at UC Press.
  • Wyatt, Daniel E., Joseph Russell Knowland: The Political Years, 1899–1915. San Francisco: D. Wyatt. 1982.

External links

California Assembly
Preceded by
Frank S. Israel
California State Assemblyman, 14th District
Succeeded by
Charles J. Wagner
California Senate
Preceded by
Arthur H. Breed, Sr.
California State Senate, 16th District
Succeeded by
Arthur H. Breed, Jr.
United States Senate
Preceded by
Hiram Johnson
U.S. Senator (Class 1) from California
Served alongside: Sheridan Downey, Richard Nixon, and Thomas Kuchel
Succeeded by
Clair Engle
Party political offices
Preceded by
Robert A. Taft
Senate Republican Leader
Succeeded by
Everett M. Dirksen
Preceded by
Hiram W. Johnson
Republican Party nominee for United States Senator from California
1946, 1952
Succeeded by
Goodwin J. Knight
Honorary titles
Preceded by
Hugh Mitchell
Youngest Member of the United States Senate
Succeeded by
Joseph McCarthy