Tenney Committee

The Tenney Committee was the popular name for the Joint Fact-Finding Committee of Un-American Activities, directed by California State Legislator Jack B. Tenney from 1941 to 1949. Dubbed the "little Dies Committee" (a reference to the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee headed by Representative Martin Dies), the committee was responsible for rooting out what its chiefs described as "subversive" or "unpatriotic" activities in California.

The committee was the first to investigate the wartime activities of Japanese Americans in California, preceding the founding of the Assembly's Gannon Committee and Senate's Donnelly Committee in 1943, and included members from both the State Assembly and State Senate. Like the subsequent committees, the Tenney Committee officials advocated for permanent removal of Japanese Americans to maintain the economic hegemony of white farmers, and was heavily involved in inciting and manipulating anti-Japanese sentiment in California throughout the war.

Originally born in St. Louis, Missouri, Jack Tenney served in World War I and went to law school. While practicing law, Tenney regularly published songs, his most famous being "Mexicali Rose." He was elected to the California State Assembly as a Democrat in 1936, later being elected to the State Senate in 1942. [1]

The Tenney Committee was founded on January 27, 1941, under Assembly Resolution #13 of 1941, with then-Assemblyman Jack Tenney chosen as its head. Immediately after Pearl Harbor , the Tenney Committee became part of a phalanx of California lawmakers along with Governor Earl Warren pushing for mass removal of Japanese Americans from the West Coast. Beginning in February 1942, shortly before the issuance of Executive Order 9066 , and continuing for more than a year, the committee hosted seven rounds of hearings in San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Fresno. While it called Japanese Americans such as Rafu Shimpo English editor Togo Tanaka to testify, its star witness was Dr. John Lechner , a noted Austrian-born publicist, "anti-Japanese agitator," and chair of the state American Legion. [2] When one of the witnesses called by the committee, George Knox Roth, refused to reveal to the Tenney Committee the sources of funding for his broadcasts against the incarceration, he was cited for contempt. [3]

In 1943, the committee issued its final report on the state of Japanese American incarceration. Drawing over 43 percent of its findings from Lechner's testimony, it unsurprisingly reflected closely the nativist arguments that he had put forth. Proclaiming that Japanese Americans could not be trusted on racial grounds, the report called on the federal government to institute permanent confinement with the U.S. Army, to segregate pro-Axis elements, and henceforth to deny citizenship to those born in the United States "with dual nationality of the country of their parent's origins." [4]

Meanwhile, over the course of 1943, the committee dedicated itself to the goal of ensuring the permanent exclusion of Japanese Americans from California. To further legitimize its approach, its members collaborated with the American Legion, one of the most prominent anti-Japanese groups on the West Coast as well as the Native Sons of the Golden West and anti-Japanese newspapers such as William Randolph Hearst’s Los Angeles Examiner . The committee coordinated investigations with the American Legion and each sent representatives to the Manzanar and Tule Lake concentration camps. At the same time, the Tenney Committee subpoenaed numerous celebrities to appear at hearings before the committee. Although the committee presented itself as an investigative body, the use of subpoenas against individuals, backed up by charges from allied newspapers, represented an accusation of treason in itself. In response to the establishment of the "leave clearance" release program for inmates by the War Relocation Authority, the Committee weaponized rumors of coddling in the camps, accused WRA administrators of endangering white Americans by releasing Japanese Americans from camp and "allowing them to roam freely." [5] To further discourage the return of Japanese Americans to the West Coast, Jack Tenney called for additional investigations into the properties of the Buddhist and Shinto churches of California, arguing that these were sites of treason and the future anchors of new communities. [6]

In December 1944, the army announced that exclusion would be lifted based on the Supreme Court's ruling of Ex parte Endo . Although investigations of Japanese Americans continued for the remainder of the war, the Tenney Committee's inability to maintain permanent exclusion of Japanese Americans led to the return of its original mission of anti-communist activism. In 1949—inspired by his experience with Japanese Americans—Tenney forced the University of California Regents to implement anti-communist oaths for faculty working in the University of California system. [7] In 1949, Tenney was removed as head of the committee, and would step down from his seat to run, unsuccessfully, for the U.S. Senate.

Authored by Jonathan van Harmelen , UC Santa Cruz

For More Information

Leonard, Kevin Allen. The Battle for Los Angeles: Racial Ideology and World War II . Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2006.

Scobie, Ingrid Winther. "Jack B. Tenney and the 'Pacific Menace': Anti-Communist Legislation in California, 1940–1949." Pacific Historical Review 43.2 (1974): 188–211.

Heale, M. J. "Red Scare Politics: California's Campaign against Un-American Activities, 1940-1970." Journal of American Studies 20.1 (1986): 5-32.


  1. "Jack Tenney," JoinCalifornia: Election History of the State of California , updated January 2020. https://www.joincalifornia.com/candidate/5481 .
  2. "California Legislative Study," Japanese Evacuation and Resettlement Survey papers, BANC MSS 67/14 c, folder T 1.52, Bancroft Library, 2.
  3. "Geo. Knox Roth Answers Too Late, Says Judge." Highland Park Post Dispatch , June 11, 1942.
  4. "California Legislative Study," 6.
  5. "Japs STILL Not Guarded in Arizona" Los Angeles Examiner , Nov. 30, 1943.
  6. "Hold Japs, Assemblyman Urge" Los Angeles Examiner , June 4, 1943.
  7. Robert Greenberg, "The Loyalty Oath at the University of California: A Report on Events, 1949-1958," Free Speech Movement Archives , accessed on Feb. 3, 2020 at http://www.fsm-a.org/stacks/AP_files/APLoyaltyOath.html .

Last updated Dec. 21, 2023, 3:52 a.m..