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Under Prying Eyes: Repression, Surveillance and Exposure in California, 1918-1939

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posted on 2021-11-14, 08:11 authored by Judkins, Simon James

This thesis is a study of a network of surveillance organisations that developed in California, especially around Los Angeles, between the First and Second World Wars, employing surveillance as a tool of political and economic repression. It argues that over the course of the period surveyed an expanding network exerted a significant conservative, anti-labour influence on California’s history. This was especially so at the end of the 1930s, when the network contributed information and personnel in a series of public exposures targeted at a broad range of political enemies. As part of a conservative mobilisation against the New Deal nationally and within the state, the California surveillance network created a role for its members based on an ability to smear liberal politics with the taint of communism, a role that continued after the Second World War. For much of its history this network was fuelled by a desire to enforce a conservative status quo that protected the profits of the business community with which it allied and relied upon financially. In the immediate aftermath of the First World War this necessitated the repression of political radicals such as the International Workers of the World, Socialists, Pacifists, Bolsheviks, and other radical dissenters. As California experienced economic booms in the 1920s and crisis in the 1930s, the network attracted new collaborators to form a multifarious entity comprised of patriotic and veterans’ organisations, law enforcement, military intelligence, employers’ associations, and labour spies. As a result the network had access to sources from all spheres of Californian public and private life, including from within government. Mirroring the tactics of the Communist Party of the United States, which attracted its most ardent suspicions, the network also deployed undercover operatives to infiltrate and disrupt the targets of their surveillance. The information exchange that took place between members of the network facilitated the creation of vast archives to hold all the collected material, which contained data on Californian citizens of all political persuasions. The passage of New Deal labour legislation in the mid-1930s presaged a shift in the network’s activities. After the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 and the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 aided union organisation, the California surveillance network increasingly became involved in the surveillance and repression of labour movements. Fear of communist infiltration of labour movements, particularly after a series of major strikes in the maritime and agricultural industries, partly explains this increasing attention. As this thesis shows, anti-labour espionage was also occasionally motivated by profit, misunderstanding, intolerance, and greed. The surveillance network contributed to the formation and activities of the Special Committee on Un-American Activities chaired by Representative Martin Dies which began in 1938. Presenting evidence acquired from its operations, it helped to create evidentiary and ideological support for the post-war anti-communist investigations which drew upon documentation and expertise created in the 1930s. The California surveillance network was thus a major foundation for what became known as McCarthyism.


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Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Author Retains Copyright

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Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Degree Name

Master of Arts

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code

970121 Expanding Knowledge in History and Archaeology

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations


Janiewski, Dolores