Mitchell, Hugh B. (1907-1996)

  • By Frank Chesley
  • Posted 3/10/2004
  • Essay 5667

Hugh B. Mitchell, a U.S. Senator and Representative known as "Mitch" to friends and colleagues, was a New Deal Democrat who believed government could and should help citizens prosper. He served in Congress in 1945-1946 and in 1949-1952, during the period of anti-communist hysteria following World War II, and although he was a fervent champion of democracy, he was regularly tarred as "soft on communism." He advocated prudent development of the state's natural resources, particularly a Columbia River Authority to manage a balanced, integrated river resource system. He proposed an Asian Marshall Plan to thwart the post-World War II communist threat. Mitchell lost a race for governor in 1952, and subsequently lost two attempts at a Congressional seat. He defended civil liberties when they were under attack, and, on the state level, was a longtime supporter of an income tax. As a citizen, he lobbied doggedly during the early 1950s for a federally operated high dam at Hells Canyon, on the Oregon-Idaho border. He also was a member of a blue-ribbon commission that investigated the World War II internment of Japanese Americans and Aleut Americans. Mitchell spent his later years in the transportation industry, and he died in 1996.

Second-generation American

Hugh Mitchell was born in Great Falls, Montana, on March 22, 1907, and he inherited his sense of social justice and civic responsibility from his parents, Harry B. and Mary Greening Mitchell. His father Harry was born in Scotland in upper-middle-class circumstances to David and Mary Mitchell, who bore 13 children and immigrated to Minnesota when Harry was 12. He became a newspaperman and published papers highlighting conditions in Montana's mining industry. He later was part-owner and manager of the Great Falls Leader, then sold his share and became managing editor of the Great Falls Tribune. He also developed a dairy farm -- the first to use electricity for pumping irrigation water -- to which he devoted his later years.

Harry Mitchell ran for Congress in 1916 as a Democrat, but lost by a slim margin to -- ironically perhaps -- Republican pacifist-suffragette Jeannette Rankin (1880-1973), the first woman to serve in Congress. He lost to Rankin again in 1918, again by a slim margin.  He served six years as mayor of Great Falls, lost yet another Congressional race, then was appointed president of the U.S. Civil Service Commission in 1933 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1881-1945). He held the post 18 years, longer than anyone else on the commission, and instituted a series of reforms, most significantly replacing the old patronage system with a meritocracy.

The Blackfeet made Harry Mitchell a member of their tribe, naming him "Morning Eagle," and James Campbell, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, called him "the conscience of the administration" (Memoirs).

Hugh Mitchell's mother Mary also was a civic activist. She lobbied for enriched flour, to restore nutrients that millers removed to lengthen shelf life, and was one of several Great Falls women who convinced Anaconda Copper to raise its nearby smelter stack to carry the toxic plume over the city.

From College to Journalism to Congress

Hugh Mitchell attended Dartmouth College from 1926 to 1929, but dropped out because of family finances. He worked briefly as a reporter for The Great Falls Leader, then in 1931 moved from Montana to Washington to work for The Everett News. He first covered sports but was switched to the political beat when the incumbent political reporter was discovered having an affair with the mayor's daughter.

The Great Depression had not yet bottomed out, and Mitchell became fascinated by the vital role government was -- or was not -- playing in the severe economic crisis. He would devote the rest of his life to public service, beginning with a decade as a Congressional aide. In 1933, Mitchell joined the staff of newly elected 2nd District Representative Monrad C. (Mon) Wallgren (1891-1961), remaining with him until 1944, through six years in the House and four years in the Senate.

Mitchell married Kathryn H. Smith of Bozeman, Montana, in 1938 and they had two children; Bruce C., born in 1945, and Elizabeth (Lissa), born in 1948.

When Wallgren defeated Arthur B. Langlie (1900-1966) for governor in 1944, he appointed Mitchell to fill his Senate seat, though not without a battle among Democrat insiders. Sixth Congressional District Representative John M. Coffee (1897-1983) of Tacoma wanted the seat, as did a group seeking an Eastern Washington name. But Wallgren insisted Mitchell was "highly qualified for the office through legislative experience and his knowledge of the state of Washington" (The Seattle Times).

Managing the Columbia River

As soon as Mitchell took his Senate seat, he joined the fight to properly manage the dams being built on the Columbia River. Senator Homer T. Bone (1883-1970), dubbed the Pacific Northwest's "father of public power," had first proposed a Columbia Valley Authority (CVA) in 1933, to manage the two dams then being built -- Bonneville and the Grand Coulee. By 1944, plans for the river had progressed far beyond these two dams. Bone left the Senate that year after he was appointed federal judge on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Mitchell again proposed a Columbia Valley Authority, similar to the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), which would consolidate 20 federal agencies under one federal commission. "He wanted to integrate resource planning for the Columbia, to figure out how various projects -- power, irrigation, flood control, salmon, transportation, recreation -- affected each other and the river," recalled his son Bruce Mitchell. But the federal bureaucracies all had turf to protect, the private power industry and major newspapers cried "socialism," and Mitchell's dream was never realized. (In 1955, the Hoover Commission recommended selling or leasing all government power plants to private industry and dismantling TVA. However, TVA was not dismantled and remains [in 2004] wholly owned by the U.S. government.)

Mitchell also served on committees for Interstate Commerce, Banking and Currency, National Defense, Investigating, and Mines and Mining.

The End of the New Deal

Mitchell ran for a full term in the Senate in 1946, but lost in the Republican sweep to Harry P. Cain (1906-1979), ex-Tacoma mayor, former airborne lieutenant colonel, and rabid foe of "radicalism and unAmericanism" (quoted in Wilma, HistoryLink). Mitchell, being "a decent person" (Payne), resigned his seat early to give Cain -- and the state -- a seniority advantage, though Cain opposed most or all of what Mitchell worked for. Mitchell lost his pension with that decision. The election marked the end of the liberal New Deal era.

Cain was one of the last public supporters of Joseph McCarthy (1909-1957), the Wisconsin senator whose name would epitomize the era's anti-communist hysteria. McCarthy's crusade still was four years away, but "red" already was the target color for Washington state Republicans, who charged that Democrats had "sold their soul to the Communist Party." The "soft-on-communism" smear, though a lie, would nonetheless dog Mitchell during his entire political career.

In his two years out of office, Mitchell remained immersed in public affairs, organizing the League for Columbia River Authority to continue lobbying for his plan. He also served as an industrial development and political consultant.

The 1948 Dewey vs. Truman Election

Mitchell ran for Congress again in 1948. He sought the 1st Congressional District seat held by Homer R. Jones (1893-1970), ex-mayor of Bremerton, veteran of both world wars, and a beneficiary of the Republican congressional sweep in 1946.

Mitchell made national headlines during the campaign by calling on beleaguered President Harry S. Truman (1884-1972) to quit his race for re-election and lead a movement to draft General Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969). Eisenhower declined the invitation, but would run for president in 1952 as a Republican, and win.

Ancil H. Payne (1921-2004), who would become Mitchell's top aide, joined Mitchell in 1948. He was then 27 years old and regional director of the new Americans for Democratic Action, a liberal but adamantly non-communist group. Payne would work for Mitchell through his years in public office and go on to build his own high-profile career as president and chief executive officer of the King Broadcasting communications empire. Mentioned occasionally as a potential political candidate, Payne said his experiences with Mitchell dissuaded him from any such consideration.

World War II was over but the Cold War was red hot and anti-communist hysteria rampant. The polls and pundits -- and oddly enough, Moscow Radio -- assumed that Truman would fall easily to New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey (1902-1971). Dewey, a Republican, was supported on the editorial pages of 65 percent of the nation's press.

Truman won in an historic upset, and so did Mitchell -- but by a paper-thin margin. Total campaign budget: $8,000.

Back to Congress

In the House, Mitchell continued his efforts to create a Columbia Valley Authority and also served on the Rules, Banking and Currency, and Labor and Education committees. The Rules Committee assignment -- a plum for a freshman -- was a testimonial to his reputation on Capitol Hill. Developing and husbanding the West's natural resources remained high on his agenda, as did the promotion of postwar aviation (and Boeing) through a National Air Policy Board.

He ran again in 1950, defeating Republican Mildred Powell, a longtime Seattle City Councilwoman. In a culture frequently fueled by gutter rhetoric, the campaign was notable for "a common denominator of mildness and cordial dignity that partisan cleavage cannot affect," wrote Seattle Times writer Herb Robinson. Mitchell was not a spellbinding campaigner. "Even when Mitchell is being most emphatic, he speaks easily and quietly, choosing his words with utmost care," Robinson said (Robinson).

Mitchell's Asian Marshall Plan

The times remained perilous. In Europe the "Iron Curtain" had dropped, splitting Germany into two countries and dividing Western and Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe. The Korean War (1950-1953) was under way. On August 29, 1950, two months after the war started, Mitchell proposed a $20 billion reconstruction program for Asia, similar to the $20 billion Marshall Plan launched in 1947 to help a war-ravaged Europe recover and thus thwart the march of communism.

Citing the "communist tidal wave," Mitchell told the House: "We must make allies in Asia or we are doomed by protracted, costly, and indecisive wars." Once again, his prescience went unheeded. As the first American troops were being dispatched to South Korea in June 1950, the first American advisers were arriving in South Vietnam, where another protracted, costly, and indecisive war was about to begin.

Liberty magazine named Hugh Mitchell one of its "Ten Honest Politicians" in the 82nd Congress, an honor for which Mitchell was especially proud, and some magazines touted him as a possible presidential candidate. On another occasion, Senator Warren G. Magnuson (1905-1989) called him "probably the best-informed and hardest working man on Capitol Hill" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer).

Governor's Race Tar

Mitchell remained focused on developing the resources of Washington state. Convinced that he could do more from Olympia than from Washington D.C., in 1952 he ran for governor, though he would have been a shoo-in for another Congressional term. He also mulled another run at Harry Cain, but Representative Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson (1912-1983) also eyed Cain's Senate seat and Magnuson didn't want any intraparty dissension. Ancil Payne recalled, "The senior Senator had something to say about things." Scoop Jackson ousted Cain and retained the Senate seat for more than three decades.

McCarthyism -- in which anyone with a liberal or progressive view was accused of communist affiliation or membership -- was by now virulent and Hugh Mitchell once again became a prime target. His opponent in the gubernatorial primary, liberal State Senate Majority Leader Al Rosellini (1910-2011) and himself a victim of red-baiting, curiously used the same tactic, accusing Mitchell of being "left-wing."

Mitchell won the primary, as expected, but his Republican opponent, Governor Langlie, jumped on the socialism-communism theme and "completed the smear" (Scates). Mitchell lost. It also was the year of the Eisenhower-Republican landslide, but "many Democrats blamed Rosellini for giving Republicans ammunition" (Crowley, HistoryLink). Rosellini later apologized, but in a recent interview Mitchell's aide Ancil Payne said, "I've never forgiven him."

The Pain of Smear

Mitchell ran again for Congress, in 1954 against Representative Thomas M. Pelly (1902-1972) in the 1st District, and in 1958 against Albert J. (Jack) Westland in the 2nd District, losing both times. In the campaign against Pelly, an exasperated Mitchell, sick of the "pink" label, finally fired back, suing Pelly and several others for libel, and seeking $100,000. At issue was a television speech by Donald L. Jackson, a California Congressman and radical conservative, who claimed Mitchell was a communist appeaser.

A year later, the election long lost, Mitchell accepted a $7,500 out-of-court settlement, and called it a moral victory.

"There is very little recourse to a smear," said Hugh Mitchell's son, Bruce, recalling how one experience had traumatized his mother. She was teaching Sunday school at their Congregational church in Seattle's Magnolia district when some neighbors withdrew their children, saying they didn't want them taught "by a communist." She was, said Bruce, a small-town woman from Bozeman, "where what the neighbors thought was a big chunk of your self-image."

Their daughter Lissa Mitchell remembered a schoolmate taunting her during her father's last Congressional campaign, saying "her parents wouldn't vote for him because he was a communist."

Hells Canyon Battle

Between campaigns in the early 1950s, Mitchell devoted much of his energy to the battle over development of Hells Canyon on the Snake River, and served as director of the Hells Canyon Association. He vigorously supported an Interior Department plan for a high dam on the Snake that would provide electricity and irrigation, improve flood control, recreation, transportation, and navigation.

But a Republican administration was in power and the concept of Northwest dams as public utilities -- a keystone of the New Deal -- again was attacked as "socialism." The Idaho Power Company had sought the site since 1947, proposing to build three low dams, market the power commercially, and ignore the benefits of irrigation, recreation, transportation, and flood control. In a 1953 speech, Mitchell described Idaho Power as "a state of Maine corporation owned by eastern capital."

Hells Canyon became a long, bitterly divisive national issue, epitomizing the public vs. private power battle, but the Federal Power Commission finally awarded a license to Idaho Power in August 1955.

During the 1950s, Mitchell also was a successful businessman, as a partner in Martin Van Lines and Mitchell International Enterprises, a freight-forwarding firm. He helped organize the first cargo containerization out of the Port of Seattle, for the Alaska trade.

Commission on Wartime Relocation

In 1980, at the age of 73, he accepted an appointment to the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, charged with investigating the internment of more than 110,000 Japanese American citizens and resident aliens and about 900 Aleut Americans during World War II. The Aleuts had been evacuated for "safety" after the Japanese invaded the Aleutian Islands, but were held in "deplorable" camps in Southeastern Alaska.

Its chairman was Joan Bernstein, former Department of Health and Human Services general counsel, and it included former Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg. Its report, Personal Justice Denied, was issued February 24, 1983, and it concluded that the detention "was not justified by military necessity . . . (but shaped by) race prejudice, war hysteria and failure of public leadership." The report was a major news event, generating headlines and editorials across the country. Congress passed legislation apologizing for the violation of constitutional rights and provided $1.2 billion in reparations. (In 1979, Washington Representative Mike Lowry was the first legislator to advocate monetary restitution for the internees, but his measure did not pass.)

In 1994, Mitchell bought ads in Seattle newspapers asking voters to ignore the political rhetoric and acknowledge the achievements of President Bill Clinton's first two years.

Mitchell died on June 10, 1996, at age 89, after a series of illnesses. His wife Kathryn had died in 1978. Like many -- if not most -- politicians, he was never happy with the press, believing "it should do a better job of informing citizens what the choices were" (Bruce Mitchell). Charles Dunsire editorialized in The Post-Intelligencer that Mitchell had "courage, speaking out for civil liberties when they were under popular attack ... and vision."


Hugh B. Mitchell Papers, Special Collections, Manuscripts, University Archives, University of Washington Libraries, Seattle, Washington; Washington Northwest Frontier, Vol. 3, (Lewis Historical Publishing Co., 1957); Tom Stout, Montana: Its Story and Biography, Vol. 2, (American Historical Society, 1921); Memoirs of Harry Brown Mitchell, vols. I, II, compiled by Fergus Mitchell Jr., 1985; Personal Justice Denied: Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997); Shelby Scates, Warren G. Magnuson and the Shaping of Twentieth-Century America, (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997); Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Washington Republicans join nation in sweep of elections on November 5, 1946" (by David Wilma) and "Rosellini, Albert Dean (b. 1910)" (by Walt Crowley), (accessed March 8, 2004); Frank Chesley interviews with Bruce C. Mitchell, February 16, 2004, Lissa Mitchell, February 26, 2004, and Ancil H. Payne, February 28, 2004; Videotape, Hugh B. Mitchell Remembrance, Ketcheluss Lodge, August 29-30, 1997; Herb Robinson, "Mrs. Powell, Mitchell Both of Gentle Nature," The Seattle Daily Times, November 2, 1950, p. 8.Archives of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and The Seattle Times.

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