The future media mogul's run-in with American immigration officials in 1954 occurred against a backdrop of anti-McCarthyist sentiment at the University of Toronto.
After winding down the old year and welcoming 1954 in the Bahamas, William Boultbee and Ted Rogers had a straightforward plan for heading home: fly from Nassau to West Palm Beach on January 2, pick up Boultbee’s car in Fort Lauderdale, drive north.
The plane carrying the pair, who had been friends since childhood, arrived in Florida at 7 p.m. As they were processed through immigration, Rogers told the official he was a University of Toronto student. Asked if he had a job, the future media mogul noted he had worked for the Progressive Conservatives during the 1953 federal election campaign.
“As soon as I said the word progressive,” Rogers recalled half a century later, “they looked at me funny and pointed ‘Over there with your friend Boultbee.’”
Mentioning U of T prompted immigration officer Louis F. Daboll to flip through a black phonebook-sized tome. Daboll claimed Rogers’ name was inside, but refused to show him. Boultbee and Rogers were taken aside and forced to leave the building. Outside, Daboll told them they were “under suspicion” and being detained under the McCarran Act for suspected Communist sympathies.
After making a phone call, Daboll asked the pair to sign a statement which might allow them to enter the United States for a week. “We asked him what the statement was all about,” Rogers told the Globe and Mail. “He said he could not tell us unless we promised to sign it under oath and under the same oath to answer questions. He warned us if we didn’t sign we would be detained for a special hearing.”
Rogers asked if he could call his stepfather, lawyer John Graham, but was refused permission until the pair decided whether they would sign the statement. “We felt,” said Rogers, “that under the conditions the only correct thing to do was refuse to sign.” They were held incommunicado for three hours.
After Mackey Airlines officials guaranteed their expenses until the hearing, including accommodations at the Dixie Court Hotel and a $1,000 bond for each of them, the pair contacted their families back in Toronto. “Since you do not appear to me to be clearly and beyond a doubt entitled to enter the United States,” read a notice Daboll signed, “you are being detained until it can be determined whether you meet the provisions of the immigration laws.” By this point, according to Boultbee, Daboll told them he was “sick and tired of talking to us.” They figured mistaken identity was at play.
Those who knew the students back in Toronto were surprised to learn that anyone thought they had Communist leanings. Boultbee’s family had deep ties to the Tories, and his great-uncle was former Chief Justice of Ontario and U of T Chancellor Sir William Mulock. At the age of 20, Rogers was already a political veteran, having been a member of the Young Progressive Conservatives (YPC) for several years. He was president of the Rosedale YPCs and served on the policy committee of the Progressive Conservative Students Federation. In October 1953, he was elected president of the Toronto YPCs, the first time a U of T student had held so high an executive position. At the time, the Varsity described Rogers as “a good public speaker and debater” who believed in increasing political education among youth. A fellow campus Tory called Rogers “Mr. Anti-Communist.”
One theory for the detention was that American officials, blinded by McCarthy-era furor over anything that remotely sounded Communist, mistook the Progressive Conservatives for the Labor-Progressives, the legal name under which the Communist Party operated in Canada during the 1940s and 1950s.
But being U of T students also posed problems. During the fall semester of 1953, the actions of Joseph McCarthy and his witch hunt against Communists was a highly debated topic across campus. Some students felt the junior senator from Wisconsin was justified in combatting the Red Menace, while others felt he was destroying American democracy through his outlandish attacks and talent for fuelling paranoia.
On Hallowe’en night, 65 Victoria College students decided to demonstrate their dislike of McCarthy and all he stood for. Their method of doing so was extreme: Donning bedsheets and pillowcases, they set out after midnight with an effigy of McCarthy for a candlelight parade along Bay and Bloor in hooded outfits resembling those of the Ku Klux Klan. They shouted “Burn McCarthy” and “Down with Joe.” As the procession stopped in front of each Vic residence, more students joined in, topping out around 200. One person who didn’t participate was a scholarship student from Denmark, who feared being barred from the U.S. During previous border crossings, he was asked if he had ever taken part in any anti-American activities.
At their final stop, the candles were arranged into a cross. The effigy was set on fire. “On the field a fiery cross of candles was set up,” the Varsity reported, “while the Grand Master, in black robe with white cross, delivered a speech to the applause of the ‘Klan’ and the heckling of pro-McCarthy elements among the spectators. In the speech reference was made to ‘fighting fire with fire.’” The students then sent telegrams to McCarthy, President Dwight Eisenhower, and the American embassy in Ottawa. “We join in condemning the political Hallowe’en which threatens to destroy the vitality of North American democracy.”
Reaction was mixed. Student and residence officials at Vic denied any official connection to the hooded ritual, attributing it to “the independent action of approximately 40 residence men.” A Varsity editorial supported the action, wishing that more students had joined in and not felt as if they would suffer any repercussions for speaking out against McCarthyism. “It would have been an indication of the extent to which Toronto students are willing to throw off the shackles of being afraid,” the editorial observed. “It is about time more of us realized that it is better to be a free state, and restrict relations with the south, than to be a satellite to a totalitarian nation.” That editorial was the final straw for Varsity news editor Paul Bacon, who resigned over what he perceived was the paper’s anti-American bias, and its support of socialism on certain issues.
Globe and Mail columnist Frank Tumpane pointed out what may seem obvious to us now: Fighting intolerance with a ritual more symbolic “of the racial and religious hatreds of Georgia than of anything Canadian” may not have been a brilliant idea. “It’s a weird sense of values that orates about the tactics of a politician in another country while introducing into its own country the methods of the Ku Klux Klan,” he observed. Fearing the perception of the incident would solidify people behind McCarthy, Tumpane asked students to “spare us any more of these symbols of yours which evoke nothing but Jim Crow intolerance, religious bigotry, boll-weevil decadence and depraved mumbo-jumbo.” A response in the Varsity was smug in its belief Canadians were free of reprisals, the same sort of smugness expressed regarding present-day right-wing movements.
The incident was reported in the American media. The New York Times ran a picture of the burning. The Chicago Tribune, run by ultra-anti-Communist publisher Robert McCormick, published an editorial decrying the “illogical and depraved” protest as “foreign interference with the right of a public servant in a friendly country to discharge his duties.” The students, in the Tribune’s view, had fallen for “meaningless propaganda” against McCarthy inspired by American Communists.
The Varsity ran anti- and pro-McCarthy letters over the next few weeks. One received from the United States contained the sort of bigoted venom one expects from the darker corners of the internet, calling the protestors “Kikes and Kommunists.” Other Americans wrote in to commend the fearlessness of the demonstrators and the paper. The Trinity College Literary and Athletic Society passed a motion justifying the effigy burning.
But there were signs that these stands carried consequences. In late November 1953, the Globe and Mail reported that students connected with the Varsity were being interrogated when seeking entry permits into the U.S. American Consul General George J. Haering disputed the complaints, but it was true that within the past year a former news editor was barred after writing about civil liberties abuses and the McCarran Act. Students had illustrious alumni to share smears with, as these incidents were reported at the same time the Tribune and other right-wing American newspaper columnists questioned Minister of External Affairs Lester B. Pearson’s softness toward Reds.
Which brings us back to Boultbee and Rogers—students at a school eyed with suspicion by immigration officials, members of a political party whose name sounded similar to a red front, and whose names may or may not have been in a big black book.
While the pair was not allowed to leave Florida, they were granted permission to pick up Boultbee’s car in Fort Lauderdale. Boultbee called his mother Thelma to share to news. Ironically, she received it after returning home from a Sunday morning church sermon about Communism. “They seem to be spending so much time with the boys!” she told the Star. “Maybe by doing that they are neglecting people who should be watched.”
Both families’ political connections were put into action. St. Paul’s MP (and future governor general) Roland Michener appealed to Pearson. External Affairs contacted the Canadian embassy in Washington, D.C. The American State Department worked on fixing the mess. By the time the evening papers hit the streets on January 4, a deal was reached to allow Rogers and Boultbee to return home. An official at the American embassy in Ottawa said the affair was the result of an overzealous immigration officer confusing the PCs for another group.
That night, several protestors from Trinity (Rogers’ college) waved placards in front of the American consulate on University Avenue. Due to cold temperatures, the Telegram dubbed it “the shortest picketing session in Toronto’s history, lasting somewhat less than an hour.” Rogers’ fraternity, Sigma Chi, issued a statement declaring the affair “another example of the hysteria so prevalent in certain quarters.”
Michener felt incidents such as this reflected poorly on the Americans. “It is difficult to understand the necessity for treating in such an arbitrary manner Canadian travellers whose credentials are all in order,” he told the Varsity. “Such conduct, if persisted, is bound to bring the American immigration department into disrepute and to discourage Canadians from travelling in the country.” He hoped that practices would soon change to prevent further cases of mistaken identity and inconvenience.
Telegram political columnist Judith Robinson hoped the treatment of Boultbee and Rogers would spur the federal government to be more critical of the increasing number of people caught up in McCarran Act border hassles. “Sooner or later, if neighbourly relations are to get back on a neighbourly basis,” she wrote, “it will have to be aired.” Oddly, Nevada Senator Pat McCarran, the man whose name graced the act, was in Canada that week to question Soviet defector Igor Gouzenko.
The day Boultbee and Rogers arrived back in Toronto, the Varsity published an editorial titled “Where Will It End?” The paper wondered what would have happened had the students not had political connections to help them out, and why Ottawa was doing little to combat the witch hunters. One paragraph may be relevant to the current North American political situation:
It is unfortunate that the word “progressive” carries with it certain connotations of a political nature. We can only hope that the Communists have not monopolized the word. It would be a sorry state if progress became detestable and if use of the word “progressive” made one an ideological suspect. But so it is.
In his 2008 autobiography Relentless, Rogers recalled the situation with humour, especially regarding a prop he used in a newspaper photo.
It was all quite funny. In one picture in the Star, I was on the phone with my history book open, pretending to be studying. My poor scholastic abilities were well known. When I got home, my history professor immediately said to me, “Rogers, I bet that was the only time you had that book open the entire time you were away.”
“I won’t lie,” I told him. “It’s true. But I had it taken just to please you, to make it look like I was hard at my studies.”
He shook his head ruefully and said, “Well, Rogers, as usual with you, I’m not pleased.”
See It Now, March 9, 1954.
Shortly after television journalist Edward R. Murrow’s famous attack on McCarthy aired in March 1954, a group of Toronto anti-Communists booked the senator to speak at Maple Leaf Gardens on April 20. They claimed they were doing so out of a sense of “fair play,” as they believed McCarthy had been treated poorly in Canada. Mayor Allan Lamport and Metro Toronto Chairman Frederick Gardiner refused to offer a civic welcome. Lamport was offended by McCarthy’s attacks on the U.S. army and believed his tactics were worse than the Reds. “I am surprised that the American people continue to recognize this man,” Lamport told the press. “It will take years for the United States to repair the damage now being wrought by Senator McCarthy and his followers.”
On Parliament Hill, Progressive Conservative leader George Drew called McCarthy’s appearance unfortunate. Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent said he’d have Pearson look into it. Event organizers felt they might have to postpone the speech depending on McCarthy’s schedule.
The speech never happened. The Army-McCarthy hearings began within days of the originally scheduled date for the senator’s appearance, which soon sealed his doom.
Additional material from Relentless by Ted Rogers with Robert Brehl (Toronto: HarperCollins, 2008); the November 4, 1953, November 7, 1953, November 25, 1953, January 4, 1954, March 17, 1954, and March 19, 1954 editions of the Globe and Mail; the January 4, 1954 edition of the Toronto Star; the January 4, 1954 and January 5, 1954 editions of the Telegram; and the October 15, 1953, November 2, 1953, November 3, 1953, November 5, 1953, November 12, 1953, and January 7, 1954 editions of the Varsity.
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