by Warren Unna
CONGRESSMAN Chet Holifield did not bother to go home to campaign in California’s last primary: he thought his constituents knew enough about his work in Washington during the preceding sixteen years and did not have to be told. They justified his faith in November, 1958, when they voted 134,000 to 26,000 to return him to Congress for another term.
Holifield is a senior member and one of the most active participants in two key committees, the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy and the House Government Operations Committee. As a member of the House Post Office and Civil Service Committee, he is also one of the few congressmen to have a third committee assignment. Holifield pushed hard for the development of the H-bomb, drew up the legislation creating the General Services Administration, served as one of the two House representatives on the second Hoover Commission, initiated the fight to squelch the Eisenhower Administration’s now abortive DixonYates power contract, has plugged for years — unheeded — for an adequate federal civil defense program, and conceived and chaired the first full-scale investigation of radioactive fall-out.
Chester Earl Holifield, the 56-year-old Los Angeles congressman, was born in Mayfield, Kentucky. His family stayed there only a year and then moved to Arkansas. After his mother died and his father remarried, Holifield at fifteen made a permanent break with home and high school in favor of Kansas wheat fields, Oklahoma oil diggings, the rails, and the hitchhiker’s road. He was not surprised to find himself in California: “I’d read of the romance of the forty-niners and, as a boy, wanted to go out there. Then, like ten million other people, I went.”
Holifield’s first job was as a presser in a Pasadena cleaning and dyeing shop. Before he was nineteen, he had married Vernice Cancer (“Cam”) and started his own cleaning and pressing business in Montebello, one of the many subcommunities in central Los Angeles.
By 1927, with the boom in full swing, Holifield borrowed $1750 and converted his pressing business into a men’s wear shop. Within four years, he had a double reverse. He was hunting wild goats on Catalina Island with a friend when a stray shot — origin still unknown — shattered his leg bone. That stray shot front nowhere kept him bedridden or in a wheel chair for four years.
The store was Holifield’s second reverse. Soon after his hunting accident, in 1931, the Depression reached the West, closed his bank, and made worthless the checks he carefully had made out to his creditors. Holifield mortgaged his five-room house and finally lost it. When he was finally able to get back to work, he found that his liabilities were about twice his assets.
It was then that haberdasher Holifield started to turn political philosopher. “I realized that, regardless of a man’s personal ability, economic depression could take away all of his gains through years of hard work.” He began to read and speak out. He became a close friend of Jerry Voorhis, a man Holifield came to look upon as “the ideal public servant,” and managed Voorhis’ successful campaign for Congress. Following the 1940 census, southern California had such a population increase that a new 19th Congressional District was carved out, part from Voorhis’ area, part from an adjoining one. At Voorhis’ suggestion, Holifield decided to take a flier in the 1942 election. He beat out thirteen other Democrats for the primarynomination. In the general election, he managed to defeat his Republican opponent, Max Ward, a Huntington Park newspaper publisher, by a vote of nearly 35,000 to 20,000.
Holifield has won with increasing pluralities ever since, three times secured both the Republican and Democratic endorsement in the primaries, and thinks he could have done this again in 1958 and avoided the bother of the November election. But instead he decided to run only on the Democratic ticket, “in an effort to bring some order out of the chaotic cross-filing situation in California. I was hoping that there would be a clear-cut line drawn between the Republican and Democratic parties in order to give the voters a decisive choice.”
BECAUSE of his leg, not right to this day, Holifield was never able to get into uniform during World War II. As second-best choice, when he got to Congress, he sought and gained membership on the Military Affairs Committee. After the war and in the course of committee business, Holifield came across the May-Johnson Bill, a measure jointly sponsored by former Senator Edwin C. Johnson (Democrat, Colorado) and the late Representative Andrew J. May (Democrat, Kentucky), which would have turned the nation’s new atomic energy program over to the military.
“I thought this source of energy should be developed along other than military lines and tried to get civilian control,” Holifield commented. Although this was only 1945 and Holifield was but a second-term congressman, he strode into the office of Chairman May and thumped on his desk to demand extended hearings. He found May’s interest confined to what the bill would do for his Kentucky coal miners. The chairman gave him what Holifield now describes as “summary” treatment and held only a day or two of hearings on the May-Johnson Bill.
Holifield also became aware of tremendous pressure from the Pentagon to nab this new atomic area for the military. Accordingly, he and Representatives Voorhis, Helen Gahagan Douglas (Democrat, California), George E. Outland (Democrat, California), and Andrew J. Biemiller (Democrat, Wisconsin) publicly appealed to the nation’s scientists to come to Washington and state their case. Several hundred jammed the caucus room of the old House Office Building, including such renowned physicists as Leo Szilard and Harold Urey. The scientists backed Holifield and insisted that the great research and development which lay ahead for nuclear physics could not properly be conducted under military discipline.
May took a committee vote anyway. All but two of the members of the House Military Affairs Committee, Holifield and his close friend Melvin Price (Democrat, Illinois), voted for military control of the atom.
But the furor engendered by the scientists’ meeting did succeed in delaying the vote in the Senate. And then came a jurisdictional dispute in which Senator Johnson wanted to claim atomic energy matters for his Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee and Senator Millard Tydings (Democrat, Maryland) wanted it for his Armed Services Committee. A year of wrangling followed, time enough for a freshman senator, Brien McMahon (Democrat, Connecticut), to introduce a bill calling for a study of atomic jurisdiction. Vice President Barkley, presiding over the Senate, assigned the matter to McMahon under a special select committee, which a year later became the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy.
The scientists by now had organized themselves into the Federation of American Scientists. “This really brought them out from the laboratories and into public life. They became public speakers,” Holifield recalls. And in the end, a bill which had been greased to roll through both House and Senate in a matter of days and hand the atom to the military ended up with atomic energy under civilian control.
Holifield has been with the atom ever since, and in recognition of his vanguard work, Speaker Sam Rayburn made him a charter member of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy.
Holifield was a strong defender of Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, yet he was completely opposed to the decision of Oppenheimer, chairman of the AEC’s General Advisory Committee, and of the majority of the commission itself not to go ahead with the H-bomb. Chairman McMahon appointed Holifield head of a special Joint Atomic Energy Subcommittee to gather testimony from scientists around the country, particularly from those at Los Alamos familiar with the thermonuclear theories of Edward Teller and Stanislaw Ulam. Holifield found himself in agreement with the majority of the scientists in believing that an H-bomb could and must be made. With the backing of the full Joint Committee, he and McMahon went to President Truman in late 1949 and told him that he should disregard the advice of his experts, Oppenheimer and the AEC, and go ahead with a project which would cost the nation S1 billion and absorb most of the fissionable Uranium 235 then on hand. Mr. Truman had the National Security Council take a new look at the problem and then, with the strong backing of Secretary of State Dean Acheson, the President made his decision.
On August 13, 1953, nine months after this country had tested its first thermonuclear device, the Soviets exploded their first H-bomb. Says Holifield, “If Mr. Truman had not made the decision to go ahead, we would have faced a Soviet weapon a thousand times more powerful than the one we had.”
Some consider Holifield to be too much of a militarist. Yet it was Holifield who first warned of the danger of creating a “fourth atomic power” — in addition to the United States, the Soviet Union, and Britain — when the Administration sought wide nuclear exchange authority in 1958. Holifield stubbornly held out against nuclear promiscuity. A majority of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy finally rallied around him. And in the end, the Administration had to content itself with a nuclear exchange bill that was pretty much geared to Britain alone — and to congressional check-back at almost every stage.
THE California congressman also has been very much concerned with the development of atomic power for peaceful uses. He and Senator Albert Gore (Democrat, Tennessee) have repeatedly introduced bills for massive government assistance to get this country’s atomic power program going. The Eisenhower Administration, particularly under former AEC Chairman Lewis L. Strauss, has feared future TVAs in such assistance. The Republicans have been convinced that once the government set the precedent for constructing, operating, and owning prototype power plants, the socialistic foot would be in the door. Accordingly, the Administration has preferred to let private industry develop atomic power at its own pace.
Holifield finds this a bit ironic. As ranking minority member (now chairman) of the Joint Committee’s powerful Legislative Subcommittee, a group which supervises an annual budget in the hundreds of millions, Holifield saw to it that the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 — the then-Republican Congress’ go-ahead to private industry — contained Section 261, a no-subsidy clause.
Holifield remarks: “The sponsors of the act were so sold on the fact that private enterprise would do the job that I told them surely they would be opposed to any hidden subsidies by the government. I had no trouble getting the clause approved, and my judgment in the minority report on the act was proved right. The act was premature, and the Republicans have been trying ever since to find some means for subsidizing the industry.”
Another attempt was a plutonium buy-back provision which the AEC first tried to have inserted in the government’s contract with a power plant under construction on the shores of Lake Erie by the Power Reactor Development Company, headed by Walker L. Cisler of Detroit Edison. The idea was to provide a government-guaranteed price to purchase the weapons-grade plutonium which the power plant produced in the course of its nuclear power operation. When this was stopped by the Joint Committee under the no-subsidy clause, the AEC tried to have a plutonium buy-back provision inserted in this country’s aid treaty with the Euratom countries. Holifield and the Joint Committee Democrats, suspecting a foreign precedent for future domestic action, spiked that one too.
It was also this shrewd congressman who first found something irregular in the Dixon-Yates power contract. Dixon-Yates involved the AEC, but no atomic power. The proposal was that the government should financially assist a private utility to build a steam-generating plant which would pump electricity into TV A fines, to replace power the AEC was using at its uranium-production plants. “The whole thing,” Holifield observes, “was a devious attempt on the part of the Republican Administration to destroy the concept of TV A by using an administrative means to finance and subsidize a private utility group in the TVA customer area.”
Holifield went before the House with a full-dress analysis of the lengthy contract, citing eighteen points in which he thought the government would be at a disadvantage. The California congressman’s argument was picked up by Tennessee’s senators, Gore and Kefauver, and the two-year fight was on. The Republican majority on the Joint Committee permitted the AEC to go ahead and sign the contract at the end of 1954. But a Democratic majority, returned by the electorate at the beginning of 1955, reversed the action. The state of Tennessee sued, the government canceled the contract and began picking up Holifield’s eighteen points to avoid its breach-ofcontract suit from the private utility people.
How does Holifield sniff these things out? “I’m always suspicious of a lack of frankness, either in the spoken language of a witness or in the text of a bill,” he says. “When I read a draft of legislation that is not easy to understand, I usually find on investigation that the very reason for its ambiguity is that it is covering something up, something that its proponent wants to slip through.”
Does the congressman always get his way?
Holifield laughs at that. “Not always. But it puts your opponent in a very difficult position when he tries to justify legislation on the testimony of witnesses’ intentions.”
There was one occasion in 1957 when Holifield got his way without argument from either the Administration or his colleagues. This was during the eight days of hearings on the whys and wherefores of radioactive fall-out. Holifield, disturbed by “all this fog of propaganda on radiation,” went to Representative Carl T. Durham (Democrat, North Carolina), the Joint Atomic Energy Committee’s then chairman, and persuaded him that there was a need for objective testimony based on what scientists, not politicians, had to say about fall-out. The Holifield hearings which followed were so successful that AEC Chairman Strauss and Commissioner Willard F. Libby complimented Holifield for his fairness — even though the Holifield hearings brought out the facts the AEC up until then had failed to provide.
Holifield’s interests often parallel themselves. While the congressman was chairing a series of Joint Atomic Energy Committee hearings on fallout, through his other capacity as chairman of the House Committee on Government Operations he was preparing a lengthy series of hearings on civil defense. His civil defense hearings are practically the only congressional record on the subject. Senator Kefauver held a series in the Senate some years back, but they petered out when Kefauver found himself the only senator in attendance.
In his own hearings, Holifield not only secured expert scientific testimony on the problem; he persuaded Federal Civil Defense Administrator Val Peterson to recommend a S32 billion federal shelter program.
The Holifield committee’s civil defense recommendations contained such a tone of urgency that President Eisenhower appointed the Gaither Committee to look into the matter. The Gaither Report, never made public, then proceeded to assess the whole state of national defense in this country. And its civil defense recommendations are believed to have been almost identical with those of Holifield’s committee.
House Speaker Sam Rayburn has seen to it that Holifield has been given the committee assignments of his choice and singled him out as the sole Democratic appointee from the House to the second Hoover Commission. It generally has been assumed that the Speaker and Holifield, both ardent admirers of Presidents Roosevelt and Truman, hold pretty much the same political philosophy. But they part company on at least one issue: the natural gas bill. Rayburn, of Texas, is not only for freeing natural gas producers from federal price control; he is considered by some to be the bill’s strongest advocate in Congress.
Holifield has the Santa Fe Spring oil field, one of California’s biggest, right within his congressional district. Another field is within five hundred yards of his Los Angeles home. For his whitecollar, small-businessman constituents, the natural gas bill was not an issue; for Holifield’s oil company constituents, it obviously was. They wanted freedom from federal price controls. So did Rayburn. And in the spring of 1958 the Speaker turned every trick he knew to get the bill through the House. When the vote came, he called Holifield up to the Speaker’s rostrum and made no bones about what he wanted.
It was the first request Rayburn had ever made of his younger colleague in the sixteen years he had been helping him along through Congress, and Holifield knew it. Says Holifield, still squirming with the memory, “It wasn’t hard to turn down the oil and gas interests in my own district. But it was hard to turn down the Speaker. I told him I had to vote against it on principle.”
Does Holifield ever aspire to be a senator?
He says no. One reason is seniority. After seventeen years in the House, he will become chairman of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, if the Democrats keep their House majority next year. He also is next in line to succeed the chairman on the House Government Operations Committee. Because of his seniority, he heads important subcommittees, has the leadership’s ear, and can get his legislation through the various blockades of hearing, committee vote, and floor vote.
But an equal deterrent to running for the Senate, in Holifield’s mind, is the high cost of getting elected in California. “I represent a workingman’s district composed of people in the factories, railroad shops, downtown clerical jobs, and small businesses,” he says, “Due to intense campaigning and the fact that the district is three-to-one Democratic, I am able to make a campaign on $5000 or less. It takes $500,000 to be elected to the Senate in California, This means TV time, direct mail, advertising in the papers, in newsreels, and on billboards. I cannot depend upon any of the usual sources of financing in a state-wide campaign. There is no strong Democratic Party organization in California.”
Big-business backing, Holifield thinks, is out of the question. His voting record has been for his small-businessman constituent and against the bills put forth by the large utilities, the banks, and the oil companies. “I considered them detrimental to my district.”