The story of anti-communism in California schools is a tale well and often told. But few scholars have appreciated the important role played by private surveillance networks. This article examines how privately funded and run investigations shaped the state government’s pursuit of leftist educators. The previously-secret papers of Major General Ralph H. Van Deman, which were opened to researchers at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., only a few years ago, show that the general operated a private spy network out of San Diego and fed information to military, federal, and state government agencies. Moreover, he taught the state government’s chief anti-communist bureaucrat, Richard E. Combs, how to recruit informants and monitor and control subversives. The case of the suspicious death of one University of California, Los Angeles student – a student that the anti-communists claimed had been “scared to death” by the Reds – shows the extent of the collaboration between Combs and Van Deman. It further illustrates how they conspired to promote fear of communism, influence hiring and firing of University of California faculty, and punish those educators who did not support their project. Although it was rarely successful, Combs’ and Van Deman’s coordinated campaign reveals a story of public-private anticommunist collaboration in California that has been largely forgotten. Because Van Deman’s files are now finally open to researchers, Californians can gain a much more complete understanding of their state bureaucracy’s role in the Red Scare purges of California educators.
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