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William Fife Knowland (June 26, 1908 – February 23, 1974) was a United Statesmarker politician, newspaperman, and Republican Party leader. He was a U.S. Senator from Californiamarker, 1945 to 1959. He served as Senate Majority Leader in 1953-1955, as Minority Leader in 1955-1959. He succeeded his father, Joseph R. Knowland, as the editor and publisher of the Oakland Tribune.


William F. "Bill" Knowland was born in the City of Alamedamarker, Alameda County, Californiamarker. His father, Joseph R. Knowland, was serving his third term as a U.S. Representative. He was the third child, with an older sister, Elinor (1895-1978), and a brother, Joseph Russell "Russ" Knowland, Jr. (1901-1961). His grandfather, Joseph Knowland (1833-1912), had made the family fortune in the lumber business. His mother, Elinor Fife Knowland, died on July 20, 1908, less than a month after his birth. His father's second wife, Emelyn S. West, raised Knowland as her own son.

A young Knowland made campaign speeches for the 1920 Republican National ticket of Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge at the age of 12, married at 19, became a California State Assemblyman at 25, entered the United States Senate at 37, and became a grandfather at 41.

Early political career

Knowland, president of the student body, graduated from Alameda High Schoolmarker in the Class of 1925. He graduated with a political science degree in three years from the University of California, Berkeleymarker in 1929. He was a member of Zeta Psi fraternity. California Governor C. C. Young and University of California President William Wallace Campbell praised Knowland's political activities as a university student.

Knowland attended the 1932 Republican National Convention. He watched from the gallery, the California delegation which included his father, J.R. Knowland, Earl Warren, Louis B. Mayer and Marshall Hale. The Republicans in Chicago renominated President Herbert Hoover and Vice President Charles Curtis.

In November 1932, he was elected to the State Assembly, serving two years, and in 1934 to the State Senate, serving four years. He did not seek re-election in 1938, but remained extremely active in the California Republican Party, serving in a number of roles. He was also influential on the national scene, serving as the chairman of the executive committee of the Republican National Committee from 1940 to 1942. Knowland campaigned for 1940 Republican presidential candidate Wendell L. Willkie.

World War II

In June 1942, Knowland was drafted into the U.S. Army for World War II service. After a few months service as a private and sergeant, he went through Officer Candidate School and was commissioned as a second lieutenant. He served as an aide to Brigadier General M. L. Stockton, then attended military government school. He was sent to Europe in 1944, landed in Francemarker a month after D-Day, and served in various rear-echelon duties, rising to the rank of major.

World War II Awards

American Campaign Medal
European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal
World War II Victory Medal
Army of Occupation Medal

United States Senator

Hiram Johnson, the senior U.S. Senator from California, died on August 6, 1945. On August 14, 1945, Governor Earl Warren appointed Knowland to fill Johnson's seat. Warren first offered the Senate seat to Joseph R. Knowland, who declined Warren's offer, saying: "I lost the Senate Seat in 1914, I have the responsibility of the Oakland Tribune, Bring my boy, Billy home". Major William F. Knowland was serving on special duty with the Army Public Relations Section as part of the European Occupation Forces in Paris. Knowland always said he learned of his new job from an article in Stars and Stripes; Knowland's wife Helen tried to telephone him with the news, but she couldn't get past the military censor, who said it was not essential government business.

Knowland was sworn in as a freshman Senator of the 79th Congress September 6, 1945, the day the Senate adjourned in memory of Hiram Johnson. He was assigned membership in the Commerce Committee, the Irrigation and Reclamation and Immigration Committee, and the National Defense Committee (formerly the Truman Committee).

In 1946, in a special election for the last part of Johnson's term, Knowland defeated Democrat Will Rogers, Jr. by 334,000 votes. He also defeated Rogers in the general election by nearly 261,000 votes, winning a full term in the Senate in his own right.

Knowland became a caustic critic of the Harry S. Truman administration. He was critical of the actions in the "loss" of Chinamarker to Communism and the Korean War. However, Knowland admired the former Senator from Missourimarker personally.

Knowland was known as the "Senator from Formosamarker" for his strong support for Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalist government in China against Mao Zedong and the Communist.

At the 1948 Republican National Convention, Knowland made the nominating speech for Governor Warren as the Vice Presidential candidate, and was seen on the podium with presidential candidate Thomas E. Dewey.

In the June 1952 primary election, Knowland "cross-filed", running for both the Republican and Democratic nominations. He got 2.5 million votes to 750,000 for his Democratic opponent, Clinton McKinnon, and won both nominations. In the general election he was opposed only by an "Independent Progressive", and won with 88% of the vote, carrying 57 of the 58 counties.

The 1952 Republican National Convention met in Chicago. General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower and U.S. Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohiomarker, were the two main candidates. On July 8, 1952, Taft asked Bill if he were interested in the vice presidency. Eisenhower was nominated and selected for his ticket California's Junior U.S. Senator Richard M. Nixon.

September 23, 1952, Republican vice presidential candidate Richard Nixon gave the Checkers speech.Republican presidential candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower's aides contacted Bill Knowland, and persuaded him to fly from Hawaii to join General Eisenhower and be available as a potential replacement running mate. However, Eisenhower seeing public opinion retained Nixon on the 1952 GOP ticket.

When Senator Robert A. Taft died on July 31, 1953, Knowland was chosen to succeed him as Senate Republican Leader (Majority Leader from 1953 to 1955; Minority Leader from 1955 to 1959). At age 44, he is the youngest senator to occupy the position of Majority Leader. His Democratic counterpart was Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas.

Knowland called the Senate the "most exclusive club of 96". He was slow to criticize its most infamous member, Wisconsinmarker's Republican junior Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Knowland briefly floated his candidacy for President in 1956, but withdrew when Dwight D. Eisenhower decided to run for re-election. On appointing Knowland as delegate to the Eleventh General Assembly of the United Nations in 1956, Eisenhower wrote: "Knowland brings to his leadership post an absolute, unflinching integrity that rises above politics. In the councils of government, he inspires faith in his motives and gives weight to his words."

Knowland had a long-running battle with Richard Nixon, with whom he served in the Senate from 1951 to 1953, for influence in California Republican Party affairs. Nonetheless, he gave Nixon the constitutional oath for Vice President of the United States in 1953 and 1957. It was reported that Knowland said afterwards, "I had to have my picture taken with that dirty bastard!". In 1968, Nixon came across the Bay Bridge from San Franciscomarker to Oaklandmarker, an aide pointed out the Oakland Tribune Tower, Nixon replied, "Bastard."

Knowland was Temporary Chairman of the 1956 Republican National Convention, held at the San Franciscomarker Cow Palacemarker.

Knowland and Johnson crafted and passed, in the Senate, the watered down Civil Rights Act of 1957. It was the first such act since Reconstruction. After the bill was passed Knowland wept because the bill's weakness was a setback for civil rights.

In 1958, Knowland decided to run for Governor of California instead of re-election to the Senate. His father was shaken by the decision. The elder Knowland cherished the U.S. Senate seat, which voters had denied him in 1914.

Lyndon Johnson valued Knowland's friendship from their years in the Senate. Johnson spoke in the Congressional Record on January 9, 1957, on Knowland's departure from the Senate: "In the hill country of Texas, where the Johnsons have lived for more than 100 years, we talk of people who 'will go to the well' with a man. It is an expression rarely used, and it implies the kind of praise. It means that the man deserves the utmost of confidence in any situation - no matter how dangerous or how risky it may be. Bill Knowland is that kind of a man. He has the qualities of head and heart which have made him a great public servant. One of the proudest boasts of my life is that he is my treasured and trusted friend."

Later, President Johnson would look for advice and solace from Knowland. Their friendship lasted until Johnson's death in 1973.

Gubernatorial campaign

Knowland secured the Republican nomination for governor after a brutal contest with incumbent Goodwin J. Knight. In the "Big Switch," Knight agreed to run for Knowland's U.S. Senate seat while Knowland ran for governor. Many felt Knowland would use the governorship to control the California Republican delegation in 1960, and try to deny Nixon the Presidential nomination and take it himself.

A key issue in the campaign was Proposition 18, an initiative to enact a Right-to-work law in California.Knowland endorsed Proposition 18 in excessive language, but in fact Proposition 18 was highly unpopular and the endorsement hurt Knowland. He was soundly defeated in the general election by the Democratic candidate, California Attorney General Edmund G. Brown. (Representative Clair Engle defeated Knight.) This effectively ended Knowland's political career. Many California Republicans were defeated. Among Joseph R. Knowland's protegés, Representative John J. Allen, Jr. lost his House seat and Alameda County Supervisor Kent D. Pursel lost his race for the State Senate. To pay off some of Knowland's campaign debts, his father had to sell his Oakland Tribune radio station KLXmarker to Crowell Collier Broadcasting. William F. Knowland never again ran for any elective office.

After politics

William F. Knowland's brother Russ died on October 6, 1961. William Knowland became the sole successor to his father and to control of the Oakland Tribune.

The 1964 Republican National Convention, again in San Francisco's Cow Palace, nominated Barry Goldwater for President. Knowland backed the Goldwater-Miller ticket and spoke for the Arizonamarker Senator all over the nation.

Knowland was the titular head of the California Republican Party from 1959 to 1967, when he passed the party leadership to the new governor, Ronald Reagan.

Knowland became President, Editor, and Publisher of the Oakland Tribune in 1966, after the death of his father. He kept the Tribune a solidly Republican paper. Known by the Tribune staff as The Senator. His son, Joseph W. Knowland, was Assistant Publisher with the position of Assistant General Manager.

However, Oaklandmarker and the East Bay Area were changing, with the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeleymarker, the Black Panthers, and "white flight" to the suburbs.

In a cost-cutting move that hurt the Tribune, the Southern Alameda Countymarker and Contra Costa Countymarker editions were trimmed. This opened the areas to Floyd Sparks' Hayward Daily Review and Dean Lesher's Contra Costa Times. In early 1968, Tribune circulation rose because the major San Francisco newspapers were on strike. When the San Francisco Chronicle and San Francisco Examiner returned, Tribune sales fell in home delivery and on-the-street sales.

As editor and publisher, Knowland took an interest in local affairs along with this job; no more would his mind have to be on national and foreign policy. He offered a $100,000 reward for the conviction of those responsible for the 1973 murder of Marcus Foster. The Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) claimed responsibility. The SLA subsequently kidnapped Patricia Hearst and Atlanta Constitution editor J. Reginald Murphy. These acts made Knowland fearful for his own safety.

The Tribune turned 100 years old on February 21, 1974. Knowland spoke on the occasion: "For 100 years this newspaper has participated in the growth of Alameda and Contra Costa counties... Now as we look into the future it becomes ever more important that newspapers here and in other cities keep the public adequately informed." He went to all departments on that Thursday. At the banquet at Goodman's Hall, Governor Ronald Reagan praised the Tribune and the Knowland Family.

The Oakland Tribune was sold in 1977 by the Knowland family. After three ownership changes, today the newspaper is only a masthead of various editions of the Alameda Newspaper Group.

Personal life

William F. Knowland was married to Helen Davis Herrick, whom he had met in the sixth grade. They were married on New Year's Eve in 1926. They were divorced on March 15, 1972. He then married Ann Dickson on April 29, 1972; she survived him.

He and Herrick had three children: Emelyn K. Jewett, Joseph William Knowland, and Estelle Knowland. He had two stepchildren, Kay and Steve Sessinghaus, from his marriage to Dickson. He was known as Big Da, to his family, so named by his first grandchild, Emelyn Grace Jewett.


On February 23, 1974, Knowland died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, an apparent suicide, at his summer home near Guernevillemarker, Sonoma County, Californiamarker. His funeral was held at First Congregational Church in Oakland. At the service was played the rarely heard Official State Song, "I Love You, California".


At the Main Mausoleum of the Mountain View Cemetery , in Oakland, Californiamarker on Floor I, M8J, N2, TI. Sen. W.F. Knowland, 1908 - 1974 is with his first wife, Helen Knowland Whyte, 1907 - 1981 and her mother, Estelle Davis Herrick, 1881 - 1963 also contained are the remains of Ruth Lamb Caldwell Narfi, 1909 - 2003 and her first husband, Hubert A. Caldwell, 1907 - 1972 and second husband, Gaetano "Tani" Narfi, 1905 - 1996.

At the Chapel of Memories in Oakland, Californiamarker, two tiers down from his father, Joseph R. Knowland in the Serenity Section Tier 4 Number 6, a double book urn has only one side inscribed, U.S. Senator William F. Knowland, 1908-1974.


Further reading

  • Montgomery, Gayle B. and Johnson, James W., One Step from the White House: The Rise and Fall of Senator William F. Knowland. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1998. ISBN 0-520-21194-4. Online at UC Press.
  • Wyatt, Daniel E., Joseph Russell Knowland: The Political Years, 1899-1915. San Francisco: D. Wyatt. 1982.

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