Doctoral Dissertations

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



Major Professor

William Bruce Wheeler

Committee Members

Stephen V. Ash, George White, Jr., Robert A. Gorman


This dissertation follows the lives of fifteen former TV A employees, focusing on their 1930s activities and the subsequent 1940s and 1950s investigations into their perceived radical deeds. Collectively referred to in this dissertation as the "Knoxville Fifteen," this group includes Mabel Abercrombie, Forrest Benson, Bernard "Buck" Borah, Howard Bridgman, Katherine "Kit" Buckles, Christine Eversole, John Frantz, Howard Frazier, Henry Hart, Elizabeth Winston McConnell, David Stone Martin, William Remington, Muriel Speare, Merwin Todd, and Burton Zien. As binding criteria for the group, these fifteen individuals worked for TV A during the 1930s, had not reached 35 years of age, held low-level administrative positions, had some college education, had an interest in labor organizing, would later be accused of being members of the Communist Party, and garnered substantial attention from the FBI.

The "Knoxville Fifteen" represents an important group of New Deal thinkers. During the 1930s, their activities as part of the Popular Front movement were largely ignored and dismissed as youthful indiscretions, but anti-communist campaigns of the McCarthy Era quickly caught up with this small group. By 1955, anti-communist investigators had accused all fifteen of being communists. While reconstructing the lives and activities of the "Knoxville Fifteen," this dissertation argues three key points. First, a small group of 1930s TVA radicals commanded the government's attention because they were easy targets during the McCarthy Era. Despite the passage of time, the anticommunist sentiment of the 1950s made innocuous actions of the 1930s not only relevant, but worthy of punishment. Second, the culmination of 1950s government investigations into 1930s radicals symbolized the agency's break with its idealistic origins. During multiple anti-communist investigations of TVA, agency leaders successfully defended its past, while moving the agency forward as a government-owned electric power company. Finally, the CP activities of 1930s TVA employees were important not because of their radical nature, but because the government invested massive amounts of time, energy, and resources into investigating a small group of largely harmless intellectuals. Their stories offer important modern day lessons on individual freedoms, civil liberties, government authority, and the power of propaganda.

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