Donald N. Wheeler, Communist, dies at 89

Donald Niven Wheeler, a scholar, dairy farmer and longtime member of the Communist Party USA, died in Seattle, Nov. 8. He was 89.

He was active in the Party until his death, riding the ferry from his home on Bainbridge Island to get to his club meetings in Seattle. Crippled in one hip, he walked miles in a United Farm Worker demonstration a few years ago. He took part in the “Battle of Seattle” WTO protests in 1999. On a visit to family in Maryland one year, he helped distribute leaflets in Virginia exposing Oliver North, the Iran-contra criminal, who was running for the U.S. Senate. He was proud that four generations of his family are active members of the CPUSA and the Young Communist League.

Wheeler was born on Oct. 23, 1913, in White Bluffs, Wash., on the banks of the Columbia River. His mother had been a school teacher and his father a bricklayer, a socialist and trade unionist. They were evicted from their farm to make way for the Hanford Atomic Reservation during World War II.

Wheeler attended Reed College in Portland, Ore., where he was active in the National Student Union. He won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University, where he joined the university branch of the Communist Party. Active in the Popular Front against fascism, he was one of hundreds of students who physically expelled Sir Oswald Moseley, head of the British Union of Fascists, from the campus.

He went on to post-graduate work at the University of Paris but dropped out to assist the International Brigades in Spain. He was joined in this work by Mary Lukes Vause, a fellow Reed student, a new mother and widow of his best friend, Clare Vause. They were married in 1938.

He taught briefly at Yale before joining the U.S. Treasury Department. From 1940 to 1941, he was the Clerk of the Senate Banking and Currency Committee. From 1941 to 1946, he served as Section Chief of the Research Division of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), recruited to the position by OSS Director William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan, who later wrote in his “Annals of America” of Wheeler’s highly accurate estimates of German war casualties.

Wheeler also helped prepare the OSS Strategic Bombing Survey, which concluded that bombing of Germany caused civilian casualties but did not slow the Nazi war machine. It bolstered the argument for opening the Second Front to relieve Nazi pressure on the Soviet Army and hasten defeat of Hitler fascism.

Blacklisted during the Cold War years, the family moved to a dairy farm in Sequim, Wash. Wheeler was subpoenaed as a hostile witness before federal grand juries in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, leaving his pregnant wife and four children to milk the cows. He was also summoned three times before the House Un-American Activities Committee. His sister, Margaret Jean Schuddakopf, said that his courage and steadfastness was her beacon as she fought her own battle for the right to teach.

The farm became a safe haven where the children of left and progressive families spent summers helping with farm chores. Mary and Don Wheeler, together with Vivian Gaboury, became mainstays of the Clallam County CP, which fought the McCarthyite witch-hunt against the labor movement in the Pacific Northwest. The club sponsored a peace booth at the Clallam County fair, concerts by Pete Seeger and a delegation to the 1963 March on Washington. A steady stream of speakers included CPUSA leaders Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Roscoe Proctor, Victor Perlo and Jarvis Tyner.

In 1965 Wheeler was hired to teach at Franconia College in New Hampshire. He returned to Oxford in 1968 and completed his doctorate. In 1970 he was hired as Associate Professor of Economics at Brandon University in Manitoba, Canada.

He had been teaching there for a decade when reactionary campus elements, goaded by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, cancelled a one-year extension of his contract approved by the Economics Department. Wheeler had earned administration ire by helping turn the Faculty Association into a certified faculty union.

Students and faculty fought for Wheeler’s reinstatement. When it seemed the battle was lost, Wheeler wrote a letter of thanks for their solidarity and retired. But a student boycott of the courses he had taught continued and the administration relented. Wheeler returned to campus a hero. He often described it as the happiest year of his life.

A writer on many topics, he wrote a column for Labor Today. He was a man of encyclopedic knowledge, a passionate teacher on topics ranging from economics to the beauty of nomadic oriental rugs, which he argued were far greater than most Renaissance paintings. He was an outspoken foe of war, racism and capitalist exploitation and never wavered in his belief in socialism.

He is survived by his children, Stephen F. Vause, Tim Wheeler, Susan Wheeler and Marion Burns. Son Nathaniel died in 1985. He has 11 grandchildren and six great grandchildren. His wife, Mary Lukes Wheeler, died in November 1992.

Wheeler’s papers are in the archives of the University of Washington and his library will be donated to the George A. Meyers Collection at Frostburg University in Maryland. Memorials are planned Dec. 22 in Portland, Ore., and on Bainbridge Island, Dec. 28. In lieu of flowers, please contribute to a newspaper he loved, the People’s Weekly World.