House Un-American Activities Committee

The
House Un-American Activities Committee

The House Special Committee to Investigate Un-American Activities was established in May 1938 when the House of Representatives voted 191 to 41 to authorize an eight-month investigation into “the extent, character, and objects of un-American propaganda activities in the United States.” The House would vote yearly extensions of the committee’s mandate through 1944. When the committee chairman, Texas Democrat Martin Dies, retired at the end of that year, its termination appeared likely.

But when Congress convened in 1945, Mississippi Democrat John E. Rankin successfully pushed through a vote to make the committee, renamed the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), into a permanent standing committee. With its ever-escalating investigation of suspected Communists, this committee at times seemed to turn conspiracy fears into a national policy.

The moving force behind the adoption of the 1938 resolution was a Jewish lawmaker from New York, Samuel Dickstein, whose primary target was pro-Nazi groups and propaganda. By 1940, however, the HUAC’s focus became Communist activities.

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Standard accounts accuse Dies of exploiting the HUAC to tar the New Deal and liberals as subversives. But at least as responsible was the Nazi-Soviet pact of August 1939 and the resulting shift in the party line that made the U.S. Communist Party (CPUSA) the spearhead in resisting U.S. preparedness.

Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union and the accompanying reversal of the CPUSA line followed by the wartime U.S.-Soviet alliance led the HUAC to keep a low profile. Two changes were responsible for its resurgence. One was the heating up of the cold war and the second was the Republican capture of the House in the 1946 elections, with the result that New Jersey Republican J. Parnell Thomas became the new HUAC chair.

In October 1947, the Thomas Committee won newspaper headlines with an investigation of Communist infiltration into the Hollywood movie industry. The high point was the questioning of ten writers and directors about their membership in subversive organizations.

On order from the Communist Party, the so-called Hollywood Ten refused to answer on First Amendment grounds and were convicted and imprisoned for contempt of Congress. In response, the movie industry adopted a “blacklist” of suspected Communist sympathizers— with many of the names on the list supplied by the HUAC and its staff. The movie industry’s model was followed in other fields such as radio and television.

The high point of the HUAC’s success and influence came in 1948 from its hearings into Communist infiltration into the U.S. government. Its prize witness was Elizabeth Bentley, the former lover and accomplice of Soviet agent Jacob Golos.

Persons named by Bentley as supplying secret information included the high-ranking Treasury Department official Harry Dexter White, former presidential economic adviser Lauchlin Currie, William Remington of the War Production Board, and Maurice Halperin of the Office of Strategic Services. Although hopes of profiting from the publicity led Bentley to embellish the truth at times, the substance of her account—despite accusations to the contrary then and since—was accurate.

Bentley’s testimony before the HUAC did not add to what she had previously told the Federal Bureau of Investigation. More of an HUAC coup grew out of the follow-up testimony of Time magazine editor Whittaker Chambers. Among those Chambers named as members of a secret Communist underground in Washington was Alger Hiss, a former high official in the State Department and then president of the Carnegie Endowment of International Peace.

Materials turned over by Igor Gouzenko when he had defected from the Soviet embassy in Canada had unmistakenly pointed to Hiss as a Soviet spy, and he had been quietly eased out of government service. But the HUAC did not have this information and Hiss put on such a slick performance when testifying that the HUAC would have dropped the matter if not for Republican congressman Richard M. Nixon of California.

Nixon would be vindicated when Chambers, in reply to a libel suit by Hiss, revealed photocopies of secret government documents given him by Hiss for transmission to the Soviets. Hiss could not be prosecuted for espionage because of the statute of limitations, but he was indicted for and convicted of perjury.

In 1948, Nixon joined with fellow HUAC member Karl Mundt, Republican from South Dakota, to introduce what became the Internal Security Act of 1950, requiring “Communist-action” and “Communist-front” organizations to register.

The Democratic recapture of control of the House in 1948 meant that Thomas was out as HUAC chair, and in 1952 would be forced to resign from Congress after conviction for payroll padding. His successors—except for Pennsylvania Democrat Francis E. Walter, chair 1955–1963—were not formidable personalities.

From the start, the HUAC had its faults. Some of its leading figures—such as Thomas and Rankin— were not simply anticommunists but racists and antisemites. The committee was prone to making sweeping generalizations on insufficient evidence.

Not all its informants had the firsthand knowledge of Communist activities that Bentley or former Daily Worker editor Louis Bundez did and even they fell into the trap of exaggerating to enhance their self-importance, while others were simply frauds.

Inevitably, mistakes occurred when individuals were wrongly named as Communists or Communist sympathizers. The continuing pressure to retain newspaper headlines—a pressure heightened by the successes along that line by Wisconsin Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy—aggravated those failings.

On the other hand, those who refused to testify on the grounds of the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee against self-incrimination were safe from prosecution. Up through 1960, the Supreme Court rebuffed most legal challenges to the HUAC.

Those who wished to repent of past involvement were given ample opportunity to do so. Those who took advantage of that opportunity—such as movie director Elia Kazan—would be vilified by the same people who were simultaneously accusing the HUAC of running roughshod over innocent individuals.

As for the complaints about guilt by association, a person’s associates have always been used as a guide to their evaluation. Most importantly, Communist infiltration of government and key opinioninfluencing institutions was no paranoid delusion but a dangerous reality.

The lead in attacking the HUAC came from Communists and fellow travelers who had pressing reasons for not wanting a close look at their activities. The attack was joined by many liberals. Some were motivated by a sincere concern about what they saw as a threat to civil liberties; others because they saw the HUAC as a weapon in the hands of supporters of a rival right-wing political agenda.

The HUAC retained strong congressional support through the 1950s but the tide began to shift in the 1960s. A violent confrontation between police and protesters in May 1960 when the HUAC held hearings in San Francisco signaled a renewed and more aggressive campaign against the HUAC by supporters of the emerging New Left joined with the remnants of the Old Left and such longtime anti-HUAC organizations as the American Civil Liberties Union.

At the same time, the HUAC faced an increasingly hostile Supreme Court majority led by Chief Justice Earl Warren, while the easing of cold war tensions undercut popular support. To appease its critics, in the mid-1960s the HUAC turned the focus of its attention on the Ku Klux Klan. In 1969 Democratic Congressman Richard I. Ichord of Missouri took the lead in reorganizing the HUAC into the House Internal Security Committee with a more narrowly defined mandate.

But these changes failed to satisfy the HUAC’s foes. The selesai blow was the Watergate scandal when HUAC opponents took advantage of Nixon’s disgrace to push through the committee’s termination in January 1975.

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