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Watkins v. United States

Significance

Watkins was one of the decisions in favor of persons accused of communist affiliations handed down on "Red Monday" by the liberal Court headed by Chief Justice Warren. These decisions signaled a change not only in the attitude of the Supreme Court, but an abatement of the anti-communist hysteria that had gripped the nation since the end of the Second World War.

The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was first established in 1938 for the purpose of investigating Nazi, fascist, communist and other "un-American" organizations. In 1945, towards the end of World War II, it was given permanent status. HUAC reached the pinnacle of its power in the early 1950s, during a period known as the Red Scare, when Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, playing on fears generated by Soviet post-war expansionism, whipped up public hysteria about an international communist conspiracy. McCarthy and HUAC became notorious, however, for their attempts to unmask domestic communists. McCarthy was eventually discredited in 1954, and by the time the Supreme Court decided Watkins, paranoia about communist infiltration had quieted somewhat.

John T. Watkins was a labor union official. His name had been mentioned by two witnesses who appeared earlier before HUAC and agreed to "name names" of others with allegedly communist affiliations. Both witnesses claimed that Watkins had recruited them into the Communist Party in 1943. Watkins himself testified that he had never been a member of the Communist Party, but that from 1942 to 1947, he had cooperated with the party and made contributions to communist causes. He agreed to answer any questions the committee might have about him and any others he knew to be Communist Party members. Watkins declined, however, to answer questions about individuals who, although they might have been party members in past, no longer held that status.

Watkins was convicted of contempt of Congress, and this conviction was affirmed by the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Watkins then petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for review of this decision.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1954 to 1962Watkins v. United States - Significance, Supreme Court Rules That Congressional Power Of Investigation Is Not Unlimited, Further Readings