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House Un-american Activities Committee

Between 1938 and 1969, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hunted political radicals. In hundreds of public hearings, this congressional panel set out to expose and punish citizens whom it deemed guilty of holding "un-American" views—fascism and communism. From government to labor, academia, and Hollywood, the committee aggressively pursued so-called subversives. It used Congress's subpoena power to force citizens to appear before it, holding them in CONTEMPT if they did not testify. HUAC's tactics of scandal, innuendo, and the threat of imprisonment disrupted lives and ruined careers. After years of mounting criticism, Congress renamed HUAC in 1969 and finally abolished it in 1975.

In the late 1930s, HUAC arose in a period of fear and suspicion. The United States was still devastated by the Great Depression, and fascism was on the rise in Europe. Washington, D.C., feared spies. In early May 1938, Representative Martin Dies (R-Tex.) called for a probe of fascism, communism, and other so-called un-American (meaning anti-patriotic) beliefs. The idea was popular with other lawmakers. Two weeks later, HUAC was established as a temporary committee, with Dies at its head.

Because Chairman Dies was in charge, the press referred to HUAC as the Dies Committee. The chairman had ambitious goals. At first, he set out to stop German and Italian propaganda. Early investigations focused on two pro-Nazi groups, the German-American Bund and the Silver Shirt Legion. But Dies had a partisan agenda as well. An outspoken critic of Roosevelt, he wanted to discredit the president's NEW DEAL programs. Contending that the Federal Writers' Project (a program to compile oral histories and travel guides) and Federal Theatre Project (employing out-of-work actors to help produce plays) were rife with Communists, HUAC urged the firing of thirty-eight hundred federal employees. In this atmosphere of conflict between the committee and the White House, the JUSTICE DEPARTMENT found the numbers grossly exaggerated; its own probe concluded that only thirty-six employees had been validly accused. The committee's first great smear ended with dismal results.

HUAC's limited success in its early years was largely due to its chairman's political mistakes. Besides alienating Roosevelt and the Justice Department, Dies made an even more powerful enemy in J. EDGAR HOOVER, director of the FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION (FBI). After Dies publicly criticized the director, Attorney General ROBERT H. JACKSON went on the attack, accusing HUAC of interfering with the FBI's proper role. Hoover himself saw to it that the turf battle was short-lived. In 1941 Dies was quietly informed that the FBI had evidence of his accepting a bribe. Although no charges were brought and Dies retained the title of chairman until 1944, he conspicuously avoided HUAC's hearings from that point on.

HUAC grew in both power and tenacity after WORLD WAR II, for several reasons. A deterioration in U.S.-Soviet relations started the COLD WAR, a decades-long battle of words—and, as in Korea and Vietnam, of bullets—in which Communism became identified as the United States' single greatest enemy. Both bodies of Congress, the White House, the FBI, and numerous conservative citizens' groups such as the John Birch Society rallied to the anti-Communist cause. Moreover, HUAC had new leadership. With Dies gone, Hoover was more than willing to assist with the committee's investigations, which was fortunate, since no congressional committee had the resources available to the FBI. When HUAC chairman J. Parnell Thomas announced in 1947 that the committee would root out Communists in Hollywood, he had nothing but HEARSAY to go on. No Hollywood investigation would have taken place if Hoover, responding to Thomas's plea, had not provided HUAC with lists of suspects and names of cooperative witnesses.

Thus began a pattern of FBI and HUAC cooperation that lasted for three decades. Hoover's testimony before HUAC in March 1947 illuminated their common interest in driving the enemy into the open:

I feel that once public opinion is thoroughly aroused as it is today, the fight against Communism is well on its way. Victory will be assured once Communists are identified and exposed, because the public will take the first step of quarantining them so they can do no harm….This Committee renders a distinct service when it publicly reveals the diabolic machinations of sinister figures engaged in un-American activities.

The FBI director's prediction was right: quarantining of a sort did indeed follow.

The Hollywood probe marked a new height for HUAC. The committee investigated the film industry three times, in 1947, 1951–52, and 1953–55. The first hearing produced the so-called Hollywood Ten, a group of screenwriters and professionals who refused to answer questions about whether or not they were Communists. Despite invoking their FIRST AMENDMENT right to FREEDOM OF SPEECH, they were subsequently charged with contempt of Congress, tried, convicted, and jailed for between six months and one year. In later HUAC hearings, other film industry professionals invoked the Fifth Amendment—the constitutional protection against self-incrimination—and they too suffered. HUAC operated on the dubious premise that no innocent person would avoid answering its questions, and members of Congress frequently taunted witnesses who attempted to "hide," as they said, behind the FIFTH AMENDMENT. Not everyone subpoenaed was a Communist, but the committee usually wanted each person to name others who were, who associated with, or who sympathized with Communists. Intellectual sympathy for leftists was considered evil in itself; such "dupes," "commie symps," and "fellow travelers" were also condemned by HUAC.

These investigations had a tremendous effect. Hollywood executives, fearing the loss of profits, created a blacklist containing the names of hundreds of actors, directors, and screenwriters who were shut out of employment, thus ending their careers. In short time, television and radio did the same. For subpoenaed professionals, an order to appear before HUAC presented a no-win situation. If they named names, they betrayed themselves and others; if they did not cooperate, they risked their future. Some cooperated extensively: the writer Martin Berkeley coughed up 155 names. Some did so in order to keep working, but lived to regret it: the actor Sterling Hayden later described himself as a worm in his autobiography Wanderer. Others, like the playwright Lillian Hellman, remained true to their conscience and refused to cooperate. The HUAC-inspired blacklist caused a measurable disruption to employment as well as more than a dozen suicides.

HUAC's postwar efforts also transformed U.S. political life. In 1948, the committee launched a highly publicized investigation of ALGER HISS, a former high-ranking government official, on charges of spying for the Soviet Union. Hiss's subsequent conviction on perjury helped inspire the belief that other Communist spies must exist in federal government, leading to lavish, costly, and ultimately futile probes of the STATE DEPARTMENT by HUAC and Senator JOSEPH R. MCCARTHY. HUAC had laid the groundwork for the senator's own witch-hunt, a reign of unfounded accusation that came to be known as McCarthyism. By 1950, McCarthyism so influenced U.S. political life that HUAC sponsored the most sweeping anti-Communist law in history, the McCarren Act (50 U.S.C.A. § 781 et seq.), which sought to clamp down on the Communist party but stopped short of making membership illegal. The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately stripped it of any meaningful force.

HUAC came under fire in the late 1950s and early 1960s. After turning its attention on labor leaders, the committee at last provoked the U.S. Supreme Court: the Court's 1957 decision in Watkins v. United States, 354 U.S. 178, 77 S. Ct. 1173, 1 L. Ed. 2d 1273, overturned the contempt conviction of a man who refused to answer all of HUAC's questions, and, importantly, set broad limits on the power of congressional inquiry. Yet HUAC pressed on. In 1959 an effort to expose Communists in California schools resulted in teachers being fired and prompted some of the first public criticisms of the committee. By the late 1960s, as outrage over the VIETNAM WAR made public dissent not only feasible but widely popular, many lawmakers began to see HUAC as an anachronism. In 1969 the House renamed it the Internal Security Committee. The body continued on under this name until 1975, when it was abolished and the House Judiciary Committee took over its functions (with far less enthusiasm than its progenitors).

HUAC's legacy to U.S. law was a long, relentless campaign against personal liberty. Its members cared little for the constitutional freedoms of speech or association, let alone constitutional safeguards against SELF-INCRIMINATION. Much of its work would not have been possible without the steady assistance of the FBI, whose all-powerful director Hoover (1895–1972) died shortly after the committee's heyday had ended. HUAC is remembered today, along with Hoover and McCarthyism, as characterizing the worst abuses of federal power during the cold war.

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