House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC)

House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC)
House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC)

During the 1930s, members of the U.S. House of Representatives, alarmed by reports of domestic groups that were sympathetic to Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, sought to investigate subversive and "unAmerican" propaganda activities within the United States.

In 1938 the House voted to create the Special Committee to Investigate Un-American Activities (often called the Dies Committee), under the chairmanship of Martin Dies, a Democrat from Texas. In 1945 this special committee became a permanent standing committee, the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC).

When Republicans gained control of Congress the following year, New Jersey representative J. Parnell Thomas became the chairman. As originally conceived, the committee was intended to be nonpartisan and dedicated to gathering information about homegrown political radicalism of all stripes.

But under both Dies and Thomas the committee focused primarily on leftist groups and individuals associated with President Franklin Roosevelt's administration, becoming a powerful conservative foe of the New Deal.

Among the committee's early hearings was an investigation of communist influence in the Federal Theatre and Writers Project, part of the Works Progress Administration; the resulting political pressure led Congress to defund the project in 1939.

Additional investigations dealt with labor unions that were part of the CIO—a major Roosevelt political ally—and with the American Youth Congress, a group with ties to Eleanor Roosevelt. Another target was Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, whom Dies attempted to have impeached after she refused to deport longshoreman's union leader Harry Bridges, a known communist.

Dies did not believe that the New Deal was simply reform legislation intended to ameliorate the social and economic effects of the Great Depression; he thought that the New Deal was paving the way for communists to undermine America's capitalist system. In addition, he was concerned that the federal government, and particularly the executive branch, was accruing "autocratic" power.

The Dies Committee eventually accused 640 organizations, more than 430 newspapers, and almost 300 labor groups of being likely communist fronts. Their investigations were often "fishing expeditions": If an initiative did not turn up information quickly, the committee would lose interest, and another initiative would be launched.

Because the investigations made newspaper headlines, however, even an abortive effort could leave a group or individual publicly stigmatized. Dies was cavalier in how he handled his information, which was often based on inadequate research.

The committee released alarmist reports that Dies claimed documented the existence of plots to sabotage industry in the United States, but such reports were often haphazard compendiums of the theoretical writings of communist thinkers such as Karl Marx, without specifics.

Over the years many of the people investigated and accused by the committee never appeared at a hearing where they could defend themselves. If they did appear, they were not able to call supporting witnesses and could not cross-examine their accusers.

When accused, individuals appealed to the U.S. courts that their civil liberties were being abused, but the courts found that the judiciary could not usurp Congress's investigatory powers. A few of the individuals exposed by the Dies Committee were committed members of the American Communist Party, which took its orders from Moscow.

Others were liberals affiliated with the party through "popular front" organizations, joining because they were concerned about the Great Depression or because they viewed communism as a vital bulwark against fascism in Europe. After the Soviet Union signed a nonaggression pact with Nazi Germany in 1939, many liberal sympathizers and some communists broke with the party.

But the Dies Committee never considered these distinctions among suspects; all of them, in the committee's view, were "soft on communism" and therefore a threat. The committee's own anticommunist efforts were considerably complicated in 1941, when the Soviet Union became an American ally in World War II. During the war the committee became less influential.

As the cold war heated up, HUAC undertook a series of high-profile hearings. In 1947 the committee investigated reports of communist subversion in the movie industry. Perhaps 300 Hollywood studio employees had joined the Communist Party during the 1930s and 1940s; the majority of them were screenwriters, and many had been sympathetic to a violent strike that wracked the industry in 1945.

Several famous "friendly" witnesses testified about Hollywood communist activities, including studio head Jack Warner and actors Robert Taylor and Ronald Reagan, the president of the Screen Actors Guild.

HUAC suspected that the screenwriters were attempting to inject procommunist messages into films, although they found little evidence to support this. A total of 10 screenwriters, including Academy Award nominee Dalton Trumbo, were subpoenaed to testify before the committee.

These "unfriendly" witnesses—known as the Hollywood Ten—used the opportunity to angrily denounce HUAC, refused to answer questions about their political affiliations, and were eventually cited for contempt and sentenced to prison terms.

Worried about the negative publicity generated by the hearings, Hollywood studio executives thereafter "blacklisted" (refused to provide work for) suspected communists in the industry, a practice that continued throughout the 1950s.

In 1948 HUAC investigated prominent nuclear physicist Edward U. Condon, who had served on the Manhattan Project and was the director of the National Bureau of Standards. Chairman Thomas stridently disagreed with Condon's view that civilians, instead of the military, should control the Atomic Energy Commission; in return Thomas labeled Condon "the weakest link" in the nation's security.

The committee never found evidence of Condon's disloyalty and was publicly rebuked by President Harry S. Truman. In 1948 the committee also undertook what proved to be its most famous and successful investigation—the only one to demonstrate actual communist espionage within the government.

Whittaker Chambers, an editor for Time magazine and a former operative in the communist underground, appeared before HUAC and named Alger Hiss as a New Deal official who had passed classified documents to him during the 1930s. The highly accomplished Hiss, who had become president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, flatly denied that he knew Chambers in a face-to-face confrontation before the committee.

A subsequent methodical investigation by committee member Richard M. Nixon uncovered evidence that Hiss and Chambers had known each other, and Hiss was sentenced to prison in 1950 for committing perjury.

The Hiss-Chambers case added fuel to national fears about communist subversion and seemed to legitimize HUAC's conspiracy theories, confrontational tactics, and disdain for individual rights. These would serve as the template for Senator Joseph McCarthy's own investigations into communism during the 1950s.