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From Encyclopedia of U.S. Political History

The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was a committee of the U.S. Congress created in 1938 to investigate subversive activities—both fascist and communist—in the United States. Originally created as a special investigative committee, it became a standing committee in 1945 and soon was associated almost exclusively with the hunt for communists in U.S. government and in American society in general.


The House Un-American Activities Committee had its origins in a special congressional committee set up in 1934 to investigate pro-fascist and anti-Semitic groups in the United States. Representative Samuel Dickstein (D-NY), who chaired the committee, had little interest in studying communism—indeed, in the 1990s it came to light that he was on the Soviet payroll from 1937 to 1940—but to attract support from his colleagues in Congress he suggested that his proposed committee investigate all "un-American" activities.

The special committee completed its work in 1937 but was succeeded by a new investigative committee under the leadership of Martin Dies (D-TX), a conservative who suspected that Communists secretly controlled the labor movement as well as many of the federal agencies that had been created during the New Deal. On May 26, 1938, the House Un-American Activities Committee—or as it was better known at the time, the Dies Committee—was born; while it did look into groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and the German-American Bund, what soon became clear was that its major focus would be on communism. The committee's chief counsel, Ernest Adamson, claimed that it lacked "sufficient data on which to base a probe" of the Klan; moreover, as member John E. Rankin (D-MS) put it, "The KKK is an old American institution."

One of the new committee's first targets was the Federal Theatre Project, a subsidiary of the Works Progress Administration that provided employment for playwrights, directors, and actors. The 1938 hearings were the cause of some humor, particularly when one committee member asked Hallie Flanagan, head of the project, whether the sixteenth-century playwright Christopher Marlowe was a communist. Nevertheless, when the committee's investigation revealed that many of those employed by the project were either outright Communists or members of Communist front groups, the Roosevelt administration was sufficiently embarrassed to terminate the program.

Russian-born novelist Ayn Rand, author of The Fountainhead, testifies at the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings on October 20, 1947. Rand asserted that the 1943 Hollywood film Song of Russia was Communist propaganda because it glamorized life in the Communist country. (Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)

From the beginning, however, the Dies Committee became known for its smear tactics, seeking to brand even moderate reformers as communists. During one if its early hearings, Dies allowed Walter Steele, head of the right-wing American Coalition of Patriotic Societies, to present two days' worth of windy testimony in which he impugned the loyalty of a whole range of organizations, including the Camp Fire Girls. In 1939, Dies, in the midst of investigating the American League against War and Fascism, demanded that 563 federal employees associated with the organization be dismissed from their jobs. Liberals and left-wingers fired back by attempting to link Dies to fascism, a charge that was equally false. Nonetheless, such incidents made it easier for communists and fellow travelers to portray themselves as innocent victims of government persecution.

The committee faded into the background during World War II but was reestablished in 1945 as a standing committee of the U.S. Congress. It was further reinvigorated after the 1946 elections, in which the Republican Party regained control of Congress for the first time since 1932. Given the committee's history as a platform for conservative attacks on New Deal agencies, many in the right wing of the G.O.P. hoped it would mount a more thoroughgoing investigation into the activities of the Roosevelt and Truman administrations. The committee's new chairman, J. Parnell Thomas (R-NJ) quickly found an ally in J. Edgar Hoover, head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who had become convinced that the Truman administration did not support his agency's efforts against the American Communist Party. Testifying before HUAC on March 26, 1947, Hoover essentially accused the administration of not taking the communist threat seriously enough.

The Motion Picture Industry and the Hiss Case

With Hoover's apparent blessing, the House Un-American Activities Committee during the months that followed waged an all-out assault against alleged communist influence in the United States. In October 1947, the committee targeted Hollywood, suggesting that a number of films that had been produced during the war—which had portrayed the Soviet Union in a highly flattering light—might have been the work of Communists in the motion picture industry. A number of influential Hollywood figures, including Walt Disney, Ayn Rand, and Ronald Reagan (then president of the Screen Actors Guild), were called as friendly witnesses. Although the films were pro-Soviet, they claimed that the federal government had requested that they be made as a means of sustaining public support for the wartime alliance against the Axis powers. At the same time, however, the friendly witnesses supported the committee's assertion that Hollywood was a hotbed of Communist activity. They insisted that Communists had been behind recent labor disputes in the motion picture industry and that Communist actors, directors, and screenwriters had been smuggling pro-Communist messages into Hollywood films since the 1930s.

The testimony of the friendly witnesses was followed by that of 10 "unfriendly" directors and screenwriters, all of whom invoked Amendment V rather than testify to membership in the Communist Party. Some of them were openly defiant; John Howard Lawson, for example, compared the committee's tactics to those of the Nazis. Nevertheless, the hearings once again had an impact. All of the so-called Hollywood Ten were convicted of contempt of Congress and served jail time. Moreover, on November 24, the industry's leading producers pledged not to hire any actor, director, or screenwriter who failed to cooperate with HUAC; over the next several years, more than three hundred Hollywood figures were added to the industry's blacklist.

The most famous incident in the committee's history began in August 1948, when Whittaker Chambers testified that Alger Hiss, a former State Department advisor and current chair of the Carnegie Foundation, had been part of an underground Communist cell. Chambers, a writer and editor for Time magazine, had already confessed to having served as a courier for Soviet intelligence and told the committee that he had worked closely with Hiss in the late 1930s. This was a particularly explosive accusation, as Hiss had played an important role in the formation of the United Nations and had been a member of the U.S. delegation to the Yalta Conference in early 1945.

Hiss soon appeared before the committee and impressed most of its members with his staunch denial that he was any sort of communist, let alone a spy. The fact that Chambers was an admitted Soviet agent made it difficult to trust his accusations; when asked about the case, Pres. Harry Truman dismissed it as a "red herring" to distract voters from more pressing domestic issues.

One HUAC member, however, continued to believe Chambers's version of events. A freshman congressman, Richard M. Nixon (R-CA), became a national celebrity for his defense of Chambers and his dogged questioning of Hiss. The case against Hiss became stronger when Chambers turned over to the committee more than 70 classified government documents that he claimed Hiss had personally delivered to him.

The climax to the Hiss affair came when Chambers produced a set of 65 documents containing classified information that he claimed had been typed by Hiss's wife, Priscilla. When experts deemed the documents to be authentic, it appeared that Hiss had lied about not passing documents to Chambers. The statute of limitations on espionage had expired by this time, but Hiss was convicted of perjury in 1950. The result was a stunning victory for HUAC and a serious embarrassment for Truman, as his "red herring" comment quickly came back to haunt him.

The Decline and Fall of HUAC

In the years after the Hiss case, HUAC tended to be overshadowed by Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-WI), who undertook an anticommunist crusade. While the committee had no connection to the controversial senator, his reckless accusations reflected poorly on the anticommunist stance in general—McCarthy's public disgrace in 1954 led to a wave of sympathy toward those who had been accused of being Communists. The Supreme Court contributed to this trend in 1956, when it began to overturn convictions under the Smith Act of 1940, which had made advocating the violent overthrow of the U.S. government a crime. The committee continued its hearings, investigating alleged Communist influence in colleges, labor unions, and even churches, but increasingly the American people were uninterested in, if not hostile to, its efforts.

In line with this new spirit of anti-anticommunism, a Communist front organization, the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee, undertook "Operation Abolition." This campaign was aimed specifically at HUAC but sought more broadly to end all antisubversive efforts in the country. As part of this campaign, a huge gathering of activists was organized at San Francisco's City Hall in 1960 to protest a visit by HUAC. Refused admission to the hearings, members of the crowd rioted and were driven back with fire hoses. However, some five thousand protesters returned the following day, making continuing the hearings impossible.

The committee sought to strike back by producing a short film, Operation Abolition, that sought to document its claim that the movement to abolish HUAC was led by Communists. Based primarily on footage shot by local television crews during the San Francisco riot, the film was distributed to anticommunist groups throughout the country for showings at public events. However, it did little to help the committee's cause, for, as even one committee investigator admitted, it overstated the extent of Communist involvement in the protest. The crowd may have been organized and led by Communists, but most of those who participated were college students, not party members. Moreover, Operation Abolition, by interspersing clips of demonstrating students with expressions of outrage by committee members, unwittingly produced a stark contrast between the young, idealistic protesters and the middle-aged congressmen wearing suits and ties who denounced them in terms reminiscent of McCarthy.

The prestige of HUAC declined further in the late 1960s, when the committee sought to investigate the movement against the Vietnam War. In 1967 and 1968, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and other members of the Youth International Party (the "Yippies") were called to testify, and, to the outrage of committee members, they refused to take their hearings seriously. They appeared in outlandish clothing—on one occasion a Santa Claus costume, on another a Vietcong uniform—and made a mockery of proceedings. In an effort to distance itself from its reputation, HUAC changed its name to the House Internal Security Committee in 1969, but it continued to slide into irrelevance. In 1975, the House voted to dissolve it.

The House Un-American Activities Committee played a critical role in promoting the post-World War II Red Scare. The committee would have a particularly chilling effect on Hollywood, as fears of further investigations by the committee deterred the major studios from tackling controversial issues in their films. In addition, it kept the question of Communist subversion in the headlines during the late 1940s, a time when Americans were trying to make sense of the growing antagonism between the United States and the Soviet Union. Moreover, HUAC clearly paved the way for Joseph McCarthy's more notorious campaign against communism. McCarthy's famous 1950 speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, in which the senator claimed to have a list of known communists in the State Department, came only two days after verdict was announced in the Hiss trial.

Throughout its history, the committee remained controversial. Its members frequently bullied witnesses and all too often seemed unaware of the difference between mainstream liberalism and truly dangerous subversive activities. Nevertheless it enjoyed broad bipartisan support in the late 1940s and early 1950s, a time when Americans were genuinely concerned about communist penetration of their society. His work on the committee allowed Richard M. Nixon to earn a national reputation, which was critical to Dwight Eisenhower's decision to choose him as a running mate in the 1952 election. After the mid-1950s, however, fears of Communist subversion subsided rapidly, and the committee increasingly came to be regarded as something of an anachronism. It accomplished very little in the last 20 years of its existence.

Bibliography and Further Reading
  • Bentley, Eric, and Frank, Rich, eds. Thirty Years of Treason: Excerpts from Hearings before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, 1938-1968. New York: Nation, 2002.
  • Billingsley, Kenneth Lloyd. Hollywood Party: How Communism Seduced the American Film Industry in the 1930s and 1940s. Rocklin, CA: Forum, 1998.
  • Ceplair, Larry, and Steven, Englund. The Inquisition in Hollywood: Politics in the Film Community, 1930-1960. New York: Anchor, 1980.
  • Goodman, Walter. The Committee: The Extraordinary Career of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1968.
  • Powers, Richard Gid. Not without Honor: The History of American Anticommunism. New York: Free Press, 1995.
  • Schwartz, Sheila. The Hollywood Writers' Wars. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982.
  • Weinstein, Allen. Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978.
John E. Moser
© 2010 CQ Press, A Division of SAGE

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