House Un-American Activities Committee

2012-07-13 06:25:16

The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was formed on May 26, 1938. Reorganized from its previous incarnations as the Fish Committee and the McCormack-Dickstein Committee, the HUAC, was established under the chairmanship of Martin Dies Jr. (D-Tex.). It was a committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, created to investigate disloyalty and subversive organizations. Relying on its subpoena power, the HUAC used the Smith Act compel suspected communists to appear and interrogated them regarding their relationships to communist organizations and about the political activities of any and all friends and acquaintances.

In prewar years and during World War II it was known as the Dies Committee. Its work was supposed to be aimed mostly at German-American involvement in Nazi and Ku Klux Klan activities. Instead of the Klan, the HUAC concentrated on investigating the possibility that the American Communist Party had infiltrated the Works Progress Administration, including the Federal Theater Project. The HUAC became a standing committee in 1946. Under the mandate of Public Law 601, passed by the Seventyninth Congress, the committee of nine representatives investigated suspected threats of subversion or propaganda that ‘‘attacks the form of government guaranteed by our Constitution.’’

In 1947, the HUAC began an investigation into the Hollywood Motion Picture Industry. The committee’s methods included pressure on witnesses to name former associates, vague and sweeping accusations against individuals, and the assumption of an individual’s guilt because of association with a suspect organization. Witnesses who refused to answer were cited for contempt of Congress. A highly publicized 1947 investigation of the entertainment industry led to prison sentences for contempt for a group of recalcitrant witnesses who become known as the Hollywood Ten. The Hollywood Ten consisted of notable actors, writers, and directors who refused to cooperate with HUAC’s investigations of communist ties of their Hollywood colleagues under the protection of the First Amendment. There were also witnesses who refused to testify on the grounds of the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. This, however, was perceived in some circles to be a tacit admission of guilt, and these witnesses were labeled ‘‘Fifth Amendment Communists.’’

In 1948, Whittaker Chambers made sensational accusations of Soviet espionage against former State Department official Alger Hiss; those hearings provided the first national exposure for committee member Richard Nixon. The high-profile conviction of Alger Hiss for perjuring himself before HUAC while answering questions about his alleged espionage, was followed in 1951 by the convictions of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg for conspiring to pass United States atomic secrets to the Soviet Union.

The Supreme Court generally upheld the actions of the HUAC. In Dennis v. United States (1951), the Court upheld the Smith Act convictions of eleven Communist Party leaders. In Barsky v. Board of Regents (1954), it upheld New York’s termination of a college professor who had refused to cooperate with HUAC. However, in a series of cases in 1956 and 1957, climaxing on what opponents referred to as ‘‘Red Monday,’’ four decisions were issued June 17, 1957, which reined in the scope of the HUAC. These decisions had the Court siding with parties challenging anticommunist policies. In Watkins v. United States (1957), the Court overturned the contempt conviction of an uncooperative HUAC witness. However, after severe criticism the justices upheld the prison sentence of a Smith Act defendant in 1961. After 1962, the Court, through its decisions indicated that it no longer would tolerate prosecutions based on an individual’s refusal to testify to legislative committees regarding communist associations.

The committee, renamed the House Internal Security Committee in 1969, was abolished in 1975, and its functions were transferred to the House Judiciary Committee.


References and Further Reading

  • Borson, Michael. Red Scared! The Commie Menace in Propaganda and Popular Culture. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2001.
  • Fried, Albert. McCarthyism, The Great American Red Scare: A Documentary History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
  • Navasky, S. Victor. Naming Names. New York: Hill and Wang, 2003.
  • O’Reilly, Kenneth. Hoover and the Unamericans: The FBI, HUAC, and the Red Menace. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1983.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Barsky v. Board of Regents, 347 U.S. 442 (1954)
  • Dennis v. United States, 341 U.S. 494 (1951)
  • Watkins v. United States, 354 U.S. 178 (1957)