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House Committee on Un-American Activities

HOUSE COMMITTEE ON UN-AMERICAN ACTIVITIES

HOUSE COMMITTEE ON UN-AMERICAN ACTIVITIES. The House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) searched for communists and other suspected subversives for nearly forty years. Founded in 1938 as the House Special Committee to Investigate Un-American Activities and chaired by a conservative Texas Democrat, Martin Dies, HUAC became a standing committee of the House in 1945. In 1969 it announced a new focus, domestic terrorism, and received a new name, the House Internal Security Committee. Six years later, in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate, the full House abolished the committee.

Prior to HUAC's founding, congressional investigations of subversion were episodic. The most notable occurred in 1919, 1930, and 1934, and the sponsor of the committee's founding resolution, Samuel Dickstein, a New York Democrat, had been involved in several of those efforts. Where Dickstein was primarily concerned with native fascism and all other forms of anti-Semitism, however, the committee came to focus on ostensible left-wing subversion. Its basic charge was that communists and their sympathizers had infiltrated nearly all of the New Deal's alphabet agencies.

During the Cold War years, HUAC made its mark on two fronts. First, beginning in 1947, the committee held hearings on President Harry S. Truman's Federal Employee Loyalty Program. The most important of these investigations involved Edward Condon, director of the National Bureau of Standards, and Alger Hiss, a former State Department official. When Chairman J. Parnell Thomas, a New Jersey Republican, asked to see Condon's loyalty file, President Truman declined—citing both privacy and constitutional grounds, namely the separation of powers. That refusal not only allowed HUAC to charge the administration with covering up a sham of a loyalty program; it also broadened the debate. Could a sitting president refuse a congressional request for information? This debate over "executive privilege" would continue—and eventually involved a freshman congressman sitting on the committee, Richard M. Nixon.

Nixon was also the HUAC member who most determinedly pursued Alger Hiss. When Hiss was convicted of perjury in January 1950 for having denied under oath the passing of documents to a self-confessed Soviet agent, the committee's basic point about the adequacy of a loyalty program run by a Democratic president appeared, at least to its partisans, a proven fact.

The second front on which HUAC made its mark was investigating communist infiltration of the film industry. The initial hearings were orchestrated with the help of J. Edgar Hoover's FBI. The FBI identified both "unfriendly" witnesses who were not expected to answer the committee's questions during the televised hearings, and "friendly" witnesses who could be counted on to cooperate fully. Screen Actors Guild president Ronald Reagan, who actually had an FBI informant code designation, was among those in the latter category. Ultimately, these hearings resulted in a First Amendment challenge to the committee's authority by the so-called Hollywood Ten. The Supreme Court rejected that challenge.

Thereafter, HUAC played a substantial role in establishing and policing the Hollywood blacklists. Any actor, writer, director, or other film industry employee named as a communist would find himself or herself without work, and the only way off the blacklist was to appear as a friendly witness before the committee and "name names"—that is, inform on friends and acquaintances. A witness who received a committee subpoena could remain silent only by citing the Fifth Amendment's protection against self-incrimination. Citing free speech or any other constitutional protection would result, as the Hollywood Ten discovered, in both the blacklist and a federal prison sentence for contempt of Congress.

In the 1960s, the committee kept at communist in-filtration while adding hearings on such new subjects as the Ku Klux Klan and Students for a Democratic Society. However, with the decline of McCarthyism and the gradual eroding of the Hollywood blacklist, HUAC's heyday had passed. There would be no more klieg lights and screaming newspaper headlines. The committee spent its last years toiling in relative obscurity.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Goodman, Walter. The Committee: The Extraordinary Career of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1968.

Navasky, Victor S. Naming Names. New York: Viking Press, 1980.

O'Reilly, Kenneth. Hoover and the Un-Americans: The FBI, HUAC, and the Red Menace. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1983.

KennethO'Reilly

See alsoAnticommunism ; Blacklisting ; Cold War ; Hiss Case ; andvol. 9:The Testimony of Walter E. Disney before the House Committee on Un-American Activities 24 October 1947 .

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House Un-American Activities Committee

House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), a committee (1938–75) of the U.S. House of Representatives, created to investigate disloyalty and subversive organizations. Its first chairman, Martin Dies, set the pattern for its anti-Communist investigations. 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 became known as the Hollywood Ten. In 1948, Whittaker Chambers made sensational accusations of Soviet espionage against former State Dept. official Alger Hiss; those hearings kept the committee in the headlines and provided the first national exposure for committee member Richard Nixon. Critics of the committee contended that it disregarded the civil liberties of its witnesses and that it consistently failed to fulfill its primary purpose of recommending new legislation. After 1950, Sen. Joseph McCarthy borrowed many of the committee's tactics for his own Senate investigations. The committee (renamed the House Internal Security Committee in 1969) was abolished in 1975.

See study by W. Goodman (1968).

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Un-American Activities Committee, House

Un-American Activities Committee, House (HUAC) Committee of the US House of Representatives, established (1938) to investigate political subversion. Created to combat Nazi propaganda, it began by investigating extremist political organizations. After World War 2, encouraged by Senator Joseph McCarthy, it attacked alleged communists in Hollywood and in the federal government. It was abolished in 1975.

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Un-American Activities Committee, House

Un-American Activities Committee, House a committee of the US House of Representatives (HUAC) established in 1938 to investigate subversives. It became notorious for its zealous investigations of alleged communists, particularly in the late 1940s, although it was originally intended to pursue Fascists also.

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