House Un-American Activities Committee

views updated May 11 2018

House Un-American Activities Committee

In 1938, the U.S. House of Representatives established the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). With communist and fascist regimes posing threats to the security of European countries, Congress decided to investigate the potential of danger in the United States. HUAC had the responsibility of investigating un-American propaganda and activities that might threaten national security. It focused mostly on communist and fascist organizations. Its guidelines, however, were vague enough that many people who simply disagreed with government policy found themselves under scrutiny by the committee.

Defining a purpose

Because HUAC was led by U.S. representative Martin Dies Jr. (1900–1972) of Texas , it was also called the Dies Committee. It was not the first committee of its kind to be established by Congress. Earlier committees did similar work in 1919, 1930, and 1934. HUAC's broadly aimed and aggressive activities, however, made it controversial and memorable.

Sponsors of the motion to establish HUAC expected it to reduce the potential threat of foreign agents and subversive activities by communist and fascist interests. Under the leadership of Dies, however, the term “un-American” gained a broader definition, and many without communist or fascist ties were investigated. HUAC investigations became a means to suppress any dissent, often with the effect of undermining the freedoms of speech, press, and assembly. Liberals, intellectuals, artists, labor leaders, immigrants, Jews, and African Americans found themselves targets of HUAC investigations.

After World War II (1939–45) HUAC became a permanent committee. The global environment of the Cold War (1945–91) after World War II allowed the committee to be particularly aggressive and manipulative in its tactics. Fear of communists, foreigners, and independent thinkers made the American public tolerant of HUAC's actions. As a result, many people were harassed, and some found their lives irrevocably changed as a result.

Hollywood and beyond

One of the most famous aspects of the HUAC investigations involved Hollywood. In 1947, the committee devoted nine days to questioning members of the movie industry. Producers, actors, directors, and writers were questioned. In all, forty-one witnesses were called. They included leading figures and famous actors like Walt Disney (1901–1966), Gary Cooper (1901–1961), and future U.S. president Ronald Reagan (1911–2004; served 1981–89).

Nineteen Hollywood witnesses were classified as unfriendly prior to appearing before the committee. Each witness faced the question of whether they or others they knew were ever involved with the Communist Party. Although HUAC was challenging their industry, Hollywood studios chose to support it publicly. As a result of the investigations, they fired artists with suspected or proven communist connections. These names were accumulated on an unofficial but highly damaging blacklist. Those who were blacklisted could not find work anywhere in the industry. More than three hundred people were blacklisted, and only a small number ever managed to recover their careers. (See Hollywood Blacklisting .)

The Hollywood Ten

The HUAC investigations of members of Hollywood were viewed by many as a witch hunt. More than one hundred witnesses from the industry were called before HUAC during its existence. Eight screenwriters and two directors famously refused to answer the questions asked of them. Known as the Hollywood Ten, they depended on their Fifth Amendment right to be free from self-incrimination and their First Amendment right to freedom of speech and assembly.

In reaction, HUAC charged the Hollywood Ten with contempt of Congress. An investigative grand jury upheld the accusations and found the witnesses guilty as charged. The Hollywood Ten lost an appeal to an appellate court, and a conservative Supreme Court refused to hear the case. As a result, the Ten were forced to serve up to a year in a federal prison. These events initiated the studios’ practice of firing and blacklisting artists with suspected communist connections.

Among those called from Hollywood, ten witnesses refused to testify. They were charged with contempt of Congress and sent to prison. With the support of the court system behind them, the committee was encouraged to act even more aggressively. By the 1950s, HUAC was investigating subversives in government, labor unions , the press, and religious organizations as well as Hollywood. Fearing the committee's unchecked power, many witnesses falsely accused others. With little chance to establish their innocence, many people had their lives forever altered by a HUAC summons. With public suspicions aroused, people lost their jobs and their friends.


HUAC began to decline in popularity throughout the 1950s. Similar investigations in the Senate under a committee led by U.S. senator Joseph McCarthy (1908–1957) of Wisconsin began to divert attention from HUAC activities. Growing liberalism in the late 1950s and 1960s encouraged public intolerance for such investigations. By the 1960s, HUAC was losing influence and was less active. HUAC was officially abolished in January 1975.

House Committee on Un-American Activities

views updated Jun 08 2018


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.


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.


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 .

House Committee on Un-American Activities

views updated May 21 2018


In 1938, because of a growing fear of Nazi and communist activity in the United States, conservative congressmen secured passage of a House Resolution creating a Special Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). Under publicity-conscious Texas congressman martin dies, the Committee set out to expose left-wing groups and individuals whom it considered security risks. After five renewals, by overwhelming votes, the group was made into an unprecedented standing committee of the House in 1945. From then until the mid-1950s, the Committee became a sounding board for ex-radicals, publicity seekers, and critics of the new deal and the Truman administration. It identified the following tasks for itself: to expose and ferret out communists and their sympathizers in the federal government; to show how communists had won control over vital trade unions; and to investigate communist influences in the press, religious and educational organizations, and the movie industry. The sensational Alger Hiss-Whittaker Chambers hearings, in connection with turning over security information, and the resultant perjury conviction of Hiss, a former New Deal official, added to the Committee's prestige. By 1948, the Committee sponsored legislation against the Communist party, pushing the mundt-nixon bill.

The activities of HUAC, however, raised important constitutional questions. The Committee's constant probing into political behavior and belief led critics to charge that such forced exposure abridged freedom of speech and association, and punished citizens for their opinions. Also questioned was the legitimacy of its "exposure for its own sake" approach, when action did not seem to relate to legitimate legislative purpose, and when legislative "trials" violated many aspects of due process including the right to be tried in a court under the protection of constitutional guarantees.

The Supreme Court ultimately dealt with both questions, with contradictory and changing results. In three cases (Emspack v. United States, 1955; Quinn v. United States, 1955; and watkins v. united states, 1957) the Court narrowly interpreted the statutory authority for punishing recalcitrant witnesses, and questioned forced exposure of views and activities in light of the first amendment. Facing sharp criticism, the Court retreated in the cases of barenblatt v. united states (1958), Wilkinson v. United States (1961), and Braden v. United States (1961), only to move back again to a more critical position as the 1960s progressed—from 1961 to 1966 reversing almost every contempt conviction which came to it from the Committee. By mid-1966, conservative legislators were condemning the "unseemly spectacles" HUAC chronically elicited. Thus, in 1969, it was rechristened the Internal Security Committee, and although its procedures were modified somewhat in this new form, the committee was eventually abolished by the House in 1975.

Paul L. Murphy


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

Un-American Activities Committee, House

views updated May 14 2018

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.

Un-American Activities Committee, House

views updated May 29 2018

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.