House Un-American Activities Committee: Definition, History, Notable Figures & Major Facts

The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was a committee under the US House of Representatives that was established to investigate allegations of communist infiltration and activity within the US during the onslaught of the Cold War (1945-1991).

The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was a driving force behind investigations into alleged Communist influence and infiltration in various sectors of American society, including Hollywood. Image: Chairman Martin Dies of the House Un-American Activities Committee penning a letter to President Roosevelt’s attack on the committee.

The HUAC was established in 1938 and used its subpoena power to call suspected citizens with communist and fascist ties to testify before Congress in high-profile hearings.

Most of the committee’s investigations were usually connected to McCarthyism, which is the practice of accusing a person of treason or subversion, largely in connection to communism, socialism or anarchism.

The term “McCarthyism” was named after the former US Senator Joseph McCarthy, who was known for claiming that there were many communist sympathizers and spies that had intruded on American government agencies, the film industry, and academic institutions.

In the late 1940s and 1950s, the United States was in the throes of what is now commonly referred to as the Red Scare, a period of intense anti-Communist suspicion. Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) were a driving force behind investigations into alleged Communist influence and infiltration in various sectors of American society, including Hollywood. Image: Joseph McCarthy

Although many people supported the committee for playing an important role in protecting the US from communist infiltration, many also believed that it abused the First Amendment rights of citizens and organizations, including freedom of expression and freedom of association.

HUAC’s controversial and intimidating methods also largely contributed to the mass fear and oppression that was rampant during the anticommunist frenzy present in the 1950s.

However, by the early 1960s, the committee’s power was on a steady decline and was later renamed the Committee on Internal Security until it was discontinued in 1975.

The Evolution of HUAC

Several committees were established before the formation of HUAC in 1938. Like HUAC, these committees were established to investigate allegations of Bolshevik, German and communist activities in the US.

The Overman Committee (1918-1919)

The Overman Committee was chaired by Senator Lee Slater Overman and it was initially established to investigate allegations of pro-German opinions in the US liquor industry.

When Germany’s threat decreased at the end of World War I, the committee decided to investigate Bolshevism, which had become a threat to the US following the Russian Revolution in 1917. The Overman Committee played a crucial role in communism being a threat to the US.

The Fish Committee (1930)

Hamilton Fish III, an anti-communist, chaired the Fish Committee in 1930 to investigate suspected communist activities in the US. The committee targeted several organizations and notable people, including the American Civil Liberties Union and aspiring president, William Z. Foster, who was a communist.

The Fish Committee strongly advocated for the empowerment of the United States Department of Justice to ensure that communists were kept out of the country.

The McCormack-Dickstein Committee (1934-1937)

Between 1934-1937, John William McCormack and Samuel Dickson co-chaired the Special Committee on Un-American Activities Authorized to Investigate Nazi Propaganda and Certain Other Propaganda Activities.

The committee was tasked to secure information on how foreign political propaganda had permeated into the US and how organizations were spreading it to the public.

During that period, many leaders of fascist movements in the US were called to a hearing. It also investigated claims of a fascist plot to capture the White House, popularly known as the “Business Plot.”

However, it was revealed that while Dickstein, who was co-chair, served on the committee, he was receiving monthly payments from the Soviet Union’s interior ministry.

A 1939 report from the ministry showed that he had presented sensitive information to the ministry. However, it was not satisfied with how much information Dickstein provided.

The Dies Committee (1938-1944)

Martin Dies Jr. first chaired HUAC when it was established in 1938 to continue the works of its predecessors. However, this time, the committee’s main focus was on communist activities only.

In its first two years, the Dies Committee subpoenaed Hallie Flanagan, who was the director of the Federal Theatre Project, as well as Oscar C. Pfaus and George Van Horn Moseley. Pfaus and Moseley were linked to pro-Nazi organizations.

The committee also published the “Yellow Report”, calling for the detention of Japanese Americans on the basis that they were spies.

In 1946, it also considered investigating the white supremacist group, the Ku Klux Klan, but eventually decided not to. Their decision to not pursue an investigation of the Klan prompted John E. Rankin, who was a white supremacist, to say, “After all, the KKK is an old American institution.” However, the Klan was later investigated when the committee was chaired by Edwin Willis.

Standing Committee (1945-1975)

In 1945, HUAC was made a permanent committee and Democratic Party lawmaker Edward J. Hart became its chairman. The committee continued to investigate threats of treason or propaganda against the government. This time, its focus was largely on real and suspected communists in the US.

The HUAC was responsible for investigating Alger Hiss who was a suspected spy. Their investigation resulted in his conviction.

“Communist Hollywood”

American anti-communist propaganda of the 1950s going after members of entertainment industry, specifically Hollywood

In 1947, the committee arranged a nine-day hearing for suspected communist activity and influence in the heart of the US film industry in Hollywood.

Many actors and important film businessmen were blacklisted and as a result, over 300 artists were shunned by studios.

Notable actors like Charlie Chaplin, Paul Robeson, and Yip Harburg either left the US or worked underground. Just a few artists were able to rebuild their characters and restore their reputations.

During that period also, many studios began to produce several anti-communist films such as “The Red Menace”, “The Red Danube”, and “I Was a Communist for the FBI.”

Opponents of McCarthyism

Welch (left) being questioned by Senator Joe McCarthy (right) at the Army–McCarthy hearings, June 9, 1954.

As stated above, McCarthyism refers to a period of intense anti-Communist suspicion in the United States during the early 1950s, named after Senator Joseph McCarthy who was the most public face of the Red Scare during this time.

The term has since become synonymous with making unsubstantiated claims and public attacks on the character or patriotism of political opponents.

Red Scare and House Un-American Committee (HUAC)

Just as Salem’s residents were accused of witchcraft often based on vague testimonies, rumors, or personal vendettas, individuals in the 1950s U.S. were accused of being Communists or Communist sympathizers often with scant evidence. Those accused faced blacklisting, loss of employment, and even imprisonment. Just as in Salem, there was a pervasive climate of fear, and one’s loyalty could be questioned based on minimal or circumstantial evidence. Quote: Senator Joseph McCarthy

Many opponents of McCarthyism felt that it was a blatant violation of civil rights and an example of overreach by the government. They believed the practices during this period infringed on individuals’ right to free speech, freedom of association, and freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures.

Prominent opponents and critics of McCarthyism included:

Edward R. Murrow: The respected journalist used his television show “See It Now” to criticize McCarthy’s methods and tactics, most notably in a 1954 episode that is often credited with turning public opinion against McCarthy.

During the 1950s, when the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and Senator Joseph McCarthy were leading the charge against suspected Communist sympathizers, Murrow became one of the key public figures to challenge the climate of fear and the tactics employed during this Red Scare. Image: American journalist Edward R. Murrow at work with CBS, 1957

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU): The organization worked to defend individuals who had been accused of being Communists or having ties to Communist organizations.

Senator Margaret Chase Smith: A Republican lawmaker from Maine, she was one of the first from McCarthy’s own party to challenge his tactics, delivering her “Declaration of Conscience” speech in the Senate in 1950.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower: Although he was often criticized for not taking a public stand against McCarthy, behind the scenes, Eisenhower worked to undermine McCarthy’s influence and expressed his disdain for the Senator’s tactics.

Joseph N. Welch: This American lawyer played a pivotal role in the decline of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s influence during the infamous Army–McCarthy hearings. The Army hired Welch as its chief legal representative to defend against these claims during the Senate’s hearings. On June 9, 1954, the hearings reached a dramatic climax. McCarthy sought to discredit one of Welch’s associates by bringing up past associations with a group linked to Communist sympathizers. This confrontation showcased McCarthy’s tactics of character assassination and guilt by association, and it was broadcasted on national television, making a significant impression on the American public.

McCarthy’s aggressive and often unfounded accusations cast a huge doubt on his reputation across the country. Welch, in response, delivered one of the most memorable lines in American political history.

Various Hollywood figures: Many artists, writers, and actors were blacklisted during this period because of alleged Communist ties or sympathies. Some, like playwright Arthur Miller, responded with art that critiqued the hysteria of the era (e.g., Miller’s “The Crucible”).

Hollywood Ten

In 1947, HUAC turned its attention to Hollywood, a significant cultural influencer, out of concern that the film industry was being used to spread Communist propaganda. Over nine days, the committee questioned numerous individuals within the industry about their affiliations and beliefs, as well as those of their colleagues.

It must also be noted that as McCarthy’s hearings continued and became more aggressive, a significant portion of the American public began to turn against him, feeling that he was overstepping his bounds and unfairly targeting individuals.

Joseph Nye Welch was a highly respected attorney. Prior to his involvement in the Army-McCarthy hearings, he was a partner in a prestigious Boston law firm. Despite his legal accomplishments, to the general public, Welch was a relatively unknown figure before the hearings.

Also, some judges and courts took stands against McCarthy’s tactics. The U.S. Supreme Court, in a series of decisions, began to reaffirm the importance of First Amendment rights even in the face of national security concerns.

House Un-American Activities Committee

“The Crucible” by Arthur Miller is a play set during the Salem witch trials of 1692, but it was written during a time when the U.S. was gripped by the fear of Communism, largely driven by Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Through this play, Miller drew parallels between the witch hunts of the 17th century and the Red Scare of the 20th century.

Decline of HUAC

McCarthy, who also was once the most popular figure in the anti-communist campaign, lost support from the public. The loss of public support also led to the decline of HUAC.

In 1959, then-US President Harry S. Truman called it “the most un-American thing in the country today.” The committee was heavily rioted against and was denounced by many people. It quickly became the subject of jokes, appearing in political satire pieces.

In an attempt to stay relevant, the committee was renamed the Internal Security Committee in 1969. In 1975, it was terminated with its files and workers transferred to the House Judiciary Committee.

Notable Figures of HUAC

Some of the most notable figures in HUAC were:

Felix Edward Hébert

Hébert was a journalist and politician from Louisiana. He was a Democrat and served in Congress for 18 consecutive terms.

Donald L. Jackson

Jackson was a Republican US Representative from California. He served between 1947-1961.

Noah M. Mason

Mason was a Republican who represented Illinois in Congress and served for 13 years.

Karl E. Mundt

Mundt was an educator and US Representative from South Dakota. He was a member of the United States House of Representatives from 1939-1948 and later the US Senate from 1948-1973.

Richard Nixon

Nixon was a Republican representative and senator from California. He eventually became the 37th President of the US.

John E. Rankin

Rankin was a member of the Democrat party who served 16 years in the House of Representatives.

Gordon H. Scherer

Scherer was a lawyer and politician who served as a representative from Ohio from 1953-1963.

Opponents of HUAC

Major Facts about HUAC

  • Joseph McCarthy, who was famous for making allegations and accusations against suspected communists without facts or proof, was never a member of HUAC. The committee had only adopted his tactics and used its power to subpoena anyone they deemed a threat to the US.
  • Some known communist spies were called to testify before HUAC, including Whittaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley.
  • HUAC had the legal power to subpoena suspected communists, but it couldn’t make arrests. However, it could hold people in contempt and that often led to charges eventually.
  • Alger Hiss was handed a prison sentence for perjury after appearing before the HUAC. He denied those accusations for the rest of his life.
  • As the HUAC’s power declined in the 1960s, Jerry Rubin, who was called to testify before the committee appeared dressed as a Revolutionary War soldier.

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