1958 August 7

Playwright Arthur Miller’s HUAC Contempt Conviction Overturned


The famous playwright Arthur Miller’s contempt of Congress conviction for refusing to answer questions before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) on June 21, 1956, was overturned on this day. Miller had refused to answer questions based on the First Amendment rather than the Fifth Amendment. At the time, it was not established that the First Amendment protected a person from testifying before legislative investigating committees.

In the Cold War, most of the people who refused to cooperate with HUAC took the Fifth Amendment, which offered more secure legal protection (although they were labelled “Fifth Amendment Communists.” A major controversy over this issue erupted in 1954, and on February 5, 1954 the Dean of Harvard Law School offered a defense of the ancient privilege against self-incrimination. On August 20, 1954, however, a new federal law allowed investigators to compel testimony in return for a promise of immunity from prosecution for anything in that testimony.

Contempt of Congress indictments became a heavy weapon against alleged subversives during the Cold War. While it had rarely been used before World War II, HUAC issued 21 contempt citations in 1946, 14 in 1947, and 56 in 1950. All other House Committees in those years issued a total of only 6 contempt citations.

Miller is regarded as one of the greatest American playwrights, particularly for his award-winning play Death of a Salesman. He also wrote The Crucible, which opened in New York on January 22, 1953. The play, which covers the infamous Salem Witch Hunt in the 17th Century, has also been considered a commentary of the Cold War anti-communist “Witch Hunt.” (See June 10, 1692, for the execution of the first alleged “witch” in Salem.)

Watch Miller’s The Crucible at the Williams Theater: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o3hDrTAmDH0

Read Miller’s autobiography: Arthur Miller, Timebends: A Life (1987)

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