1938 May 26

House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) Established; 37 Years of Civil Liberties Violations Follow

 

The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), which went on to a notorious 37-year-tenure of attacking people for their political beliefs and associations, was established on this day as a Special Investigating Committee (and thus not a standing committee of the House). It held its first hearings on August 11, 1938. In its first years, it was often referred to as the Dies Committee after its Chair, Rep. Martin Dies (D–Texas). The House made it a standing (permanent) committee on January 3, 1945.

In the anti-Communist hysteria of the Cold War, merely to be called to testify before HUAC was widely regarded as evidence of a person’s “guilt” as a subversive. The most offensive part of HUAC hearings was the ritual of asking witnesses to “name names” of Communists they knew or had once known.

One of the most notorious episodes in HUAC’s history was its 1947 investigation of alleged Communism in Hollywood. The hearings involving the Hollywood Ten, a group of screenwriters and directors who refused to cooperate with the Committee, began on October 27, 1947. Members of the Ten were subsequently convicted of contempt of Congress and sentenced to prison. All were blacklisted by the film industry following their HUAC appearances. The famous German playwright Berthold Brecht testified on October 30, 1947, and left the U.S. the next day, never to return. The famed playwright Arthur Miller, author of Death of a Salesman, was also cited for contempt of Congress for refusing to “name names” before HUAC on June 21, 1956, but his conviction was overturned on appeal. Finally, on January 14, 1975, the House abolished the long-discredited committee.

HUAC investigations of political belief and association had been preceded by the Senate Overman Committee (January 22, 1919); the Fish Committee of 1930-1931 (October 3, 1930); and the McCormack-Dickstein Committee (May 26, 1934).

Read about the history of HUAC: Walter Goodman, The Committee: The Extraordinary Career of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (1968)

Watch Dalton Trumbo, one of the Hollywood Ten, testify before HUAC: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tFR4RIyekis

Learn more about HUAC: http://www.history.com/topics/cold-war/huac

Read the classic account of “naming names:” Victor Navasky, Naming Names (1980)

Read: Kenneth O’Reilly, Hoover and the Un-Americans: The FBI, HUAC, and the Red Menace (1983)

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