History of the House Un-American Activities Committee

HUAC Accused Americans of Being Communists and Inspired Blacklisting

Photograph of HUAC hearing with actor Gary Cooper
Actor Gary Cooper testifying before HUAC. Getty Images

The House Un-American Activities Committee was empowered for more than three decades to investigate "subversive" activity in American society. The committee began operating in 1938, but its greatest impact came following World War II, when it engaged in a highly publicized crusade against suspected communists.

The committee exerted a far-reaching impact on society, to the extent that phrases such as "naming names" became part of the language, along with "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?" A subpoena to testify before the committee, commonly known as HUAC, could derail someone's career. And some Americans essentially had their lives destroyed by the committee's actions.

Many names called to testify before the committee during its most influential period, in the late 1940s and 1950s, are familiar, and include actor Gary Cooper, animator and producer Walt Disney, folksinger Pete Seeger, and future politician Ronald Reagan. Others called to testify are far less familiar today, in part because their popularity was brought to an end when HUAC came calling.

1930s: The Dies Committee

The committee was first formed as the brainchild of a congressman from Texas, Martin Dies. A conservative Democrat who had supported rural New Deal programs during Franklin Roosevelt's first term, Dies had become disillusioned when Roosevelt and his cabinet demonstrated support for the labor movement.

Dies, who had a flair for befriending influential journalists and attracting publicity, claimed communists had widely infiltrated American labor unions. In a flurry of activity, the newly formed committee, in 1938, began making accusations about communist influence in the United States.

There was already a rumor campaign, helped along by conservative newspapers and commentators such as the very popular radio personality and priest Father Coughlin, alleging the Roosevelt administration harbored communist sympathizers and foreign radicals. Dies capitalized on the popular accusations.

The Dies Committee became a fixture in newspaper headlines as it held hearings focused on how politicians reacted to strikes by labor unions. President Roosevelt reacted by making his own headlines. In a press conference on October 25, 1938, Roosevelt denounced the committee's activities, in particular, its attacks on the governor of Michigan, who was running for reelection. 

A story on the front page of the New York Times the following day said the president's criticism of the committee had been delivered in "caustic terms." Roosevelt was outraged that the committee had attacked the governor over actions he had taken during a major strike at automobile plants in Detroit the previous year.

Despite public skirmishing between the committee and the Roosevelt administration, the Dies Committee continued its work. It eventually named more than 1,000 government workers as being suspected communists, and essentially created a template for what would occur in later years.

The Hunt for Communists In America

The work of the House Un-American Activities Committee faded in significance during World War II. That was partly because the United States was allied with the Soviet Union, and the need for the Russians to help defeat the Nazis outweighed immediate concerns about communism. And, of course, the public's attention was focused on the war itself.

When the war ended, concerns about communist infiltration in American life returned to the headlines. The committee was reconstituted under the leadership of a conservative New Jersey congressman, J. Parnell Thomas. In 1947 an aggressive investigation began of suspected communist influence in the movie business.

On October 20, 1947, the committee began hearings in Washington in which prominent members of the film industry testified. On the first day, studio heads Jack Warner and Louis B. Mayer denounced what they called "un-American" writers in Hollywood, and swore not to employ them. The novelist Ayn Rand, who was working as a screenwriter in Hollywood, also testified and denounced a recent musical film, "Song of Russia," as a "vehicle of communist propaganda."

The hearings continued for days, and prominent names called to testify guaranteed headlines. Walt Disney appeared as a friendly witness expressing fears of communism, as did actor and future president Ronald Reagan, who was serving as the president of the actor's union, the Screen Actors Guild.

The Hollywood Ten

The atmosphere of the hearings changed when the committee called a number of Hollywood writers who had been accused of being communists. The group, which included Ring Lardner, Jr., and Dalton Trumbo, refused to testify about their past affiliations and suspected involvement with the Communist Party or communist-aligned organizations.

The hostile witnesses became known as the Hollywood Ten. A number of prominent show business personalities, including Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, formed a committee to support the group, claiming their constitutional rights were being trampled. Despite public demonstrations of support, the hostile witnesses were ultimately charged with contempt of Congress.

After being tried and convicted, the members of the Hollywood Ten served one-year terms in federal prisons. Following their legal ordeals, the Hollywood Ten were effectively blacklisted and couldn't work in Hollywood under their own names. 

The Blacklists

People in the entertainment business accused of communist of "subversive" views began to be blacklisted. A booklet called Red Channels was published in 1950 which named 151 actors, screenwriters, and directors suspected of being communists. Other lists of suspected subversives circulated, and those who were named were routinely blacklisted.

In 1954, the Ford Foundation sponsored a report on blacklisting led by a former magazine editor John Cogley. After studying the practice, the report concluded that the blacklist in Hollywood was not only real, it was very powerful. A front-page story in the New York Times on June 25, 1956, described the practice in considerable detail. According to Cogley's report, the practice of blacklisting could be traced to the case of the Hollywood Ten being named by the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Three weeks later, an editorial in the New York Times summarized some major aspects of blacklisting:

"Mr. Cogley's report, published last month, found that blacklisting is 'almost universally accepted as a face of life' in Hollywood, constitutes a 'secret and labyrinthine world of political screening' in the radio and television fields, and is 'now part and parcel of life on Madison Avenue' among advertising agencies that control many radio and TV programs."

The House Committee on Un-American Activities responded to the report on blacklisting by calling the author of the report, John Cogley before the committee. During his testimony, Cogley was essentially accused of trying to help hide communists when he would not reveal confidential sources.

The Alger Hiss Case

  • In 1948 HUAC was at the center of a major controversy when journalist Whitaker Chambers, while testifying before the committee, accused a State Department official, Alger Hiss, of having been a Russian spy. The Hiss case quickly became a sensation in the press, and a young congressman from California, Richard M. Nixon, a member of the committee, fixated on Hiss.

Hiss denied the accusations by Chambers during his own testimony before the committee. He also challenged Chambers to repeat the accusations outside of a congressional hearing (and beyond congressional immunity), so he could sue him for libel. Chambers repeated the charge on a television program and Hiss sued him.

Chambers then produced microfilmed documents which he said Hiss had provided to him years earlier. Congressman Nixon made much of the microfilm, and it helped propel his political career.

Hiss was eventually charged with perjury, and after two trials he was convicted and served three years in federal prison. Debates about the guilt or innocent of Hiss have continued for decades.

The End of HUAC

The committee continued its work through the 1950s, though its importance seemed to fade. In the 1960s, it turned its attention to the Anti-War Movement. But after the committee's heyday of the 1950s, it did not attract much public attention. A 1968 article about the committee in the New York Times noted that while it was "once flushed with glory" HUAC had "created little stir in recent years..." 

Hearings to investigate the Yippies, the radical and irreverent political faction led by Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, in the fall of 1968 turned into a predictable circus. Many members of Congress began to view the committee as obsolete.

In 1969, in an effort to distance the committee from its controversial past, it was renamed the House Internal Security Committee. Efforts to disband the committee gained momentum, spearheaded by Father Robert Drinan, a Jesuit priest serving as a congressman from Massachusetts. Drinan, who was very concerned about the civil liberties abuses of the committee, was quoted in the New York Times:

"Father Drinan said he would continue to work to kill the committee in order to 'improve the image of Congress and protect the privacy of citizens from the libelous and outrageous dossiers maintained by the committee.
"'The committee keeps files on professors, journalists, housewives, politicians, businessmen, students, and other sincere, honest individuals from every part of the United States who, unlike the proponents of the blacklisting activities of HISC, the the First Amendment at face value,' he said."

On January 13, 1975, the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives voted to abolish the committee. 

While the House Un-American Activities Committee had stalwart supporters, especially during its most controversial years, the committee generally exists in American memory as a dark chapter. The abuses of the committee in the way it tormented witnesses stands as a warning against reckless investigations which target American citizens.

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Your Citation
McNamara, Robert. "History of the House Un-American Activities Committee." ThoughtCo, Oct. 8, 2021, thoughtco.com/house-unamerican-activities-committee-4151986. McNamara, Robert. (2021, October 8). History of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/house-unamerican-activities-committee-4151986 McNamara, Robert. "History of the House Un-American Activities Committee." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/house-unamerican-activities-committee-4151986 (accessed June 2, 2023).