The House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) was created in 1938 to investigate un-American propaganda and disloyalty. The committee successfully investigated suspect persons or organizations by summoning and questioning them so relentlessly that they were intimidated into divulging information. In session, the committee members leveled accusatory questions that made their subjects so nervous that they often revealed names to get out of the hot seat.
Popular Front Era
The early work of HUAC was aimed mostly at German-American involvement in Nazism, and Ku Klux Klan activity. Little of note emerged from its investigations of Nazis or Klansmen, but the committee came into its own when it acted on suspicions that some people with Communist sympathies and links worked for the U.S. government. Radical students in the 1930s had often been attracted to Marxism, particularly in the "Popular Front" era. Several of those people had reached positions of power by the late 1940s. Conservative voices in Congress tended to be extremely suspicious of such people, believing that those Marxists had dual loyalty, and were either actual or ideological agents of the Soviet Union and Joseph Stalin. For example, the committee investigated communism in the Works Progress Administration (WPA), including the Federal Theater Project. In 1938, Hallie Flanagan, head of the Federal Theater Project, was subpoenaed to appear before the committee to answer the charge that the project was overrun with communists. Flanagan was called to testify for only a part of one day, while a clerk from the project was called in for two entire days. That may have had something to do with the fact that one of the members of the committee embarrassed himself by asking whether the Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe¹ was a member of the Communist Party.
Post-World War II
There were fears that agents were actively working to overthrow the United States from within, and thus had to be forcibly removed from any positions of influence. For instance, the committee, with the leadership of such congressmen as Richard M. Nixon, brought about the trial and imprisonment of Alger Hiss.
HUAC became a standing (permanent) committee in 1946. Under the mandate of Public Law 601, passed by the 79th Congress, the committee of nine representatives investigated suspected threats of subversion or propaganda that "attacks the form of government guaranteed by our Constitution."
HUAC looked into alleged communist propaganda by Hollywood. Such “friendly” HUAC witnesses as Ronald Reagan and Walt Disney blamed Hollywood labor conflicts on communist infiltration. Reagan and Disney portrayed the labor struggles solely in terms of a battle between forces for and against communism. One of the most famous results of HUAC intimidation was the Hollywood Blacklist in 1947, which included the Hollywood Ten. Following their testimony before HUAC, those 10 writers, producers and directors were forced into seclusion and barely able to keep their movies on the screen.
One of the committee's specialties was to investigate a particular political organization, and to label it a communist front if, in the committee's judgment, the group was effectively under the control of the Communist Party or known party members. Some individuals — such as W.E.B. DuBois and I.F. Stone — were found to have been affiliated with literally dozens of Comintern-sponsored groups; although, in reality, many of the groups were nothing more than glorified petition drives and disappeared after a single publicity campaign on behalf of a particular cause expired.
In its later years, HUAC investigated the New Left, but those probes were less successful. Such young witnesses as Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman had much less to lose than the targets of the earlier investigations, and they swayed public opinion in their favor by openly defying the congressmen and making the investigations look ridiculous by performing such pranks as appearing in a clown suit.
In June 1966, the national chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Stokely Carmichael, first voiced the slogan “Black Power” during a march in Mississippi. James Meredith had initiated the march to protest white resistance, in defiance of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, to black voter registration. Meredith was shot and wounded, but other black leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr., and Carmichael, continued the march.
Carmichael appeared before HUAC to answer questions about his and SNCC's communist affiliations. Carmichael invoked the Fifth Amendment as his reply to many of the questions.
Carmichael’s rhetoric, influenced by Malcolm X, signified a growing divide in the civil rights movement between those who encouraged interracial collaboration and those who advocated black separatism. Carmichael left SNCC in 1967 and joined the Black Panther Party.
Although he advocated an international struggle to end capitalism, the following year Carmichael announced ² that “Communism is not an ideology suited for black people.” Carmichael moved to Guinea in 1969, where he changed his name to Kwame Ture and formed the Pan-Africanist All-African People’s Party. He died in 1998.
In 1969, the House changed the committee's name to the Committee on Internal Security. The House abolished the committee in 1975 and its functions were transferred to the House Judiciary Committee.
After Martin Dies stepped down as chairman of HUAC in 1944 he was succeeded by Edward Hart (1945), John S. Wood (1945-46), John Parnell Thomas (1947-48), John S. Wood (1949-1952), Harold Velde (1953-54) and Francis Walter (1955-63). Other major members of HUAC included John Rankin of Mississippi, Karl Mundt of South Dakota and Richard M. Nixon of California. And in the Senate HUAC is occasionally mixed up with the Senate Committee on Government Operations, of which Senator Joseph McCarthy was a member. The Senate committee's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations was especially involved in probing purported communists in the 1950s, especially following McCarthy's rise to chairman. The House and Senate committees were two separate entities. McCarthy was not associated with HUAC and did not serve in the House of Representatives. “McCarthyism,” a parallel crusade named after Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, also was a period of intense anti-communism and also is popularly known as the second Red Scare. It took place primarily from 1948 to 1954, when the U.S. government was engaged in suppression of the American Communist Party, its leadership, and others suspected of being communists or communist sympathizers. During that period, people from all walks of life became the subject of aggressive witch hunts, often based on inconclusive or questionable evidence.
Supporters of McCarthyism have argued that McCarthy's intentions were good and that, before the worst of his anticommunist campaign, he acted in good faith against what he truly believed was a malicious communist conspiracy within the government. Recently declassified Soviet-era documents have, in fact, confirmed that Soviet spies had infiltrated the U.S. State Department in the 1930s and 1940s. However, as McCarthy's accusations became more sweeping, and as he attacked more prominent figures within the government and military, his strength faltered.
Dwight D. Eisenhower, a candidate for the presidency in the 1952 election, disagreed with McCarthy's tactics, but on one occasion was required to make a campaign stop with him in Wisconsin. There, he intended to make a comment denouncing McCarthy's agenda, but under the advice of a conservative colleague, cut that part from his speech. He was widely criticized during his campaign for selling out to pressure and abandoning his personal convictions because of party pressures. After being elected president, he made it clear to those close to him that he did not approve of McCarthy or his proceedings and he worked actively to shut down his operation.
"The ideologies of communism and socialism speaks to class structure. They speak to people who ... oppressed people from the top down to the bottom. We are not just facing exploitation, we are facing something much more important. We are facing because we are the victims of racism.
"Communism nor socialism does not speak to the problem of racism. And racism for black people in this country is far more important than exploitation, 'cause no matter how much money you make when you go into the white world, you are still a nigger ... you are still a nigger ... you are still a nigger. So that for us, the question of racism become uppermost in our minds. It become uppermost in our minds. How do we destroy those institutions that seek to keep us dehumanized? That is all we're talking about."