Although it was abolished in 1975, the history of the HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) is an important reminder of how even the best intentions can prove to be harmful. Intended to protect the public it only led to persecution and harassment.
The committee was set up in 1934. The name makes clear that its purpose was to monitor the activities of any individuals that could threaten the US. Those with German blood were on the list. Also high on its list were those involved in plots to overthrow the government or involved with Communists. Very quickly however it focused mainly on the Communist threat as the Cold War intensified.
Influence and Power
The history of the HUAC will always be associated with its chair, Martin Dies. The committee would wield great power especially when World War II broke out. Anyone with ties to the Germans or Japanese became liable for subpoenas and investigations. The same was true when the Cold War emerged.
The committee had the power to subpoena and issue arrests. Those who refused to attend were blacklisted. Those found guilty of Communism or subversion were sentenced to jail. One of them was Alger Hiss, a well known diplomat and secretly a spy for the Soviet Union with the code name of ALES.
Note: the history of the HUAC is often confused with that of Senator Joseph McCarthy. They were not the same. Senator McCarthy was in the Senate, while Dies was in the House of Representatives. However, their activities and measures were similar. Some researchers also felt that the House committee may have influenced Senator McCarthy in his later actions.
The Hollywood Ten
In the late 1940s up to the early 50s, the threat of Communism grew. The committee started looking into Hollywood. They suspected that there were Communists there plotting something against the government.
It was supposed to be an investigation, but its members had already made up their minds about the case. The committee charged the Screen Writer’s Guild of harboring Communists.
A study of the history of the HUAC will show that they also wanted to prove that Communist propaganda was being used in films. The committee also said that President Roosevelt encouraged pro Russian films to be shown.
Eleven Hollywood personalities were suspected of being Communists. The German playwright Bertolt Brecht was the only one who responded to the inquiries by the committee. He denied being a Communist, but after appearing before the committee he immediately left the US for East Berlin where he acted as a supporter of Soviet rule.
The others became known as the Hollywood Ten. They refused to answer questions citing the 5th Amendment. Under pressure from the committee, the ten were suspended without pay. More suspected Communists lost their jobs.
The committee was dissolved as the threat of the Cold War ceased. However the history of the HUAC is a reminder of the difficulties that people faced during the period.