The Return of HUAC?

Photo by Marc Nozell | CC BY 2.0

Photo by Marc Nozell | CC BY 2.0

On January 20, 2017, Donald Trump and Mike Pence will be inaugurated as President and Vice President, respectively.  Recent comments by ideologues associated within the Trump circle suggest that after the new administration takes office there might be a move by Congressional conservatives to resurrect a 21st century version of the long-dead House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).

Recently, right-wing radio host Michael Savage called for Trump to restore HUAC or a similar committee to focus on “hunting down subversives.”  “We need a new HUAC but you can’t call it HUAC,” he declared, “but we have to unmask the traitors within because we’re facing grave danger from these traitors.”  Among the groups he identified as “subversive” and needed to be investigated are People for the American Way, the American Civil Liberties Union, MoveOn, Center for American Progress, Black Lives Matter, Media Matters and the National Council of Churches.

He even proposed leading the inquiry.

Savage picked up on a similar chant made earlier by Newt Gingrich.  “We originally created HUAC to after Nazis,” Gingrich said.  “We passed several laws in 1938 and 1939 to go after Nazis and we made it illegal to help the Nazis. We’re going to presently have to go take the similar steps here.”

Once taking office, Trump and Pence, together with the continuing Republican control of both Houses of Congress, will relaunch a new round in the culture wars.  Among the first acts of the new administration will be the appointment of a staunch conservative to the Supreme Court and an attempt to overturn Roe v. Wade, the Court’s 1973 decision granting women the right to an abortion.

It’s unclear whether the call to establish a committee to investigate “subversives” will gain sufficient traction in Congress to be implemented.  Others have raised calls for a registry of Muslims akin to the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System implemented in the wake of 9/11 attacks and to implement something similar to the forced relocation and internment of more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans during WW-II.

HUAC operated from 1938-1975 – and the Senate’s parallel Senate Internal Security Subcommittee (SISS) operated from 1957-1977 – and was a rightwing effort to suppress critical challenges to America’s mounting Cold War orthodoxy.  Against the restructuring of global power between the U.S.’s ostensible “free market” capitalism and the Soviet Union ostensible “anti-imperialist” socialism, HUAC sought enforce ideological hegemony.  HUAC destroyed the lives of many Americans who represent little threats to state or corporate power and the possible establishment of a HUAC-like Congressional committee to investigate “subversives” speaks less to the existence of a real threat to national security as it does to the vengeance of those who seek to defend the unfolding Trump agenda.


HUAC’s ostensible purpose was to investigate disloyalty and, in the postwar era, singled out prominent celebrities (i.e., entertainers), artists (e.g., screenwriters), public employees (e.g., teachers), organizers (e.g., labor leaders), and African-American and Puerto Rican nationalists.  Those who testified before it fell into two groups – “friendly” and “unfriendly” witnesses.  Many friendly witnesses were former CP members who, like sinners at an old-fashion religious revival meeting, genuflected before the public tribunal in an act of contrition for a past moral failing.  Unfriendly witnessed faced far-graver consequences.

Among the first to be investigated by HUAC was the popular writer Howard Fast, author of Spartacus.  In ’46, he was subpoenaed to testify regarding the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee (JAFRC), a CP-affiliated group, and he refused to provide financial information or name names. He was found in contempt of Congress and in 1950 served a three-month prison sentence at the Mill Point, WV, federal penitentiary.

In May ‘47, HUAC Congressmen settled into Los Angeles’ Biltmore Hotel for a showdown with the movie industry.  The first to appear before the Committee were friendly witnesses, including actors Robert Taylor, Richard Arlen and Adolphe Menjou who named names.  Among others who named names were Hollywood notables Lee J. Cobb, Clifford Odets, David Raskin and Robert Rossen.  Studio head Jack Warner went so far as to identifying studio personnel (often union members) he suspected of being subversives.

In September ‘47, HUAC served subpoenas to 43 film-industry personnel.  On November 25th, ten witnesses appeared at the hearings and refused to name names.  They became known as “The Hollywood Ten” and included: Alvah Bessie, screenwriter who served in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade during the Spanish civil war; Herbert Biberman, directed, Salt of the Earth (1954); Lester Cole, screenwriter, If I Had a Million (1932); Edward Dmytryk, director, The Caine Mutiny (1954); Ring Lardner Jr., director, Woman of the Year (1942); John Howard Lawson, screenwriter, Counter Attack (1945); Albert Maltz, director, documentary, The House I Live In, won an Academy Award (1945); Samuel Ornitz, organizer, Screen Actors Guild; Adrian Scott, producer, Crossfire (1947), who won four Academy Awards; and Dalton Trumbo, screenwriter, who won two Academy Awards while on the blacklist.  They were convicted and went to federal prison.  Hollywood’s principle craft unions — the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), the Screen Writers Guild (SWG) and the Screen Directors Guild, (SDG) — put up little resistance.

Also in September ’47, the Committee issued a study, “Report on Civil Rights Congress as a Communist Front Organization,” that singled out Paul Robeson for special rebuke.  “Paul Robeson will be remembered as one who has been outspoken in his defense of the Communist Party on numerous occasions …,” it argued.  It went on to acknowledge, “He has defended Gerhart Eisler and Leon Josephson, active international Communist agents.”  Most troubling, it noted, “he [Robeson] refuses to affirm or deny membership in the Communist Party, [although] he has participated in official Communist gatherings on March 17, 1941, March 17, 1947, and on May 8, 1947.”  It concluded, “He has long been an ardent apologist for the Soviet Union, where his son was resided and was educated.”

On August 5, 1948, HUAC convened a special hearing, “Regarding Communist Espionage in the U.S. Government,” at the Federal Courthouse in Foley Square, New York, presided over by Rep. Richard Nixon.  At the hearing, Nixon grilled Alger Hiss as to his alleged communist sympathies.  Hiss was the classic New Deal “brain truster,” a Harvard Law School graduate who had clerked for Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, an associate to Dean Acheson and John Foster Dulles, an adviser to Pres. Roosevelt at Yalta and who served as Secretary General at the 1945 San Francisco meeting at which the U.N. was founded.

Hiss categorically denied the he had ever known, Whittaker Chambers, Nixon’s principle witness against him.  Chambers was a senior Time editor and a former CP member from 1925 to 1937 who became a leading anticommunist witness and writer.  On August 25th, a showdown between Chambers and Hiss took place at a televised HUAC hearing at the Cannon Caucus Room in Washington, DC, with Nixon as ringmaster, one of the most combative trials of the Cold War era.

Under oath, Hiss denied he knew Chambers, that he was a communist or that he passed State Department documents to Chambers.  But based on Chamber’s testimony and “evidence” (including the infamous Pumpkin Papers microfilm), Hiss was indicted for perjury by a grand jury.  His first trial ran from May to July ’49 ending in a hung jury; a second trial ran from November ’49 to January ’50 and he was found guilty.  He was sentenced to five years in prison; Hiss always maintained his innocence

In July 1949, HUAC called a special hearing on Paul Robeson’s speech misquoted in an Associated Press (AP) dispatch made before the Soviet Union-sponsored Paris Peace Conference.  The Committee invited several African-Americans to testify, most notably Jackie Robinson.  Robinson was the hearing’s star attraction, but was far less forceful in his denunciation of Robeson, calling his comments “silly.” “He has a right to his to his personal views, and if he wants to sound silly when he expresses them in public, that is his business and not mine.”  He went on to praise U.S. liberties, especially religious freedom, and argued that Negroes could win the battle against racial discrimination “without the Communists and we don’t want their help.”

In April 1952, HUAC returned to Hollywood, this time subpoenaing Larry Parks, Zero Mostel and Sam Jaffe; Budd Schulberg and Elia Kazan were “friendly” witnesses, who named names.  Kazan admitted being in the CP for about a year-and-a-half, between 1934-1936, and named eight party members, including playwright Clifford Odets.

Arthur Miller’s The Crucible opened at Broadway’s Martin Beck Theatre on January 22, 1953 — the same week Eisenhower was inaugurated president.  The play recalls the witch trials that gripped Salem, Massachusetts, in the 1690s, and explores how religious hysteria breads repression, including the hanging of women (and some men) deemed to be witches.  Critics and the audience recognized Salem as a metaphor for the postwar Red Scare and the anticommunism hysteria fueled by HUAC and McCarthy.  Three years after the play’s premier, HUAC subpoenaed Miller to testify.  The date picked for his appearance, June 21, 1956, was eight days before his well-publicized and long-scheduled wedding with Marilyn Monroe on the 29th.  According to Miller, HUAC Chairman Francis Walter (D-PA) offered to dismiss the playwright’s testimony if he could pose with the actress.

Miller was considered an unfriendly HUAC witness and refused to name names.  He insisted, “I could not use the name of another person and bring trouble on him.”  In May ’57, he was found guilty of contempt of Congress and sentenced to a $500 fine or 30 days prison term and the loss of his passport; his conviction was reversed in ’58.  He was also blacklisted, barred from working in movies and television, but not on Broadway. A U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ultimately overturned the conviction.

Between 1953-’55, HUAC held a series of hearings on “communist activities” that focused on the CP and “Negros” in New York.  The first round took place on March 16, May 6 and June 15, 1953; a second round took place two years later, on July 28 and 29 and August 1, 1955.  Dozens of alleged former CP members testified, many staunchly anticommunist.  On January 13 and 18, 1954, it held separate hearings on what it identified as “Communist methods of infiltration (entertainment)”; Robeson is mentioned only in passing.

In ’55, HUAC finally subpoenaed folksinger Pete Seeger, David Alman (of the Rosenberg support committee) and the actress Lucille Ball; Zero Mostel, famous for The Producers, refused to name names and was blacklisted.  However, bandleader Artie Shaw, director Robert Rossen, actor Lee Jay Cobb and choreographer Jerome Robbins appeared as “friendly” witnesses.

In ’56, HUAC subpoenaed Robeson to testify and the interchange with Richard Arens, chief counsel, often got very bitter, reflecting Robeson’s resolute principles.  As to the primary question, his communist affiliation, the opening exchange set the tone for the day’s session.

Arnens: Are you now a member of the Communist Party?

Robeson: Oh please, please, please.

Scherer: Please answer, will you, Mr. Robeson?

Robeson: What is the Communist Party? What do you mean by that?

After six grueling hours, Robeson was excused.  He was never indicted, but was blacklisted and lost his passport, prevented even from traveling to Canada.

In July 1959, HUAC held hearings in New York and San Juan on “Communist activities among Puerto Ricans in New York City and Puerto Rico.”  More than a dozen witnesses were subpoenaed; most of the alleged communist witnesses refused to testify.  An NYPD BOSS officer, Mildred Blauvelt, testified.  “I became a member of the New York City Police Department in December of 1942, and upon entrance into the department was assigned by them to infiltrate the Communist Party as an undercover agent,” she revealed.  Her actual infiltration of the party is a bit unclear: “I succeeded in doing so by becoming a member of the Communist Party in April of 1948. I was expelled from the Communist Party in September 1943, but gained reentrance into the party once again in April of 1944, and stayed in the Communist Party until my expulsion in November of 1951.”

In ’54, the liberal Sen. Hubert Humphrey (D-MN), who had backed the 1950 Internal Security Act, introduced the Communist Control Act of 1954 that sought to suppress the party.  HUAC lost its moral bite as the anticommunist hysteria peaked during the late-‘50s as McCarthy’s influence waned. In 1967, it subpoenaed Yippie leaders Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin to testify.


The spirit the post-WW-II Red Scare has resurfaced in a new form of the “blacklist.”  Turning Point USA was set up in 2012 by a staunch reactionary, Charlie Kirk, and its ostensible purpose is to “identify, educate, train, and organize students to promote fiscal responsibility, free markets and limited government.”  It recently launched a new campaign, dubbed “Professor Watchlist,” with a mission to “expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students, promote anti-American values, and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.”  To date, some 97 academics are on the list, including Peter Singer (Princeton), Norman Markowitz (Rutgers), Brittney Cooper (Rutgers), Julio C. Pino (Kent State) and Robert Jensen (University of Texas).

One of the consequences of HUAC was the establishment of a formal blacklist, a list of people blocked from employment because of their political beliefs or affiliations, notably in the entertainment fields and various unions.  In September 1942, in an illegal but effective action, HUAC’s chairman Martin Dies leaked a 2,000-page list, “Communist Front Organizations”, to the Congressional Record that officially published it in 1944.  It identified approximately 250 groups as Communist front organizations and an index of 22,000 suspected individuals.  In the face of strong opposition, the full committee ordered all copies removed from the Library of Congress and destroyed.

Nevertheless, the list was quickly adopted by a wide variety of public and private groups to deny employment to or discriminate against those listed.  Those adopting – and modifying – the list included the Treasury Department (e.g., tax-exemption determinations), the State Department (e.g., passport and deportation decisions) and the U.S. military (e.g., command structure) as well as state and local governments.  In addition, a growing number of civilian business sectors – e.g., federal contractors, hotel businesses and the entertainment industries – denied employment to or discriminated against those listed.

By December ’46, 449 organizations were identified on the “Attorney General’s List of Subversive Organizations” (AGLOSO). In 1951, HUAC came up with yet another list of subversives that included many CP-front groups like the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship, the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee, the American Relief for Greek Democracy and the Peace Information Center, an anti-Cold War group headed by W.E.B DuBois.  He, and four other officials, were arrested and indicted in 1950 for failing to register as communists under the Smith Act.  Most remarkable, a federal judge, James McQuire, acquitted the five defendants.

For a decade-and-a-half, from 1947 to 1961, the Red Scare terrorized the nation, especially the entertainment fields and, most notably, Hollywood. Howard Rushmore, an anticommunist investigative who had worked for William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal-American and had earlier been a CP member and regular contributor to the Daily Worker.  He had testified before HUAC, naming Edward G. Robinson, Charlie Chaplin, Clifford Odets and Trumbo as Communists.  Many entertainers were blacklisted.

Often overlooked, HUAC also targeted numerous radio commentators.  One of those singled out was Lisa Sergio, a now all-but-forgotten ‘40s radio personality, who was listed on the FBI’s Custodial Detention Index (CDI) and, in 1950, Red Channels, the Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television, an anti-communist tract, listed her among 151 actors, radio commentators, musicians and other broadcast-industry personalities — and the New York Times radio show.  Other radio personalities also blackmailed were Cecil Brown, William S. Gailmore, Hans Jacob, Johannes Steel, Raymond Gram Swing, J. Raymond Walsh and Sidney Walton.

As postwar anti-communist hysteria mounted, the Senate picked up the chant and, in September ‘52, the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee (SISS) held hearings at the federal court building in Foley Square, New York, to expose communists in the city’s public schools and colleges.  Senators interrogating current and former Brooklyn College faculty, among others, who had been earlier called by the state’s Rapp-Coudert Committee or otherwise identified as communists.

A decade earlier, New York State legislature held hearings through the Joint Legislative Committee to Investigate the Educational System, aka Rapp-Coudert Committee, to investigate the city’s public universities, especially City and Brooklyn colleges.  Approximately 500 faculty, staff, teachers and student were subpoenaed and interrogated about their political beliefs, required to name names of subversives.

Now, as a threats of a reestablished HUAC, Muslim registration lists and a blacklist are renewed, it’s going to a long next four years.

David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.

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