Archives Experience Newsletter - September 27, 2022
The Loyalty Test
He made a list and checked it twice. But there was no happy ending for anyone who landed on this historic list.
The year was 1950, and Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy spotted a golden political opportunity during the Second Red Scare. At a Republican Women’s Club in Wheeling, West Virginia, McCarthy pulled out a list of 205 names of people whom he alleged were members of the Communist Party who were working and shaping policy in the State Department. The press caught wind of his speech, and overnight, an unremarkable Senator was catapulted to fame.
The atmosphere of fear and paranoia set the stage for McCarthy’s next four years. Tensions with the Soviet Union were high, and China had recently fallen to communism. Even though he was not even a member of the House Un-American Activities Committee, McCarthy wielded the fear of communism as a weapon as our nation struggled with the question: who decides what it means to be American?
On the 75th anniversary of the formation of the HUAC, we re-examine its legacy through Congressional committee records held at the Archives.
National Archives Foundation
The House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) was a standing committee of the House of Representatives that was created on January 3, 1945, to investigate the extent and diffusion of “un-American” activities. Three committees with similar mandates preceded it: the Special Committee to Investigate Communist Activities, established in May 1930, and chaired by Hamilton Fish (Republican, New York); the Special Committee on Un-American Activities Authorized to Investigate Nazi-Propaganda Activities and Certain Other Propaganda Activities, created in April 1934, chair John McCormack (Democrat, Massachusetts) and vice-chair Samuel Dickstein (Democrat, New York); and its immediate and direct predecessor, the Special Committee on Un-American Activities, established on May 26, 1938, chaired by Martin Dies, Jr. (Democrat, Texas).
The latter committee and HUAC specifically investigated both communistic and fascist actions by individuals, organizations and public employees throughout the United States. In the period immediately after World War II, Americans were especially fearful of the Communist threat because Russia possessed nuclear weapons and its leaders publicly boasted of their intentions to destroy the American way of life.
Among many others, HUAC famously investigated the alleged communist leanings of Alger Hiss and the Hollywood Ten. Although the committee sometimes had a factual basis for its claims, it often operated on hearsay and innuendo, and many people’s lives and livelihoods were unjustly upended and wrecked by its actions. At its height, the very suggestion that a person might be called to testify before the committee made them tremble with fear.
By the late 1950s, however, the committee’s influence was declining, and former President Harry Truman himself had declared it “the most un-American thing in the country today.” Although Senator Joseph McCarthy was not connected to HUAC, many Americans associated him with the committee, and American’s distaste for his bad behavior inevitably tarnished the committee’s reputation.
When the committee undertook to investigate the student protests against the Vietnam War in the 1960s, its members swiftly found themselves overmatched by irreverent and satirical opponents. Called to testify in 1967, Jerry Rubin, one of the founding members of the Youth International Party (the Yippies), showed up for the hearing dressed as a Revolutionary War soldier and handed out copies of the Declaration of Independence to the audience. Questioned about his communistic affiliations, he blew soap bubbles at the committee members instead of replying. Called to testify again, he appeared armed with a toy M-16 and decked out in Viet Cong pajamas, and a third time in a Santa Claus suit. The committee members hardly knew what to make of such defiance.
In 1969, the committee was renamed the Internal Security Committee, but that didn’t do much to restore its reputation. It was officially terminated on January 14, 1975.
Although the House Un-American Activities Committee and Senator Joseph McCarthy are inextricably linked in the minds of many Americans, the fact is that McCarthy had no connection to HUAC. Instead, McCarthy, a rather undistinguished Senator first elected to represent Wisconsin in 1946, rocketed to fame with a speech on February 9, 1950, in Wheeling, West Virginia, when he made the startling assertion that he held in his hand a list of employees of the State Department who were “card-carrying members of the Communist party”—“card-carrying member” being an epithet McCarthy repeated again and again over the next several years. He never backed up that claim, but it nevertheless catapulted him to the national stage and won him a seat on the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Senate Committee on Governmental Operations. McCarthy became chairman of the committee in 1953.
Although the committee was supposed to be investigating improprieties and waste in government, McCarthy instead initiated broad investigations into the executive branch, insisting that there were hundreds of communists hiding behind every lamppost in Washington and on every military post of all of the U.S. armed forces. Given the general hysteria about the prevalence of the communist threat at the time, it’s not surprising how much latitude McCarthy was granted.
It wasn’t long, however, before McCarthy went too far. In 1954, he launched a televised probe of the military that led to his downfall. Witnessing McCarthy’s behavior on TV, members of the audience were horrified by the way he bullied the witnesses. Boston attorney Joseph Welch, whom the Army had hired to represent it, finally called McCarthy out during a hearing on June 9, 1954, after McCarthy tried to allege that one of Welch’s associate attorneys was also a communist: “Let us not assassinate this lad further, senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency?”
Just like that, Joseph McCarthy’s star turn was over. His fellow Senators voted to censure him on December 2, 1954, and the citizens of Wisconsin declined to send him back to Washington. Although he continued to allege that communists were still dire threats to American democracy, no one was paying him any attention anymore. He died on May 2, 1957, at Bethesda Naval Hospital, at the age of 48.
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Screening Out Traitors
In late 1947, HUAC undertook an investigation into the extent of communist infiltration into the Hollywood entertainment industry. The committee subpoenaed dozens of producers, screenwriters and directors they thought had ties to the communist party. The hearings began with appearances by Walt Disney and Ronald Reagan, who was then the president of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). Disney named several people who worked for him that he thought were probably Communists. Reagan said he thought there were Communists at work in SAG, but he said that the union had them under control.
Of the people who were subpoenaed, HUAC called 11 to testify. Playwright Bertolt Brecht, an immigrant from Germany, answered the committee’s questions and then fled to Germany. The other 10 refused to answer any questions. The committee accused the “Hollywood Ten”—Lester Cole, Albert Maltz, Alvah Bessie, Adrian Scott, Dalton Trumbo, Herbert Biberman, Ring Lardner, Jr., Edward Dmytryk, Samuel Ornitz, and John Howard Lawson—of contempt of Congress and began criminal proceedings against them.
Ultimately, all 10 were convicted and sent to prison for sentences ranging from six months to a year. Thereafter, most of them were blacklisted and suspended without pay. Only a few of them ever worked in Hollywood again, although some did write under pseudonyms. It was not until 1960 that Kirk Douglas openly defied the blacklist and publicly listed Dalton Trumbo as the screenwriter of “Spartacus.”
In the aftermath of the Hollywood Ten, it was announced that no “subversive” would be employed in Hollywood, and the Hollywood blacklist came into being. In addition to the actions of HUAC and Joseph McCarthy, the blacklist was fueled by private organizations and publications that took it upon themselves to identify people as communists. The blacklist included the names of hundreds of people, many of whose careers were irreparably damaged.
Hidden in the Ranks
This Clifford Berryman political cartoon is about another of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s investigations into communistic infiltration into the Armed Forces that concerned Irving Peress, who was a New York City dentist. He was inducted into the Army Reserve in the fall of 1952 and was scheduled to be sent to Japan as a member of the Army Dental Corps, but he asked for and received a compassionate reassignment to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, because both his wife and daughter were ill.
Peress’ troubles started because when he filled out a questionnaire with queries about whether he was a member of the communist party, he declined to answer those questions on the basis of the fifth amendment to the Constitution. Although there was no indication that Peress was a communist, that he had access to any sensitive information, or that he was stirring up trouble among his fellow soldiers, his answers on his questionnaire nevertheless raised suspicions about him, and in January 1954, the Army decided to discharge him from the military.
At that point, however, Senator McCarthy decided that the army was letting Peress off too lightly and waded into the situation in his typically belligerent fashion. When he was called before McCarthy’s committee, Peress invoked the fifth amendment many times and rebuked the senator for implying that anyone who took the fifth was guilty. At that point, McCarthy sent a letter to Robert T. Stevens, the Secretary of the Army, demanding that Peress be court-martialed. Stevens declined to act on McCarthy’s demands and approved Peress’ discharge.
Civics Corner: When Rights Are Violated
Many of the people who were called to testify before HUAC or Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Senate Committee on Governmental Operations responded to questioning by “pleading the fifth.” The fifth amendment of the United States Constitution protects criminal defendants from having to answer questions that might incriminate them.
When a person pleads the fifth, that action cannot be argued to imply the person’s guilt. This applies only to criminal cases—in civil cases, taking the fifth amendment can have different consequences.