In 1937, Congress began the process of investigating subversive groups within the United States. The committee to oversee the investigation was called the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). The committee believed that the greatest threats to American security came from the American Communist Party and the American Socialist Party. Some congressmen even felt that people working within President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs were communist spies. To these Congressmen, and many American citizens, the New Deal programs were contrary to American capitalism. Congress began to look closely at the ties between labor organizations and the Communist and Socialist Parties. From 1947 to 1954, the House Un-American Committee conducted investigations of suspected communist agents within the Hollywood movie industry, the U.S. State Department and the U.S. military.
Communism in Hollywood
Report Written by the Wives of the “Hollywood Ten”
ongressman John Parnell Thomas, from New Jersey, became the head of HUAC in 1947. His committee’s investigations into the Communist Party were directed at the Hollywood Motion Picture Industry. Actors, writers, and directors were closely studied. Forty-one people from Hollywood willingly went before the HUAC committees. These 41 were called “friendly witnesses.” Each witness was asked, “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” Some said “yes” and some said “no.” Most of these witnesses named other Hollywood friends they had seen at communist events. Ten of these “named” people called before HUAC refused to answer any questions. They also refused to name any other people. Each of them stated that the First and the Fifth Amendments of the Constitution protected them. These 10 people became known as the “Hollywood Ten.” Other actors supported the “Hollywood Ten” by forming the Committee for the First Amendment and traveling to Washington D.C. Some of the notable actors involved with the committee were Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, John Huston, and Gene Kelly. Chairman Thomas continued to press the “Hollywood Ten,” to denounce the Communist Party and to name others that had been involved in communist gatherings. Since they wouldn’t talk each of the 10 were found guilty of contempt of Congress. They were
sentenced to jail for six to twelve months.
HUAC, under Congressman Thomas, continued to investigate the movie industry. Before the committee ended its hearings, 320 Hollywood people were “blacklisted.” Blacklisted actors, directors, and writers found it difficult to find any work in Hollywood.
Two of the “blacklisted” men were Arthur Miller and Dalton Trumbo. Both of these men were writers. Miller was angry that HUAC accused him of crimes that he did not commit. He wrote a play called The Crucible, which dealt with the Salem witch-hunts. He felt that HUAC was leading a communist witch-hunt. Trumbo continued to write using a false name after becoming “blacklisted.” He won two Academy Awards while using his false name. In 1960, Trumbo decided to write under his true name again. He wrote Spartacus and became the first blacklisted writer to once again use his real name.
Communism in the U.S. Government
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg
UAC next turned its attention to the U.S. State Department. HUAC’s investigation into spying within the State Department did not draw as much publicity as the Hollywood investigations. The committee feared that State Department workers were sending secret information to the Soviet Union. In 1948, Richard Nixon, a congressman from California, questioned Elizabeth Bentley and Whittaker Chambers about their associations with the American Communist Party. He turned his information over to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). This information led to the arrest of Alger Hiss, a State Department employee. Information from these investigations also led to the arrests of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Harry Gold, and David Greenglass for treason. These four were accused of giving secret atomic bomb information to the Soviets. The Rosenbergs refused
to admit any wrongdoing and were found guilty and executed in
1953. Gold and Greenglass, however, cooperated with the
government and were sentenced to long prison terms.
Upon reading Congressman Nixon’s investigation transcripts, members of Congress began to worry more about State Department infiltrations. In 1950, Congress passed the Internal Security Act. It is also called the McCarran Act, named after its author Senator Pat McCarran. This act required loyalty oaths for all government employees. Employees had to swear that they were not communists and would not help communists. The most controversial aspect of the act was the authorization of concentration camps to be set up for communist sympathizers. The camps were to be implemented during “emergency situations.” President Truman vetoed the McCarran Act, but Congress overrode the veto by large margins and it became law.
The Rise and Fall of Senator McCarthy
Another public phase of the HUAC investigation began in 1951 under the leadership of Senator Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy had shocked America by saying that he knew the names of 81 State Department employees who were communists. Senator McCarthy began months of Senate committee hearings investigating suspected communists. They were asked to denounce the Communist Party and to name other communist members that were
working for the United States government. After three years of hearings, Senator McCarthy did not find any major communist spy network within the government. McCarthy then began to question members of the United States Army.
President Dwight Eisenhower was a World War II army hero. Eisenhower was angry that McCarthy was questioning military officers and members of Eisenhower’s own staff. President Eisenhower asked Congress to stop Senator McCarthy. Congress voted to end Senator McCarthy’s hearings. The Senate also voted to censure the senator. A censure is a verbal or written criticism of a congressman’s actions. The censure stated McCarthy was to be condemned for “conduct contrary to senatorial tradition.”
The End of the HUAC
Senator Joseph McCarthy
rom 1947 to 1954, the House Un-American Activities Committee questioned thousands of
suspected American Communist Party members or associated.
The committee looked into the private and public lives of many American citizens. Critics have argued that HUAC was a “witch-hunt” that violated the constitutional rights of Americans. Supporters said that America needed to be protected from anyone who did not support the anti-communist sentiments of the time. From 1954 to 1975, HUAC continued to meet but discontinued hearings and investigations. The work of HUAC finally ended in 1975.