HUAC Is Established

The House Un-American Activities Committee launched a crusade against subversive activity in the U.S. government, spreading its investigations to include unions, educational institutions, and the media. The committee came in later years to be a symbol of political intolerance, repression, and abuse of civil liberties by the government.

Summary of Event

Inspired by the failure of the country to emerge from the Great Depression, the ebbing of the New Deal, the reemergence of the Republican Party in the electoral process, the successful growth of trade unionism, and the uneasiness of international political affairs, loyalty probes by the U.S. Congress started to take center stage during the late 1930’s in a delicate political process. Attempting to expose real and perceived conspiracies, a congressional committee was organized to investigate the affairs of individuals and groups who, it was alleged, were engaged in attempts to overthrow the existing social and political order of the nation. On May 26, 1938, the House Special Committee on Un-American Activities, popularly known as the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), chaired by conservative Democrat Martin Dies, Jr., of Texas, was established. In June, the committee began hearings to seek out subversive activities against the government of the United States. Members of the committee included Democrats John J. Dempsey of New Mexico, Samuel Dickstein of New York, and Joe Starnes of Alabama and Republicans Noah M. Mason of Illinois, Harold G. Mosier of Ohio, and J. Parnell Thomas of New Jersey. [kw]HUAC Is Established (May 26, 1938)
House Un-American Activities Committee[House Unamerican Activities Committee]
Dies Committee
[g]United States;May 26, 1938: HUAC Is Established[09760]
[c]Government and politics;May 26, 1938: HUAC Is Established[09760]
[c]Civil rights and liberties;May 26, 1938: HUAC Is Established[09760]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;May 26, 1938: HUAC Is Established[09760]
Dies, Martin, Jr.
Thomas, J. Parnell
Dickstein, Samuel
Hoover, J. Edgar
La Follette, Robert M., Jr.
Frey, John P.
Hopkins, Harry
Ickes, Harold
Perkins, Frances

The committee was created for the purpose of uncovering fascist subversion, particularly Nazi spies and collaborators among the Ku Klux Klan, German American organizations, and other groups with pro-German, fascist, or Aryan leanings. HUAC did very little in this regard. Instead, the committee quickly changed its focus to the other end of the political spectrum, choosing to ferret out communist, rather than fascist, activity. In the light of this change of focus, first on HUAC’s list for investigation were the Federal Theatre Project Federal Theatre Project and the Federal Writers’ Project. Federal Writers’ Project Born in New Deal legislation, these programs became early targets for Republican strategists in the congressional electoral campaigns of the late 1930’s. Representative Thomas led the way, determining that evidence received from committee investigators clearly indicated that the Federal Theatre Project was a branch of the Communist Party. Actual evidence in support of the specific allegations against the project failed to materialize.

Next, HUAC investigated labor unions. Testifying before the committee, John P. Frey, president of the Metal Trades Department of the American Federation of Labor American Federation of Labor (AFL), accused all but one member of the leadership of the Congress of Industrial Organizations Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), a rival labor organization, of being either members of the Communist Party or sympathetic to its cause. Only John L. Lewis, Lewis, John L. president of the United Mine Workers, was exempted from this charge. Regardless of the accusations, no cross-examination of the witness took place and no subpoenas against those accused were issued. Charges were made in the presence of a supportive gallery of witnesses. Frey’s indictment of the CIO leadership later was amended to state that the rank and file of the union were not being accused, only its leadership. Newspapers elaborated Frey’s charges. By the end of his testimony, 280 CIO union leaders had been charged with Communist activity. In only a few cases was there any corroborating material to support the allegations.

Walter S. Steele of the National Republic, chairman of the American Coalition Committee on National Security, claimed to have documented evidence that more than 6.5 million Americans were engaged in conspiratorial activities against the government of the United States. Steele did not have to support his claim. By the end of the committee’s first hearings, 640 separate groups, 483 newspapers, and 280 labor unions had been labeled as Communist organizations.

Included in the list of accused organizations was the American Civil Liberties Union American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which had recently been involved in the Senate Civil Liberties Committee Senate Civil Liberties Committee hearings. The Senate’s committee had been organized by Robert M. La Follette, Jr., to investigate official abuses of civil rights in trade union organizing activities during the decade. According to HUAC, both the Senate Committee and the ACLU had fallen under the influence of the Communist Party. Other groups receiving HUAC’s ire were pacifist organizations, which were seen as dupes of the Communist conspiracy; the media, which, according to the committee, supported trade unionism at the expense of business; and institutions of higher education, which the committee said were rife with Communists and radicals encouraging racial strife and antifascist activities. The motion-picture industry received special attention; accusations against screen stars and writers such as James Cagney, Clark Gable, Dorothy Parker, Robert Taylor, and Shirley Temple were written into the records.

Despite HUAC’s assurances that all those accused would be given a chance to clear their names, only a small number received that opportunity. Writer Heywood Broun read a prepared statement and then was asked to leave. Between June and October, witness after witness was paraded before the committee, supporting the idea that there were Communists in government positions, higher education, the media, and labor. By the November elections, public opinion had become divided on some of the committee’s methods but not on the idea that there was a role for the committee in government.

Dies’s attack on Communists eventually led to his attack on trade unionism, civil rights movements, and liberal agendas in general. He called for the resignation of government officials with whom he disagreed, such as Harry Hopkins, Harold Ickes, and Frances Perkins. His accusations that there were thousands upon thousands of Communists in the federal government conspired against New Deal programs and personalities alike. In his book The Trojan Horse (1940), Trojan Horse, The (Dies) Dies institutionalized the idea that Communism was an organized fifth column that had brought on the Great Depression and made President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal its tool. He went on to accuse the president’s wife, Eleanor, of being the Communist Party’s most valuable asset in Washington, D.C. Once again, no evidence of these accusations ever materialized.


HUAC’s charges changed the nation’s legislative agenda. The Republican Party’s success in the 1938 election, its first major success in almost a decade, brought down New Dealers such as Michigan and Wisconsin governors Frank Murphy Murphy, Frank and Philip La Follette. La Follette, Philip At the national level, eight new Republican senators and eighty-eight new Republican members of the House of Representatives helped point to the facts not only that the New Deal was in trouble but also that there was a perceived need for government to ferret out subversives in the United States.

Despite Roosevelt’s support, the Senate Civil Liberties Committee came to an end in 1940, after only four years in operation. On the other hand, HUAC went on for another thirty-five years. Dies’s initial confrontation with those on the political left helped lay the groundwork for the killing of the Senate’s committee by helping to elect those who would support the loss of its funding. Dies’s committee also laid the foundation for the evolution of the McCarthy hearings of the 1950’s and for government police operations such as the Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) of the 1960’s and 1970’s.

Dies set up the rules for official government action that, in the end, ruined lives and careers, denied due process of law to those accused, and insinuated guilt by association. In the process, his committee produced a thorough challenge to the democracy it was attempting to protect. Although HUAC has a deeply entrenched reputation as being antidemocratic in itself, historians can now see that the underlying concern of the committee was not unfounded. More widespread scholarly access to Soviet-era documents became possible with the opening of the Soviet archives in the early 1990’s, and evidence in those documents revealed that the Soviet Union had a substantial espionage program in the United States involving high-level U.S. government officials, including the cofounder and vice chairman of HUAC, Samuel Dickstein, who was paid $1,250 per month by the Soviet Union’s People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD) between 1937 and 1940. At the same time, it has since become an established principle of common law that the First Amendment right to assembly protects the right of American citizens to belong to the Communist Party, and persecuting citizens for their membership in the party is therefore unconstitutional. House Un-American Activities Committee[House Unamerican Activities Committee]
Dies Committee

Further Reading

  • Bentley, Eric, ed. Thirty Years of Treason: Excerpts from Hearings Before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, 1938-1968. New York: Viking, 1971. At times hilarious and at other times sobering, this volume remains the best introduction to the things said and done in HUAC’s name.
  • Dies, Martin. Martin Dies’ Story. New York: Bookmailer, 1963. The memoir of the man who set the committee’s tone and tact. Provides personal insight into Dies’s life. Includes informative appendixes.
  • _______. The Trojan Horse in America. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1940. Dies’s summary of the subversive threat posed by communists and native fascists.
  • Goodman, Walter. The Committee: The Extraordinary Career of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1968. Written in a lively, journalistic style, this is the standard history of HUAC’s first thirty years. Goodman criticizes both the committee, for its inquisitorial and sensationalist style, and the investigated, for their dissident politics and confrontational posturing.
  • Navasky, Victor. Naming Names. New York: Viking, 1980. This self-described moral detective story investigates HUAC in Hollywood and the difficult choices faced by those who received committee subpoenas.
  • Ogden, August Raymond. The Dies Committee: A Study of the Special House Committee for the Investigation of Un-American Activities, 1938-1944. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1945. Discusses the antecedents of the committee, its formation, and its process of investigation.
  • O’Reilly, Kenneth. Hoover and the Un-Americans: The FBI, HUAC, and the Red Menace. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1983. Based on thousands of FBI and other government agency files obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, this book explores the on-again/off-again relationship between the FBI and HUAC. Particular emphasis is placed on the ways in which HUAC publicized information from FBI files on dissident individuals and groups.
  • Redish, Martin H. The Logic of Persecution: Free Expression and the McCarthy Era. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2005. An examination of the anti-Communist hysteria of the 1940’s and 1950’s. Includes a chapter on HUAC and the committee’s investigation of Hollywood. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Schultz, Bud, and Ruth Schultz. The Price of Dissent: Testimonies to Political Repression in America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. Includes two essays on HUAC by Dagmar Wilson and Abbie Hoffman, alongside many other essays on the history of the organized repression of dissent in the United States. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Sexton, Patricia Cayo. The War on Labor and the Left: Understanding America’s Unique Conservatism. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1991. Analyzes how the use of power has evolved in government and legal institutions, economic policies, and the media.

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