Testimony of J. Edgar Hoover before the House Un-American Activities Committee Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Whereas the most famous hearings held by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) were interviews with movie stars, artists, or intellectuals, conducted in order to ferret out Communists within US society—especially in Hollywood—the HUAC's interview with Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director J. Edgar Hoover was of a different sort. Hoover's testimony acted both to provide the HUAC with ideological cover and to demonstrate that various federal organizations were all on the same page regarding the threat posed by Communism and what to do about it. Hoover's authority as FBI director, his almost folk-hero status due to his successes fighting gangsters such as John Dillinger during the 1920s and 1930s, and his long track record of fighting Communism and radicalism beginning in 1919 made his HUAC testimony compelling and gave Hoover a platform to speak to the American people.

Summary Overview

Whereas the most famous hearings held by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) were interviews with movie stars, artists, or intellectuals, conducted in order to ferret out Communists within US society—especially in Hollywood—the HUAC's interview with Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director J. Edgar Hoover was of a different sort. Hoover's testimony acted both to provide the HUAC with ideological cover and to demonstrate that various federal organizations were all on the same page regarding the threat posed by Communism and what to do about it. Hoover's authority as FBI director, his almost folk-hero status due to his successes fighting gangsters such as John Dillinger during the 1920s and 1930s, and his long track record of fighting Communism and radicalism beginning in 1919 made his HUAC testimony compelling and gave Hoover a platform to speak to the American people.

Defining Moment

During the years after the end of World War II, the US government turned its focus from defeating fascism in Nazi Germany, Italy, and Japan to defeating Communism in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and especially within the United States itself. Though Communist political ideologies had gained some traction in the United States during the Great Depression of the 1930s, with the country's emergence as a world superpower after World War II, such ideologies were increasingly unwelcome in the context of the threat posed by the other superpower, the Soviet Union. Many Americans feared that American Communists were preparing an overthrow of the government as had occurred in the Soviet Union, and the US government began taking steps to root out the influence of Communism in the United States.

To that end, the House Un-American Activities Committee, which had been formed in 1938 to investigate Americans who potentially had ties to Fascism and Nazism, emerged from World War II to focus almost exclusively on the threat posed by Communism in US society. With the onset of the Cold War, the American people were exceedingly fearful of Communism and the threat it posed to democracy and capitalism within the United States, and thus many eagerly supported the HUAC's investigation of the influence of Communism in Hollywood during 1947.

In 1947, the HUAC began to hold hearings in Hollywood that sought to uncover subversive Communist messages that were allegedly introduced into motion pictures by left-leaning producers, directors, writers, and actors. Though many Americans supported the aims of the HUAC hearings, many also were wary of the tactics used to gain information, such as potentially abusing the power of the subpoena, demanding that witnesses publicly name those they suspected of being Communists even if there was no evidence, and encouraging the firing of those who were seen as possibly having Communist sympathies.

Though the HUAC had been successful in rooting out those it considered to have Communist sympathies within federal arts organizations, such as the Federal Theatre Project, its members felt they needed both the support of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and the investigative power of the FBI in order to truly make a difference in Hollywood. To that end, HUAC chair J. Parnell Thomas invited Hoover to testify on March 26, 1947. Only two weeks before Hoover testified in front of the HUAC, President Harry S. Truman articulated the Truman Doctrine of containing Communism and authoritarianism, squarely placing the US federal government against those whom they suspected of subverting either US allies or the US government itself. Further, only four days before Hoover's testimony, Truman issued Executive Order 9835, which instituted a loyalty program to ensure that federal employees posed no threat to the US government.

Hoover was happy to help the HUAC's efforts. After all, he had been fighting Communism for nearly thirty years when he stepped before the committee. His view of the threat's gravity, as well as the appropriate actions to combat it, were in line with the committee's and demonstrated unity within various organizations of the federal government.

Author Biography

J. Edgar Hoover was born on January 1, 1895, and joined the US Department of Justice in 1917. Within his first two years of federal employment, he made a name for himself as an anti-Communist by heading the General Intelligence Division of the Department of Justice, which staged raids against suspected anarchists and Communists at the direction of US Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer and became part of the Bureau of Investigation in 1921. After becoming director of the Bureau of Investigation in 1924 (which became the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1935), Hoover made a name for himself by capturing notorious gangsters, but he remained especially vigilant against those whom he considered to have radical political perspectives, carrying out spying operations, often without reporting them to the attorney general or the president. By the beginning of the Cold War in the 1940s, Hoover was seen as one of the greatest anti-Communists of the day and the FBI as an essential tool against Communist subversion. Hoover remained director of the FBI until his death on May 2, 1972.

Historical Document

My feelings concerning the Communist Party of the United States are well known. I have not hesitated over the years to express my concern and apprehension. As a consequence its professional smear brigades have conducted a relentless assault against the FBI. You who have been members of this committee also know the fury with which the party, its sympathizers and fellow travelers can launch an assault. I do not mind such attacks. What has been disillusioning is the manner in which they have been able to enlist support often from apparently well-meaning but thoroughly duped persons.…

The communist movement in the United States began to manifest itself in 1919. Since then it has changed its name and its party line whenever expedient and tactical. But always it comes back to fundamentals and bills itself as the party of Marxism-Leninism. As such, it stands for the destruction of our American form of government; it stands for the destruction of American democracy; it stands for the destruction of free enterprise; and it stands for the creation of a “Soviet of the United States” and ultimate world revolution.…

The communist, once he is fully trained and indoctrinated, realizes that he can create his order in the United States only by “bloody revolution.” Their chief textbook, “The History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union,” is used as a basis for planning their revolution. Their tactics require that to be successful they must have:

1. The will and sympathy of the people.

2. Military aid and assistance.

3. Plenty of guns and ammunition.

4. A program for extermination of the police as they are the most important enemy and are termed “trained fascists.”

5. Seizure of all communications, buses, railroads, radio stations, and other forms of communications and transportation.…

One thing is certain. The American progress which all good citizens seek, such as old-age security, houses for veterans, child assistance, and a host of others, is being adopted as window dressing by the communists to conceal their true aims and entrap gullible followers.…

The mad march of Red fascism is a cause for concern in America. But the deceit, the trickery, and the lies of the American communists are catching up with them. Whenever the spotlight of truth is focused upon them they cry, “Red-baiting.” Now that their aims and objectives are being exposed, they are creating a Committee for the Constitutional Rights of Communists, and are feverishly working to build up what they term a quarter-million-dollar defense fund to place ads in papers, to publish pamphlets, to buy radio time. They know that their backs will soon be to the wall.…

What is important is the claim of the communists themselves that for every party member there are 10 others ready, willing and able to do the party's work. Herein lies the greatest menace of communism. For these are the people who infiltrate and corrupt various spheres of American life. So rather than the size of the Communist Party, the way to weigh its true importance is by testing its influence, its ability to infiltrate.…

The communists have developed one of the greatest propaganda machines the world has ever known. They have been able to penetrate and infiltrate many respectable public opinion mediums. They capitalize upon ill-founded charges associating known honest progressive liberals with left-wing causes. I have always entertained the view that there are few appellations more degrading than “communist” and hence it should be reserved for those justly deserving the degradation.

The communist propaganda technique is designed to promote emotional response with the hope that the victim will be attracted by what he is told the communist way of life holds in store for him. The objective, of course, is to develop discontent and hasten the day when the communists can gather sufficient support and following to overthrow the American way of life.…

Communists and their followers are prolific letter writers, and some of the more energetic ones follow the practice of directing numerous letters of protest to editors but signing a different name to each. Members of Congress are well aware of communists starting their pressure campaigns by an avalanche of mail which follows the party line.…

The American communists launched a furtive attack on Hollywood in 1935 by the issuance of a directive calling for a concentration in Hollywood. The orders called for action on two fronts: One, an effort to infiltrate the labor unions; two, infiltrate the so-called intellectual and creative fields.

In movie circles, communists developed an effective defense a few years ago in meeting criticism. They would counter with the question “After all, what is the matter with communism?” It was effective because many persons did not possess adequate knowledge of the subject to give an intelligent answer.…

I feel that this committee could render a great service to the nation through its power of exposure in quickly spotlighting existing front organizations and those which will be created in the future. There are easy tests to establish the real character of such organizations:

1. Does the group espouse the cause of Americanism or the cause of Soviet Russia?

2. Does the organization feature as speakers at its meeting known communists, sympathizers, or fellow travelers?

3. Does the organization shift when the party line shifts?

4. Does the organization sponsor causes, campaigns, literature, petitions, or other activities sponsored by the party or other front organizations?

5. Is the organization used as a sounding board by or is it endorsed by communist-controlled labor unions?

6. Does its literature follow the communist line or is it printed by the communist press?

7. Does the organization receive consistent favorable mention in the communist publications?

8. Does the organization present itself to be nonpartisan yet engage in political activities and consistently advocate causes favored by the communists?

9. Does the organization denounce American and British foreign policy while always lauding Soviet policy?

10. Does the organization utilize communist “double-talk” by referring to Soviet dominated countries as democracies, complaining that the United States is imperialistic and constantly denouncing monopoly-capital?

11. Have outstanding leaders in public life openly renounced affiliation with the organization?

12. Does the organization, if espousing liberal progressive causes, attract well-known honest patriotic liberals or does it denounce well-known liberals?

13. Does the organization have a consistent record of supporting the American viewpoint over the years?

14. Does the organization consider matters now directly related to its avowed purposes and objectives?

The Communist Party of the United States is a fifth column if there ever was one. It is far better organized than were the Nazis in occupied countries prior to their capitulation. They are seeking to weaken America just as they did in their era of obstruction when they were aligned with the Nazis. Their goal is the overthrow of our government. There is no doubt as to where a real communist's loyalty rests. Their allegiance is to Russia, not the United States.…

What can we do? And what should be our course of action? The best antidote to communism is vigorous, intelligent, old-fashioned Americanism, with eternal vigilance. I do not favor any course of action which would give the communists cause to portray and pity themselves as martyrs. I do favor unrelenting prosecution wherever they are found to be violating our country's laws.

As Americans, our most effective defense is a workable democracy that guarantees and preserves our cherished freedoms.

I would have no fears if more Americans possessed the zeal, the fervor, the persistence and the industry to learn about this menace of Red fascism. I do fear for the liberal and progressive who has been hoodwinked and duped into joining hands with the communists. I confess to a real apprehension so long as communists are able to secure ministers of the gospel to promote their evil work and espouse a cause that is alien to the religion of Christ and Judaism. I do fear so long as school boards and parents tolerate conditions whereby communists and fellow travelers, under the guise of academic freedom, can teach our youth a way of life that eventually will destroy the sanctity of the home, that undermines faith in God, that causes them to scorn respect for constituted authority and sabotage our revered Constitution.

I do fear so long as American labor groups are infiltrated, dominated or saturated with the virus of communism. I do fear the palliation and weasel-worded gestures against communism indulged in by some of our labor leaders who should know better, but who have become pawns in the hands of sinister but astute manipulations for the communist cause.

I fear for ignorance on the part of all our people who may take the poisonous pills of communist propaganda.

Glossary

fifth column: a group of people who act traitorously and subversively out of a secret sympathy with an enemy of their country

indoctrinated: to instruct in a doctrine, principle, or ideology, especially to imbue with a specific biased belief or view point; to teach or inculcate

palliation: to relieve or lessen without curing; mitigate; alleviate

Document Analysis

When the House Committee on Un-American Activities invited FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to testify on March 26, 1947, it was ostensibly to discuss the possibility of outlawing the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA). However, Hoover spoke much more broadly about the threat posed by Communism and the various things that could and should be done to combat its influence. Hoover argued that Communism stood for nothing short of “the destruction of our American form of government” and “the destruction of free enterprise.” He asserted that the “the communist, once he is fully trained and indoctrinated, realizes that he can create his order in the United States only by ‘bloody revolution.’” Hoover's views on Communism were well known to both the committee and the public, and he acknowledged that he had never hesitated to speak of his “concern and apprehension” about Communism. His testimony that day was less about outlawing the CPUSA and more about forging an alliance between the HUAC and the FBI to fight Communism together moving forward.

To Hoover, the activities of the HUAC worked hand-in-hand with those carried out by the FBI. The FBI could investigate potential Communists, but the HUAC could best publicly disseminate the FBI's findings through its hearings. To Hoover, there were true Americans who aided the Communists in spreading their message, but many who had done so were “apparently well-meaning but thoroughly duped persons.” By informing the American people of the dangers of Communist infiltration, the HUAC was performing a public service by creating a well-informed populace. The function of the FBI within the United States throughout the Cold War, on the other hand, was completely different. The FBI could investigate those suspected of Communist sympathies in order to find any violations of the law or any potential threats in terms of espionage or sabotage.

At the time of Hoover's testimony, HUAC's target was the producers, directors, writers, and actors in Hollywood, whom committee members felt were imbuing American movies with subtle Communist messages. Hoover backed the HUAC agenda, noting efforts by Communists to infiltrate labor unions that organized workers on film productions as well as those who actually wrote, directed, and acted in the movies. Again, Hoover's answer is to educate the public on the perils of Communism and the tactics he said Communists used. His greatest fears were that those who might influence public opinion, particularly Hollywood filmmakers, liberal and progressive politicians and activists, left-leaning members of the clergy, and academics who favor academic freedom, would “teach our youth a way of life that eventually will destroy the sanctity of the home, that undermines faith in God, that causes them to scorn respect for constituted authority and sabotage our revered Constitution.” To Hoover, these were the real threats that the FBI should investigate and the HUAC should expose.

Essential Themes

Even before Hoover's testimony before the HUAC, the FBI had been involved in working to help shape public opinion about the evils of Communism, arguing that Communists in the United States were, in fact, working at the behest of the United States' Cold War foe, the Soviet Union. The FBI began to play an increasing role in the investigation of Communism within the federal government and within American society as a whole. However, the tide of public opinion about the zealous anti-Communist tactics used by both the FBI and the HUAC began to change during the 1950s, when Republican Senator Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin took the HUAC's tactics to their extreme, even going so far as to televise his hearings, in which he mercilessly harangued those he suspected of having Communist sympathies. When McCarthy's tactics became too much for the American public to stomach, the HUAC and FBI also suffered a loss in standing in the public mind.

However, Hoover's zeal never wavered, and in the 1960s he oversaw an expansion of the FBI's Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO), which involved covert espionage, often illegal investigations without probable cause, of individuals the FBI thought might be subversives. Since the HUAC was no longer an effective means to expose Communist sympathizers to public scrutiny, Hoover believed he and the FBI could use covert means to smear those he considered sympathetic to Communism.

Though anti-Communism continued to be a theme in American life throughout the Cold War era, explicit hearings, such as those held by HUAC and McCarthy, ended by the mid-1950s, and operations, such as COINTELPRO, came under public scrutiny when they were exposed in 1971, forcing Hoover to abandon one of the main strategies the FBI used to investigate suspected American Communists. By that time, however, the tenor of the Cold War had changed with the onset of the period of détente and the de-escalation of tensions with Communist nations.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Bentley, Eric, ed. Thirty Years of Treason: Excerpts from Hearings before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, 1938–1968. New York: Thunder's Mouth, 2002. Print.
  • Hoover, J. Edgar. Masters of Deceit: The Story of Communism in America and How to Fight It. New York: Holt, 1958. Print.
  • Litvak, Joseph. The Un-Americans: Jews, the Blacklist, and Stoolpigeon Culture. Durham: Duke UP, 2009. Print.
  • May, Lary, ed. Recasting America: Culture and Politics in the Age of Cold War. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1989. Print.
  • O'Reilly, Kenneth. Hoover and the Un-Americans: The FBI, HUAC, and the Red Menace. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1983. Print.
  • Sbardellati, John. J. Edgar Hoover Goes to the Movies: The FBI and the Origins of Hollywood's Cold War. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2012. Print.
Categories: History Content