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The House Committee on Un-American Activities

While newsmen take notes, Chairman Dies of House Committee investigating Un-American activities, proofs & reads his statement replying to Pres. Roosevelt’s attack on the Committee, Oct. 26, 1938 (Copyright Expired)

Sixty-five years ago today, The House Un-American Activities Committee announced that former Communist spy Whittaker Chambers had produced microfilm of secret documents hidden inside a pumpkin on his Maryland farm.

This blog post is not about Whittaker Chambers and his connection to the “pumpkin documents.” I want to review the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Most people reading this have probably never heard of this committee and would probably think that the committee title alone would be a violation of the first amendment.

Brief History on The Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC)

The House Committee on Un-American Activities was created in 1938 as an investigative body looking into alleged disloyalty and subversive activities by private citizens, public employees, and suspected Communists. It was chaired by Martin Dies Jr. (D-TX), and therefore known as the Dies Committee.

The committee name was changed to the more politically correct sounding, “House Committee on Internal Security” in 1969. In 1975 the house officially abolished the committee and its various functions were transferred to the House Judiciary Committee.

This Is NOT Your “Uncle Joseph’s” Committee

Those few who are familiar with the House Committee on Un-American Activities often associate it incorrectly with Senator Joseph McCarthy, the chairman of the Government Operations Committee and its Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the U.S. Senate, not the House of Representatives. McCarthy was a US Senator not a member of the House of Representatives and had nothing to do with the House Committee on Un-American Activities or the resulting blacklisting of witnesses.

The Blacklisted “Hollywood Ten”

In 1947 the committee was seeing communism everywhere. Those of us who lived through those tumultuous times remember that communism was viewed as a real legitimate threat to the American way of life. Not unlike how we view some Middle Eastern Terrorist groups today. Those who were called before the committee and refused to testify were labeled as enemies of America and blacklisted by the major movie studios.

The so-called “Hollywood Ten” were hardly household names in the entertainment industry. They were all screenwriters, directors and producers. But there were certainly several very well known names that were blacklisted such as Charlie Chaplin, Orson Wells (War of the Worlds), actor Edward G. Robinson, bandleader Artie Shaw, newscaster Howard K. Smith, and actress Ruth Gordon of “Harold and Maude” and “Rosemary’s Baby.”

In all more than 300 artists, directors, radio commentators, actors and particularly screenwriters were shunned by the industry. Only about 10% managed to go on to any kind of successful career.

Some Final Thoughts

Who would be considered un-American in today’s society? Rush Limbaugh, Bill Maher, Barack Obama, Ted Cruz, Edward Snowden? It’s probably a good thing this committee no longer exists as it did in the 30’s and 40’s. It rings of the Nazi’s telling children to turn in their parents during World War II.

One of the great things about America that makes it different than any other place on earth is its “self-correction.” Slavery, women’s voting rights, segregation, have all been modified or abolished by a freethinking people. We are not free of societal problems by any means but at least as far as the House Un-American Activities Committee is concerned that era has ended. Good Riddance.

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