HUAC: Definition & Trials

Instructor: David White
Through this lesson, you will learn about the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), and gain insight into how their investigations affected the American cultural landscape during the mid-20th century.

What was the HUAC?

Like many Americans, my constitutional right to free speech is an important part of my identity. As the cornerstone of American democracy, it allows citizens to express their opinions publically, pursue their interests, and associate freely with others, all without the fear of repression or governmental interference. However, during World War II and the subsequent Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, Americans' first amendment rights came under attack during a series of congressional hearings, which have since become one of the 20th century's most important lessons.

Established in 1938 as a way to expose Nazi sympathizers and subversives, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was a special congressional committee comprised of members of the U.S. House of Representatives. In its early years, the committee was responsible for investigating individuals or groups that were suspected of having ties to fascist or communist organizations during World War II. As the name suggests, the purpose of HUAC was intended to uncover any 'un-American' activities that would compromise the safety and integrity of the nation.

By 1945, tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union escalated, after which the HUAC became a standing committee and narrowed their focus on the presence of Soviet threats in the United States. Under the leadership of Congressman Edward Hart, members of the HUAC mounted an aggressive campaign to root out influential Americans whom they believed to be communists. In identifying suspected communists, HUAC held citizens in contempt of Congress and issued subpoenas. They also pressured potential witnesses to reveal information or names about suspected Soviet sympathizers.

Anti-communist hysteria fueled the HUAC

HUAC and Hollywood

Broadly speaking, the purpose of the HUAC was to investigate disloyal or subversive persons during and after World War II. However, by 1947, their biggest concern was that certain well-known Americans with unpopular political beliefs might use their influence to promote communism in the U.S.

From 1947 to 1951, the HUAC used their authority to subpoena Hollywood screenwriters and actors to appear before the committee, where they were questioned at length about their political beliefs and asked to give the names of others with whom they frequently associated. Hollywood professionals formed defense groups and would not cooperate with HUAC. For example, the 'Hollywood Ten', a group of screenwriters, was cited for contempt of Congress, which led to failed appeals and 1-year prison sentences. In spite of their Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination, some of those question feared taking the fifth would make them look guilty, so they answered the questions.

Film industry leaders photographed outside of the HUAC hearings in 1947

While most who were questioned did choose to answer the questions asked by HUAC members, there were a number of people in the film industry who declined and were blacklisted in Hollywood. Between 1947 and 1950, the Hollywood Blacklist included prominent professionals like Charlie Chaplin, Judy Holiday, Dorothy Parker, and Orson Welles, many of whom were denied work because of their suspected support of communism.

HUAC and Alger Hiss

Although the HUAC spent a considerable amount of time investigating suspected communism in the Hollywood film industry, a portion of their attention was put towards investigating government officials whom they believed had ties to the Soviet Union.

During her testimony in 1948, former Soviet spy, Elizabeth Bentley, gave the names of several prominent Americans whom she claimed were also acting as agents for the Soviet government. Along with other witnesses, such as Whittaker Chambers, she claimed that U.S. State Department member Alger Hiss had been acting as a spy on behalf of the Soviets.

Alger Hiss testifying before the HUAC in 1950

As a member of the state department, if Hiss had been working for the Soviets, he would have been able to provide them with an endless amount of valuable information, which made the allegations very serious. Hiss repeatedly denied any association with communism, but was discovered to have made several false statements in his testimony. He was convicted of two counts of perjury in 1950, for which he was sentenced to five years each in prison; he eventually served three-and-a-half years. HUAC members at the time of the Hiss investigation included future president, Richard M. Nixon

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