As an organization that traces its founding to the National Coalition to Abolish the House Un-American Activities Committee (NCAHUAC), we don’t look too favorably on the legacy of HUAC. That is why we are appalled by Newt Gingrich’s calls for a new HUAC.
For those unfamiliar with our history, the truncated version goes something like this: Frank Wilkinson was an employee of the Los Angeles Housing Authority. He had an innovative plan to drive out slumlords and turn Chavez Ravine into integrated public housing. The city of Los Angeles had even received federal money for the project. Slumlords and developers though, don’t take very kindly to this sort of thing and soon began formulating a plan of attack. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, for reasons that would seem murky to anybody who thought of them as a law enforcement agency, had been keeping a detailed file on Frank since he had taken a trip to Chicago some time before. When his file became public in the 1980s, it totaled over 132,000 pages —more than Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s file.
The FBI, acting as the invisible hand of the free market, turned over Frank’s files to lawyers for the developers. During an eminent domain hearing when Frank was called to testify about housing conditions, the lawyers for the developers, using the FBI’s dossier on Frank, began to cross examine him about his First Amendment protected political views. Frank, a fervent believer in the Bill of Rights, refused to answer such questions. He was fired from the Los Angeles Housing Authority; Chavez Ravine residents were evicted and the neighborhood was turned into Dodgers Stadium. Franks was summoned once before the California Senate Committee on Un-American Activities (many states had their own “Little HUACS”), and twice before HUAC itself. Each time, he refused to testify as to his political affiliations on the grounds that they were protected by the First Amendment.
After the Supreme Court’s failure to support Frank’s assertion that the First Amendment prevented him from being compelled to reveal his political affiliations, Frank spent nine months in federal prison. Afterwards, he went on to found NCAHUAC, forerunner organization to BORDC/DDF. In another great moment for democracy, the FBI — still embroiled in its four decades worth of spying on Frank — already knew of the plans to found the organization. Before the organization could publish a press release announcing their existence to the world, the FBI — through HUAC — had leaked information about them to the press in an attempt to discredit them. Because of the FBI’s extensive political spying, the agency often knew what organizations were planning and would attempt to preempt them by using HUAC as their mouthpiece. The FBI’s efforts were in vain. When HUAC was abolished in the 1970s, Rep. Robert F. Drinan (D-MA), who had the distinction of being both an anti-HUAC activist and a member of HUAC, stated, “No account of the demise of the House Un-American Activities Committee would be complete without a notation of the extraordinary work done by [Frank’s organization].”
Gingrich’s calls for the return of HUAC are not just wrong-headed, they are rooted in falsified history. Sadly, some in the media are repeating Gingrich’s revisionist history as fact. For example, Gingrich has claimed that HUAC was founded in 1938 in order to combat Nazis. Talking Points Memo (TPM), is a liberal web-based political journalism organization, and no supporter of HUAC or Gingrich. Nevertheless, TPM accepted Gingrich’s claim as it summarized HUAC’s history: “Originally founded in 1938, the committee investigated suspected threats of Nazi subversion and anti-government propaganda. During the Cold War, its activities sprawled, leading to the blacklist of Hollywood stars and left-wing activists, writers, and academics accused of having Communist ties.”
Yet, this version of history is ultimately deceptive. It would lead us to believe that Nazis were our enemy in the 1930s and World War II, so we, in a fit of paranoia, became overly concerned about Nazis, and during the Cold War, this paranoia shifted to Communists. Changing foreign enemies leads to changing suspicions at home. In both cases, “wartime” paranoia about foreign enemies led to an abuse of the civil liberties of dissidents. This narrative, however, is not supported by the facts about what HUAC did and who it investigated. For example, in 1938, its very first year of existence, HUAC was investigating the “Hollywood Anti-Nazi League” on suspicion of being a Communist front. An investigation of anti-Nazi activity within the first year of HUAC’s inception is deeply at odds with the narrative that Gingrich is trying to sell us and the narrative that TPM unwittingly gave credence to.
When HUAC was initially formed it was commonly referred to as the “Dies Committee,” for its Chairman, Rep. Martin Dies (D-TX). Dies was an ardent reactionary and opponent of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal and labor unions. Dies paid lip service to investigating both Nazis and Communists, and at no point did the committee ever exclusively focus on the right, nor were Communists ever excluded from its purview. However, the Dies-era HUAC, like the HUAC that followed, focused largely on the left. In fact, the Dies committee became widely viewed as a vehicle for the far right to attack the New Deal programs, though to little success. For example, its 1938 investigation of the Work Progress Administration’s Federal Theater Program, was focused on leftwing subversives, not Nazis. The investigation was widely lambasted due to an infamous exchange, depicted in the movie Cradle Will Rock, in which a Committee member tried to determine if Euripides, an Ancient Greek playwright who was believed to have died in 406 BCE, was a Communist. Between this, the Committee’s concern about the political views of ten-year old Shirley Temple, and the general popularity of the New Deal, the committee became widely discredited.
Another important moment from the Dies era was the Committee’s decision to investigate civil rights work in the South under the guise of investigating Communism. There is no question that during the 1930s the Communist Party did gain a foothold in the South, especially in Alabama. In fact, in parts of Alabama the Communist Party candidate outpolled the Republican candidate for President. The Communist Party was the only political party at that time whose racial demographics matched those of the country’s and who believed that civil rights work was an essential part of the struggle for workers’ equality. This commitment to doing actual civil rights work, alongside struggling for better workers’ conditions, in the Deep South made it popular amongst African-Americans who saw their economic deprivation closely entwined with the white supremacist power structure of the Jim Crow apartheid South. The interest of Alabama sharecroppers and factory workers in the Communist Party stemmed not from a desire to form a fifth column for a foreign power, but to combat racism. Ironically, the Dies Committee also linked Communism with combatting racism. Their investigation of “Communism” stretched to include liberal civil rights organizations like the Southern Conference for Human Welfare, of which First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was a founding member. Southern politicians who testified spent less time expressing anxiety over Communism than they did over people promoting the social equality of the races.
HUAC never strayed very far from the mold Dies created, but it did indeed take on new life during the Cold War. It was a vehicle for ultra-reactionary politicians, many of whom were strident supporters of Jim Crow and opponents of the New Deal, to carry out a broad-based political assault that had little to do with national security and much to do with a desire to regulate political discourse. Truman, himself no great civil libertarian, did call it, as TPM pointed it out, the most un-American thing in the country. As the Committee devolved further into ignominy, most members of Congress wanted nothing to do with it, so it became increasingly dominated by fringe reactionaries. Demonstrating their extreme perspective, HUAC members suggested responding to urban uprisings against longstanding racism by putting “urban guerillas” in “concentration camps” (their words, not ours). The only notable exception was Drinan, an anti-war priest, who asked to be placed on the committee because of his opposition to it. Given that there were few others eager to be on HUAC, his request was accommodated.
Dies and fellow reactionaries were concerned with the rapid social progress being made by social movements, including a militant labor movement, and a civil rights movement that connected racism to the broader questions of economic injustice in the US. Given the tenor of the times, they were unable to succeed. Yet, with the Cold War HUAC was given cover to roll back and destroy social movements. While no one should underestimate the devastating impact HUAC had on wiping out dissent during its early Cold War heyday, HUAC was ultimately defeated by the very type of social movement organizing it hoped to stamp out. (See Resisting HUAC: A Grassroots Success Story.) Thus, HUAC rose from ignominy only to be cast back into it once more. Newt Gingrich is not going to be able to rescue the disgraced committee from its proper place in history’s hall of shame.
Gingrich, in order to restore its legacy, its promulgating a false narrative of HUAC. As a former professor of history he should know better. Yet, HUAC — even though it is still disgraced — has benefitted over the years from a creeping acceptance, including by civil libertarians, of a falsified version of its origins and history. It was not merely an overly zealous reaction to Cold War (or Nazi) fears that went too far and destroyed civil liberties. It was, from its inception, a vehicle for political repression and was spawned as a response to nascent and ascendant social movements in the US. Gingrich’s neo-HUAC, like the original HUAC, will be no different: a tool to stamp out political heterodoxy at the expense of the Bill of Rights.
Watch Gingrich’s interview below, video courtesy of Media Matters.