The HUAC investigations delved into many areas of American life, but they paid special attention to the motion picture industry, which was believed to harbor a large number of Communists. Not wishing to get on the wrong side of Congress or the movie-going public, most film industry executives did not speak out against the investigations. In addition, many of the major studios imposed a strict blacklist policy against actors, directors, writers and other personnel implicated in Communist activity.
The film industry investigations reached their peak with the events surrounding the Hollywood Ten, a group of writers and directors who were called to testify in October 1947. The all-male group of screenwriters, producers and directors (Alvah Bessie, Herbert Biberman, Lester Cole, Edward Dmytryk, Ring Lardner Jr., John Howard Larson, Albert Maltz, Samuel Ornitz, Adrian Scott and Dalton Trumbo) refused to cooperate with the investigation and used their HUAC appearances to denounce the committee’s tactics. All were cited for contempt of Congress and sentenced to prison terms, in addition to being blacklisted from working in Hollywood.
HUAC also sounded an alarm about Communists infiltrating the federal government. The most infamous case began in August 1948, when a self-confessed former member of the American Communist Party named Whittaker Chambers (1901-61) appeared before the committee. During his dramatic testimony, Chambers accused Alger Hiss (1904-96), a former high-ranking State Department official, of serving as a spy for the Soviet Union. Based on allegations and evidence provided by Chambers, Hiss was found guilty of perjury and served 44 months in prison. He spent the rest of his life proclaiming his innocence and decrying his wrongful prosecution.
Hiss’ conviction bolstered claims that HUAC was performing a valuable service to the nation by uncovering Communist espionage. The suggestion that Communist agents had infiltrated senior levels of the U.S. government also added to the widespread fear that “Reds” (a term derived from the red Soviet flag) posed a serious threat to the nation. HUAC’s work served as a blueprint for the tactics employed by U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy in the early 1950s. McCarthy led an aggressive anticommunist campaign of his own that made him a powerful and feared figure in American politics. His reign of terror came to an end in 1954, when the news media revealed his unethical tactics and he was censured by his colleagues in Congress.
By the late 1950s and early 1960s, HUAC’s relevance was in decline, and in 1969, it was renamed the Committee on Internal Security. Although it ceased issuing subpoenas that year, its operations continued until 1975.