The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), a committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, investigated allegations of communist activity in the U.S. during the early years of the Cold War (1945-91). Established in 1938, the committee wielded its subpoena power as a weapon and called citizens to testify in high-profile hearings before Congress. This intimidating atmosphere often produced dramatic but questionable revelations about Communists infiltrating American institutions and subversive actions by well-known citizens. HUAC’s controversial tactics contributed to the fear, distrust and repression that existed during the anticommunist hysteria of the 1950s. By the late 1950s and early 1960s, HUAC’s influence 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.

The Cold War: Investigating the Red Menace

Upon its formation in 1938, the official role of the House Un-American Activities Committee was to investigate Communist and fascist organizations that had become active during the Great Depression, though it also examined the activities of other groups on the political left. From the outset, the committee proved to be a source of political discord. Its defenders argued it uncovered vital information that bolstered national security, while critics charged it was a partisan tool bent on discrediting the New Deal programs of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945).

Did you know? One of the members of HUAC in the late 1940s was a first-term U.S. representative from California named Richard Nixon. Nixon played a prominent role in the Alger Hiss spy hearings in 1948; 20 years later, he was elected the 37th president of the United States.

As tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union intensified following World War II (1939-45), the committee took up its investigations of communist activities with new vigor. Particularly after 1947, HUAC assumed new heights of prominence and notoriety, and the committee conducted a series of high-profile hearings alleging that Communists disloyal to the U.S. had infiltrated government, schools, the entertainment industry and many other areas of American life.

Subpoenas and Blacklists

The committee employed several controversial methods to accomplish its goal of ferreting out suspected Communists. Typically, an individual who raised the suspicions of HUAC received a subpoena to appear before the committee. During the hearing, the suspected Communist was grilled about his or her political beliefs and activities and then asked to provide the names of other people who had taken part in allegedly subversive activities. Any additional figures identified in this manner also received subpoenas, widening the committee’s probe.

Individuals who refused to answer the committee’s questions or to provide names could be indicted for contempt of Congress and sent to prison. Subjects of HUAC investigations had the option of invoking their right to avoid self-incrimination under the Fifth Amendment, but “pleading the Fifth” created the impression that they were guilty of a crime. In addition, those who refused to cooperate were often blacklisted by their employers. They lost their jobs and were effectively prevented from working in their chosen industry.

Critics claimed that HUAC’s tactics amounted to a witch hunt that trampled on citizens’ rights and ruined their careers and reputations. These critics argued that most people who were called before the committee had broken no laws, but instead were targeted for their political beliefs or for exercising their right to free speech. Supporters of the committee, on the other hand, believed that its efforts were justified given the grave threat to U.S. security posed by communism.

Targeting Hollywood and Alger Hiss

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.