[75 years ago, the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HCUA), usually referred to instead as the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), built on its new status as a standing committee in the US House of Representatives and held its first trials. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of layers to that controversial committee and its influences and legacies, leading up to a weekend post on pop culture representations!]
If you’re like I was until researching this series, you didn’t know that HUAC continued to exist until 1975 (the last few years under a new name, the House Committee on Internal Security). So here are three telling moments from its post-blacklist decade and a half:
1) San Francisco in 1960: If Dalton Trumbo’s screenwriting credit for Spartacus represented one 1960 crack in HUAC’s armor, another would have to be the clusterfuck that took place in San Francisco in May of that year. HUAC was holding hearings at City Hall, and students from local universities protested outside; city police officers fire-hosed those students and dragged them down the building’s marble steps, injuring many and creating a full-scale riot in the process. Among the many voices who called out this excessive and brutal response was William Mandel, a prominent journalist who had been subpoenaed to testify before those hearings; his angry denunciations of the police and HUAC alike became well-known throughout the country and helped truly turn the tide against the committee in public consciousness (not unlike the “Have you no sense of decency?” McCarthy moment).
2) Operation Abolition and Operation Correction: In an effort to combat those changing public perspectives, HUAC released an anti-Communist propaganda film, Operation Abolition, which attempted to reframe the May riot and which the committee screened around the country in 1960 and 61. But exemplifying the shifts in HUAC’s authority and power in this moment was a counter-film, Operation Correction; made by the Northern California ACLU and featuring commentary from that organization’s amazing Executive Director Ernest Besig, this film overtly highlighted and countered misrepresentations and falsehoods in Operation Abolition. There’s no way to know which of these films was more effective or influential for particular audiences (or all Americans, for that matter)—but I would argue that the immediate existence of the alternative film reflects in any case HUAC’s far more contested and challenged presence post-1960.
3) The Yippies: HUAC continued holding hearings over the next decade, but the tone and tenor of those hearings had likewise changed, becoming much more consistently a circus. That shift is illustrated succinctly by the 1967-68 hearings involving the leftist counter-culture community known as the Yippies; HUAC subpoenaed leaders such as Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, and those figures took advantage of the occasion to poke significant fun at the committee itself: dressing in costumes, blowing bubble gum bubbles, making mock Nazi salutes, etc. In a particularly telling moment, Hoffman arrived wearing an outfit made of an American flag; when he was arrested, he joked at his trial, “I regret that I have but one shirt to give for my country.” HUAC would continue (under the new name in a failed attempt to change the narratives once more) for another handful of years after those moments, but the writing was most definitely on the wall.
Special weekend post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other histories or contexts you’d highlight?