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Monday, October 17, 2022

October 17, 2022: HUAC Histories: Three Precursors

 [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!]

On one takeaway from each of HUAC’s three main precursor committees (apologies to the 1930 Fish Committee, but I like groups of three!):

1)      Overman Committee (1918-19): The first Congressional committee to look into “Communist” elements was created before that concept had much meaning in the US; chaired by North Carolina Democratic Senator Lee Slater Overman, the committee started with an overall aim to expose “un-American activities” among immigrant communities and a specific focus on pro-German elements during WWI. When the war ended, Overman and his committee turned their attention to “Bolshevik” influences, helping launch the broader Red Scare which would dominate much of American politics for the next couple years. But I think it’s crucial to note the interconnections between anti-immigrant sentiments and the anti-Communist ones that would eventually so fully define these committees.

2)      McCormack-Dickstein Committee (1934-35): It would be easy, and not wrong, to say that there couldn’t possibly be a more significant takeaway from this Depression-era House committee than the later discovered fact that its co-chair, New York Democrat Samuel Dickstein, was apparently a paid agent for the Soviet Union’s interior ministry. But I would argue that a corporate and fascist plot to seize the White House and overthrow the president is pretty significant too, and in its first year of existence this committee investigated such a conspiracy, known as the “Business Plot” and confirmed by testimony from General Smedley Butler among others. There’s no doubt that Dickstein was working at cross purposes to the US, but these business leaders and fascists directly sought to overthrow the US government—pretty clear and telling which was the more direct and dangerous threat.

3)      Dies Committee (1938-44): The most direct predecessor to HUAC, and really the same committee but just not yet reified into a standing/permanent committee, this House committee was chaired by Texas Democrat Martin Dies Jr. and spent a good deal of its early years investigating artists like Federal Theatre Project director Hallie Flanagan. But with the outset of World War II its emphases changed, and one of the committee’s most influential actions was its consistent argument for the internment of Japanese Americans, a proposal condensed into the tellingly, awfully named “Yellow Paper.” Both of these elements—the targeting of artists and cultural figures and the racist attacks on multicultural American communities—would be core features of the age of HUAC and McCarthyism, but it’s important to recognize that they predated that period.

Next HUAC histories tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other histories or contexts you’d highlight?

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