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Wednesday, October 19, 2022

October 19, 2022: HUAC Histories: Chambers, White, and Hiss

[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 espionage, railroading, and the true complexity of historical nuance.

In one of my earliest posts for this blog, I used the wonderful Season 2 West Wing episode “Somebody’s Going to Emergency, Somebody’s Going to Jail” to think about recently revealed details of the Rosenberg case and the question of historical nuance. In lieu of a new first paragraph here, I’d love for you to check out that post if you would, and then come on back here for today’s thoughts.

Welcome back! The same thorny questions I considered in that post, of how we can accurately critique McCarthyism (on which more in tomorrow’s post) while grappling with the apparent truths of the Rosenberg case, certainly seem to apply to the story of two of HUAC’s most famous targets, Harry Dexter White and Alger Hiss. In August 1948, HUAC subpoenaed Whittaker Chambers, an admitted former Soviet spy now working as a senior editor at Time; in his testimony Chambers named names of other alleged Soviet agents in the U.S. government, including Treasury Department official White and State Department official Hiss. Both men denied the accusations categorically; White died of a heart attack a few days later and the question of his espionage remains entirely unclear, while Hiss was eventually convicted of perjury (thanks to documents provided by Chambers which contradicted Hiss’ sworn statements before the committee) and imprisoned for years. Hiss maintained his innocence until his death in 1996, but recently released Soviet archival materials seem to provide proof that he was at least for a time on the Kremlin’s payroll.

There’s a lot more to say about these cases than I can fit into one more paragraph, but I want to make three points here. First, it’s important to note that someone working for the federal government and spying for the Soviet Union is in a far different and more troubling position than a cultural figure accused of Communist sympathies (like all those about whom I wrote in yesterday’s post); if that was indeed the case for Hiss, he deserved at least to lose his job, and likely to serve time in prison. Second, it’s just as important to note that lives can be and were destroyed by such accusations regardless of the facts; Harry Dexter White, one of the 20th century’s greatest economic minds, is exhibit A in that case. And third, it’s precisely the job—or at least one central job—of all who seek to explore and engage our histories to include both those points, among others, in our nuanced and multi-layered understanding and narrative of the past. We can add our own emphases and arguments to be sure, and I would argue that HUAC and McCarthy were more damaging to the US than Soviet spies. But there’s no way to understand the 1940s and 50s in America without recognizing that both those communities were problematic parts of our political and social landscape.

Next HUAC histories tomorrow,


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

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