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Thursday, October 20, 2022

October 20, 2022: HUAC Histories: McCarthy and Mythic Patriotism

[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!]

An excerpt from Of Thee I Sing that highlights how HUAC and (especially) Joe McCarthy embodied the worst of mythic patriotism.

“Both the Depression and World War II eras’ fears of anti-American radi­cals, movements, and communities likewise extended into the post-war mo­ment in an even more prominent and overarching way, with the emergence of the hugely influential, mythic perspective expressed and embodied by Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy. Despite McCarthy’s central role in perpetuating and amplifying those myths, it’s important to note that another vital source for that perspective, the tellingly named House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), pre-dated both McCarthy (who became a Senator in 1947) and the post-war period. HUAC, also known as the Dies Committee after its chair, Texas Representative Martin Dies Jr., was created as a special investigating committee in 1938, building upon and making more official the work of earlier Congressional committees such as the 1934–37 Special Committee on Un-American Activities to Investigate Nazi Propa­ganda and Certain Other Propaganda Activities. From the beginning HUAC’s investigations focused on fears of communism and targeted many of the period’s most prominent American communities: student radicals, as illus­trated by a 1939 investigation into the communist-affiliated American Youth Congress; New Deal artists, as illustrated by the 1938 subpoena of Federal Theatre Project director Hallie Flanagan to address communist influences on that project; and Japanese Americans, as illustrated by HUAC’s infamous “Yellow Report” which made the case for internment based on a number of mythic arguments about Japanese loyalty to the empire.

When Senator McCarthy extended and amplified those investigations in the post-war period, he did so with the help of two interconnected mythic pa­triotic arguments. First, the World War II veteran McCarthy used propagan­distic war stories to make the case for his own candidacy and governmental role. McCarthy had served as a Marine Corps intelligence officer and aviator between August 1942 and April 1945, and in the process received (or quite possibly gave himself) the nickname “Tail-Gunner Joe.” When he ran for the Senate against incumbent Robert M. La Follette Jr., McCarthy criticized La Follette’s lack of military service, although La Follette was 46 years old at the start of the war, and used the slogan “Congress needs a tail-gunner” to play up his own. He also created myths about his military service: an exaggerated number of aerial missions (32, rather than the actual number of 12) in order to qualify for a Distinguished Flying Cross; a broken leg that McCarthy referred to as a “war wound” but had in fact occurred during a shipboard celebration upon crossing the equator; and a letter of commendation that he claimed had been written by his commanding officer but turned out to have been written by McCarthy himself. None of these myths elide the reality of McCarthy’s wartime experiences and service, but they reflect a willingness to create pro­paganda based on such real experiences, in order to significantly bolster his own authority and arguments.

As he began making his overtly exclusionary arguments in early 1950, McCarthy did so through equally mythic images of a government and na­tion overrun by and fighting back against “enemies within.” McCarthy used that phrase in a February 9th, 1950 speech to the Wheeling, West Virginia Republican Women’s Club, an address in which he also produced “a list of names” of alleged “members of the Community Party . . . working and shap­ing policy in the State Department.” As he turned that idea into the origin point for a four-year exclusionary crusade against “anti-American” forces and communities of all types, from communists and fellow travelers to leftist intellectuals and academics, artistic and cultural figures, homosexuals, and other “subversives,” McCarthy linked that crusade to a mythic vision of an embattled American identity for which he was the consistent and chief cham­pion. “McCarthyism is Americanism with its sleeves rolled,” he argued in a 1952 speech during his successful reelection campaign, and he titled his book published later that year McCarthyism: The Fight for America.”

Last HUAC histories tomorrow,


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

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