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Clear and Present Danger

The Committee

by Walter Goodman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 564 pp., $10.00

For thirty years this country has borne, among other afflictions, the performance of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. Goodman’s is the fourth book about that performance. These books provide more than ample evidence for the conclusion that the best thing to do with HUAC is to abolish it, though Goodman’s provides less such evidence than did the earlier ones.

A moral is to be drawn from the very circumstance of HUAC’s creation. HUAC began in 1938 after five years of persistent effort by Representative Samuel Dickstein of New York. Dickstein, unmindful of Justice Holmes’s admonition that First Amendment guarantees mean “freedom for the thought we hate,” made it abundantly clear that the “un-American activities” which he wanted investigated were the anti-Semitic utterances of German American Bundists. With the support of such unlikely bedfellows as Martin Dies of Texas, the anti-Semitic John Rankin of Mississippi, the Federal Council of Churches, the Non-Sectarian Anti-Nazi League, and the American League for Peace and Democracy, Dickstein got his committee—but it was not his. “Many members of Congress felt,” Representative Shannon of Missouri explained, “that an investigation of this kind should not be headed by a foreign-born citizen.” The final decision, in fact, was even further to maintain the native purity of the committee—the Chairmanship went to Dies, and Dickstein was not even named to committee membership.

The resolution under which HUAC has conducted its marathon investigation, as adopted in 1938 and since unchanged, authorizes it to inquire into “subversive and un-American propaganda.” It is, of course, impossible to disseminate “propaganda” without exercising the freedom of speech, press, and association which the First Amendment forbids Congress to abridge.

During its first six years HUAC operated as a special committee, and under Chairman Dies it was essentially a one-man show. His performance made it clear that he regarded as the main un-Americans the members and supporters of Roosevelt’s New Deal Administration. After a perfunctory inquiry into the Bund, he directed his attention to attempting to establish that Communists had infested the CIO, the WPA’s federal theater project, the Labor Department, the Justice Department, the National Labor Relations Board, the National Youth Administration, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the Farmer-Labor Party in Minnesota. Moreover, during this period Dies developed the “investigating” technique which the Committee still favors: the use of volunteer “friendly” witnesses who are allowed, without fear of cross-examination or need for rational justification, to characterize others as “Communists,” “Communist dupes,” and “fellow travelers,” and organizations as “Communist fronts.”

The prototype of the friendly witness was J. B. Matthews, a former Methodist missionary and former chairman of the American League Against War and Fascism, who saw the light in 1935 when, as Vice-President of Consumers’ Research, he concluded that a strike by its employees was Communist-led. He appeared before the Committee in 1938 to testify that a number of Hollywood personalities, including Shirley Temple, were Communist dupes. Dies was so impressed that he hired Matthews as his chief investigator. Matthews held this post for the next five years during which time he wrote committee reports revealing that all major consumer organizations except Consumers’ Research were under Communist influence and fed the Committee’s insatiable appetite for names of un-Americans from the files of letterheads and radical publications which he had compiled during the days before his enlightenment.

During World War II HUAC’s fortunes waned, particularly after Hitler’s invasion of the USSR put Russia on our side. Ninety-four members of the House, a record, voted against continuing HUAC in 1943. Dies persevered long enough to see the Supreme Court strike down, as an unconstitutional bill of attainder, the one piece of legislation for which he or his committee deserved any credit—a rider to an appropriation bill forbidding payment of the salaries of three federal employees whom Dies deemed un-American. When Dies decided in 1944 not to seek re-election, HUAC’s days appeared to be numbered.

But this was to reckon without the cunning of John Rankin of Mississippi. On the opening day of the new Congress in 1949, he moved to make HUAC a standing committee of the House. Since his motion was made before House committees had been established for the 79th Congress, it could not be referred to a committee where it might wither and die, but had to be voted on. The initial vote was against the motion, 146 to 134. But when Rankin demanded a roll call so that individual votes could be recorded, there was a pronounced switch and the motion carried, 207 to 186. No Congressman who voted for HUAC’s new lease on life was moved to explain his vote as candidly as Representative Cochran of Missouri had done when he voted for the Committee’s creation in 1938. “I do not want to be accused,” Cochran said, “of refusing to vote for legislation to investigate un-American activities.”

Since its establishment as a standing committee, HUAC has served under several chairmen: Edward J. Hart of New Jersey, John S. Wood of Georgia, J. Parnell Thomas of New Jersey, Harold H. Velde of Illinois, Francis E. Walter of Pennsylvania, and Edwin E. Willis of Louisiana. It has investigated Hollywood, espionage, Hollywood again, Los Angeles lawyers, labor unions, Hollywood again, entertainers in New York City, universities, clergymen, labor unions again, New York City entertainers again, a “Communist passport conspiracy,” another conspiracy which Chairman Walter detected in efforts to change the national origins quotas in the McCarran-Walter Immigration Act of 1952, New York City entertainers again, lawyers and entertainers in California again (with teachers thrown in for good measure), and—in more recent years—demonstrators for peace and for civil rights. Always it has found what it was looking for—Communist influence.

Nearly always too, HUAC’s evidence was suspect both for what its procedures did not reveal and for some matters which were revealed elsewhere. The manner in which the names of one organization and one individual entered the Committee’s hearing record in 1956 is typical. The Committee counsel, Richard Arens, was questioning a witness, Anita Schneider, who had previously testified that she was a member of the Communist Party as an undercover agent for the FBI for almost five years. She had also “identified,” by reading the organization’s name from the letterhead, two documents published by a Citizens Committee to Preserve American Freedoms in Los Angeles. Her testimony continued:

Mrs. Schneider: I had some contact with that committee.

Mr. Arens: Was it Communist-controlled?

Mrs. Schneider: Yes.

Mr. Arens: Who was the ring-leader in that organization?

Mrs. Schneider: I didn’t work in that organization, and I don’t know who the ringleader was. My contact on that occasion was with Frank Wilkinson, I believe.

Mr. Arens: Did you know him as a Communist?

Mrs. Schneider: Yes.

Obviously, this testimony cries out for cross-examination. Mrs. Schneider’s knowledge about the Los Angeles Citizens Committee was apparently fugitive at best. And what did she mean when she affirmed that she knew Wilkinson “as a Communist”? She might have meant any number of things—that she had collected Communist Party dues from him, that she had attended Communist Party meetings with him, that she had seen him at meetings which she assumed to be organized by, or attended by, Communists, that she knew that the Citizens Committee to Preserve American Freedoms was urging the abolition of HUAC and therefore assumed—as does HUAC—that anyone associated with such an enterprise must be a Communist. Or she may merely have been trying to accommodate Arens by giving the answers he clearly wanted to his crude leading questions. Cross-examination might have bolstered her testimony or it might have destroyed it.

But HUAC and its counsel are never curious about the basis for a friendly witness’s conclusions or about the witness’s credibility. It has been left to others to reveal, outside the hearing room, that one friendly witness who supplied HUAC with some 300 names of un-Americans had a long history of mental disturbance and alcoholism, and that another, praised by HUAC’s chairman as “one of the outstanding witnesses to appear before this Committee,” had incurred his twentieth conviction for public drunkenness less than a month before testifying and suffered his twenty-first less than a month thereafter.

HUAC has always been content with the sort of hit-and-run accusations made by Mrs. Schneider. It never seriously interrogates its friendly witnesses about the factual basis for their accusations, and it never gives those accused a fair opportunity to attempt to refute the accusations. In fact, in its early years HUAC showed little interest in calling an accused unless he was willing to corroborate the accusation. But the growing body of Federal legislation defining political crimes gave many witnesses perfectly legitimate grounds for invoking the Fifth Amendment’s privilege against self-incrimination. Senator Joseph McCarthy, of course, capitalized on popular misunderstanding of the privilege—and stole headlines from HUAC—by coining the term “Fifth Amendment Communist.” So HUAC changed its techniques: If the accused would not confess, a claim of self-incrimination could be made to do almost as well.

This aim of the Committee was clear in the 1956 hearings when, after Mrs. Schneider had concluded her testimony, Frank Wilkinson was called. Wilkinson upset the Committee’s plans by announcing that he would refuse to answer all questions because the Committee “stands in direct violation of the First Amendment of the Constitution.” Taken aback, but not yet ready to abandon the effort, Arens and members of the Committee persisted:

Mr. Arens: You have still another [reason], haven’t you? Let’s get to that one. Do you honestly apprehend that if you told this committee truthfully what your address is you would be giving information that might be used against you in a criminal proceeding?

Mr. Wilkinson: I have the utmost respect of Congress to have [sic] the broadest possible powers to investigate, but Congress cannot investigate into areas in which it cannot legislate. And this UnAmerican Activities Committee attempts, by its mandate and by its practice, to investigate…

Mr. Doyle:…Have you any other answer to give to my direction that you answer that question?

Mr. Wilkinson: Yes, sir.

Mr. Arens: What is it?

Mr. Scherer: I don’t think we have to force from him the use of the Fifth Amendment.

Mr. Doyle: Oh, no.

Mr. Scherer: If he doesn’t want to take the Fifth Amendment, let’s proceed. Let’s go to the next question….

Mr. Doyle: Mr. Wilkinson, I am directing you to answer that question [whether he was responsible for an advertisement in opposition to HUAC by the Citizens Committee to Preserve American Freedoms].

Mr. Wilkinson: I am answering no questions, on the grounds of my initial answer.

Mr. Scherer: Does your initial answer include an invocation of the Fifth Amendment?

Mr. Wilkinson: My initial answer stands as I made it….

Mr. Scherer: I think we should ask him—I see the position he is taking. Does your original answer include the Fifth Amendment?

Mr. Wilkinson: My original answer stands as I made my original answer.

Mr. Scherer: Are you refusing to answer this question on the basis of the Fifth Amendment?

Mr. Scherer: Mr. Chairman, I ask that you direct the witness to answer my question, whether his refusal to answer your direction to answer the question is based in any way on the Fifth Amendment.

Mr. Doyle: I direct you to answer that question, Mr. Wilkinson.

Mr. Wilkinson: My original answer stands as I made my original answer….

Mr. Scherer: Are you at present a member of the Communist Party?…

Mr. Wilkinson: I am answering no questions of this committee, on the grounds of my initial answer.

Mr. Scherer: In refusing to answer the question I have just asked you…are you refusing to answer on the basis of the Fifth Amendment?

Mr. Wilkinson: I am refusing to answer any questions of this committee on the grounds I have stated.

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