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…

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