The House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) was an investigating committee of the United States House of Representatives. The committee investigated what it considered un-American propaganda, but was condemned by many for persecuting people and ruining their lives and careers on account of their personal political beliefs.
The House Committee on Un-American Activities grew from a special investigating committee established in 1938 and chaired by Martin Dies. At that time, its work was aimed mostly at German-American involvement in Nazi and KKK activity, although the committee also investigated communism in the Works Progress Administration, including the Federal Theatre Project. In 1938 Hallie Flanagan, the head of the Federal Theatre Project was subpoenaed to appear before the committee to answer the charge that the project was overrun with communists. Flanagan was called to testify for only a part of one day, while a clerk from the project was called in for two entire days. This may have had something to do with the fact that one of the members of the committee embarrassed himself by asking whether the Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe was a member of the Communist Party.
It became a standing (permanent) committee in 1946. Under the mandate of Public Law 601, passed by the 79th Congress, the committee of nine representatives investigated suspected threats of subversion or propaganda that "attacks the form of government guaranteed by our Constitution." In 1969, the House changed the committee's name to the Committee on Internal Security. The House abolished the committee in 1975 and its functions were transferred to the House Judiciary Committees.
Little of note came from its investigations of Nazis, but the committee came into its own when it acted on suspicions that some people with Communist sympathies and links worked for the U.S. government. The background to this was the fact that radical students in the 1930s had often been attracted to Marxism, particularly in the "Popular Front" era. These people had reached positions of power by the late 1940s. Conservative voices in Congress, notably Senator Joseph McCarthy tended to be extremely suspicious of such people, believing that these Communists had dual loyalty, and were either legal or ideological agents of the Soviet Union and Joseph Stalin. There were fears that such agents were actively working to overthrow the United States from within, and thus had to be forcibly removed from any positions of influence. In particular, the committee, with the leadership of Congressmen such as Richard Nixon, brought about the trial and imprisonment of Alger Hiss.
One of the committee's specialties was to investigate a particular political organization, and to label it a Communist front if, in the committee's judgment, the group was effectively under the control of the Communist Party or known party members. Some individuals — such as W.E.B. DuBois and I.F. Stone — were found to have been affiliated with literally dozens of groups so cited, although, in reality, many of the groups were nothing more than glorified petition drives, and disappeared after a single publicity campaign on behalf of a particular cause.
Later the committee looked into alleged Communist propaganda by Hollywood. This led to the blacklisting of a number of leftist scriptwriters known as the "Hollywood ten" after such, subsequently largely discredited, accusations were made against them. Charlie Chaplin was another target, resulting in his relocation to Switzerland.
Certainly very little propaganda made it into their films. Only one film, Mission to Moscow, was ever found to have any traces of such influence, and it was produced as much out of enthusiasm for the Soviet Union's role as an ally in World War II as out of Communist influence.
In its later years HUAC investigated the New Left, but these investigations were less successful. The young witnesses like Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman had much less to lose than the targets of the earlier investigations, and they swayed public opinion in their favor by openly defying the congressmen and making it look ridiculous such as appearing in a clown suit.
Committee chairs and notable members