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What is HUAC?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was an investigative committee in the United States House of Representatives which was meant to look into suspected cases of subversion and disloyalty to the United States government. Though it was actually called the House Committee on Un-American Activities, the HUAC acronym is more commonly used in referring to it. The actions of the committee attracted a great deal of public attention while it was active, and it continues to be a topic of discussion and research among academics. The long arm of the committee is often referenced in popular slang, as well.

In 1934, the House established the Special Committee on Un-American Activities, supposedly to investigate Americans of German origin and to keep an eye on subversive behavior in the United States. In 1938, the committee acquired permanent status, changing its name to HUAC and appointing Martin Dies as its chair. The committee was active well through the 1960s, although its influence had begun to decline by 1969, when it was renamed the House Committee on Internal Security; it was dissolved entirely in 1975.

Although the HUAC was supposedly supposed to investigate all potential subversion, conspiracies, disloyalty, and other unacceptable activity, it focused primarily on people with politics to the left of the political spectrum, and was often accused of an anti-Socialist and anti-Communist bias. Dies himself was an active member of the Klu Klux Klan, and the committee did not often prosecute or question people with conservative politics, including right-wing extremists and supporters of the Nazi Party. One of the most famous cases was that of Alger Hiss, who was sentenced to jail for perjury, despite being a notable politician, diplomat, and lecturer.

Members of HUAC had a great deal of power, with the ability to issue subpoenas to compel testimony. Some notable individuals refused to testify for the committee, for fear of implicating themselves and others, and they were blacklisted; the Hollywood Blacklist of the HUAC included a number of prominent celebrities. Once blacklisted, people had trouble obtaining employment, social services, and other support.

Many people associate the famous anti-Communist Senator Joseph McCarthy with the HUAC. Although McCarthy's actions and those of the HUAC were often very similar, McCarthy was not, in fact, affiliated with this organization, as he was a member of the Senate, not the House. He was certainly inspired by some of the techniques used by members of the committee, however, and the combined force of the two undoubtedly shaped the American political landscape.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a America Explained researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon318621 — On Feb 08, 2013

How did the HUAC increase the fear of of communism in America or the red scare?

By anon126462 — On Nov 12, 2010

that's why "The Crucible" was written. apparently a friend of Arthur Miller's had been brought before the HUAC and was forced to name people.

By pharmchick78 — On Oct 04, 2010

Can somebody tell me more about the HUAC hearings in 1947? I would also like to know more about HUAC and the Hollywood Big Ten. Thanks!

By gregg1956 — On Oct 04, 2010

@streamfinder -- I respect your views, but I was around when HUAC was big -- 1950s and so on -- and at the time, a lot of people felt that it made sense. Now I'm not a big fan of McCarthyism or HUAC for that matter, but I think that the HUAC committee did no worse than other institutions of their time. And if all they did was put people out of work; well, there's a lot worse things than that.

Again, I totally respect what you're saying, and I was not and am not a big HUAC person, but I think that you could look at it a little more in context.

By StreamFinder — On Oct 04, 2010

I personally found the whole HUAC blacklist thing to be just a modern-era witch hunt. I mean, what did HUAC, the Red Scare, etc., accomplish aside from putting a lot of good people out of work and making even more people afraid of their neighbors?

I for one think that there are better ways to combat the evils of "communism" or whatever else they were supposed to be against.

By xman — On May 25, 2009

What was the statutory basis of HUAC? Was there some sort of "Red Act"?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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