THE BUZZ 3: Undone Americans

By on November 22, 2016

A history of the House Un-American Activities Committee and its potential to be reinstated.

Newt Gingrich has called for the resurrection of the House Un-American Activities Committee to help defeat radical Islam.

Newt Gingrich has called for the resurrection of the House Un-American Activities Committee to help defeat radical Islam.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – The day after the Orlando shooting in June, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich called for the resurrection of the House Un-American Activities Committee to help defeat radical Islam. Created in 1938 to investigate allegations of communist or fascist activity during the Cold War era, HUAC has been described as a dark period in U.S. history. HUAC interrogated law-abiding citizens solely over political beliefs and for exercising their right to free speech. It was a crusade turned witch-hunt, trampling on people’s rights, reputations, and careers. Present day parallels to the faceless “War on Terror” are clear.

Overlap of the present day geopolitical climate with the Cold War era is remarkable. Journalist and author of The Fear Within, Scott Martell said, “Hysteria about the ‘red menace’ mushroomed as the Soviet Union tightened its grip on Eastern Europe, Mao Zedong rose to power in China, and the atomic arms race accelerated. Spy scandals fanned the flames, and headlines warned of sleeper cells in the nation’s midst—just as it does today with the ‘War on Terror.’” The tentative balance of power between the U.S., the Middle East, Russia and China cannot be ignored, nor can the tactics used to fight against this quivering balance.

The HUAC recipe is fairly simple: declare an enemy, often faceless or intangible such as communism, terrorism, or radical Islam, and vigorously pursue that enemy in the name of security. The list of enemies is growing. So far, the aftermath of the Presidential election has resulted in politicians calling for Muslim registries and camps similar to those used for Japanese Americans during World War II, the impossible deportation of millions of immigrants and the extreme vetting of refugees.

For some, investigating the “Red Menace” was a necessary evil, integral to protecting national security. Others saw it as a thinly veiled partisan attempt to delegitimize President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal programs or doubts about the strength of capitalism in the post-Depression era. During the Second Red Scare of the 1950s, also known as the McCarthy era, anti-communist hysteria and fear was stoked by advertising campaigns and thousands of high profile hearings of suspected communists. Treasonous citizens had purportedly infiltrated the government, schools, unions, and Hollywood, to name the more prominent targets of the investigations. HUAC’s controversial tactics, now synonymous with the term “McCarthyism,” gave credence to suspicions without conclusive evidence. Anyone deemed suspicious was subpoenaed by HUAC and brought before Congress to testify.

“Subversives” were pressed for their political beliefs and associates in very obscure ways. In an archived recording from a 1940s HUAC hearing, an unidentified interrogator asked an unidentified suspect, “Any real American would be proud to answer the question: Are you or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?”

Newly named associates were then subpoenaed and treated in the same manner. It was a rabbit’s hole. Suspects who refused to participate were indicted; those who chose to “plead the Fifth” to avoid self-incrimination were viewed as criminals. Blacklists were created by employers and industries, and the careers of those investigated were often destroyed. From a 2005 interview, University of Texas historian David Oshinsky explained, “Few, if any of them, were shown to be dangerous, and they also had every right to the opinions that they held.”

The slippery slope argument of resurrecting HUAC may seem like a stretch to some, but it is something people should pay attention to. HUAC and McCarthyism provide evidence that degradation of rights is often slow and done in the name of security. The erosion is often unnoticed.

Last week, a Broadway actor from the Hamilton musical read a statement to Pence noting that the diverse cast was concerned about their safety with a Trump-Pence administration. Soon after, President-elect Trump Twitter bashed the Broadway Hamilton cast for their harassment of Pence, and their rude, and terrible behavior. @theRealDonaldTrump called for an apology and oddly said the theatre must always be a “safe and special place.”

A reinstallation of HUAC could result in the Hamilton cast appearing before the committee to defend their actions. It happened to Hollywood in the 40s and 50s.

President Truman’s administration enacted earlier measures similar to President Bush and Obama. During Truman’s tenure, Congress passed legislation increasing the federal government’s power to monitor Communists within the US, to detain them, and to strip them of their citizenship. Written only weeks after 9-11 and signed into law by Congress in 2001, President Bush’s Patriot Act also enhanced government’s anti-terrorism investigation powers. Couple that with Bush’s 2002 establishment of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, the military prison where suspected terrorists were detained indefinitely without trial, and the parallels mount.

In 1947, Truman initiated a loyalty-security program for all federal employees designed to root out communist influences in the name of national security. The accompanying Loyalty Review Board investigated more than three million government employees, releasing only 300 of them for security risks. Actions of the Truman administration bear resemblance to the actions of the Obama administration towards whistleblowers who also threaten national security. Whistleblowers who were at once commended for their acts of “courage and patriotism” were treated with ferocious hostility by a more mature Obama administration. According to former Department of Justice whistleblower Jesselyn Raddack, while the Bush administration was unmerciful with whistleblowers, “the Obama administration has been far worse. It’s actually been prosecuting them.” Some fear that restoring HUAC would merely accessorize the battle against first amendment rights in the name of national security. PJH

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