ON UN-AMERICAN ACTIVITIES
Prof. Richard Kranzdorf
Science Dept., Univ. of Calif. San Luis Obispo
all over. Or is it? In 1938 Congress established the Committee
on Un-American Activities of the House of Representatives (HUAC).
In 1969 its name was changed to the House Internal Security Committee,
and in 1975 this group was dissolved and its records and authority transferred
to the House Judiciary Committee. In 1976, the HUAC's vast files on tens
of millions of "subversive' Americans were sealed in the National. Archives,
not to be opened to public scrutiny for 50 years. In April 1977,
that other relic of a supposedly bygone era, the Senate Internal Security
Committee, was abolished, its responsibilities taken over by the Senate
historic period had come to an end. Or had it?
who answer in the affirmative argue that the demise of these two committees
meant that four decades of charges and counter-charges about loyalty and
subversion, about witch-hunts and about treachery had been finally been
put to rest, that recriminations would slip into history and that there
would remain few heroes and villains. But there are others who contend
that the issues raised during the era of political witch-hunts are still
alive. Plays, books, articles, films and television dramas concentrating
on the committees, or at least on subjects with which they were intimately
connected, have begun to pour forth. Battles are being fought anew over
the guilt or innocence of the Rosenbergs and Alger Hiss, and over the roles
of Harry S. Truman and Dwight David Eisenhower during those troubled years.
Finally, recent events have acquainted a new generation with many of the
same issues that bedeviled their parents. Instances of the misuse of power,
clashes between the different branches of government, and the battle between
individual rights and national security again torment the nation.
of these extremely important issues are highlighted by Robert Carl Cohen
in his film COMMITTEE ON UN-AMERICAN
ACTIVITIES. The film is certainly timely
and its significance today perhaps even greater than when it was produced
ACTIVITIES is the first film ever made by a private US citizen which questioned
the legitimacy of a US governmental agency. As its name implied,
the Committee's purpose was to investigate those organizations and individuals
it deemed "un-American." The writer-director of the film uses as
his focus a modern day "Everyman," an average American who wanted to understand
the Committee, its purpose, its function. He watches as events spanning
a quarter-century unwind. He witnesses the beginnings of the Committee
under Chairman Martin Dies, the post-World War II sessions under Chairman
J. Parnell Thomas, when particular attention was paid to the employment
of alleged communists in Hollywood. He sees the parade of friendly
and unfriendly witnesses who appeared before the Committee, of witnesses
who refused to cooperate with the Committee and subsequently saw friendships
destroyed, jobs lost, freedom exchanged for prison and, in some cases,
film considers the stance of the Truman Administration, which initiated
and expanded loyalty and security clearance programs. First and Fifth
Amendment rights are discussed, as is the use of informants.
attention is paid to the HUAC activities in California and especially the
protests against the Committee hearings in San Francisco in 1960. Central
to this study is dissection of the HUAC's own film, "OPERATION
ABOLITION," the first motion picture made
by an agency of government to attack its detractors.
are raised about the HUAC's role in sending people to prison for refusing
to answer questions about their beliefs or associations; its indifference
or hostility to the integration movement of the early 60s is questioned
as well. At the end we are concerned not only with those who were
on center stage but also with those who were in the middle. We then
consider how each of us can come to grips with the currents that swirl
around us and, lastly, we reflect upon the danger in not
taking a stand.
ACTIVITIES provides a jumping-off place for discussion of various subjects:
suggestion is made that the HUAC was only concerned with certain types
of "un-American" activities, while taking scant notice of others.
Was this the case? If so, why?
were several politicians who became Chairmen of the HUAC and many others
who were its members. What were their backgrounds? Why were
Committees are set up as fact-finding bodies to propose remedies for perceived
problems. What legislation was an outgrowth of the HUAC's work?
argument' s sake, let's say some of the people investigated were members
of the Communist Party or believed in communist ideals. Should any actions,
legal or otherwise, have been taken against them? Why?
films of the 1940s and 50s evince pro- or anti-communist sympathies?
Who was responsible for the attempted propagandizing?
were the options open to those ordered to appear before the HUAC?
Why do students of the period say that those who went before the HUAC were
placed in an impossible position in which they had no options at all?
constitutional defenses were attempted by those who chose not to answer
questions? How were these defenses dealt with by the HUAC?
By the courts?
legal status was given informants? How reliable were they?
are the rules governing Congressional Committee investigations as compared
to those used in a court of law?
there any truth to the HUAC's charges against the entertainment industry?
-- religious leaders? -- academia? -- government workers? Was the
USA riddled with "subversives?" What did the HUAC consider "subversive?"
charges of character assassination be fairly leveled against the HUAC?
reference to the 1960 San Francisco hearings, what questionable methods,
if any, were used by the HUAC? By law-enforcement authorities?
By witnesses? By demonstrators?
is the purpose of Congressional Immunity? If it is abused, is there
anything which can be done about it?
methods are used by the film's producer to strengthen his point-of-view?
Are such methods reasonable and proper?
dangers of thought control are sometimes directly confronted in the film,
sometimes hinted at:
the HUAC falsify and distort its own film "OPERATION ABOLITION"?
Is there danger in a governmental agency producing a film which presents
only one point-of-view on a controversial subject? If so, is
the danger posed therein greater than that posed by printed matter giving
the government's position?
much control is there today of information? Which institutions engage
in the greatest control? With what results?
film relates events ranging from 1938 to 1962. Have there been instances
since then in which agencies of government have acted in ways similar to
those shown? Have there been contemporary instances of character
Have Hollywood films created, or simply mirrored, feelings of the American
people vis-a-vis other countries or ideologies?
Under what circumstances, if any, is a governmental body justified in limiting
or banning political, economic, or social messages? What about private
groups trying to do the same thing?
THE POWER OF GOVERNMENT:
of the main subjects the film touches upon is the power of government.
Some of the following questions are explicitly asked in the film, others
Was there evidence in the film of police brutality? If so, did the
protestors deserve any of the blame?
What have the courts decided on the government's right to seize the property
of a filmmaker, journalist, etc.?
What restrictions, if any, should be placed upon people embracing any political
ideology e.g., job restrictions, travel, controls over speech making and
demonstrations, etc.)? What government restrictions exist today and
for what reasons? Should private citizens be prohibited from making
films critical of their government?
What is the proper role of law-enforcement agencies in dealing with matters
of alleged national security? What acts have been carried out by
governmental agencies under the name of national security? How have
various local, state and federal agencies dealt with this issue?
What is the proper balance between individual rights and national security?
Are there circumstances under which it is reasonable for allegedly sensitive
or secret information be kept from most if not all members of Congress?
From the people? How should the determination as to what is sensitive
or secret be made?
What should the relationship be between government and the media (including
the film industry) during periods of "normalcy?" During times of
What does the film suggest concerning the rights or limit of dissent? How
has the dissenter been treated at various times in American history?
of the main themes which the film focuses upon is the way in which individuals
or groups respond to massive governmental or private pressure. This issue,
in the years following Watergate, obviously is still very much with us.
late 1940s, 50s and early 60s, what were the different ways in which the
public responded to charges about loyalty?
did those accused of being "subversive respond? Was it possible to
refute such charges?
recent examples can you think of in which breaking the Law has been rationalized
by saying one was following the instructions of superiors? What are
the comparative dangers in following this course versus refusing to obey
an illegal command?
limits, if any, should you place upon answering questions raised by private
investigators or government agents, either about yourself or other individuals
you know? What damage do you inflict upon yourself or others by either
answering or remaining silent?
Carl Cohen's film, COMMITTEE ON UN-AMERICAN
ACTIVITIES, has its own point-of-view. Its producer did take a stand
and it was against the Committee. The man-in-the-middle asks at the
we afford to believe in ideals? To criticize? To ask questions?
To think for ourselves?"
we would all answer these questions in the affirmative. But to dig
deeply beyond these questions requires much contemplation. It is
easy today to see the excesses of the HUAC or of McCarthy or of the CREEP
(Republican Party "Committee To Re-Elect The President"). What is
more difficult is to know where we stand on the important issues raised
here before the
next "Committee" rears its ugly head. Must we always wait for the
whirlwind to strike?
dealing with the HUAC is extensive and no attempt is made to provide a
comprehensive bibliography. The citations listed below include a
few of the better known works plus some with an emphasis on blacklisting
and on the entertainment industry in general.
Cedric, The American Inquisition, 1945-60,
Alvah, Inquisition in Eden, The
Macmillan Company, 1965
Alvah, The Un-Americans,
Caroline, The Invisible Scar, Pocketbook
Div. Simon & Schuster, 1967
Fred, The Nightmare Decade,
Frank, The Un-Americans,
Eric, The Crucial Decade and After: America,
Lillian, Scoundrel Time,
Stefan, A Journal of the Plague Years,Atheneum,
Ring Jr., The Lardners, My Family Remembered
and Row, 1976
John Howard, The Hidden Heritage,
Citadel Press, 1950
Merle, The Judges and the Judged,
Joe McCarthy, Harcourt,
Murray, The Face on the Cutting Room Floor;
the Story of Movie and Television Censorship, William
Morrow and Company, 1964
Howard, The Hollywood Blacklist, Teachers
College Press, Columbia,(forthcoming)
Robert, Only Victims,,Putnam,
ON UNAMERICAN ACTIVITIES