Study Guide by Assoc. Prof. Richard Kranzdorf 
Political Science Dept., Univ. of Calif. San Luis Obispo

It's 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 Judiciary Committee.

An historic period had come to an end. Or had it?
Those 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.

Many 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 in 1962.


COMMITTEE ON UN-AMERICAN 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, even suicide.

The 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.

Greatest 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.

Questions 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.


COMMITTEE ON UN-AMERICAN ACTIVITIES provides a jumping-off place for discussion of various subjects:

1. The 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?

2. There were several politicians who became Chairmen of the HUAC and many others who were its members.  What were their backgrounds?  Why were they selected?

3. Congressional Committees are set up as fact-finding bodies to propose remedies for perceived problems.  What legislation was an outgrowth of the HUAC's work?

4. For 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?

5. Did films of the 1940s and 50s evince pro- or anti-communist sympathies?  Who was responsible for the attempted propagandizing?

6. What 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?

7. What constitutional defenses were attempted by those who chose not to answer questions?  How were these defenses dealt with by the HUAC?  By the courts?

8. What legal status was given informants?  How reliable were they?

9. What are the rules governing Congressional Committee investigations as compared to those used in a court of law?

10. Was 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?"

11. Can charges of character assassination be fairly leveled against the HUAC?

12. With 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?

13. What is the purpose of Congressional Immunity?  If it is abused, is there anything which can be done about it?

14. What methods are used by the film's producer to strengthen his point-of-view?  Are such methods reasonable and proper?


The dangers of thought control are sometimes directly confronted in the film, sometimes hinted at:

1. Did the HUAC falsify and distort its own film "OPERATION ABOLITION"?

2.  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?

3. How much control is there today of information?  Which institutions engage in the greatest control?  With what results?

4. This 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 assassination?

5.  Have Hollywood films created, or simply mirrored, feelings of the American people vis-a-vis other countries or ideologies?

6.  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?


Another 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 suggested:

1.  Was there evidence in the film of police brutality?  If so, did the protestors deserve any of the blame?

2.  What have the courts decided on the government's right to seize the property of a filmmaker, journalist, etc.?

3.  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?

4.  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?

5.  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?

6.  What should the relationship be between government and the media (including the film industry) during periods of "normalcy?"  During times of crisis?

7.  What does the film suggest concerning the rights or limit of dissent? How has the dissenter been treated at various times in American history?


Another 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.

1. During the late 1940s, 50s and early 60s, what were the different ways in which the public responded to charges about loyalty?

2. How did those accused of being "subversive respond?  Was it possible to refute such charges?

3.What 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?

4. What 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?


Robert 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 end

"Can we afford to believe in ideals?  To criticize?  To ask questions?  To think for ourselves?"

Presumably 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?


Material 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.

Belfrage, Cedric, The American Inquisition, 1945-60, Bobbs-Merrill, 1973

Bessie, Alvah, Inquisition in Eden, The Macmillan Company, 1965

Bessie, Alvah, The Un-Americans, Cameron Associates, 1957

Bird, Caroline, The Invisible Scar, Pocketbook Div. Simon & Schuster, 1967

Cook, Bruce, Dalton Trumbo, Scribner's, 1977

Cook, Fred, The Nightmare Decade, Random House, 1971

Donner, Frank, The Un-Americans, Ballantine Books, 1961

Goldman, Eric, The Crucial Decade and After: America, 1945-60, Vintage, 1960

Hellman, Lillian, Scoundrel Time, Little, Brown, 1976

Kanfer, Stefan, A Journal of the Plague Years, Atheneum, 1973

Lardner, Ring Jr., The Lardners, My Family Remembered, Harper and Row, 1976

Lawson, John Howard, The Hidden Heritage, The Citadel Press, 1950

Miller, Merle, The Judges and the Judged, Doubleday, 1952

Rovere, Richard, Senator Joe McCarthy, Harcourt, Brace, 1959

Schumach, Murray, The Face on the Cutting Room Floor; the Story of Movie and Television Censorship, William Morrow and Company, 1964

Suber, Howard, The Hollywood Blacklist, Teachers College Press, Columbia,(forthcoming)

Vaughn, Robert, Only Victims, Putnam, 1972