Topics: First Amendment to the United States Constitution, McCarthyism, Supreme Court of the United States Pages: 9 (3263 words) Published: October 18, 2013
"Congressional Committees and Unfriendly Witnesses"
Ellen Schrecker

The institutions that most typified the McCarthy era were congressional investigating committees. They were also the most important vehicle for extending the anti-Communist crusade throughout the rest of society. Their activities and the publicity they generated transformed what had initially been a devastating but nonetheless narrowly focused attack on a small political party and its adherents into a wide-ranging campaign that touched almost every aspect of American life. In many respects, the operations of these committees paralleled those of the executive branch. They publicized the dangers of the Communist threat, their hearings often producing the same scenarios as trials, with many of the same charges, witnesses, and defendants. But because congressional hearings were immune from the due process requirements that accompanied criminal prosecutions, the committees had more leeway to denounce and accuse. They came to specialize in punishing individuals by exposing their alleged Communist connections and costing them their jobs. So effective had the committees become that by the height of the McCarthy era, in the mid-1950s, people were often fired simply for receiving a subpoena from HUAC or one of the other committees. Investigating committees served more partisan functions as well. Conservatives in and outside of the Republican party used them to attack the liberalism of the New Deal and the Truman administration. On the local level, the committees often functioned as hired guns for their allies within the anti-Communist network. Conveniently timed hearings, with their highly publicized and damaging charges of Communist affiliation, could target specific groups and individuals at crucial moments like strikes, union elections, or sessions of state legislatures. The committees also collected information and did research for the rest of the anti-Communist network. Their published reports and hearings were reference tools for the professional anti-Communists. HUAC was one of the network's main repositories, and, unlike the FBI, it shared its files openly with members of Congress and their constituents. HUAC was the trailblazer, the oldest and most influential of the anti-Communist committees. Established in 1938 as part of the conservative backlash against FDR's New Deal, it developed the most successful techniques and rationales for exposing political undesirables. By the mid-1950s there were dozens of similar bodies at every level of government emulating HUAC's operations and procedures. The most important were Senator McCarthy's Permanent Investigating Subcommittee of the Government Operations Committee and Pat McCarran's powerful Senate Internal Security Subcommittee (SISS), both of which conducted exactly the same kinds of investigations as HUAC. More than a dozen states and even a few cities had also established their own Un-American Activities Committees or authorized other investigators to make similar types of probes. (For more on SISS, see "The Rise of the Anticommunist Network". The McCarran Act created SISS, which had a certain way of outing reluctant witnesses.) HUAC had not always been so influential. During the 1930s and early 1940s, the committee had a reputation for irresponsibility. Few members of Congress considered it a prestigious assignment and many of its mainly southern or rural members were ineffectual or worse. It recruited its staff from former FBI agents or professional ex-Communists whose ideological fervor or desire for publicity occasionally brought them into conflict with the more sedate mores of the congressional establishment. The committee's tendency to publicize unsubstantiated charges of Communist influence did not bolster its credibility. But for all its fecklessness, nothing HUAC did seriously threatened its existence or interfered with the success of its mission. The publicity it attracted as well as its solid...
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