"Allowing fears to overwhelm us": A re-examination of the House Special Committee on Un-American Activities, 1938--1944
Lopez, Nancy Lynn
Hyman, Harold M.
Doctor of Philosophy thesis
In 1938, the House of Representatives authorized a special committee to investigate subversive or "un-American" propaganda. Popularly known as the Dies Committee after its chairman Martin Dies, this special committee was the progenitor of the most notorious legislative investigating committee in the history of Congress, the House Un-American Activities Committee. It was widely criticized in its own time, and by the majority of historians since, for its lax procedures, including a reliance on hearsay, unsupported information, and biased witnesses. The Committee also attempted to smear liberals and organized labor by associating them with radical organizations. During its first year, Dies' goal was seemingly to undermine the New Deal by claiming that the Roosevelt Administration and various New Deal agencies were riddled with Communists. Examination of the Committee's records suggests strongly that the foregoing criticisms were warranted. But to assess better the work of the Dies Committee, it is necessary to grapple with the fact that regardless of its motives and procedural inadequacies, in many instances its claims of Communist infiltration of New Deal agencies and the CIO were true. This dissertation examines the procedural and evidentiary standards under which the Dies Committee operated in an effort to address the question whether the lack of consistent application of these standards mattered when the investigation's conclusions were generally correct. The Committee's partisanship and willingness to used dubious evidence raised doubts about its claims of subversion in government and labor among the group whom it needed to convince-those in the Washington power structure. This issue is of heightened relevance given recent scholarship showing that the Soviet Union had funded and supervised an extensive espionage network in the United States during the 1930s. But as long as the Committee accepted rumor and conjecture it would fail to prove its case. Ultimately, the Committee's procedural lapses served only to undermine its own credibility.
History, United States