In 1930, a young lawyer named Martin Dies Jr. had followed his father into the House of Representatives from Texas’s Second District, in the east Texas oil patch around Beaumont. A tall man with a gunslinger’s swagger and eyes that squinted like a cowpoke scanning the range for a lost steer, at thirty he was the youngest member of the Congress, and when Roosevelt first entered the White House, Dies joined his fellow Democrats in supporting the New Deal. By 1937, however, under the mentoring guidance of his fellow Texans Vice President Garner and House Majority Leader Sam Rayburn, he had joined the growing ranks of conservative defectors whose goal became to dismantle the New Deal coalition. These southern and rural conservatives, allied with Republicans, implacably opposed unions, wage-and-hours legislation, and the third term that they had now begun to suspect Roosevelt desired.
The following spring, Dies found a new springboard for the pursuit of this agenda, and for enhancing his own political reputation. Up to that point his notoriety, such as it was, rested on his unofficial chairmanship of a loose gathering of House members who loved to hear themselves talk and called themselves, only half in jest, the “Demagogues Club.”
Congressional investigating committees had had a largely positive effect on American political affairs and, on occasion, on the reputations and political fortunes of their star performers. Senator Thomas Walsh, Roosevelt’s choice for attorney general until he died on his way to the inauguration in 1933, had revealed corruption at high levels of the Warren Harding administration in hearings on the Teapot Dome oil leasing scandal in 1923 and 1924. Investigator Ferdinand Pecora, working under both Republican and Democratic chairmen of the Senate Committee on Banking and Currency, had exposed practices that led to several banking and securities reform laws in 1933 and 1934. Since 1936, Wisconsin Senator Robert La Follette had chaired a committee examining the methods used by employers to squelch unions and collective bargaining. These ranged from workplace spies to private police forces to gangs of strikebreaking thugs. Its title was a mouth-clotting gruel of Washington verbiage—the Subcommittee Investigating Violations of Free Speech and the Rights of Labor—but most people called it the La Follette Civil Liberties Committee, and its hearings produced evidence that was cited on behalf of the wage-and-hours law before it was passed in 1938. As a matter of course, each of these committees took testimony from both sides of the issues it was studying, and allowed witnesses to have their lawyers present.
But investigative committees also presented temptations that were hard to resist, especially when patriotism could be invoked. In 1930 and 1931, Republican representative Hamilton Fish of New York had toured the country as the chair of a committee investigating Communist activities in the United States, and after hearing from 275 witnesses in fourteen cities introduced bills to suspend the rights of free speech for Communists. These failed to pass, and the committee’s overheated report was dismissed as witch-hunting: professional patriotism. The dawn of the Hitler era brought another House committee into being. Chaired by Massachusetts Democrat John W. McCormack, it was charged with investigating Nazi and other forms of propaganda. This committee took 4,350 pages of evenhanded testimony but then lost credibility because of the anti-German rants of one of its members, New York Democrat Samuel Dickstein, on the House floor, after which an irritated Congress let the committee die.
McCormack’s had been the first committee to have a title that specified its the task as investigating “un-American activities,” and early in 1938, two incidents led to its revival. That April, on East 86th Street in New York City, in the middle of a neighborhood of German immigrants called Yorkville, a hundred or so Jewish members of the American Legion mingled with the crowd of 3,500 entering the Yorkville Casino for a special event. The German-American Bund, an obstreperous group of pro-Nazi ethnic Germans formed in 1936 and headed by a dedicated anti-Semite named Fritz Kuhn, was throwing a party to celebrate Hitler’s birthday. Young men in the audience were clad in gray storm trooper uniforms bedecked with eagles, iron crosses, and swastikas, which they also wore on goosestepping weekend marches through the neighborhood. When the program in the casino started, German-speaking orators harangued the crowd with recitations of Nazi Germany’s accomplishments. Finally one of the Legionnaires rose and shouted out a pointed question: was this crowd German or American? “Storm troopers” hauled out billy clubs and descended on the questioner. The Legionnaires stood up, put on the blue overseas veterans’ caps they had been hiding in their pockets, and waded into the fight. By the time the police broke up the melee, seven were injured, and two Bund members and two Legionnaires were in jail on riot charges.
The fight at the Yorkville Casino occurred after earlier reports about a German spy ring operating in the United States. What with Nazi spies and the Bund’s would-be storm troopers parading on the streets of New York and other cities with large German populations, Congressman Dies saw his opportunity.
Soon afterward, he rose in the House to argue that an investigative committee be appointed. He stressed the need to monitor the Nazi threat. “I am not inclined to look under every bed for a Communist,” he said, “but I can say to this House that there is in my possession a mass of information showing the establishment and operation of some thirty-two Nazi camps in the U.S., that all of these camps have been paid for, that they claim a total membership of four hundred and eighty thousand…'that in these camps men are marching and saluting the swastika.” He also charged that among the Nazis’ aims was assassinating Roosevelt.
Dies offered no source for his “mass of information,” and the Public Opinion Quarterly ascribed “heated inaccuracy” to his claim that there were almost half a million Nazis in the country. Nevertheless, the House approved Dies’s resolution in a voice vote on May 26, 1938, and the Committee to Investigate Un-American Activities was reborn. The leadership, still displeased with Dickstein’s harangues, left him off the new committee and named Dies chairman. Its charge was to investigate the extent and character of anti-American propaganda and subversion, whether of foreign or domestic origin. This last distinguished it from the original McCormack committee that had been authorized to look only at foreign-generated activities, and it gave the new committee freer rein. Nor was it aimed specifically at Nazis, though that was clearly the intent when it was formed.
Five of the committee’s seven members were conservatives. Two of these were Republicans: J. Parnell Thomas of New Jersey and Noah Mason of Illinois. The Democrats, in addition to Dies, were Arthur Healey of Massachusetts, Harold Mosier of Ohio, John J. Dempsey of New Mexico, and Joe Starnes of Alabama. Only Healey and Dempsey could be termed even remotely liberal. After almost three months of preliminary interviews, Dies convened hearings in August. They were closed to the public, but open to reporters and photographers. He announced as the hearings began that the committee would not permit them “to become a three-ring circus. Neither will we permit any individual or organization to use the committee as a sounding board to obtain publicity or to injure others.” The investigation would be “fair and impartial,” and witnesses would not be permitted to smear innocent people, make reckless charges, or indulge in character assassination. “The chair,” he said, “wishes to make it plain that the committee is not ‘after anyone.’”
Indeed, Dies made a brief stab at investigating Nazi agitation. The committee’s first subpoena went out to George Sylvester Viereck, a German-born poet and writer who had been an apologist for German causes since before the world war. After the ascension of Hitler and the Nazis, the German consulate in New York paid him to promote the German point of view, which he did through magazine articles, friendships he cultivated with isolationists in Congress, and advice to German officials on American attitudes. Viereck initially defied the subpoena, saying he was booked to sail for Europe where, according to Dies, he was going to meet with Hitler at his retreat in the Bavarian mountains. Then he agreed to meet with the committee, and Dies consented to his departure after reaching a “gentleman’s agreement” in which Viereck promised to testify on his return. A single day followed in which two other witnesses—a committee staffer and a former member of the Chicago chapter of the Bund—testified about the activities of Nazi groups. But thereafter, the Dies Committee largely abandoned its original emphasis on right-wing sedition and shifted its focus to Communism and labor organizing. Despite its chaiman’s initial promises, the hearings rapidly degenerated into anti-Communist hysteria, paranoid rantings, and political and personal score settling.
None of the fevered testimony the committee heard was substantiated, and none of it was contradicted by opposing witnesses. The sheer volume of its accusations was astounding. A few days of testimony produced charges that 483 newspapers, 280 labor unions, and 640 organizations, including the Boy Scouts, the Camp Fire Girls, and various Roman Catholic groups, were “Communistic.” The parade of colorful and high-strung crackpots and the lurid fantasies they related produced a bumper crop of headlines. The columns of the New York Times, Washington Post, and other major dailies swelled with coverage of the hearings. The Times alone devoted more than 500 column inches to the committee in August and September.
Much of this torrent of accusations targeted Roosevelt and the members of his administration who were most outspokenly opposed to Dies’s tactics, notably Harold Ickes and Labor Secretary Frances Perkins. But one committee member had the WPA, and especially its theater and writing projects, in his gunsights. These most politically oriented of the arts projects had in all but a few cases operated under the assumptions Hopkins had created with his promise of a “free, adult, uncensored” theater. But where playwrights, producers, and writers saw art and drama in the struggles of human beings and institutions in society, politicians saw Marxian class warfare. And while the arts project administrators believed—naively—that art stood on its own apart from politics, the warriors of the right admitted to no such distinction. They saw only sedition on the march, and they went all out to stop it. Thus when HUAC—the committee was often referred to by its initials or its sounded-out acronym—declared war on these projects in the late summer and fall of 1938, the administration and the WPA were unprepared. They failed to take the opposition seriously until it was too late.