Huac

The Committee.
by Walter Goodman.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 564 pp. $10.00.

As a chronicle of the three-decade history of the House Un-American Activities Committee, this long book is unflaggingly interesting, frequently entertaining, and occasionally elegant. Walter Goodman is no admirer either of the Committee or of its various clownish or bigoted (or clownish and bigoted) Chairmen. The noble roster runs from Martin Dies through Edward J. Hart, John S. Wood, J. Parnell Thomas, Wood once again, Harold H. Velde, Francis E. Walter, and Edwin E. Willis. With the single exception of Francis Walter, none of these men amounted to much as a legislator. Their celebrity derived entirely from the publicity which they sought and won as hunters of witches, harriers of Communists, and defenders of the sort of Americanism that Joseph McCarthy, a titan among such dim figures as these, popularized. As Mr. Goodman truly says, “If the House Committee on Un-American Activities had not been invented, there would be no good reason for it to exist.”

But exist it does, and the well-organized historian must find a tone appropriate to a sustained description of its activities. Five hundred and sixty four pages of moral indignation would have been rather more than even the strongest emotional constitution among writers or readers could have borne. Mr. Goodman's tone of wondering irony meets the requirements—it accords comfortably both with the temperament of a civilized man and the quality of many of the transactions which he records. This irony locates its major targets among the members of the Committee, but the witnesses who paraded before HUAC are not neglected. Not all the clowns, after all, were on the Committee—some were friendly helpers like Mrs. Lela Rogers, mother of Ginger, who proudly informed the Committee's investigators that her principled daughter, a patriot to the core, had refused to utter the subversive line, “Share and share alike—that's democracy” before the cameras. And how right she was, for the film in question, Tender Comrade, had been written by none other than the notorious Dalton Trumbo. Indeed, a good number of fastidious observers might have been more willing to jail Hollywood's Communists for producing tripe than for generating pro-Russian propaganda of which, as it turned out, the Committee's most determined probings found none. The difficulty did not prevent Representative Thomas from quoting with solemn approval Adolphe Menjou's verdict upon his town as “one of the main centers of Communist activity in America”—in which case, the prospects for revolution in our time would seem to have been exceedingly dim.

Blessed with material of such rich quality, Mr. Goodman is able to take and confer considerable pleasure. Nevertheless, his intellectual strategy has its limitations. The unfriendly witnesses who streamed before the Committee undoubtedly included a good many fools, an assortment of rogues, and even some genuine Communists. Although Mr. Goodman is certainly not guilty of the rough and ready plain man's judgment that bad men deserve bad treatment, he does succumb on occasion to the temptation, helpful certainly to the drama of the narrative flow, of sympathizing with the Committee on the occasions when its members have been confronted by particularly intransigent or particularly voluble hostile witnesses. There is a touch from time to time of an anti-anti-HUAC sentiment reminiscent of the anti-anti-McCarthyism which weakened the opposition of some good liberals to the Senator's activities.

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A necessary distinction between bad men and bad procedures is not always as clearly made as it should be. The moral disarray, intellectual muddle, and personal cowardice of many members of the American Left during the 30's and after unquestionably opened the door to congressional inquisition. Yet for the most part all that the personal failings of left-wing intellectuals proved was what everyone, aside from the intellectuals, knew all along—that intellectuals are no better than other people. Occupationally, however, they talk and write more, so that when a civilized community convicts its intellectuals of folly, it can appropriately deride and reject their present and future pronouncements, even while conceding the possibility that the once-foolish intellectual may have learned something from his folly. There is no legitimate occasion for public humiliation, still less for the subjecting of people to the choice between ratting on friends, past and present, and going to jail. Which is only to say that the weaknesses of the Left are often the occasion but never the justification for bullying from the Right.

Congressional bullying in that period certainly affected the atmosphere of ordinary life, yet it is only fair to concede that HUAC was always a lesser menace than the McCarthy of the great days. If it is difficult to recall how one felt during the McCarthy period, recent events on my own campus have jogged memory quite suddenly. Here are colleagues in 1968 testifying before a legislative committee and responding by invoking their constitutional rights. Once more local patriots are demanding their summary discharge. Owing to the vagaries of New York State law and the apparent definition of members of university faculties as public officials, it is quite possible that refusal to testify before a Grand Jury now sitting will result in the offenders' removal from the public payroll. Happily, 1968 is not yet the 1950's all over again; the New York legislature's Hughes Committee is not HUAC; and the climate of general and academic opinion is such that if jobs are actually lost on grounds like these, sympathy will generally be with the faculty members and better jobs may well come their way. All this is true, yet the faculty members in question have already been put to some legal expense; further expenditure is entirely possible; and their personal lives and those of their friends have been dominated by an accidental circumstance: they were called to testify largely because they were young, popular teachers suspected of knowing what their still younger students were up to. In short, the present situation is no fun at all for the young professors involved and no joking matter for their university either. Few academics will care to join a faculty whose members are defined as synonymous with the remainder of the state bureaucracy.

Things were, of course, much worse during much of the period traversed by Mr. Goodman. Although it is easily possible to exaggerate the disruptive impact of the legislative circuses of the 1950's, it is at least true that non-Communists as well as present or former Communists, liberals, radicals, and even an occasional libertarian conservative, were devoting time, energy, and thought to the preservation of basic civil liberties. This was so much psychic energy lost for more creative purposes. The intellectual languor of the 50's owed something to the intellectuals' preoccupations with legislative investigations.

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Possibly HUAC's largest negative contribution to American life was its share in the unleashing of that apparatus of security clearance, FBI investigation, and miscellaneous prying which is now a permanent feature of American life. One cannot so much as serve the Office of Education as a consultant in the selection of summer institutes for the edification of high-school teachers without surviving the solemn rites of investigation and clearance. HUAC may not be the only cause of the decline of privacy but it merits its share of the dishonor. One wonders whether the current passion of many social scientists to establish a central data bank in Washington would have won quite so much support had not Congress and the FBI habituated all of us, even the most rebellious, to the presence of this privileged snoopery.

I fear that Mr. Goodman's cool, rational, skeptical mood in the end minimizes the significance of HUAC's untidy life and actions. It did, after all, help poison American intellectual life in its hour, and it would take an optimist to exclude the possibility that it or one of its like-minded brethren is incapable of doing so again. It savaged many innocent and honorable souls. And even when it punished the morally corrupt and the intellectually “guilty,” it did so in ways and with weapons that are not appropriate to the civilized behavior of enlightened governments. Finally, it helped the concepts of loyalty and security to become a cloak for the prying of federal cops of all varieties. Are these such insubstantial accomplishments for a Committee populated with the cynics, dunces, opportunists, racists, and ignoramuses who have naturally found their home in HUAC? Even today the Committee is an incipient menace because it is allied, as Mr. Goodman notes, with the worst impulses and the least enlightened groups of the American people. Mr. Goodman allows us to see and believe all of this. I only wish he had stated his conclusions more strongly and more centrally in his generally impressive book.

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