Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Lesson 2: The House Un-American Activities Committee

A We The People Resource

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The Lesson

Introduction

Alger Hiss, a State Department official, was accused of spying for the Soviet Union in 1948

Alger Hiss, a State Department official, was accused of spying for the Soviet Union in 1948. Soviet archives unearthed many years later backed up these allegations.

Credit: Image courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.

The late 1940s and early 1950s were a time of growing tension, both abroad and at home. Relations between the United States and the Soviet Union had deteriorated to the point of "cold war," while domestically the revelation that Soviet spies had infiltrated the U.S. government created a general sense of uneasiness. In 1946 the House Un-American Activities Committee, which had been created as a temporary committee in the 1930s to investigate subversives during World War II, became a permanent standing congressional committee. It quickly took upon itself the responsibility for determining how deeply communists had penetrated into American society.

This lesson will examine the operations of HUAC in the late 1940s. This lesson will ask students to address one fundamental question that is still relevant today: What constitutes an "un-American" activity? In association with that theme, students will determine whether there are some ideas that are so dangerous that even their expression should be limited and whether certain professions—government service, entertainment, education, etc.—are so influential that the personal views of people in them should come under public scrutiny.

Guiding Questions

  • What constitutes an "un-American" activity?
  • How did the House Un-American Activities Committee go about defining and investigating such activities?

Learning Objectives

  • Identify HUAC, and explain its goals and methods
  • Explain why HUAC targeted Hollywood, and offer an opinion regarding whether this investigation was justifiable
  • Articulate the issues involved in the Alger Hiss case
  • Evaluate whether HUAC lived up to its stated purposes

Background

Worry about infiltration of the United States by subversive elements first emerged in the 1930s, when it was believed that German agents were spreading Nazi propaganda through the country. Congress responded in 1934 by forming a Special Committee on Un-American Activities, which held hearings, issued a report, and quietly disbanded in 1935. In 1938 it was reconstituted as the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), chaired by Texas Democrat Martin Dies. While this committee was charged with investigating pro-fascist groups, as well as hate organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, Dies chose to focus instead on suspicions that, thanks to the New Deal, members of the Communist Party had managed to infiltrate a number of federal agencies.

Because the United States and the Soviet Union were allies during World War II, HUAC remained fairly quiet during the war years, but in 1946 it became a permanent standing committee, charged with investigating any individual or group that challenged "the form of government guaranteed by our Constitution." Then, after Republicans won majorities in both houses of Congress in the 1946 elections, the committee began to examine federal employees who were allegedly attracted to communism, and who had promoted policies favorable to the Soviet Union.

One of the most famous episodes in HUAC's history was its investigation of Hollywood. In this case the committee looked into the production of certain films during World War II that had created an overly-positive image of life in the Soviet Union. A number of prominent Hollywood figures, including studio executives, movie stars, and screenwriters, were called to testify in 1947. When some of these refused to answer questions about their communist affiliations, or refused to identify others who were suspected of being communists, ten of them—soon dubbed the "Hollywood Ten"—were charged and convicted of contempt of Congress. Eventually as a result of these hearings some 300 directors, actors, and screenwriters found that they had been "blacklisted" by the motion picture industry; that is, the studios agreed not to hire them. Some, like Charlie Chaplin, left the country; some screenwriters continued to work under false names.

However, HUAC also dealt with offenses of a more serious nature. In an executive session of the committee in August 1948, Whittaker Chambers, a confessed Soviet agent, accused Alger Hiss, a Harvard Law School graduate and a prominent New Dealer, of having been part of the same spy ring. The resulting committee hearings, and Hiss's subsequent perjury trial, helped to focus the nation's attention on the question of communists in government. The hearings also helped to make a household name of one committee member, a young Republican congressman named Richard M. Nixon, who was particularly zealous in proving that Hiss was a Soviet agent. For more on the Hiss case, see "Famous Trials: The Alger Hiss Trial", accessible by way of the EDSITEment-reviewed resource History Matters.

HUAC continued to exist until 1975, but by the middle of the 1950s its investigations had ceased to generate much interest. It no doubt contributed in large part to the growing sense of hysteria over communist subversion that swept the country in the late 1940s, and would pave the way for the investigations of Joseph McCarthy. However, it is worth recalling that—as pointed out in the previous lesson, "Soviet Espionage in the United States" —there was an organized Soviet spy network in America; in other words, this was no mere "witch hunt."

Preparation Instructions

Review the lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and links from EDSITEment-reviewed websites used in this lesson. Download and print out selected documents and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing. Alternatively, excerpted versions of these documents are available as part of the downloadable PDF.

Download the Text Document for this lesson, available here as a PDF. This file contains excerpted versions of the documents used in the first and second activities, as well as questions for students to answer. Print out and make an appropriate number of copies of the handouts you plan to use in class.

Analyzing primary sources

If your students lack experience in dealing with primary sources, you might use one or more preliminary exercises to help them develop these skills. The Learning Page at the American Memory Project of the Library of Congress includes a set of such activities. Another useful resource is the Digital Classroom of the National Archives, which features a set of Document Analysis Worksheets. Finally, History Matters offers a helpful page on "Making Sense of Political Cartoons" which gives advice to teachers in getting their students to use such sources effectively.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. "Un-American Activities"?

Teachers should begin the lesson with a brief activity to introduce students to HUAC and its stated purpose. To do so they should read an excerpt from House Resolution 282, which Congress passed in May 1938. Here is the critical language (this is also included for student use on page 1 of the Text Document that accompanies this lesson):

"Resolved, that the Speaker of the House of Representatives be, and he is hereby, authorized to appoint a special committee to be composed of seven members for the purpose of conducting an investigation of (1) the extent, character, and object of un-American propaganda activities in the United States, (2) the diffusion within the United States of subversives and un-American propaganda that is instigated from foreign countries or of a domestic origin and attacks the principle of the form of government as guaranteed by the Constitution, and (3) all other questions in relation thereto that would aid Congress in any necessary remedial legislation."

When they are finished, ask students to make a list of activities that they might consider "un-American." Give them about ten or fifteen minutes to do so, then ask them what they have come up with. Make a list on the board that incorporates their answers. At the end of the lesson students might be asked to return to this list and compare it to the sorts of things HUAC actually investigated.

Activity 2. HUAC vs. Hollywood

In this exercise small groups of students will take on the personae of some or all of the following prominent individuals involved in HUAC's investigation of the entertainment industry:

1. Walt Disney
2. Eric Johnston
3. John Howard Lawson
4. Jack Warner
5. Ayn Rand
6. Ronald Reagan
7. Louis B. Mayer

Worksheets for each of these seven individuals are available on pages 28 of the Text Document.

Either individually or in four to seven small groups, they will prepare brief (three- to five-minute) presentations for the class, identifying their particular individual and explaining his or her views on HUAC and communism in the entertainment industry. Teachers need not have groups representing all seven; however, it is recommended that, for the sake of balance, at minimum there be groups for Disney, Johnston, Lawson, and Warner.

To prepare their presentations each group will have one of the following documents at their disposal, all of which are located at the EDSITEment-reviewed resource History Matters:

After the presentations have been made teachers should play for their students a news report from November 25, 1947, which announces the blacklisting of the Hollywood Ten. This is available at the site Authentic History, which is accessible via the EDSITEment-reviewed site Teaching American History.

To conclude this activity, teachers might hold an in-class debate on the following resolution: "HUAC was justified in investigating subversive influences in the entertainment industry." Questions that might be considered include:

  • What sort of power do those in the entertainment industry have to shape public opinion?
  • Given this power, is it appropriate for the government to investigate the political beliefs of people in that industry?
  • Did the views of the Hollywood Ten make them a menace to American society?
  • Are there any views so dangerous that the government is justified in silencing them?
Activity 3. The Case of Alger Hiss

For this activity the class will be divided into three groups, each of which will read excerpts from the Hiss-Chambers hearings before HUAC in August 1948. These excerpts, located on pages 925 of the Text Document, are taken from transcripts available at the site Famous Trials, accessible via the EDSITEment-reviewed resource History Matters.

Each group will be responsible for reading a particular section of the hearing transcripts and answering a set of questions designed to guide their reading:

Group #1: Testimony of Whittaker Chambers, August 3, 7, and 25, 1948; excerpts are available on pages 9-15 of the Text Document, along with a worksheet that includes the following questions:

  • Who was Whittaker Chambers?
  • Why did he become a communist?
  • Why did he break with the Communist Party?
  • What did he accuse Alger Hiss of?
  • Why was Congressmen Mundt so interested in Hiss?
  • What was the basis for Chambers's claim that Hiss was a communist?
  • Do you find Chambers to be a credible witness? Why or why not?

Group #2: Testimony of Alger Hiss, August 5, 16, and 25, 1948; excerpts are available on pages 1622 of the Text Document, along with a worksheet that includes the following questions:

  • Who was Alger Hiss?
  • What was Hiss accused of?
  • How did Hiss respond to the accusations?
  • How did Hiss's testimony change between August 5 and August 16?
  • What did Hiss accuse HUAC of trying to do in these hearings?
  • Do you find Hiss to be a credible witness? Why or why not?

Group #3: The Hiss-Chambers Hearings, August 17 and 25, 1948; excerpts are available on pages 2329 of the Text Document, along with a worksheet that includes the following questions:

  • What was the purpose of having Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss meet face to face in this hearing?
  • Under what circumstances did Chambers claim he knew Hiss?
  • What was the outcome of the meeting between these two men?
  • Based on this reading, which strikes you as the more believable witness—Hiss or Chambers? Why?
  • Why was Congressman Mundt originally inclined to believe Hiss?
  • What led Congressman Mundt to change his mind regarding Hiss?
  • Why did Mundt believe that it was impossible to learn for certain whether or not Hiss was a communist?

To begin, have each student read his or her group's reading, and answer the relevant questions, as homework. Then in class the following day have the students meet in their groups to compare their answers. After giving them about fifteen minutes to discuss their conclusions, reshuffle the class into groups of three, with each group made up of one student from each of the original three. Each student in these new groups will have the responsibility of filling in the other two on what he or she has read, so that by the end of this exercise all of the students should have an overall picture of the hearings. At this point teachers should conduct a classroom discussion of the Hiss case, focusing on the following questions:

  • Which seems to be the more credible witness—Hiss or Chambers—and why?
  • Do you think Hiss was guilty of "un-American activities"?
  • What was so politically explosive about the Hiss case? (Students may need more guidance to answer this. It is worth pointing them toward Hiss's long history of service to the Roosevelt administration, and that in 1947 Republicans controlled Congress, and hence HUAC. Many Republicans would use this as evidence that the Democrats had been "soft on communism.")

To conclude the activity, students should trace the subsequent history of the Hiss-Chambers affair by visiting the interactive timeline of the early Cold War. Students should first click on the year 1948, and then on the headline "Dec. 2, 1948: Chambers Leads Investigators to 'Pumpkin Papers'," and read the popup that appears. They should then click on the year 1950, and the headline "Jan. 21, 1950: Alger Hiss Convicted of Perjury," and read that popup. Teachers might also play for their students a broadcast by the legendary newsman Edward R. Murrow; who reported on Hiss's perjury trial on June 2, 1949. The broadcast is available in audio format at the site Authentic History, which is available via Teaching American History.

Assessment

After completing this lesson, students should be able to write brief (12 paragraphs) essays answering the following questions:

  • Why did HUAC investigate the motion picture industry?
  • Do you think that HUAC's investigation of Hollywood was justified?
  • Why did Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers appear before HUAC?
  • Was justice done in the Alger Hiss case?

Alternatively, more advanced students might be asked to write a longer essay in response to the following:

  • Based on what you have learned in this lesson, how well do you think HUAC lived up to the principles expressed in 1938 in House Resolution 282?

Students should be able to identify and explain the significance of the following:

  • House Un-American Activities Committee
  • "Hollywood Ten"
  • Alger Hiss
  • Whittaker Chambers

Finally, if students completed the first activity of the first lesson in this unit (on the Venona Project), they might be asked the following:

  • How would HUAC's activities have been affected had the Venona Project been made public during this time?

Extending The Lesson

The companion site for CNN's series on the Cold War (accessible via the EDSITEment-reviewed Internet Public Library), has an interactive in which students imagine that they are Hollywood screenwriters who have been called to testify before HUAC. The activity asks them to consider whether, in this circumstance, they would do as the committee requested and "name names."

Teachers who wish to spend more time on the Hiss-Chambers case may wish to have students read Whittaker Chambers' "Letter to my Children," which gives his reason for testifying against Alger Hiss, and his views on the communist menace. The document may be found at the site Famous Trials, accessible via the EDSITEment-reviewed resource History Matters. This might usefully be juxtaposed against a 1949 statement by Communist Party leader Eugene Dennis located at History Matters (scroll halfway down the page), in which Dennis insists that communists are truly patriotic citizens.

It was during the Hiss case that a young California congressman named Richard Nixon first came to national attention. It might be useful to have students read Nixon's recollections of the hearings—an excerpt from his 1962 book Six Crises and his unguarded comments on the subject when he was president, both of which may be found at the Famous Trials site. Both of these could then be compared to the actual events. NOTE: Teachers should be aware that Nixon uses profanity in the latter account.

The activities of HUAC generated a great deal of criticism. Among the most famous of the committee's critics was the influential political cartoonist "Herblock." Several of his editorial cartoons are available online at the Library of Congress site "Herblock's History" (accessible via the EDSITEment-reviewed site History Matters). Of particular relevance are "It's Okay—We're Hunting Communists", "Fire!", "You Read Books, Eh?", and "Say, Whatever Happened to 'Freedom-from-Fear'?". Students might be asked to analyze these cartoons and the image that they portray of anticommunists.

As a counterpoint students might be interested in seeing a classic example of anticommunism in American popular culture—Treasure Chest, a monthly comic book published by the Catholic Guild. Although it is from a later period (the early 1960s) than that which is covered in this lesson, it can give students a sense for why Americans were so fearful of communism during this time. Sample issues are available at the Authentic History Center, which is accessible via the EDSITEment-reviewed site Teaching American History.

Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Grade Level

9-12

Time Required

2-3 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Postwar United States (1945 to early 1970s)
Skills
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Debate
  • Developing a hypothesis
  • Discussion
  • Evaluating arguments
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Representing ideas and information orally, graphically and in writing
  • Role-playing/Performance
  • Textual analysis
  • Using primary sources
  • Vocabulary
  • Writing skills
Authors
  • John Moser, Ashland University (Ashland, OH)
  • Lori Hahn, West Branch High School (Morrisdale, PA)

Resources

Activity Worksheets
Student Resources
Media

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