By Any Other Name
THE HOUSE Un-American Activities Committee has lost its good name. A bill to rechristen it "House Committee on Internal Security" passed the House last week 305 to 79, but only after a motion to abolish the old name weathered a 262 to 123 vote. Richard Ichord (D-Mo.), the new chairman of HUAC (or HISC), had little reason to expect such heavy opposition from the liberals. The "un-American" in HUAC's old name had been a fighting word to them, a chauvinist smear. The New Republic, for example, editorialized: "At present a lot of Congressmen vote funds for the committee lest they be called unpatriotic. Drop the scare word and the spell breaks." But opponents of the bill feared that a new name would make HUAC more respectable. As the real aims of the bill became clearer, they fought to save the scare word.
Ichord, a polite moderate, contends that his purpose in changing names was to clarify the mandate of his committee. To the Rules committee he said, "The present mandate is admittedly ambiguous. It gives rise to the thought that the Committee is concerned with political ideas. I am not interested in any witch hunt...or pillorying anybody for unorthodox thoughts."
But his attitude is not the innocently tolerant one that it first appears. He would grant Americans freedom of "political ideas", but he draws the line at "political action" tainting of "SDS, Communism, pacifism, nihilism, and treachery." When critics suggested that Ichord considered peace a Communist plot, the chairman quickly retracted his indictment of pacifists, saying he was misquoted.
Even so, his other criteria for illegal political action (particularly "treachery") reclaim for the Committee its right to thought control. Ichord has promised to expose every revolutionary group as well as those who "condone" this violence. This means, he emphasizes, concentrating on SDS and Afro-style campus agitators. William Colmer (D-Miss.), a member of HUAC, added that he was especially concerned about "Communists working with young people in colleges and even in high schools."
THE CHANGE of name from HUAC to HISC will not affect the Committee's style. It may, however, save the old HUAC from the clutches of the law. Now pending before the Chicago Court of Appeals is the first serious challenge to the constitutionality of HUAC. The case stems out of Chicago hearings in 1965 conducted by the Committee in which several prominent citizens claim they were slandered. One of these included Dr. Jeremiah Stamler, a director for the Chicago Board of Health and associate professor at Northwestern. On hearsay evidence, and sometimes not even that, the late Joe Pool (D-Tex.) tried to link Stamler's name with known Communists. This time, with the support of a solidly Republican law firm, Stamler sued HUAC as soon as it issued him a subpoena. The suit argues that the Committee's mandate violates the guarantees of the First Amendment.
The Committee has gone to the courts before, but chiefly to prosecute contempt citations. Now it must appear as the defendant, on trial for the sins of a dead Red-baiter. And conservatives have never held out much hope for the Warren Court, where the case might end up.
Ichord therefore suggested an alias, the "House Committee on Internal Security." No one, it is hoped, can challenge the constitutionality of HUAC if HUAC-as-such doesn't exist. Its supporters can sabotage the Stamler suit by inventing a new cover for the posse.
This logic has its flaws. It is doubtful that such a pathetic legal maneuver would fool the Court of Appeals or any other court, although Stamler attorneys had preferred to take on HUAC in its original form. The new Committee will inherit the same liberal enemies and the same inimitable style of the deceased.
Several Congressional opponents of HUAC, however, have seen the change as the first step in dismantling the Committee. Outright abolition has never been feasible. As Don Edwards (D-Cal.) has noted, a standing committee once established is immensely difficult to get rid of. By changing the name, these liberals hope to create a jurisdictional dispute between the Judiciary Committee under Rep. Emmanuel Celler (D-N.Y.) and the new HISC. Both claim the authority to investigate subversive activity such as espionage. If there is a dispute, then the Judiciary Committee might be able to absorb HISC as a subcommittee and police its conduct. But few opponents of HUAC are so optimistic.
Even then Congress would still fuss over Communists, fellow travelers, campus agitators, Yippies, and the like. Such detective work, though, would no longer have the single-minded backing of a permanent standing committee. As a standing committee, HISC gets free printing and the right to hire over fifty investigators and consultants from a considerable budget. In 1966 it asked for and received $425,000. In 1967 liberals rallied enough strength to whittle that down to $350,000. Last year's figure edged back up to $375,000. In the 89th Congress, HUAC finished with the fourth highest appropriations for a House committee.
These expenditures are rather exorbitant for a committee with so meager a legislative record. HUAC, or HISC, has yet to produce one workable anti-subversion measure. It has secured 129 contempt citations but won only 9 convictions. At best, the Committee has succeeded only at compiling an unknown number of political dossiers on American citizens.
THE COMMITTEE anticipated revived activity following the lean years between Eisenhower and the Gulf of Tonkin. HUAC thrives on domestic fear, just the kind produced by "leftists" picketing for peace in Vietnam of demonstrating for black power. So far, though, the big Red scare has not developed, and the noise from HUAC has been minimal.
HUAC also has to compete with more muckrakers than ever. Its plans to investigate the riots in the ghettoes were preempted by the highly publized Kerner Report and the findings of two Senate groups. The Presidential commissioner has replaced the Congressional prosecutor in the Washington spotlight. Another factor in HUAC's eclipse was the Wallace campaign and growth of the American Independent Party. Presidential politics provided a more attractive, more visible expression of discontent that a HUAC committeeroom.
The new round of hearings into radical movements on campus may restore HUAC's old popularity. Vern Countryman, a Harvard law professor, who has campaigned against HUAC for years, notes: "Discrediting McCarthy taught the public something, but you can't be sure how long it lasts." He also believes that the committee's new pre-occupation with the younger generation will cramp HUAC's style. HUAC may have no effective sanctions against campus radicals.
In the fifties, the most effective sanction was terror. Almost any publicity from HUAC meant the "blacklist." Without a chance to clear his name, a witness would suddenly find himself without friends and without a job. But it is not easy to see how in 1969 a HUAC blacklist could terrorize an SDS activist. Witnesses like Jerry Rubin have openly boasted of their contempt for American institutions. A subpoena from HUAC would be unlikely to scandalize Abie Hoffman or his friends.
Meanwhile, Congress has eliminated HUAC in name only. The fact that the Committee took to a pseudonym represents no victory for the liberals, but at least the word "un-American" may begin to disappear from the national lexicon. This prospect, though, does not please Walter Goodman, author of The Committee, who sees HUAC's name as a perverse but lovable piece of Americana. "There is nothing un-American about the Un-American Activities Committee...just as there is nothing un-American about union-busting, anti-Semitism, or the Ku Klux Klan." For all its patriotism and bad meter, "HUAC" had a good chilling sound.