HUAC Records Opened to Public Scrutiny

Bruce Craig, September 2001

Thanks to the efforts made on behalf of a coalition of historians and archivists, the records of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) are now open to the public.

In response to a letter sent to F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., chair of the House Committee on the Judiciary, some 1,245 feet of HUAC records containing correspondence, unpublished executive session transcripts, special investigative files relating to individuals and organizations dating from 1945 to 1975 (some 444 feet of records) will now be open to public scrutiny. Also unsealed is a unique and large collection (75 feet) of pamphlets and other periodicals gathered over a period of thirty years that were deemed "subversive" by the Committee. Collectively, the records are preserved and stored by the National Archives and Records Administration's (NARA) Center for Legislative Archives in Washington D.C.

The HUAC was created in 1945 and abolished by congressional action in 1975. Records of the House investigative committee that preceded HUAC—the Select Committee on Un-American Activities (the so-called Dies Committee) that functioned from 1938 to 1944—have been open to the public for some time. However, some of the important records of the HUAC—infamous for its unrelenting pursuit of communists, espionage agents, homosexuals, subversives, and others often deemed as "security risks"—have been closed for more than 50 years.

Included in the committee records now opened to public access are previously closed transcripts and materials relating to landmark investigations such as the Alger Hiss case and the hearings on atomic espionage. The collection also includes documents relating to the so-called Hollywood Hearings—a nine-day "inquisition" of Hollywood producers, writers, actors, and others affiliated with the movie industry who allegedly were connected with an international communist conspiracy. Records involving investigations of the Ku Klux Klan, American Nazis, civil rights and anti-war activists of the 1960s are also in the collection.

According to Bruce Craig, director of the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History (NCCPH), "HUAC has a reputation and legacy unparalleled in American history for abuse of power and disregard of individual rights. With these records, for the first time, historians will be able to get a much clearer picture of the internal workings of America's own 20th-century inquisition." The NCCPH is a national coalition of historical and archival organizations that filed the request that resulted in opening the records. The NCCPH had been seeking the release of these documents since 1998.

Arnita Jones, executive director of the American Historical Association (one of the signatories to the request to open the records) said, "Historians have been waiting for the release of these records for decades. They are sure to shed new light on an extraordinarily important era."

Lee Formwalt, executive director of the Organization of American Historians (another signatory to the letter) stated: "The OAH has consistently advocated a policy of openness regarding government records and sources, one that is in accord with a free and democratic society. Public access to these particular records poses no threat to the nation's security. In fact, they will help us better comprehend the forces domestic and foreign that shaped mid-twentieth century American politics, culture, and society."

The July 26, 2001, letter received by the NCCPH and signed by Jeff Trandahl, Clerk of the House (whose office is charged by Congress to maintain custodial care of the HUAC records), states that public access to these records will be governed by Rule VII of the House of Representatives (available online at http://clerkweb.house.gov/107/docs/rules/rule_7.htm). This rule establishes criteria for making available to the public noncurrent, permanent records of the House.

According to the clerk's letter, "some of these records are not available for public review pursuant to the rule; depending on the scope and category of records that may be requested, response times could vary because of the size and complexity of the collection." And according to NARA officials, the records will need to be screened on a case-by-case basis prior to the release of any materials. Requests to gain access to the records should be directed to: the National Archives, Center for Legislative Archives, (202) 501-5350.

—Bruce Craig