“Father of the Committee”: Rep. Samuel Dickstein and the Origins of HUAC
(Rep. Samuel Dickstein (D-NY), second from right, March 1937. Source: Harris & Ewing Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/hec2009009088/)
When examining the history of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), one soon discovers an amazing irony. While HUAC spent over three decades developing a reputation as a right-wing scourge of communists real or alleged, the congressman who first conceived the idea of a committee to investigate “un-American activities” was a New Deal liberal worried about the threat of subversion posed by domestic Nazis and fascists. Even more incredibly, that same congressman, dubbed by HUAC scholar Walter Goodman as the “Father of the Committee”, actually spent several years as a paid agent of the Soviet Union.
Born in 1885, Rep. Samuel Dickstein (D-NY) emigrated to the U.S. as a small child and grew up in New York City. He went to law school and became involved in the Democratic Party, serving in various state offices before winning election to Congress in 1922. Dickstein was alarmed by the Nazi seizure of power in Germany in 1933 and by the often well-publicized activities of Nazi sympathizers and native fascists in the United States. At his urging, on March 20, 1934 the House of Representatives passed House Resolution 198 (H. Res. 73-2), which created a special committee to investigate:
“The extent, character, and objects of Nazi propaganda activities” in the U.S.
“The diffusion within the United States of subversive propaganda that is instigated from foreign countries and attacks the principle of the form of government as guaranteed by our Constitution”
“All other questions in relation thereto” (78 CR 4934)
The House Special Committee on Un-American Activities, widely considered the forerunner to HUAC, contained seven members. Rep. John McCormack (D-MA) served as Chair with Dickstein as Vice-Chair. The McCormick-Dickstein committee, as it was popularly known, primarily investigated the activities of far-right extremists such as the German-American Bund and the Silver Legion of America, but did also investigate the Communist Party (CPUSA) as well.
The McCormick-Dickstein Committee published its report on February 15, 1935. This report included the following summation of the 1930s countersubversive worldview:
“To the true and real American, communism, naziism (sic.), and fascism are all equally dangerous, equally alien and equally unacceptable to American institutions.” (Investigation, p.23)
The Special Committee on Un-American Activities disbanded after releasing its report. Dickstein, however, continued his campaign against alleged Nazi and fascist subversion. In early 1937, he called for the creation of a new committee on un-American activities, with a charge even more sweeping than that given to the 1934-35 version. In his ever more strident warnings about the threat posed by the German-American Bund and other far-right groups, Dickstein became one of the most prominent voices of what historian Leo Ribuffo has called the “Brown Scare”: an exaggerated fear of the threat posed by domestic Nazis and fascists in response to the alarming rise of the Third Reich in Europe and the often repellent activities of its supporters in the U.S.
By this time, Dickstein had adopted the practice of denouncing by name individuals, businesses and organizations he suspected of Nazi or fascist sympathies in speeches on the floor of Congress. When six individuals identified by Dickstein as Bund members submitted signed affidavits denying the charge, Dickstein responded on the House floor on December 21, 1937 as follows:
I have always protected character and reputation in respect to any name I have inserted in the RECORD, and I say to the membership of the House that if out of these hundreds of names that I have buttonholed as Fascists and Nazis, or whatever I have called them, only six filed a protest, I think I have done a pretty good job. (82 CR 2031)
Dickstein’s desire to see a new Special Committee on Un-American Activities came to fruition on May 26, 1938, when the House passed House Res. 282, creating the committee that would become HUAC and continue in several incarnations until 1975. The resolution was sponsored by Rep. Martin Dies (D-TX), with Dickstein’s full support and cooperation. However, Dies was appointed Chair while Dickstein was left off the committee altogether. The Dies Committee would direct the majority of its investigative focus on the CPUSA and New Deal, much to Dickstein’s chagrin. As Goodman memorably phrased it, Dickstein was “relentless” in his efforts “from 1933 to 1938” to bring HUAC into being, only to find that he “had the rest of his life to regret” his efforts.
The story of Samuel Dickstein and the origins of HUAC took an even more bizarre turn in 1999, when Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev released their book The Haunted Wood. Based on research in KGB archives, Weinstein and Vassiliev revealed that Dickstein maintained a covert relationship with the NKVD (Soviet secret police: predecessor of the KGB) from 1937-1940. Motivated primarily by financial incentives, Dickstein was given the code name “Crook” by the NKVD and was paid approximated $12,000 during this period. The Soviets severed the relationship with Dickstein in 1940, unhappy that they were not getting their money’s worth. (Weinstein & Vassiliev, The Haunted Wood, Chapter 7)
This leaves us with the ultimate irony that the man who did more than any other to bring the House Un-American Activities Committee into being was on the payroll of Soviet intelligence while doing so.
After resigning from Congress in 1945, Dickstein became a justice of the New York State Supreme Court, serving there until his death in 1954.
Investigation of Nazi and Other Propaganda, House Report No. 153, 74th Congress (74-1), Serial Set 9890 (1935) (Available in U.S. Congressional Serial Set; ECU users only)
Investigation of Nazi Propaganda Activities and Investigation of Certain Other Propaganda Activities. Public Hearings Before the Special Committee on Un-American Activities, House of Representatives, Seventy-Third Congress, Second Session. 1934-35, 8. v. (Joyner Docs CWIS: Y 4: Un 1: N 23)
78 Cong. Rec. 4934 (1934) (Available in ProQuest Congressional; ECU users only)
82 Cong. Rec. 2031 (1937) (Available in ProQuest Congressional; ECU users only)
Goodman, Walter. The Committee: The Extraordinary Career of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1968. (Joyner Stacks E743.5 .G64)
Ribuffo, Leo P. The Old Christian Right: The Protestant Far Right from the Great Depression to the Cold War . Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1983. (Joyner Stacks E806 .R47 1983)
Weinstein, Allen and Alexander Vassiliev. The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America–The Stalin Era. New York: Random House, 1999. (Joyner Stacks UB271.R9 W45 1999)