Popular Responses to the Dies Committee: “I Have Never Held a Gun, But I Still Have a Pretty Sharp Kitchen Knife.”

The Dies Committee and the House Un-American Committee (HUAC) are well known for their extensive investigations into “subversive activities” in the United States. The Dies Committee began in 1938 and functioned as a continuation of previous investigating committees that had been looking into the activities of individuals and organizations with suspected ties to Communism or Fascism. In 1945, the HUAC became a permanent committee focused on investigating suspected Communist interference in American society. The HUAC eventually started a large investigation into possible Communist infiltration in Hollywood, which led to many actors, writers, and directors being blacklisted from working in entertainment. However, sometimes the narrative is switched and the Committees themselves are the ones being scrutinized. Whether through official channels or purely through accusations made by constituents, these claims often came to the forefront.  The committee chairman, the Democratic Texas congressman Martin Dies, was expected to ruffle some feathers as the “Self-styled “President of the House Demagogues’ Club“”.

However, he ruffled a diverse plumage of feathers, from the left to the right and from the public to the FBI themselves. It has been undepreciated that many citizens had surprising and passionate responses to the Dies Committee. Governmental bodies, such as the FBI, had to investigate and were subjected to these opinions.

The FBI File on the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), 1938-1975 collection at the RIAS contains information on the relationship between the FBI and the HUAC. Starting with the Dies Committee, these sources cast light on the balance of power between the FBI and the HUAC. Concerning the Dies Committee the collection houses some materials regarding Martin Dies himself.

Some of these sources show that different people have different ideas about what exactly it means to be “Un-American” or to behave in a “subversive” manner.

The Dies committee started investigating subversive activities in 1938. They were meant to investigate:  “The extent, character, and objects of un-American propaganda in the United States, and to investigate the extent of subversive propaganda, whether domestic or foreign in origin, which attacks the principle or form of government constitutionally guaranteed in the United States.” Dies expected to get assistance from Hoover and his G-Men in this endeavor. The appropriation initiating his committee had the following very common clause embedded into it: “the head of each executive department is hereby requested to detail to said special committee such number of legal and expert assistants and investigators as said committee may from time to time deem necessary.” However, Hoover felt that it “as a matter of general policy it” would be “objectionable” to accept Dies’ request for FBI support.

Dies was criticized on many fronts. Such examples included assertions that he was leading a witch hunt, that he was either a supporter of communism or fascism himself, and that he was either to strict or too lenient when it came to his approach to combating subversive elements in American society. In January 1939, Dies sent out a press release accusing the Department of Justice of investigating him and his witnesses, an accusation the FBI strongly denied in their memoranda, which reached Deputy Director E.A. Tamm and Hoover. They did acknowledge that they had questioned several of the Dies Committee witnesses. Yet this was because the Criminal Division of the DoJ was looking into any possible criminal matters that might have come up during the committee hearings. Dies’ worries were unfounded.

However, others did from time to time request to the FBI to investigate Dies. On August 13 1938, Hoover received a letter from a worried citizen about Dies. The letter writer asked Hoover to look into Dies’ bank details to find out if he made “any large deposit between August 3 and August 12.” They claimed this might have been a bribe to keep poet and noted Nazi sympathizer George Sylvester Viereck out of prison. Dies told reporters he had subpoenaed him because he was going to visit Hitler and was a known Nazi sympathizer. Viereck cancelled his trip after claiming he was going to visit “leading personages.” Viereck never testified and left later in 1938. This same person later wrote a strongly worded letter to Attorney General Murphy, claiming he was going to kill Dies with a kitchen knife and accused Hoover of “misfeasance” for not acting on his request to have Dies’ bank records seized.

While this concerned citizen claimed Dies was getting bribes from Viereck, in 1939 a fellow Member of Congress, Jacob Thorkelson from Montana accused Dies of spying on “us” through the FBI. Furthermore, he pointed the finger at Dies and said that Dies tried to smear known fascist General George Van Horn Moseley. So while, on the one hand, Dies was accused of taking bribes from fascists, on the other, it was said he harbored anti-fascist sentiments. Moreover, another letter writer claimed that Dies was not the one attempting to cover something up but that it was the FBI itself that did not want to investigate Communists. In a September 22, 1939 letter, they write, “For example, I read a report where twelve men were assigned to this investigation to uncover Nazi and Fascist activities, and as soon as the Committee swung around to investigating the Communists, where some glaring disclosures were made the support of the F.B.I was withdrawn from this Committee…

These documents show the confusion about the meaning of the words “Un-American” and “subversive”, and how these words can be used by different people in varying ways. The Dies Committee had, as far as Dies was concerned, a clear mission statement, but it is clear that for people witnessing the committee proceedings this was not always the case.

This article was written using the following microfilm archives:

– FBI File on the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), 1938-1975.

– U.S. Congressional Record (1899-1980) 1939 Session 76-1.

And the following book:

– August Raymond Ogden. The Dies Committee. A Study of the House Committee for the Investigation of Un-American Activities 1938-1943. (Washington D.C.: Murray and Heister, 1943), 46.

And the following academic journal article:

– D.A. Saunders, “The Dies Committee: First Phase,” The Public Opinion Quarterly, 3, no. 2 (Apr 1939): 225.