Civil Liberties

Newt Gingrich Misses the House Committee on Un-American Activities, Calls for 'Similar Steps' Today

Beware of Newt's nostalgia.


Thomas Nash

Newt Gingrich has now called for a new House Committee on Un-American Activities. That isn't a little hyperbole that I'm tossing around to get your attention. The former speaker literally invoked the committee—remembered today as a bastion of witch-hunters—as the sort of thing he thinks we need to combat terrorism.

"In the late 1930s, President Franklin Roosevelt was faced with Nazi penetration of the United States," Gingrich said on Fox and Friends yesterday. "We originally created the House Un-American Activities Committee to go after Nazis. We passed several laws in 1938 and 1939 to go after Nazis. And we made it illegal to help the Nazis. We're going to presently have to go take the similar steps here."

Whenever someone mentions the committee's efforts in the Nazi era, as opposed to its better-known role in the Red Scare, I remember a sequence of events that Leo Ribuffo described in his book The Old Christian Right. "Many congressional liberals voted to recharter the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1938," Ribuffo wrote, "because they wanted to investigate Silver Shirts and Bundists"—two fascist groups of the day. In 1940, he adds, many of them "acquiesced in the passage of the Smith Act," which made it illegal to advocate the overthrow of the U.S. government, because they hoped it "would be used to indict far right agitators."

It wasn't long before those tools embraced by liberals were used against the left. If you find yourself tempted to support Gingrich's plan, you should first ponder the possibility that his committee will eventually cast its eyes in your direction.

Bonus reading: HUAC and Joe McCarthy were separate phenomena—McCarthy being in the Senate rather than the House—but I'm still going to throw in a link to "Four Great Myths of the McCarthy Era."