The (Un-American) House Un-American Activities Committee
An analysis of David Maraniss’, "A Good American Family"
In the opening remarks of his first inaugural address on March 4, 1933, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously stated, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”1 This statement captured not only the determination of Americans to overcome the perils of the Great Depression, but the need to be aware of the consequences that fear can unleash upon a nation. However, Roosevelt’s words do not seem to have been heeded by Americans throughout the Second Red Scare, a period of United States history between the late 1940s and the 1950s that was marked by a sense of illogical fear for the survival of American liberty. In “A Good American Family,” David Maraniss uses the direct impact that the HUAC hearings had on his family to demonstrate the consequences that the second red scare had on Americans and their civil liberties, when their government, motivated by unsubstantiated fears and hysteria, sought to preserve the existence of American liberty and in doing so, undermined it. Maraniss challenges his readers to think about the mindset and actions that truly define American patriotism, the pattern throughout the history of the United States to protect the liberties of the majority at the expense of the minority, and how the abdication of the rights of individual citizens in the interest of national security all impact the foundational ideology of the United States.
Maraniss’ account of the HUAC investigations demonstrates how the hysteria during the Second Red Scare impacted the public’s conception of patriotism and stigmatized the ideologies of progressivism and communism as “un-American” and disloyal. Throughout the book, Maraniss reveals how the actions of the committee—which were motivated by a fear that American freedom was being attacked domestically by the Soviets—were so radical that they worked to undermine American liberty instead of protecting it. The HUAC investigations led to a clash between American civil liberties such as freedom of speech and the American government which was aiming to protect freedom of speech but ended up denying that very same freedom to a small group of American citizens. This factual discrepancy functioned as a self-fulfilling prophecy for the committee and it is perfectly captured in Elliott Maraniss’ statement to the HUAC committee in which he accuses the committee of being “ostensibly designed to protect the government against overthrow by force and violence, [but] … proceed[ing] by force, terror and threats to overthrow the rights of the American people.”2 This statement properly encapsulates the actions of the committee as a self-fulfilling prophecy in that while it was willing to go to very severe lengths to protect American democracy and freedom, it ended up undermining that very same freedom by resorting to actions that it fundamentally opposed which resembled the actions of its ideological adversary, the Soviet Union. By illustrating this self-fulfilling prophecy, Maraniss demonstrates to his readers the ramifications that the actions of the committee would have on the evolution of the values that would come to define the United States throughout the postwar era.
Maraniss uses the events which transpire in the Detroit hearing room as well as the consequences which follow for Elliott Maraniss and his family in their aftermath to demonstrate a pattern of continuance throughout American history of the abdication of the civil liberties for a minority of Americans while protecting those of the majority. The members of HUAC portrayed themselves to be stalwart defenders of American democracy in the “greatest fight” of their lives confronting, what was in their estimation, a communist conspiracy to take over the United States domestically, engineered by the Soviet Union. Maraniss’ investigation challenges his readers to look beyond how the committee claimed to fight for democracy during the Second Red Scare by assessing the record of individual members when faced with other circumstances that threatened the democratic process.3 One of the clearest discrepancies between the vigour of the committee members during the HUAC investigations and at other moments in their careers, observes Maraniss, is the lack of defence of the democratic principles of liberty in the face of domestic racial issues that disproportionally affected black Americans. For example, Chairman Wood’s vote against a 1949 measure prohibiting poll taxes in elections for federal offices is one instance whereby a member of the committee did not stand up for democracy when the liberties of a minority of Americans—the African American community in the south—were being challenged.4 Another example is a column in the Herald by Coleman Young who states that “a shadow falls over America…of [a] Congress seeking to smash organized labour and hysterically hunting progressives while turning its back on the Ku Klux Klan and other fascist groups."5 By citing these examples, Maraniss demonstrates that the pursuit of communists through efforts such as the hearings conducted by HUAC were not impartial efforts by representatives of the people to prosecute threats to American democratic principles. He makes this clear by demonstrating how HUAC vigorously pursued suspected communists as un-American but ignored other racially motivated hate groups. This shows that the efforts of the committee members were often biased, politically motivated attempts by a majority to infringe upon the civil liberties of a minority of Americans who held a progressive or communist world view, which the committee members and many Americans viewed as an antithesis to the American way of life.
The actions taken by HUAC during the Second Red Scare—which originated out of a fear that a plot by the Soviet Union to take over the United States through domestic communist agents was underway—demonstrated a willingness on behalf of a majority of Americans to accept justifiable infringement of civil liberties in exchange for a greater guarantee of national security. This shift came throughout the Second Red Scare and the investigatory actions taken by the Congress, amongst other government bureaucracies, and fundamentally altered the ethos upon which American democratic principles were founded. Maraniss draws attention to this change in values throughout his book by using the concept of A Good American Family as a double entendre to signify both a stereotype of what a majority of Americans view as a conventional American family and how that view stands in opposition to families such as Maraniss’. He also refers to a quote by a committee member, Charles E. Potter, who said, “it amazed him…to discover that some [communists] came from ‘good American families.’”6 Maraniss uses this quote to expose the flaws in the way in which Potter and other committee members determined who was a subversive communist agent intent upon harming the United States. For Potter, anyone who refused to answer the question, "are you a communist?" was one based on their denial to answer.7 On the basis of that conclusion, members of the HUAC conclude that it was permissible to deprive suspected communists, who were American citizens, of their civil liberties in the service of the United States’ greater good. Throughout his book, Maraniss not only challenges the idea that good American families and communists are two distinct groups, but he also challenges how the actions of the committee fundamentally undermined the very values that they were alleging to fight for, which, as a latent consequence, diluted the way Americans viewed their civil liberties. As a result of the hysteria and subsequent actions of the HUAC, this period fundamentally altered the United States in the post-war era by changing the level at which U.S. citizens were willing to tolerate the infringement of their civil liberties to ensure their national security.
In conclusion, Maraniss uses his research, personal family experiences, and family records to craft a narrative around the story of his father’s experience during the Second Red Scare and the HUAC hearings that demonstrates how the HUAC undermined the civil liberties of Americans in a fear-fueled attempt to protect them from unsubstantiated claims of a Soviet communist takeover. Maraniss challenges his readers to question the misconstrued manner in which the committee defined American patriotism and the hypocrisies of individual members about their record of protecting minority communities from undemocratic practices on the domestic front. Most of all, Maraniss seeks to expose how the actions of this committee, amongst other government movements promoting public hysteria at the time, impacted the United States at the beginning of the post-war era and contributed to the abdication of certain civil liberties in exchange for a stronger guarantee of national security. In the end, Maraniss’ book leaves readers to contemplate how the circumstances that impacted Elliott Maraniss and his family contributed to the perpetual decline of American liberty, over several decades of the post-war era, into the police state that some argue exists in the 21st century.
1. “FDR’s First Inaugural Address Declaring ‘War’ on the Great Depression” National Archives and Records Administration, Accessed January 12, 2020, https://www.archives.gov/education/ lessons/fdr-inaugural.
2. David Maraniss, A Good American Family (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2019), 289.
3. Maraniss, A Good American Family, 257.
4. Maraniss, A Good American Family, 246-47.
5. Maraniss, A Good American Family, 266.
6. Maraniss, A Good American Family, 257.
7. Maraniss, A Good American Family.
“FDR’s First Inaugural Address Declaring ‘War’ on the Great Depression.” National Archives
and Records Administration. Accessed January 12, 2020.
Maraniss, David. A Good American Family. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2019.