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August 5, 2010


Now that we live in the age of the Twitter demagogue and the YouTube character assassin, it’s worth looking back at where it all started. “Americanism” and what it means has been political fodder since the birth of the republic. But Martin Dies was the daddy of what it has become -- code for small-town values, less spending, and distrust of immigrants, cosmopolitan elites and government itself. In the 1930s he caused liberals to howl, the sitting president to dress him down, and opened deep divisions in America.

Dies was a self-proclaimed demagogue. At first he meant it as a joke. He and some friends in the House of Representatives, which he had entered in 1931 as a Democrat from Texas, liked the sound of their flamboyant speeches and called themselves “the Demagogues Club.”

He believed immigrants brought unhealthy European ideas to America. The first bill he offered, on his first day in office, would have suspended immigration for five years. Later, he introduced a bill to register and fingerprint all aliens, require them to get work permits and give up their jobs if Americans wanted them, and to deport “all aliens unlawfully in the United States, including alien communists, dope peddlers, gangsters, racketeers, criminals, and other undesirables.” He said it would “rid this country a large group of vicious criminals,” and was amazed that people called it un-American.

Government initiatives and bureaucrats were another target. He supported the New Deal when Franklin Roosevelt came into office but soon turned against it because he said it cost too much. After the New Deal was underway, in 1935, Dies called for “an end to fruitless experimentation and the ever-increasing desire on the part of many . . . to have the federal government act as a wet nurse for every local community and state in the United States.” He said government boards, bureaus and commissions produced “an army of paid parasites, swooping down on the country like the locusts in the east, eating away all the vitality and creative energy of the people.”

Only conservatives, he believed, were true Americans. Liberals and “spendocrats” were not.

In today’s world Dies would already have been a national figure. But he found his path to fame in 1938. He persuaded the House leadership to revive a dormant committee formed to investigate “un-American activities” and to name him its chair. The minute he took the gavel Dies was a sensation, piling up headlines and stories by the hundreds. The House Un-American Activities Committee, also known as HUAC or just the Dies Committee, attacked the New Deal, unions, consumer organizations, and real and imagined Communists in and out of government.

HUAC hearings were circuses of unsupported accusation. Professional patriots and people with axes to grind paraded before the committee in hearings open only to the press. Their targets were guilty by association, half-truth, and innuendo. Much like the slanders dispensed over modern social media, their statements took public flight unchallenged and rebuttals weren’t allowed. The accused rarely got a say. When they did, the committee cut them short and returned to the attack with more compliant witnesses. It ruined reputations and careers in an atmosphere of spectacle.

The Dies Committee was as responsible as any single factor for halting the progressive march of the New Deal and reawakening the stilled voices of conservatives. At a time when fascism was on the rise in Europe and even after the start of World War II in Europe, it found “communistic” and anti-business thinking more of a threat than the pro-Nazi groups and anti-Semitic Christian militias that were forming in America.

The committee was wildly popular, and widely hated for its methods. As a special committee, it needed new authorization every year. Every attempt to kill it was defeated and it went on, always with larger budgets to pursue its “investigations.”

Late in 1940 President Roosevelt summoned Dies to the White House. The committee had been investigating sedition in defense plant unions, and publishing lists of people with suspicious ties. Roosevelt wanted to tell him that finding spies and saboteurs was a job for the FBI. “You have to protect innocent people,” he said. “The mere fact that they voted for a communist when voting for a communist was legal doesn’t automatically entitle us to say to the public, ‘These people are disloyal.’” He told Dies, “You have to have positive evidence. You can’t do it through allegation.”

Dies was unconvinced. “I doubt if any method you can devise . . . will take the place of the democratic method of exposure.” He agreed that innocent people should be protected “provided they are willing to cooperate.”

The meeting ended with the two still differing. The president believed the country’s strength lay in the Constitutional pillars of democracy. Dies believed the ends justified the means. The debate has yet to be resolved.

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