Steve Bannon and a Cautionary Tale on Congressional Power

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Steve Bannon and a Cautionary Tale on Congressional Power

The committee called her boss, Edward Barsky, who appeared a month later and similarly declined to hand over the documents; So did the group’s entire board of directors when they were called in – including novelist Howard Fast, who wrote about the experience in his memoir “Being Red”. All of them were held in contempt. None of them were allowed to have their lawyers with them during the testimony.

The House met in April 1946 to vote on the contempt citation and whether to send it to the Justice Department. While liberal and conservative members clashed over the committee’s mandate and the refugee group’s perceived foreign allegiance, the only issue at hand, said John Wood, president of Georgia’s HUAC, is whether private citizens can ignore the will of Congress.

Wood declared, “The purpose of our committee is to determine once and for all whether an organization such as the United Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee has the authority to challenge the Congress of the United States.”

Many HUAC skeptics also found that argument difficult to disprove. “This committee is an established committee of this House,” said one of them, Clyde Doyle of California. “As long as it appears that the Committee acted within the law as we gave it to do, I would feel compelled to support its legitimate acts.”

The vote followed swiftly and decisively. Of the 430 House members present, 292 voted in favor of contempt; 82 refused to vote and only 56 voted against it. Brian, Barsky and most of the board of the refugee group went to prison, some for a year. For most of them, their lives were over. Barsky, a surgeon, lost his medical license. Brian retreated to rural Vermont, unable to find an employer who was willing to hire him.

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However, it had big consequences for the country. After proving its power, HUAC jailed dozens of recalcitrant screenwriters, followed by Hollywood. Senators Kenneth Vary and Lister Hill used similar threats to apprehend gay men serving in the federal government. Joseph McCarthy used those tactics to animate his four-year reign of terror.

Over the next decade, thousands of Witnesses in all parts of society – schools, universities, unions, churches, newspapers – had to weigh their discretion with their livelihood in deciding what became known as the Red Scare. (One of those people was one of my predecessors at the obituary desk of The New York Times, Alden Whitman.)

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