On July 14, 1955, John F. Pickett, a deputy U.S. Marshal for the Southern District of New York, traveled to Beacon, New York, along the Hudson River, 60 miles north of Manhattan. The town had been founded in the early eighteenth century and later grew into a bustling commercial port. During the American Revolution, lookouts lit bonfires atop the surrounding hills to signal the approach of British troops—beacons, for which the town was later named.
In the summer of 1955, Pickett made his way north in the shadow of those same hills to deliver a far different message to a resident of Beacon. Pickett’s destination was a 17-acre farm overlooking the Hudson River owned by the well-known folk singer Pete Seeger. In the 1940s and early 1950s, Seeger had been a popular musician, both on his own and with his band, The Weavers. But in 1952, a New York actor turned government informant told federal investigators under oath that Seeger and many of his bandmates were members of the Communist Party who subscribed to a collective political ideology at stark odds with America’s professed free-market individualism.
It was a devastating accusation. At the time, the United States was increasingly concerned with the spread of communism around the world. As the two largest Allied nations during World War II, America and the Soviet Union had led the fight against fascism and the Axis states. After the war, the two countries emerged as global industrial powers and international rivals. The capitalist system of America and the communist society of Soviet Union stood opposed to one another, and for many in the United States this schism created a pervasive existential threat. The Communist Revolution in China further exacerbated these fears. By the 1950s, the zero-sum Cold War for global supremacy caused lawmakers on Capitol Hill to focus extensively on foreign policy and military preparedness. Some in Congress, meanwhile, took additional action and looked inward to identify security threats at home.
Pickett had brought with him a subpoena addressed to Seeger from Francis E. Walter of Pennsylvania, the chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). “Are you Pete Seeger?” Pickett asked after pulling onto the musician’s property. He handed Seeger an envelope with a legal notice. “Pursuant to lawful authority, you are hereby commanded to be and appear before the Committee on Un-American Activities of the House of Representatives of the United States, or a duly appointed subcommittee thereof, on August 18, 1955, at 10 o’clock a.m., at their committee room, 1703 United States Courthouse, Foley Square, New York City, N.Y., then and there to testify touching matters of inquiry committed to said committee.”
For years, HUAC had used its subpoena powers—the ability to compel witnesses to testify—to investigate whether Communists worked in the federal government, organized labor, and the entertainment industry. Civil servants, movie stars, playwrights, musicians, and teachers were called before the committee in the years after World War II. Many were blacklisted and lost their jobs as a result, the mere whisper of communism marking them as untrustworthy and unemployable. Although Seeger had yet to testify in front of HUAC, the claim that he once belonged to the Communist Party was enough to excommunicate him from polite society and prevent him from performing.
During the Cold War, opposing Goliaths—America and the Soviet Union, capitalism and communism, and, for many, good and evil—engaged in a world historical battle to set the terms for the future. During the summer of 1955, however, a related struggle—one that was more David and Goliath—unfolded amid questions of personal loyalty and government overreach: Seeger and HUAC, a citizen and his legislature.
The House Un-American Activities Committee had been in New York for a few days by the time Seeger testified. It was “warm and humid” on August 18, as the fourth and final round of hearings opened downtown—perfect weather if the committee wanted to make Seeger sweat. Three members of HUAC sat across from Seeger and his lawyer Paul Ross: Francis Walter, the committee’s chairman, and Edwin Willis of Louisiana, both Democrats, and Republican Gordon Scherer of Ohio. HUAC’s chief counsel, Frank Tavenner Jr., “a large, slow-talking man” known as a methodical and “vigorous prosecutor,” led the committee’s questioning.
Tavenner started by inquiring into Seeger’s occupation. “Well, I have worked at many things, and my main profession is a student of American folklore, and I make my living as a banjo picker, sort of damning in some people’s opinion,” Seeger replied. Seeger had served as an Army entertainer during World War II and Tavenner probed his military service. Tavenner then asked about his music career, before finally moving to an advertisement for a performance Seeger gave in New York in 1947. The ad was only 12 words long, but it had appeared in the Daily Worker, what Tavenner called the “official organ” of the Communist Party: “Tonight—Bronx, hear Peter Seeger and his guitar, at Allerton Section housewarming.” Tavenner continued: “May I ask you whether or not the Allerton Section was a section of the Communist Party?”
This was a familiar line of questioning. The committee had asked about old gigs when it questioned other musicians, as well. Seeger knew where this was headed and refused to go along. “I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election or any of these private affairs,” Seeger said, his yellow tie cinched tight to the top button of his plaid shirt. “I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this.”
Since the First Federal Congress (1789–1791), the House has used its investigatory prerogatives to look into issues that in some way affected, or could affect, the legislative process: tariff rates, railroad stock sales, poisoned food and drugs, environmental degradation.
After years exploring claims of radicalism in federal New Deal programs with a special committee, the House established the House Un-American Activities Committee as a standing committee in 1945. Three years later, during a blockbuster HUAC hearing on Capitol Hill, Whittaker Chambers, a former Communist Party member, accused Alger Hiss, a senior State Department official, of spying for the Soviet Union as part of a larger espionage operation; Hiss was later convicted of perjury. Partly because of HUAC’s mission—but also on the heels of Senate investigations led by Wisconsin Republican Joseph McCarthy into Communist influence in the military and the federal government—Congress responded with legislation.In August 1954, a year before Seeger testified, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed into law the Communist Control Act which, among other things, outlawed membership in the Communist Party.
The scope of HUAC’s jurisdiction gave the committee astonishing reach, but its legislative powers were no different than any other House committee. Like other committees, HUAC had the ability to subpoena witnesses for both closed and public hearings and, if need be, hold them in contempt. Since 1857 a witness’s refusal to answer “pertinent” questions during a congressional investigation had been a criminal offense. And in the late 1920s, the Supreme Court upheld Congress’s right to call private citizens to testify and reaffirmed Congress’s broad investigative powers. But it was also the case that by the 1950s, investigatory committees on Capitol Hill had accrued “nearly unlimited power,” according to one legal scholar writing a decade later, “so long as the committees showed at least nominal deference to the principle of legislative purpose.”
In 1955, the same year Seeger appeared before HUAC, Telford Taylor, a lawyer who had prosecuted Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg, published a study showing just how expansive Congress’s powers of investigation had grown. It was important for lawmakers to conduct oversight into issues like corruption or wastefulness, Taylor wrote. “But with the increasing participation of investigating committees in matters of loyalty and subversion,” he continued, “their activities have raised new and much more searching issues.” Did these investigations contribute to the legislative process, Taylor wondered, or did they signal the rise of aggressive and questionable quasi-judicial powers?
HUAC’s chairman in the 84th Congress (1955–1957) was Francis Walter, a ferocious Cold Warrior and a powerful Pennsylvania Democrat. Walter had been one of the chief architects of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 which, among other things, empowered the government to deny entry to people it suspected of being Communists. He wielded broad influence over patronage on the Hill and was dean of the Pennsylvania delegation. Alongside his seat on HUAC, Walter was also the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee and chairman of its immigration subcommittee.
Walter was nevertheless ambivalent about HUAC’s status as a standing committee, admitting in 1954 that he preferred to disband the committee and transfer its jurisdiction to Judiciary. And yet, as HUAC’s chair, Walter quickly began a new round of investigations. Following what he called “many months of exploratory” research, Walter announced hearings into the performing arts industry in New York in August 1955. The committee subpoenaed nearly 30 entertainers—“actors, actresses, writers and producers”—as well as Seeger, and Seeger’s good friend and former bandmate Lee Hayes.
HUAC had gone to New York in 1955 on more than just a hunch. “There’s a reason that the New York folk scene was viewed with suspicion by anti-Communists in the 1950s and 1960s,” the journalist David A. Graham wrote. “Many of them were Communists.” And on one point HUAC had good information: Seeger had, in fact, supported the Communist Party. In college, he had joined the Young Communist League at Harvard and backed the party for a little while as a professional musician. By 1950, however, Seeger had broken with the Communist Party and later admitted that the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin had been “a supremely cruel misleader.”
When Seeger finally appeared under oath before HUAC in August 1955, Tavenner at one point reminded Seeger that if he performed under the auspices of the Communist Party he was required to tell the committee. “If you were acting for the Communist Party at these functions, we want to know it. We want to determine just what the Communist Party plan was.”
After first questioning Seeger about his 1947 show in the Bronx, Tavenner mentioned an advertisement for an event a year later sponsored by the Essex County Communist Party in New Jersey where Seeger was listed as the “entertainment.” When Tavenner asked if Seeger performed at the gathering in Newark, Seeger demurred.
“You see, sir,” Seeger replied, “I feel—.”
Chairman Walter cut him off. “What is your answer?”
“I will tell you what my answer is,” Seeger said, conferring with his lawyer. “I feel that in my whole life I have never done anything of any conspiratorial nature and I resent very much and very deeply the implication of being called before this committee that in some way because my opinions may be different from yours, or yours, Mr. Willis; or yours, Mr. Scherer; that I am any less of an American than anybody else. I love my country very deeply, sir.”
Seeger had complied with the subpoena and appeared before the committee, but he made it clear that he would not cooperate. “I simply feel it is improper for this committee to ask such questions.”
Unmoved, Tavenner asked again if Seeger had performed at Communist Party functions. “I have sung for Americans of every political persuasion,” he said, “and I am proud that I never refuse to sing to an audience, no matter what religion or color of their skin, or situation of life. I have sung in hobo jungles, and I have sung for the Rockefellers, and I am proud that I have never refused to sing for anybody.” Seeger reminded Walter that the chairman’s own constituents in the eastern Pennsylvania hills would likely take his side against the committee. “I know many beautiful songs from your home county, Carbon, and Monroe, and I hitchhiked through there and stayed in the homes of miners,” Seeger said.
Tavenner tried to circle back to his original question, but Seeger had told the committee all he was going to say. After more questions which Seeger declined to answer, the committee dismissed him at 12:40 that afternoon.
Of the nearly two dozen witnesses the committee interviewed in New York, only one confirmed that he had what the Associated Press called “a Communist past.” But for Chairman Walter, the hearings had served their intended purpose. “I am sure the people of this community now have a picture of how innocent people are enlisted into the Communist conspiracy,” he said after the proceedings.
HUAC may have left New York, but it was not done with Seeger. The fallout from Seeger’s testimony cast a long and troublesome shadow over the musician. Seeger had gone into the hearing planning to be combative. Prior to his testimony, Seeger had told his lawyer “I want to get up there and attack these guys for what they are, the worst of America.” Seeger’s stand had consequences, however. Most other witnesses called before HUAC that August appealed to the Fifth Amendment, providing them the legal means to refuse giving potentially incriminating evidence. Seeger did not do that. During the hearing Seeger instead repeatedly told the committee that he believed its questions were improper and violated his rights to free speech and free association, regardless of his political beliefs. It was a big risk. Seeger’s First Amendment defense lacked the protections afforded by the Fifth Amendment.
Back in Washington, Walter and the committee prepared to use a rare but powerful tool against witnesses like Seeger they deemed uncooperative, and which came with serious consequences. Almost a year after receiving his summons to testify, Seeger received another notice from HUAC: the House had found him in contempt of Congress.
Sources: Congressional Record, House, 84th Cong., 2nd sess. (25 July 1956): 14512; Hearings before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, Investigation of Communist Activities, New York Area—Part VII (Entertainment), 84th Cong., 1st sess. (1955); Baltimore Sun, 19 August 1955; Chicago Daily Tribune, 31 March 1954; New York Times, 8 April 1954, 1 August 1955, 18 August 1955, 19 August 1955, 22 October 1964, 28 January 2014; Washington Post, 15 August 1955, 22 October 1964; David A. Graham, “Pete Seeger’s All-American Communism,” 29 January 2014, The Atlantic, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/01/pete-seegers-all-american-communism/283444/; Donald A. Ritchie, “McCarthyism in Congress: Investigating Communism,” in The American Congress: The Building of Democracy, Julian E. Zelizer, ed. (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004); David King Dunaway, How Can I Keep From Singing? The Ballad of Pete Seeger (1981; repr., New York: Vallard Books, 2008); Allan M. Winkler, ‘To Everything There Is A Season’: Pete Seeger and the Power of Song (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009); Robert B. McKay, “Congressional Investigations and the Supreme Court,” California Law Review vol. 52, no. 2 (May 1963): 270–; Telford Taylor, Grand Inquest: The Story of Congressional Investigations (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1955); Automobile Blue Book, 1921, New York and Adjacent Canada, vol. 1 (New York: The Automobile Blue Book Co., 1921); “Beacon History,” Beacon Historical Society, access 13 August 2020, https://beaconhistorical.org/bhs---beacon-history.htmlFollow @USHouseHistory