Academic journal article Independent Review

"New Deal Witch Hunt": The Buchanan Committee Investigation of the Committee for Constitutional Government

Academic journal article Independent Review

"New Deal Witch Hunt": The Buchanan Committee Investigation of the Committee for Constitutional Government

Article excerpt

Nobody was quite sure what Edward A. Rumely would say in testimony before the U.S House Select Committee on Lobbying in 1950. Would he name names, plead the Fifth Amendment, or defy the committee and thus risk possible jail time? Rumely chose defiance, declaring, "I will not give you the names of people who have bought our books. You are invading our constitutional rights" (qtd. in "Rumely for 3d Time Refuses to List Buyers" 1950). Instead of the Fifth, he pleaded the First Amendment. Even before this encounter, the chairman of the House committee, Frank Buchanan, had warned that the unfriendly witness risked a contempt resolution. He vowed not to "permit Mr. Rumely or his organization to divert this hearing into an argument over constitutional rights" (U.S. House of Representatives 1950b, 1).

Beyond these details, the story of Rumely's confrontation with Congress broke from the familiar Cold War-era mold. He was not a victim of a "witch hunt" by the House Committee on Un-American Activities or by Senator Joseph McCarthy. Far from it. Unlike the era's best-known "unfriendly witnesses" who refused to name names, he was both an ardent anti-Communist and a militant foe of the New Deal. His main critics did not come from the right but were a mixture of New Dealers and Communists.

Edward A. Rumely's showdown with Congress was the final major episode in the "Brown Scare," a name coined by Leo Ribuffo to describe how New Deal attacks of those on the right anticipated McCarthyite methods of intimidation and guilt by association. A key episode in the Brown Scare was the Great Sedition Trial of 1944, in which the federal government prosecuted more than thirty people on the extreme right on dubious charges of conspiracy. Attorney General Francis Biddle brought the case in great part because he faced intense pressure from Franklin D. Roosevelt to take action against "isolationist" critics of Roosevelt's foreign policy before the war. The defendants were charged under the Smith Act of 1940, which, ironically, many of them had supported because they thought that the Communist Party would be targeted (Ribuffo 1994).1

Rumely was convicted by a federal court for refusing to provide to a congressional committee the names of people who had purchased his books because it wanted to identify the financial backers of Rumely's organization. The case made it all the way to the Supreme Court, which found Rumely to be within his rights. Similarly, Joseph McCarthy's leftist targets cited United States v. Rumely (345 U.S. 41 [1953]) when refusing to name names. This decision also helped to shape civil rights case law. For example, in NAACP v. Alabama (357 U.S. 449 [1958]), the U.S. Supreme Court cited United States v. Rumely when it upheld the NAACP's right to deny the state of Alabama the names of its members. The forced exposure of names, as the Court pointed out, was a means to suppress participation and donations.

Rumely's fight to protect the privacy of those who purchased his products is important because it demonstrates that the tactics used by McCarthy and the House Committee on Un-American Activities had roots in the New Deal suppression of conservative thinkers and organizations during the 1930s and 1940s. Far from justifying these anti-Communist investigations, Rumely's story puts the Second Red Scare into a new perspective. It illustrates that both Republicans and Democrats desired to use the force of government-the Internal Revenue Service, special committees, and even the courts-to silence their political opponents. It also illustrates the perils of singling out one party or person for the political inquisitions of the period and the need to examine the institutions that enabled both parties to engage in such widely criticized tactics. Ultimately, United States v. Rumely and NAACP v. Alabama were not about right and left but rather about the rights of individuals against an intrusive state.

Unlike the defendants in the Great Sedition Trial of 1944, Rumely was not a marginal figure, nor were his views on the fascist fringe, though some of his critics said they were. …

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