Politics as Performance Art: Thomas McGrath’s Statement to the HUAC

Sharon Carson

Thomas McGrath appeared before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) in 1953, refusing to cooperate and instead making the remarkable statement which we are pleased to reprint here. McGrath spoke “in the first place, as a teacher,” and he lost his contract at Los Angeles State College for taking the Fifth at the HUAC hearings.

Sparked by reading McGrath’s HUAC testimony, I pulled from the shelf David Caute’s 1978 book The Great Fear, a meticulously documented study placing the McCarthy era repressions in a broader American historical context. Caute reminds readers of the ferocious “Red Scare” suppression of labor and political dissent during and immediately following World War I.  He also casts back, comparatively, even further: “Tom Paine was indicted for seditious libel after he published Rights of Man (150 years later, Howard Fast’s biography of Paine was purged from school libraries). . . . ”

Cyclical theories of history, indeed.

But it was reading the opening paragraph of the Preface in The Great Fear that offered the starkest reminder of the enduring value of McGrath’s HUAC testimony and the political resolve that fueled it:

On May 15, 1954, in the high summer of the great fear, the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee warned that “the threat to civil liberties in the United States today is the most serious in the history of our country.” It was indeed a desperate time, a time when the words “democracy” and “freedom” resembled gaudy advertising slogans suspended above an intersection where panic, prejudice, suspicion, cowardice and demagogic ambition constantly collided in a bedlam of recriminations. The wealthiest, most secure nation in the world was sweat-drenched in fear.

No wonder it seems a particularly ripe time to revisit McGrath’s remarkable defense of free speech, principled silence, critical inquiry, and educational integrity. He also refused to cooperate with HUAC on aesthetic grounds: political action as performance art.

Statement to HUAC
Thomas McGrath

After a dead serious consideration of the effects of this committee’s work and of my relation to it, I find that for the following reasons I must refuse to cooperate with this body.

In the first place, as a teacher, my first responsibility is to my students. To cooperate with this committee would be to set for them an example of accommodation to forces which can only have, as their end effect, the destruction of education itself. Such accommodation on my part would ruin my value as a teacher, and I am proud to say that a great majority of my students—and I believe this is true of students generally—do not want me to accommodate myself to this committee. In a certain sense, I have no choice in the matter—the students would not want me back in the classroom if I were to take any course of action other than the one I am pursuing.

Secondly, as a teacher, I have a responsibility to the profession itself. We teachers have no professional oath of the sort that doctors take, but there is a kind of unwritten oath which we follow to teach as honestly, fairly, and fully as we can. The effect of the committee is destructive of such an ideal, destructive of academic freedom. As Mr. Justice Douglas has said: “This system of spying and surveillance with its accompanying reports and trials cannot go hand in hand with academic freedom. It produces standardized thought, not the pursuit of truth.” A teacher who will tack and turn with every shift of the political wind cannot be a good teacher. I have never done this myself, nor will I ever. In regard to my teaching I have tried to hold to two guidelines, the first from Chaucer that “gladly will I learn and gladly teach”; the second a paraphrase of the motto of the late General Stilwell: “Illiterati non carborundum.”

Thirdly, as a poet I must refuse to cooperate with the committee on what I can only call esthetic grounds. The view of life which we receive through the great works of art is a privileged one—it is a view of life according to probability or necessity, not subject to the chance and accident of our real world and therefore in a sense truer than the life we see lived all around us. I believe that one of the things required of us is to try to give life an esthetic ground, to give it some of the pattern and beauty of art. I have tried as best I can to do this with my own life, and while I do not claim any very great success, it would be anti-climactic, destructive of the pattern of my life, if I were to cooperate with the committee. Then too, poets have been notorious non- cooperators where committees of this sort are concerned. As a traditionalist, I would prefer to take my stand with Marvell, Blake, Shelley, and Garcia Lorca rather than with innovators like Mr. Jackson. I do not wish to bring dishonor upon my tribe.

These, then are reasons for refusing to cooperate, but I am aware that none of them is acceptable to the committee. When I was notified to appear here, my first instinct was simply to refuse to answer committee questions out of personal principle and on the grounds of the rights of man and let it go at that. On further consideration, however, I have come to feel that such a stand would be mere self-indulgence and that it would weaken the fight which other witnesses have made to protect the rights guaranteed under our Constitution. Therefore I further refuse to answer the committee on the grounds of the fourth amendment. I regard this committee as usurpers of illegal powers and my enforced appearance here as in the nature of unreasonable search and seizure.

I further refuse on the grounds of the first amendment, which in guaranteeing free speech also guarantees my right to be silent. Although the first amendment expressly forbids any abridgement of this and other freedoms, the committee is illegally engaged in the establishment of a religion of fear. I cannot cooperate with it in this unconstitutional activity. Lastly, it is my duty to refuse to answer this committee, claiming my rights under the fifth amendment as a whole and in all its parts, and understanding that the fifth amendment was inserted in the Constitution to bulwark the first amendment against the activities of committees such as this one, that no one may be forced to bear witness against himself.

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