The House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) held hearings in 1947 on Communist activity in Hollywood. Many were called to testify and some, like playwright and screenwriter Lillian Hellman, refused to “name names”—to inform on others. Hellman invoked the Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination. Her decision landed her on the Hollywood “blacklist” and film companies refused to hire her. In the following letter to HUAC’s chairman, Hellman offered to testify as to her own activities if she would not be forced to inform on others.
Lillian Hellman, Letter to HUAC, May 19, 1952
Dear Mr. Wood:
As you know, I am under subpoena to appear before your committee on May 21, 1952.
I am most willing to answer all questions about myself. I have nothing to hide from your committee and there is nothing in my life of which I am ashamed. I have been advised by counsel that under the fifth amendment I have a constitutional privilege to decline to answer any questions about my political opinions, activities, and associations, on the grounds of self-incrimination. I do not wish to claim this privilege. I am ready and willing to testify before the representatives of our Government as to my own opinions and my own actions, regardless of any risks or consequences to myself.
But I am advised by counsel that if I answer the committee’s questions about myself, I must also answer questions about other people and that if I refuse to do so, I can be cited for contempt. My counsel tells me that if I answer questions about myself, I will have waived my rights under the fifth amendment and could be forced legally to answer questions about others. This is very difficult for a layman to understand. But there is one principle that I do understand: I am not willing, now or in the future, to bring bad trouble to people who, in my past association with them, were completely innocent of any talk or any action that was disloyal or subversive. I do not like subversion or disloyalty in any form and if I had ever seen any I would have considered it my duty to have reported it to the proper authorities. But to hurt innocent people whom I knew many years ago in order to save myself is, to me, inhuman and indecent and dishonorable. I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions, even though I long ago came to the conclusion that I was not a political person and could have no comfortable place in any political group.
I was raised in an old-fashioned American tradition and there were certain homely things that were taught to me: To try to tell the truth, not to bear false witness, not to harm my neighbor, to be loyal to my country, and so on. In general, I respected these ideals of Christian honor and did as well with them as I knew how. It is my belief that you will agree with these simple rules of human decency and will not expect me to violate the good American tradition from which they spring. I would, therefore, like to come before you and speak of myself.
I am prepared to waive the privilege against self-incrimination and to tell you everything you wish to know about my views or actions if your committee will agree to refrain from asking me to name other people. If the committee is unwilling to give me this assurance, I will be forced to plead the privilege of the fifth amendment at the hearing.
A reply to this letter would be appreciated.
Source: Letter to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) from Lillian Hellman regarding testimony, May 19, 1952; Investigative name files, series 1, House Un-American Activities Committee; Records of the United States House of Representatives, Record Group 233; National Archives Building, Washington, DC. Available online via National Archives (https://catalog.archives.gov/id/24200384).