Martin Dies was born in Mitchell County, Texas, on 5th November, 1900. He graduated from the University of Texas at Austin in 1919. Dies then went on to study law at the National Defense University in Washington before being admitted to the bar in 1920. Dies worked as a lawyer in Marshall and Orange before becoming a member of the faculty of East Texas Law School.
A member of the Democratic Party, Dies was first elected to the Senate in 1931. On 26th May, 1938, the United States House of Representatives authorized the formation of the Special House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUCA). "The Speaker of the House of Representatives is authorized to appoint a special committee to be composed of seven members for the purpose of conducting an investigation of (1) the extent, character, and object of un-American propaganda activities in the United States, (2) the diffusion within the United States of subversive and un-American propaganda that is instigated from foreign countries or of a domestic origin and attacks the principle of the form of government as guaranteed by the Constitution, and (3) all other questions in relations thereto that would aid Congress in any necessary remedial legislation."
A passionate anti-communist, Dies was the first chairman of the HUAC. Soon afterwards Dies received a telegram from the Ku Klux Klan: "Every true American, and that includes every Klansman, is behind you and your committee in its effort to turn the country back to the honest, freedom-loving, God-fearing American to whom it belongs." Some critics saw Dies has having a secret agenda. It was no surprise when Dies immediately announced that he intended to investigate aspects of the New Deal that had been established by Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The original intention of the HUCA was to investigate both left-wing and right wing political groups. In a statement made on 20th July 1938, Dies claimed that many Nazis and Communists were leaving the United States because of his pending interrogations. The New Republic argued that the right-wing Dies, who it described as "physically a giant, very young, ambitious, and cocksure" would target those on the left.
Dies also began attacking left-wing artistic groups. This included describing the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League (HANL) as a Communist-Front organization. The actress, Luise Rainer, replied: "I do not believe in the so-called revelations made by the Dies Investigating Committee. I believe their purpose is purely destructive, aimed at discrediting worthwhile peace and anti-fascist organizations, which are so much needed in these worried times." The film director, John Ford commented in October, 1938: "May I express my whole-hearted desire to cooperate to the utmost of my ability with the Hollywood anti-Nazi League. If this be Communism, count me in."
Another supporter of the HANL, Frederic March, argued: "Every time during the last few years that I have felt impelled to protest an injustice, to cry out against man's inhumanity to man, or to espouse some social reform, I have been called a Communist. Because the founders of our country believed in justice, tolerance and the exercise of such social reform as would benefit the people at large, I insist upon the right to follow their example and still be recognized as a loyal American citizen."
Some called for the leaders of the Ku Klux Klan to be interrogated by the HUAC. Dies however was a supporter of the Klan and had spoken at several of its rallies. Other members of the HUAC such as John Rankin and John S. Wood were also Klan sympathizers. Wood defended the Klan by arguing that: "The threats and intimidations of the Klan are an old American custom, like illegal whisky-making."
The main objective of the HUCA was the investigation of left-wing groups. This included looking at the possibility that the American Communist Party had infiltrated the Federal Writers Project and other New Deal projects. Dies soon came under attack from those who saw the HUCA as a method of blocking progressive policies being advocated by Franklin D. Roosevelt. This was reflected in the comments made by Vito Marcantonio. "It has become the most convenient method by which you wrap yourselves in the American flag in order to cover up some of the greasy stains on the legislative toga. You can vote against the unemployed, you can vote against the W.P.A. workers, and you can emasculate the Bill of Rights of the Constitution of the United States; you can try to destroy the National Labor Relations Law, the Magna Carta of American labor; you can vote against the farmer; and you can do all that with a great deal of impunity, because after you have done so you do not have to explain your vote."
Dies and another member of the HUCA, J. Parnell Thomas, began to attack the Federal Theatre Project (FTP). Thomas objected to the radical message in some of these plays and claimed that: "Practically every play presented under the auspices of the Project is sheer propaganda for Communism or the New Deal." Elmer Rice was placed in charge of the FTP in New York City. In 1936 alone, the FTP employed 5,385 people in the city. Over a three year period over 12 million people attended performances in the city. Dies accused Rice of being a communist.
In his book, The Trojan Horse in America (1940), Dies argued: "Works Projects Administration was the greatest financial boon which ever came to the Communists in the United States. Stalin could not have done better by his American friends and agents.... In one Federal Writers' Project in New York, one third of the writers were members of the Communist Party. This was proven by their own signatures. Many witnesses have testified that it was necessary for W.P.A. workers to join the Workers Alliance - high-pressure lobby run by the Communist Party - in order to get or retain their jobs.... Several hundred Communists held advisory or administrative positions in the W.P.A. projects. Dies called for the resignations of Harold Ickes, Harry Hopkins and Frances Perkins, as the three had "associates who were Socialists, Communists, and crackpots." Roosevelt refused to sack these three members of his government but did bring the Federal Theatre Project to an end.
Several famous writers complained that the HUAC was having an impact on creativity. The author and screenwriter, Dashill Hammett, argued: "We indignantly reject these irresponsible attacks. At this crucial time when the cooperation of all democratic forces is so essential, this attack throws a very dubious light on the character of the whole Dies investigation. It emphasizes the need for the greatest alertness on the part of all democracy-loving American people." Lewis Milestone, the famous film director, argued: "It seems to me that the hysteria of the Dies Committee's investigations have only succeeded in strengthening public belief in the organizations and movements they have attacked. For myself, and for members of the motion picture industry, if our aid to democracies now victims of fascist aggression can be misinterpreted as un-American acts, then perhaps the Dies Committee has its own translation of the word democracy."
In his book, The Martin Dies' Story (1963), Dies claims that President Franklin D. Roosevelt attempted to stop him from investigating communism. He claims that Roosevelt told him in November 1940: "I do not regard the Communists as any present or future threat to our country. In fact, I look upon Russia as our strongest ally in the years to come. As I told you when you began your investigation, you should confine yourself to Nazis and Fascists. While I do not believe in Communism, Russia under Communism than under the tsars. Stalin is a great leader, and although I deplore some of his methods, it is the only way he can safeguard his government."
According to Gary Kern, the author of A Death in Washington: Walter G. Krivitsky and the Stalin Terror (2004): "Opposed by the administration, crippled by inadequate funding, sabotaged by dirty tricks, Dies held open hearings in order to win public support and overcome adversity. He stated that his purpose was to discover and expose subversives, not to prosecute them.... But publicity was the name of the game, practically the only instrument he had with which to make an impact."
Walter Krivitsky, a former NKVD agent, gave evidence to the House Committee on Un-American Activities on 11th October, 1939. Dies asked Krivitsky if Soviet intelligence agencies cooperated with German and Italian agents and therefore faced with "a combined espionage problem?" Krivitsky admitted that even before the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany had been co-operating. He argued that an "exchange of military secrets and information, as well as other forms of collaboration, is indispensable to both Hitler and Stalin." After the session he provided additional information in closed chambers on Soviet agents working in the United States.
Krivitsky was not impressed with Martin Dies and the HUAC. He told friends that the members of the HUAC were "just ignorant cowboys". Some members of Congress did not trust Krivitsky. Samuel Dickstein dismissed the hearings as ridiculous and described Krivitsky as "nothing but a phony". Other members disliked him because of his unwillingness to denounce his belief in socialism and Alexander Wiley of Wisconsin called for him to be deported.
After the Second World War Dies and the HUCA also began an investigation into the Hollywood Motion Picture Industry. Dorothy Parker argued: "The people want democracy - real democracy, Mr. Dies, and they look toward Hollywood to give it to them because they don't get it any more in their newspapers. And that's why you're out here, Mr. Dies - that's why you want to destroy the Hollywood progressive organizations - because you've got to control this medium if you want to bring fascism to this country."
In 1945 Emanuel Celler issued a warning to Dies and the Un-American Activities Committee. "The Committee to Investigate Un-American Activities is now a standing investigatory committee with power to initiate legislation.... Bluntly then, the present committee can make its choice. It can either adopt the Dies course of unfounded character assassinations, lynch-law, prosecutor-jury and executioner all in one - or it can proceed in a manner consonant with the American tradition of the right to be heard, the right of counsel and the right of confrontation of witnesses, placing emphasis on investigation of all foreignisms with honest judicious objectivity. If we are to have again an extravaganza of persecution - a deep-seated mania of embracing some I individually conceived notion of alienism, we face again a betrayal of our basic constitutionally guarded frights. The power to investigate is a great public trust. And we ask the newly constituted committee not for one instant to forget that."
Dies lost his seat in 1945 but in 1952 he won election to a new congressman-at-large seat, but he was not allowed to return to the Un-American Activities Committee, which believed that he had damaged the cause of anti-communism. When Dies decided to run for the Senate in the special election of 1957, Lyndon B. Johnson and Samuel Rayburn, believing that Dies was too conservative to defeat liberal challenger Ralph Yarborough, attempted to pressure him out of the race in favor of Ben Ramsey. He refused and as expected, Dies finished second to Yarborough.
Dies published his autobiography, The Martin Dies' Story in 1963. After leaving Congress he wrote a regular column for American Opinion magazine. In April 1964 he believed that John F. Kennedy had been a victim of a communist conspiracy. However, at this time he did not have all the evidence: "I hope to discuss the circumstances linking the Soviet Union with Oswald's murder of the President. Naturally such evidence must be circumstantial and based upon the dogmatic pattern of Communist behaviour. The Communists are too clever to leave any trace of connection with Oswald." It would seem that at this time Dies was unaware that Lee Harvey Oswald had defected to the Soviet Union in 1959 and on his return had openly associated with left-wing groups such as the Fair Play for Cuba Committee.