An Uncomfortable Nickname—HUAC Brands the Guild

As the editors of the seminal 1988 NLG history put it: “For years after the release of HUAC report, millions of people must have assumed that the Guild’s full name was National Lawyers Guild: Legal Bulwark of the Communist Party." 

Such humor was not easy to come by in September 1950, when the Congressional committee printed the report in a push to have the NLG listed as a subversive organization and to disbar its members.  The document reads as a 50-page laundry list of Guild activities that the committee claims mirror official Communist Party platforms, activities including representation of witnesses before HUAC itself, stances on foreign policy, involvement in the founding of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers (IADL), and criticism of illegal surveillance of political groups by the FBI. The report's authors labeled the IADL a “Communist-front” organization whose affiliation made the Guild “an agent of a foreign principal.” The FBI, meanwhile, was described glowingly (in the context of Guild documentation of its crimes) as “the vigilant guardian of our national security.”

The report also took special care to name the entire NLG executive board and outline the affiliations of prominent members to other supposed “Communist enterprises.” In the paranoid political atmosphere of the McCarthy era any such mention was a professional liability, if not a death sentence. And indeed, the following decade would see Guild members flee the organization in droves.

On the heels of the report, the NLG executive board circulated a rebuttal. The statement warned against hysteria, questioned the merits of the “subversive” label, and re-emphasized the need to criticize government overreach. It also took pains to stress the need for measured discussion and outlined the irony of a committee that claimed to protect democracy by issuing blanket statements of guilt by association.

However, in the wake of a series of sensational events around the world—China’s “fall” to communism, the arrests of German physicist Klaus Fuchs and the Rosenbergs for atomic espionage—and with U.S. politicians gearing up for war in Korea, those cautious words were to be lost in a rising wave of fear.