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March 1939

Six posters prepared by the public discussion class of Professor of English Helen Lockwood ’12 and posted on the bulletin board near the Vassar post office presented the class’s study of the investigation of the Federal Theatre Project by Rep. Martin Dies’s House Committee Investigating Un-American Activities. The class published its results in February in The Vassar Review, but when a poll showed that few on the campus had read the report and that of the 60 percent of those questioned who had heard of the Dies committee, 74 percent favored its continuation, the class decided on a public presentation.

The first poster referred readers to the accounts of the hearings and to the class’s published report. The second posited the reason for such a committee’s coming into being: general fear caused by the economy and abetted by the rise of totalitarian ideologies abroad. It suggested that the fear would abate if unemployment, low wages, poor housing and tax problems were resolved, reasoning that foreign ideologies would seem less worrisome in a robust and renewed economy.

Weighing the committee’s purported aim—investigating activities that undermined the Constitution—against its methods—charges based on hearsay and outright misrepresentation and refusal to hear responses from the FTP for months after making the charges public—the third poster declared that the committee itself violated constitutional principles. The fourth poster, studying the investigation’s central question—Is the Federal Theatre Project communistic?—listed the specific charges, analyzed the evidence presented and answered the question in the negative.

A fifth poster assessed the accomplishment of the Dies committee, concluding that in distracting attention and resources from the causes of social ills—anxiety and fear—the committee was ineffectual and even harmful. An evaluation of the FTP in the final poster asserted, by contrast, that it was creating a new American theatre, relieving some need in the process and, overall, enriching the culture.

The New York Times

The Years