Speech on the Veto of the Internal Security Act

No study questions


On January 21, 1950, a federal grand jury indicted Alger Hiss, a former State Department official, on perjury charges related to his spy work for the Soviet Union during the 1930s. Also in 1950, Klaus Fuchs, who had worked on the American atomic bomb, confessed to being a Soviet spy while doing so, and implicated others, revealing a Soviet espionage network that had acquired significant classified information about America’s atomic bomb program. His confession ultimately led to the arrest, trial, and conviction of several other people, including Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed in 1953.

Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisconsin), a first-term senator, was not a well-known figure when he spoke at an event sponsored by the League of Women Voters in Wheeling, West Virginia, shortly after the Hiss indictment. Taking this news as his theme, he claimed that 205 State Department employees were members of the Communist Party of the United States of America and that Secretary of State Dean Acheson was protecting them. In subsequent speeches, McCarthy cited different numbers – eighty-one, then fifty-seven – without providing much corroboration. (After the Cold War, newly accessible Soviet files revealed that over 500 Americans, including journalists and other ranking government officials besides Hiss, had spied or worked for the Soviet Union in the 1930s and 1940s. See John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr, and Alexander Vassiliev, Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America [New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009]. McCarthy knew nothing of this.)

Problems with McCarthy’s evidence did not diminish the massive attention he and his charges received. (Nor did the existence of a federal employee loyalty program that President Harry Truman had implemented in 1947.) The Hiss case, the communist victory in China (1949), the Soviet development of atomic weapons (1949), and the outbreak and early stages of the Korean War (1950) fed the impression that the United States was losing the Cold War. According to McCarthy, subversives within the U.S. government were responsible.

McCarthy’s charges, the espionage trials, and growing Cold War tension led Congress to pass the Internal Security Act on September 20, 1950. President Truman vetoed the act on September 23. His veto was overridden by both houses of Congress on the same day. Various provisions of the law were subsequently overturned by the Supreme Court or repealed by Act of Congress. As for McCarthy, some Senators opposed him early on (most prominently Margaret Chase Smith, R-Maine), but he continued to command attention for several years, summoning people to Senate hearings and publicly accusing them of disloyalty and treason. He was eventually censured by the Senate for his conduct (December 2, 1954). After that, he ceased to be an influential public figure. He died in 1957.

Public Papers, Harry S. Truman, 1945–1953, Truman Presidential Library. https://goo.gl/yZYnPU

To the House of Representatives:

I return herewith, without my approval, H.R. 9490, the proposed “Internal Security Act of 1950.”. . .

It has been claimed over and over again that this is an “anti-communist” bill – a “communist control” bill. But in actual operation the bill would have results exactly the opposite of those intended. . . .

Specifically, some of the principal objections to the bill are as follows:

1. It would aid potential enemies by requiring the publication of a complete list of vital defense plants, laboratories, and other installations.

2. It would require the Department of Justice and its Federal Bureau of Investigation to waste immense amounts of time and energy attempting to carry out its unworkable registration provisions.

3. It would deprive us of the great assistance of many aliens in intelligence matters.

4. It would antagonize friendly governments.

5. It would put the Government of the United States in the thought control business.

6. It would make it easier for subversive aliens to become naturalized as United States citizens.

7. It would give Government officials vast powers to harass all of our citizens in the exercise of their right of free speech.

Legislation with these consequences is not necessary to meet the real dangers which communism presents to our free society. Those dangers are serious, and must be met. But this bill would hinder us, not help us, in meeting them. Fortunately, we already have on the books strong laws which give us most of the protection we need from the real dangers of treason, espionage, sabotage, and actions looking to the overthrow of our Government by force and violence. Most of the provisions of this bill have no relation to these real dangers.

One provision alone of this bill is enough to demonstrate how far it misses the real target. Section 5 would require the Secretary of Defense to “proclaim” and “have published in the Federal Register” a public catalogue of defense plants, laboratories, and all other facilities vital to our national defense – no matter how secret. I cannot imagine any document a hostile foreign government would desire more. . . .

This is only one example of many provisions in the bill which would in actual practice work to the detriment of our national security. . . .

I repeat, the net result of this bill would be to help the communists, not to hurt them.

I therefore most earnestly request the Congress to reconsider its action. I am confident that on more careful analysis most members of Congress will recognize that this bill is contrary to the best interests of our country at this critical time.

H.R. 9490 is made up of a number of different parts. In summary, their purposes and probable effects may be described as follows:

Sections 1 through 17 are designed for two purposes. First, they are intended to force communist organizations to register and to divulge certain information about themselves – information on their officers, their finances, and, in some cases, their membership. These provisions would in practice be ineffective, and would result in obtaining no information about communists that the FBI and our other security agencies do not already have. But in trying to enforce these sections, we would have to spend a great deal of time, effort, and money – all to no good purpose.

Second, those provisions are intended to impose various penalties on communists and others covered by the terms of the bill. So far as communists are concerned, all these penalties which can be practicably enforced are already in effect under existing laws and procedures. But the language of the bill is so broad and vague that it might well result in penalizing the legitimate activities of people who are not communists at all, but loyal citizens.

Thus the net result of these sections of the bill would be: no serious damage to the communists, much damage to the rest of us. Only the communist movement would gain from such an outcome. . . .

. . . [The] provisions [of the Act] . . . [that] prevent us from admitting to our country, or to citizenship, many people who could make real contributions to our national strength. The bill would deprive our Government and our intelligence agencies of the valuable services of aliens in security operations. It would require us to exclude and to deport the citizens of some friendly noncommunist countries. . . .

Sections 100 through 117 of this bill (Title II) are intended to give the Government power, in the event of invasion, war, or insurrection in the United States in aid of a foreign enemy, to seize and hold persons who could be expected to attempt acts of espionage or sabotage, even though they had as yet committed no crime. . . . [T]he provisions in H.R. 9490 would very probably prove ineffective to achieve the objective sought, since they would not suspend the writ of habeas corpus, and under our legal system to detain a man not charged with a crime would raise serious constitutional questions unless the writ of habeas corpus were suspended. . . .

. . . Instead of striking blows at communism, [the bill] would strike blows at our own liberties and at our position in the forefront of those working for freedom in the world. At a time when our young men are fighting for freedom in Korea, it would be tragic to advance the objectives of communism in this country, as this bill would do.

Because I feel so strongly that this legislation would be a terrible mistake, I want to discuss more fully its worst features. . . .

Most of the first seventeen sections of H.R. 9490 are concerned with requiring registration and annual reports, by what the bill calls “communist-action organizations” and “communist-front organizations,” of names of officers, sources and uses of funds, and, in the case of “communist-action organizations,” names of members.

The idea of requiring communist organizations to divulge information about themselves is a simple and attractive one. But it is about as practical as requiring thieves to register with the sheriff. Obviously, no such organization as the Communist Party is likely to register voluntarily.

Under the provisions of the bill . . . . [t]he Attorney General would have to produce proof that the organization in question was in fact a “communist-action” or a “communist-front organization.” To do this he would have to offer evidence relating to every aspect of the organization’s a