The Internal Security Act

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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.

U.S. Statutes at Large, 81st Cong., II Sess., Chp. 1024, p. 987-1031.

AN ACT To protect the United States against certain un-American and subversive activities by requiring registration of Communist organizations, and for other purposes.

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That this Act may be cited as the “Internal Security Act of 1950.”


Section 1. (a) This title may be cited as the ‘‘Subversive Activities Control Act of 1950.”

(b) Nothing in this Act shall be construed to authorize, require, or establish military or civilian censorship or in any way to limit or infringe upon freedom of the press or of speech as guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States and no regulation shall be promulgated hereunder having that effect.

Necessity for Legislation

Sec. 2. As a result of evidence adduced before various committees of the Senate and House of Representatives, the Congress hereby finds that

(1) There exists a world Communist movement which, in its origins, its development, and its present practice, is a world-wide revolutionary movement whose purpose it is, by treachery, deceit, infiltration into other groups (governmental and otherwise), espionage, sabotage, terrorism, and any other means deemed necessary, to establish a Communist totalitarian dictatorship in the countries throughout the world through the medium of a world-wide Communist organization.

(2) The establishment of a totalitarian dictatorship in any country results in the suppression of all opposition to the party in power, the subordination of the rights of individuals to the state, the denial of fundamental rights and liberties which are characteristic of a representative form of government, such as freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, and of religious worship, and results in the maintenance of control over the people through fear, terrorism, and brutality.

(3) The system of government known as a totalitarian dictatorship is characterized by the existence of a single political party, organized on a dictatorial basis, and by substantial identity between such party and its policies and the government and governmental policies of the country in which it exists.

(4) The direction and control of the world Communist movement is vested in and exercised by the Communist dictatorship of a foreign country.

(5) The Communist dictatorship of such foreign country, in exercising such direction and control and in furthering the purposes of the world Communist movement, establishes or causes the establishment of, and utilizes, in various countries, action organizations which are not free and independent organizations, but are sections of a world-wide Communist organization and are controlled, directed, and subject to the discipline of the Communist dictatorship of such foreign country.

(6) The Communist action organizations so established and utilized in various countries, acting under such control, direction, and discipline, endeavor to carry out the objectives of the world Communist movement by bringing about the overthrow of existing governments by any available means, including force if necessary, and setting up Communist totalitarian dictatorships which will be subservient to the most powerful existing Communist totalitarian dictatorship. Although such organizations usually designate themselves as political parties, they are in fact constituent elements of the world-wide Communist movement and promote the objectives of such movement by conspiratorial and coercive tactics, instead of through the democratic processes of a free elective system or through the freedom-preserving means employed by a political party which operates as an agency by which people govern themselves.

(7) In carrying on the[ir] activities . . . such Communist organizations . . . are organized on a secret, conspiratorial bas