Formed in 1919, the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) grew to approximately 60,000 members during The Great Depression as it worked to eliminate poverty, racial inequality, and exploitation of workers. However, during the escalating Cold War of the late 1940s and 1950s, membership plummeted as many Americans took CPUSA members to be spying for the Soviet Union and, more generally, undermining American institutions and government. This perception became especially widespread after the victory of the Communists in the Chinese civil war and the Soviet Union’s development of nuclear weapons, both in 1949. Private organizations and branches of the state and national governments expelled, investigated, and punished CPUSA members, suspected members, individual Communists, and fellow travelers. Many of these undertakings rode roughshod over Communists’ civil liberties, but individuals and organizations defended their actions by underscoring the security concerns of the Cold War.
The most important private organizations to strike out against Communists were universities, labor unions, and the movie industry. Many universities dismissed faculty members, librarians, and research scientists because of real or merely suspected Communist sympathies. In the union movement the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) had during the 1930s and 1940s come to include Communist-led unions, but in 1949 the CIO leadership expelled the electrical workers’ union for supposed Communist leanings. Nine other leftist unions were subsequently expelled, and when the CIO merged with the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in 1955, the new AFL-CIO was avowedly anti-Communist. In Hollywood, after the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) investigated Communist infiltration of the movie industry, the industry began blacklisting Communists and suspected Communists, thereby ruining the careers of dozens of writers, actors, and technicians and indirectly reducing the social commentary included in movie fare.
Most large cities and states also contributed to the persecution of Communists during the Cold War. Southern cities were especially aggressive in attempting to drive out Communists, even though fewer Communists lived in the South than in any other region. Birmingham, Alabama, for example, passed an ordinance imposing a fine and six-month jail sentence for each day a Communist remained in Birmingham. Thirteen states had legislative committees or commissions comparable to HUAC. In 1953, Massachusetts’ Special Commission to Study and Investigate Communism and Subversive Activities and Related Matters in the Commonwealth questioned eighty-five individuals regarding the CPUSA membership. Boston newspapers published their names and addresses, and many lost jobs and friends as a result. Many states enacted laws requiring state employees to sign loyalty oaths. Some states required members of the CPUSA and other Communist organizations to register, and a few states banned membership in organizations thought to be subversive. These laws’ obviously impaired Communists’ freedoms of speech, assembly, and association.
The most powerful threats to civil liberties came on the federal level, and all three branches of the federal government attempted to restrict and root out Communists. Congress passed the Smith Act (1940), which made advocating the overthrow of the U.S. government or belonging to an organization that did so a criminal offense; the Taft–Hartley Act (1947), which required union leaders to sign affidavits swearing they were not Communists; and the McCarren Act (1950), which required the CPUSA, members of CPUSA, and members of Communist front organizations to register with the federal government. Congress used HUAC and other committees in both the Senate and the House to investigate supposed Communists and Communist activities. Joseph McCarthy, a Senator from Wisconsin, was the most rabid of the redbaiters, and the term ‘‘McCarthyism’’ came to be used for assigning guilt by association, tarnishing reputations by innuendo, and manipulating public opinion. Congressional investigations by McCarthy and others discouraged Communists from exercising their rights to say and publish what they wished and from belonging to clubs, groups, and organizations of their choosing.
The executive branch did not stand in the way of this legislation but rather in some instances attempted an anti-Communist one-upmanship. President Harry S. Truman, for example, in 1947, established the Federal Loyalty Program by executive order. The Program led to the reprimand and termination of federal employees with Communist ties. J. Edgar Hoover’s Federal Bureau of Investigation was an eager tracker of Communists, and attorneys in the JusticeDepartment of course prosecuted supposed offenders under the new federal statutes and other existing laws. The most important prosecution was that of Eugene Dennis, General Secretary of the CPUSA, and ten other CPUSA leaders for violation of the Smith Act. The trial took place in 1949 in the federal courthouse in New York City’s Foley Square and devolved into a government expose of the CPUSA. In the midst of Cold War hysteria it seemed not to matter that many of the broadsides and pamphlets the prosecution used as evidence were published before the enactment of the Smith Act.
When statutes and prosecutions were challenged in appeals to the Supreme Court, the nation’s highest tribunal also proved susceptible to political paranoia. In American Communications Association v. Dowds (1950) the Court refused to toss out a federal law requiring union leaders to disavow the CPUSA. The Court also upheld the Smith Act conviction of CPUSA officials in Dennis v. United States (1951), rejecting in the process the argument that the law violated the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech. A strong connection existed between the Soviet Union and the CPUSA, the Court said, and Congress had the duty and power to prevent the CPUSA from advancing the Soviet Union’s interest in the overthrow of the United States. The Smith Act did not impede free discussion but rather guarded against the advocacy of violence. Indeed, the Court maintained, the CPUSA’s expressed intent to overthrow the United States presented a clear and present danger to the government.
Only in the 1960s did the government begin to acknowledge forcefully the rights and liberties of Communists. In 1964, for example, the Supreme Court ruled in Aptheker v. Secretary of State, that the revocation of Communist Party officials’ passports under the Subversive Activities Control Act unconstitutionally denied the plaintiff’s liberty to travel. More generally, the intolerance and stigmatizing that had so marked the late 1940s and 1950s abated. Even though the Vietnam War was fought in the 1960s and early 1970s in part to stop the successive fall of Southeast Asian governments to Communists, few blamed the unsuccessful war effort on domestic Communists. At the peak of the Cold War, by contrast, a fear was present in many circles of the Communists in our midst. Communists and suspected Communists saw their civil liberties ignored and were harmed in other ways as well. Intolerance and witch-hunting were part of American life, and the national mood was often repressed, suspicious, and paranoid.
DAVID RAY PAPKE
References and Further Reading
Cases and Statutes Cited
See also Blacklisting; Communist Party; Due Process; Extremist Groups and Civil Liberties; Hiss, Alger; McCarthy, Joseph; Rosenberg, Julius and Ethel; State Constitutions and Civil Liberties; Vinson Court; Warren Court