1950 September 22

Congress Passes Emergency Detention Act


The Emergency Detention Act of 1950 was Title II of the McCarran Act (see the separate entry for this day), one of the most repressive laws of the Cold War. The Detention Act authorized the government, when the president declared an “internal security emergency,” to detain people deemed likely to commit sabotage or treason. Detained individuals had the right to a hearing before an official of the executive branch (but not the judicial branch). The detention law was sponsored by Senate Democrats, who were eager to demonstrate their anti-Communist credentials in the face of attacks by Republicans that they were “soft” on Communism. Congress finally repealed the law in 1971, which President Richard Nixon signed on September 25, 1971.

In an odd twist, the 1950 Detention Act was more restrictive than the secret emergency detention program maintained by the FBI at that time. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had created that program on September 2, 1939, which he secretly continued to maintain despite an order from Attorney General Francis Biddle to abolish it, on July 16, 1943. Hoover simply changed the name to Security Index and continued the list, without his boss, the Attorney General knowing.

Read the Congressional Research Service (CRS) report on the history of the detention of American citizens: http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/natsec/RS22130.pdf

Learn more about the ACLU in the Cold War and other Times of National Crisis: https://www.aclu.org/aclu-history-rooting-out-subversives-paranoia-and-patriotism-mccarthy-era

Learn more about the Cold War: Ellen Schrecker, Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America (1998)

Learn more: Geoffrey Stone, Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime from the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism (2004)

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