1950 September 22

Repressive McCarran Act Passed Over President Truman’s Veto


President Truman on this day vetoed the McCarran Act, officially the Internal Security Act, the most repressive measure passed by Congress during the Cold War. Congress immediately passed it over his veto, however. The law required “communist-action” and “communist-front” organizations to register with the Attorney General and provide details about their operations. The law also created the Subversive Activities Control Board (SACB) to administer the registration requirement. Also, the law authorized the emergency detention of “subversives” in the event of a national emergency (see the separate entry for this day). It also made picketing federal courthouses a felony if the intention was to influence judges or juries.

Truman’s veto letter is arguably the best statement in defense of protecting unpopular opinion by any president. The irony of his veto, however, was that he bears major responsibility for launching the domestic Cold War with his Loyalty Program (March 21, 1947). In fact, his criticisms of the McCarran Act applied with equal force to his own program. However, Congress overrode his veto the same day by large margins. (See the separate entry on this day for the Emergency Detention provision in Title II of the McCarran Act.)

The procedures of the SACB were filled with problems, which the Communist Party challenged in two separate cases that were decided by the Supreme Court. On April 30, 1956, the Court agreed that some witnessed before the SACB had committed perjury in their testimony against the Communist Party. In a second decision in 1961, the Court upheld the constitutionality of the SACB and its procedures. Nonetheless, because of the challenges the SACB never became an effectively functioning agency.

Truman’s veto (in part): The basic error of these sections is that they move in the direction of suppressing opinion and belief. This would be a very dangerous course to take, not because we have any sympathy for communist opinions, but because any governmental stifling of the free expression of opinion is a long step toward totalitarianism… There is no more fundamental axiom of American freedom than the familiar statement: In a free country, we punish men for the crimes they commit, but never for the opinions they have. And the reason this is so fundamental to freedom is not, as many suppose, that it protects the few unorthodox from suppression by the majority. To permit freedom of expression is primarily for the benefit of the majority, because it protects criticism, and criticism leads to progress.”

Read Truman’s complete veto letter: http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/print.php?pid=13628

Read: Michael J. Ybarra, Washington Gone Crazy: Senator Pat McCarren and the Great American Communist Hunt (2004)

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

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

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