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Collection Scope and Content Notes

Communists and their supporters issued most of the items in this section during the period following World War II when the Federal Government, several state governments, and numerous private organizations began systematic surveillance, prosecution, and harassment of Communist Party members, close fellow travelers, and former Communists suspected of still harboring sympathy for communism. While many observers call this the McCarthy Era, after Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy who garnered substantial publicity for his speeches asserting the threat of a Communist conspiracy within the Federal government, the repression began well before McCarthy’s first major speech on the question in 1950 and continued well after his censure for procedural excesses in 1954.

Federal prosecutors used three legal strategies to pursue Communists: indictment under the 1941 Smith Act (which made it a crime to conspire to advocate overthrow of the government—a legal subterfuge designed to find a way around Bill of Rights protections for speech and association); actions to revoke citizenship and deport foreign born Communists (under clauses of the immigration laws that made advocacy of violent overthrow of the government grounds for denying or revoking citizenship), and prosecution for failing to fulfill the demands of several Federal laws that required Communists and Communist front groups to register as agents of a foreign power (which, if carried out, opened those who did so to other prosecutions). In addition widespread hearings on Un-Americanism threatened those called to testify with a legal double threat. Much of the public viewed pleading the Fifth Amendment equivalent to a guilty plea, and employers frequently fired individuals who did so. But individuals who answered any question forfeited rights to refuse to answer any subsequent question and faced indictment and imprisonment for contempt of Congress if they did so. Both state and Federal governments also instituted loyalty oaths as conditions of public employment. Employees who refused to sign would be dismissed. Those who did so but were subsequently revealed to be Communists could be indicted for perjury. Private employers supplemented prosecution by denying employment to individuals known or suspected of Communist membership or sympathy. While the blacklist in the entertainment industry has been the most closely studied part of this phenomenon, the FBI routinely informed all major employers of suspected individuals employed by their firms and most employers fired such people. The FBI also released the names and addresses of suspected Communists to daily newspapers that subsequently published the lists. Individuals whose names appeared faced not only loss of employment, but also social ostracism, physical attack, and vandalism to their homes and automobiles.

Communists used three primary rhetorical approaches to seek public support in their battles against prosecution and harassment. First, they argued that their espousal of revolution was open and public, not conspiratorial, and purely rhetorical. Indeed, they vigorously opposed individual acts of violence, such as the bombings as “propaganda of the deed” advocated by some anarchists. None of the indictments against them, they pointed out, cited any specific violent acts. Second, they argued that they were a legitimate political party, functionally equivalent to the Democratic and Republican Parties. Finally they argued that harassment of Communists for their controversial views threatened the civil liberties of all Americans and stifled public discussion and thought. The first two defenses were probably valid descriptions of the frame of mind and intentions of the bulk of rank and file Communists, but prosecutors had no trouble demonstrating that Communist propaganda had frequently advocated violent revolution in the past and the necessity of revolutionary violence was a central contention of core Marxist-Leninist texts. Moreover, prosecutors had evidence (though they sometimes hesitated to present it in open court for fear of revealing details of the intelligence apparatus) that Party leaders and dozens of Party members had participated in Soviet espionage. The Communists’ third argument—that anticommunist repression stifled civil liberties and public discourse for non-Communists was true—but Communists found that liberals who they expected to support their defense on such grounds frequently refused to do so not only because of fear that they too would thereby invite harassment on themselves, but also because the Communists’ long history of sudden shifts in their public positions and vitriolic sectarian denunciations of political competitors had fundamentally undermined Communists’ credibility.

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