Subversion, Communist

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SUBVERSION, COMMUNIST. Defining itself by its commitment to a set of ideas and not its citizens' ancestry or blood, the United States has long harbored a fear of subversion at the hands of enemies of democracy. The first antisubversive federal laws, the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, were intended to check revolutionary influences from France. In the 1830s the Anti-Masonic Party played on fears of a conspiracy of Freemasons; twenty years later distrust of Catholics and immigrants fueled the Know-Nothing Party. Abolitionists fretted about the slave conspiracy in the 1850s. During World War I, fears of enemy subversion led to passage of the Espionage Act, which was later used to prosecute antiwar and antidraft activists, and provided an excuse for widespread vigilantism. The Bureau of Investigation, later renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation, organized a nationwide crackdown on suspected foreign anarchists and revolutionaries in 1919–1920, the so-called Palmer raids.

For much of the twentieth century the fear of communist subversion drove government officials to investigate "un-American" activities and legislate to control them. During its revolutionary periods, the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) openly boasted about its intent to overthrow the U.S. government and replace it with a Soviet-style regime. Even in more moderate periods, the habitual secrecy of Communist Party members generated concerns and fears of infiltration.

New York State's Lusk Committee began an inquiry into communism even before the formation of the first American Communist Party in 1919. The most famous and longest-lasting congressional body, the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), was first authorized as a special committee in 1938, following in the footsteps of earlier congressional inquiries in 1919 and 1930. One of its sponsors, Samuel Dickstein of New York (later revealed to be a source for Soviet intelligence) wanted it to focus on Nazi and fascist activities, a source of a variety of conspiracy theories and worries about domestic subversion. Under the direction of Martin Dies, however, HUAC mostly investigated communists. It became a standing committee of the House of Representatives in 1945.

The first significant congressional legislation targeting peacetime subversion since 1798 was the Alien Registration Act of 1940, also known as the Smith Act, which made it a crime to advocate or teach the overthrow of the government by force or violence. Its first victims were a group of Trotskyists, convicted in 1941, and a motley band of Nazis and fascists, whose lengthy trial during World War II ended in a mistrial. The national leadership of the CPUSA was convicted in 1948, and the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Smith Act in Dennis v. United States (1951). Six years later, in Yates v. United States, the Court effectively foreclosed further prosecutions. The Internal Security Act, passed in 1950 and usually called the McCarran Act, created the Subversive Activities Control Board, which attempted for years to compel communist and communist-front groups to register with it and reveal their members and financing. After protracted legal battles, in 1965 a divided Supreme Court found the registration provision unconstitutional.

Public fears about subversion were heightened by a series of espionage cases. In 1945 six people associated with a procommunist magazine, Amerasia, were arrested and charged with espionage. Two were fined for minor transgressions and the others never prosecuted. The case continued to fester; in 1950, following the triumph of Chinese communism, Senator Joseph McCarthy charged that John Stewart Service, one of the original defendants, was part of a cabal of communist sympathizers in the State Department who had sold out Chiang Kai-Shek.

After World War II, several defectors from Soviet intelligence, notably Igor Gouzenko and Elizabeth Bentley, alerted the FBI to widespread Soviet espionage. In 1948, Bentley and Whittaker Chambers testified before HUAC and named dozens of government employees as Soviet spies, most of who took the Fifth Amendment and refused to answer questions. Several of the most prominent individuals, however, denied the charges, including Alger Hiss, a former high-ranking State Department official; Harry Dexter White, a former assistant secretary of the Treasury; the presidential adviser Lauchlin Currie; and Duncan Lee, formerly legal counsel to the head of the Office of Strategic Services. White died of a heart attack and the one-time chief of the Latin American division of the State Department, Laurence Duggan, committed suicide shortly after questioning. Hiss was convicted of perjury in 1950. The trial and conviction of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for atomic espionage in 1951 further fueled fears that subversive forces had endangered U.S. national interests.

Using the Hiss case and the communist victory in China, Senator McCarthy began a campaign to purge suspected communists from government positions, accusing a host of people of subversion, notably Owen Lattimore, a one-time adviser to the State Department on China policy. When he became chairman of the Senate Committee on Government Operations in 1953, McCarthy launched a series of investigations, one of which, directed at the United States Army, eventually led to his censure by the Senate in 1954. Although congressional committees such as HUAC survived into the 1970s, they were never again as consequential as they had previously been.

Although McCarthy's charges were consistently off the mark, recently released material from Russian and American archives demonstrates that communist subversion had been a serious problem in the 1940s. Decrypted Soviet cables, collected by the top-secret Venona project beginning in 1943, were finally released in 1995 and confirmed that hundreds of Americans had spied for the USSR. Approximately 300 Americans worked for Soviet intelligence agencies during World War II; only about 125 were definitively identified by American counterintelligence, including virtually everyone named by Chambers and Bentley. Although these identified Soviet sources lost their government positions by the end of the 1940s, the effort to uncover the others remained a high priority of counterintelligence and of an extensive loyalty and security program. The first executive order establishing such a program, instituted by President Harry Truman in 1947, authorized the discharge of government employees if "reasonable grounds" to doubt their loyalty existed and established a loyalty review board within the Civil Service Commission. President Dwight D. Eisenhower broadened the criteria for dismissal to encompass security risks. Critics charged that the procedures and criteria for determining loyalty and security were flawed. Approximately 2,700 government employees were dismissed and some 12,000 resigned between 1947 and 1956.


Goldstein, Robert. Political Repression in Modern America from 1870 to 1976. 2d rev. ed. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001.

Haynes, John Earl, and Harvey Klehr. Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999.

Powers, Richard Gid. Not Without Honor: The History of American Anticommunism. New York: Free Press, 1995.

Schrecker, Ellen. Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America. Boston: Little, Brown, 1998.


See alsoAnticommunism ; Cold War .