Alien Registration Act 54 Stat. 670 (1940)

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ALIEN REGISTRATION ACT 54 Stat. 670 (1940)

This measure, popularly known as the Smith Act, was destined to become the most famous of the anticommunist measures of the Cold War, McCarthy period. The act required all aliens living in the United States to register with the government, be fingerprinted, carry identification cards, and report annually. Persons found to have ties to "subversive organizations" could be deported. The registration requirement was rescinded in 1982.

Such alien registration was only one of the various purposes of the act. It was directed primarily at subversive activities which were causing growing concerns on the eve of war, particularly communist-inspired strikes intended to injure American defense production. As the first federal peacetime sedition statute since 1798, the Smith Act in its most significant section made it a crime to "knowingly, or willfully, advocate, abet, advise, or teach the duty, necessity, desirability, or propriety of overthrowing or destroying any government in the United States by force and violence.…" Any attempts forcibly to overthrow the government of the United States by publication or display of printed matters, to teach, or to organize any group, or to become a "knowing" member of such an organization were forbidden. Section 3 forbade conspiracy to accomplish any of these ends. The act carried maximum criminal penalties of a $10,000 fine or ten years in prison or both; no one convicted under the law was to be eligible for federal employment during the five years following conviction.

The act, which did not mention the Communist party, attracted little attention at the time of its passage, and initial enforcement was spotty. Although five million aliens were registered and fingerprinted shortly following its passage, its antisubversive sections were not used until 1943, when a small group of Minneapolis Trotskyites were convicted. When the Cold War intensified, following 1947, the harry s. truman administration began a series of dramatic prosecutions of Communist party leaders. These and subsequent prosecutions eventually forced the Supreme Court to clarify the act's terms, starting with dennis v. united states (1951), and extending through yates v. united states (1957), scales v. united states (1961), and Noto v. United States (1961). As a result of these rulings, the measure's advocacy, organizing, and membership provisions were limited and made more precise.

Paul L. Murphy


Belknap, Michael R. 1977 Cold War Political Justice: The Smith Act, the Communist Party, and American Civil Liberties. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.