Subversion Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

A deliberate, underhanded effort to sabotage, undermine, overthrow, or destroy an existing, duly constituted government by unlawful means.

As the Cold WarCold War era crystallized after World War II, many U.S. citizens feared that communist spies were undermining the U.S. government and treacherously misdirecting foreign policy. The attorney general drew up a list of ninety supposedly subversive organizations, none of which was given the right to prove its innocence. A Loyalty Review Board investigated more than three million federal employees, some three thousand of whom either resigned or were dismissed, none under formal indictment. Many Americans saw the situation as a question of how much freedom a democratic society such as the United States should permit to individuals and groups who express their desire to establish communist or socialist governments in place of the current U.S. government. The guidelines would eventually have to be established by the Supreme Court.

In 1949 eleven communistsCommunism were brought before a New York jury for violating the Smith ActSmith Act of 1940. The defendants were convicted of advocating the overthrow of the U.S. government by force and were sent to prison. In 1950, after being pursued by so-called “red-catcher” Richard M. Nixon, Alger Hiss was convicted of being a communist agent in 1950 and sentenced to five years in prison. That same year, in an attempt to address the alleged communist threat, Congress passed the McCarran ActMcCarran Act[MacCarran Act], which created the Subversive Activities Control BoardSubversive Activities Control Board to identify subversive groups. The board could order an organization that it found to be communist to register with the Justice Department and submit information concerning its membership, activities, and finances. In addition, the act arranged for the emergency arrest and detention of any person suspected of any subversive activities.

Although President Harry S Truman vetoed the McCarran Act on the grounds that it violated the Bill of Rights, his veto was overridden by an 89 percent majority vote. In 1951 Julius Rosenberg and Ethel RosenbergRosenberg, EthelRosenberg, Julius were convicted of leaking U.S. atomic bomb secrets to the Soviet Union. After long appeals, in 1953 the Court rendered its decision in Rosenberg v. United States[case]Rosenberg v. United States[Rosenberg v. United States], which sent the couple to the electric chair. They were the only people in U.S. history who were executed during peacetime for espionage. In Beilan v. Board of Public Education[case]Beilan v. Board of Public Education[Beilan v. Board of Public Education] (1958), the Court upheld a law allowing the school board to dismiss employees who could not prove that they were unaware of the subversive nature of organizations of which they were members. The McCarran Act was amended by Congress to eliminate the registration requirements in 1968, and the board was abolished in 1973.

Cold War

Comity clause

McCarran Act

National security

Nixon, Richard M.

Rosenberg v. United States

Scales v. United States

Smith Act

Yates v. United States

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