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1954

Congress passes Communist Control Act

Congress passes the Communist Control Act in response to the growing anticommunist hysteria in the United States. Though full of ominous language, many found the purpose of the act unclear.

In 1954, the Red Scare still raged in the United States. Although Senator Joseph McCarthy, the most famous of the “red hunters” in America, had been disgraced earlier in the summer of 1954 when he tried to prove that communists were in the U.S. Army, most Americans still believed that communists were at work in their country. Responding to this fear, Congress passed the Communist Control Act in August 1954. The act declared that, “The Communist Party of the United States, though purportedly a political party, is in fact an instrumentality of a conspiracy to overthrow the Government of the United States.” The act went on to charge that the party’s “role as the agency of a hostile foreign power renders its existence a clear and continuing danger to the security of the United States.” The conclusion seemed inescapable: “The Communist Party should be outlawed.” Indeed, that is what many people at the time believed the Communist Control Act accomplished.

A careful reading of the act, however, indicates that the reality was a bit fuzzier. In 1950, Congress passed the Internal Security Act. In many respects, it was merely a version of the Communist Control Act passed four years later. It used the same language to condemn communism and the Communist Party of the United States, and established penalties for anyone belonging to a group calling for the violent overthrow of the American government. However, it very specifically noted that mere membership in the Communist Party, or affiliated organizations, was not in and of itself sufficient cause for arrest or penalty. The 1954 act went one step further by removing the “rights, privileges, and immunities attendant upon legal bodies created under the jurisdiction of the laws of the United States” from the Communist Party. The Communist Control Act made it clear that “nothing in this section shall be construed as amending the Internal Security Act of 1950.” Thus, while the Communist Control Act may have declared that the Communist Party should be outlawed, the act itself did not take this decisive step.

In the years to come, the Communist Party of the United States continued to exist, although the U.S. government used legislation such as the Communist Control Act to harass Communist Party members. More ominously, the government also used such acts to investigate and harass numerous other organizations that were deemed to have communist “leanings.” These included the American Civil Liberties Union, labor unions, and the NAACP. By the mid-to-late 1960s, however, the Red Scare had run its course and a more liberal Supreme Court began to chip away at the immense tangle of anticommunist legislation that had been passed during the 1940s and 1950s. Today, the Communist Party of the United States continues to exist and regularly runs candidates for local, state, and national elections.

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