Special Message to the Congress on the Internal Security of the United States
To the Congress of the United States:
I am presenting to the Congress certain considerations concerning the steps we need to take to preserve our basic liberties and to protect the internal security of the United States in this period of increasing international difficulty and danger. We face today, as we have always faced in time of international tension, the question of how to keep our freedom secure against internal as well as external attack, without at the same time unduly limiting individual rights and liberties.
Throughout our history as a Nation, our people have always--and properly--been wary of government action which limited personal liberty. At the time our Constitution was being debated, there was considerable fear that it did not properly safeguard the exercise of individual freedom. As a result, the first ten amendments to the Constitution--the Bill of Rights--were adopted, in order to make sure that the Federal Government would not infringe upon the free exercise of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right of peaceable assembly, and the other basic rights which are essential in a free society. The Bill of Rights was then, and remains today, a stirring embodiment of our democratic ideals--an inspiration to free men everywhere and to those who would be free.
At the same time, the Bill of Rights was not intended to prevent the Government from maintaining our Nation's integrity against subversion or attack. For example, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, which is guaranteed in the Bill of Rights, obviously gives no license for the building up of an armed revolutionary movement within our borders.
Accordingly, the Government has enacted laws, from time to time, against espionage, sabotage, and other internal threats to our national safety. Each of these laws necessarily places some restrictions on individual liberty, for the protection of the Nation.
It has always been difficult to draw the line between restrictions which are proper because they are necessary for internal security, and restrictions which are improper because they violate the spirit or the letter of the Constitution. It is clear that on certain occasions, that line has been over-stepped.
Soon after our Government began functioning under the Constitution, there was enacted, in 1798, the group of legislative acts known as the Alien and Sedition Laws. These laws were ostensibly designed to prevent activities which would undermine the Nation's safety and independence. But in fact they were broad enough--and were used--to imprison many leading citizens, including a Member of Congress, who expressed disagreement with the policies of the Administration then in office.
The Alien and Sedition Laws were so repugnant to the free spirit of our people that they played an important part in the disappearance of the Federalist Party, which sponsored them, and the objectionable features of these laws were shortly repealed or allowed to expire. That experience taught us a great lesson: that extreme and arbitrary security measures strike at the very heart of our free society, and that we must be eternally vigilant against those who would undermine freedom in the name of security.
Since the time of the Alien and Sedition Laws, there have been recurrent periods-especially in wartime-when the safety of our Nation has been in danger. Each of these occasions has confronted us with a new set of conditions, to which we have had to adjust our internal security laws and procedures.
At the same time, each of these periods of danger has been seized on by those who, in good faith or bad, would severely limit the freedom of our people in a misguided attempt to gain greater security. As we look back now, we can see that there have been certain times when we have, to some extent, repudiated our own ideals of freedom in an excess of zeal for our safety. Nevertheless, it is a tribute to the strong faith and common sense of our people that we have never for long been misled by the hysterical cries of those who would suppress our Constitutional freedoms.
The present period is one of the times in which it has been necessary to adjust our security measures to new circumstances. The particular danger which we have had to meet has been created by the rise of totalitarianism--first the totalitarianism of the right, and now that of the left.
Today, we face most acutely the threat of the communist movement, international in scope, directed from a central source, and committed to the overthrow of democratic institutions throughout the world.
The major danger from the communist movement lies in its use of armed force and the threat of aggression through which it is trying to establish its control over free nations. To meet this danger, we are working vigorously with other free nations to build a strong and effective common defense.
Communist imperialism also seeks to weaken and overthrow free nations by working within their borders.
Through their own political parties, and by trying to make alliances with non-communist political groups, the communists attempt to gain political power. The best defense against this aspect of the communist threat is a vigorous, functioning democracy which succeeds in meeting the needs of its people. A vigilant people, who exercise their democratic rights to keep their government active in the interests of all, can defeat the efforts of communists to attain electoral power.
In the United States, the communist party has never received more than a minute portion of the national vote. The good sense of the American people, and their faith in democracy, have utterly rejected the false political appeal of communism.
As a part of their campaign to weaken free nations from within, the communists try to infiltrate and gain control of the most vital citizens' organizations such as unions, associations of veterans, business groups, and charitable, educational, and political societies. In this country, these attempts have-with few exceptions--been successfully thwarted by the common sense and hard work of the members of those organizations, who have defeated the communists through democratic processes, or forced them into isolated groups which are clearly and definitely identified as communist-controlled.
The success of our labor union members and leaders in exposing and eliminating communists who had managed to gain positions of authority in the labor movement is particularly noteworthy. This demonstrates that open and public democratic processes provide the most effective way to prevent communists from dominating the activities and policies of private groups in our country.
If the communists confined their activities in this country to the open and public channels of the democratic process, we would have little concern about them. But they do not so limit their activities. Instead, to serve the ends of a foreign power, they engage in espionage, sabotage, and other acts subversive of our national safety.
To protect us against activities such as these, we must rely primarily upon Government action. We must have effective internal security measures to prevent acts which threaten our national safety.
These measures must be accurately devised to meet real dangers. They must not be so broad as to restrict our liberty unnecessarily, for that would defeat our own ends. Unwise or excessive security measures can strike at the freedom and dignity of the individual which are the very foundation of our society--and the defense of which is the whole purpose of our security measures.
In considering the laws that are needed to protect our internal security against communist activities, we should remember that we already have tested legal defenses against treason, espionage, sabotage, and other acts looking toward the overthrow of our Government by force or violence. Strong laws exist on the statute books--a number of them enacted or strengthened in recent years--under which we have proceeded and are proceeding vigorously against such crimes.
The treason laws make it a crime for anyone owing allegiance to the United States to levy war against his country, to give aid and comfort to its enemies, or to conceal knowledge concerning treasonable activities.
The espionage laws make it a crime to gather, give, receive, or transmit documents or similar materials concerning the national defense of the United States with intent or reason to believe that they are to be used against the interest of the United States. Furthermore, these laws make it a crime for anyone who has national defense information to communicate it to any person not entitled to receive it.
The sabotage laws make it a crime for anyone, with intent to interfere with the national defense, to attempt to injure or destroy any material, premises, or utilities which are important to the national defense.
There are other laws which make it a crime for two or more persons to "conspire to overthrow, put down, or to destroy by force the Government of the United States-- or by force to prevent, hinder or delay the execution of any law of the United States." There are also laws which make it a crime to advocate or teach the overthrow of the United States Government, or any State or local government, by force or violence, to organize any group for that purpose, or to be a member of such a group, knowing its purpose. In 1948, eleven of the most important leaders of the Communist Party in this country were indicted under these laws. After a long trial, all were convicted, and their conviction was affirmed by an appellate court on August 1, 1950.
In addition to the criminal laws outlined above, there is a set of laws governing immigration, naturalization, and travel between our country and others. These laws permit the Government to exclude or deport any alien from this country who may be dangerous to our internal security, and to forbid or to regulate the travel abroad of United States citizens who may be engaged in subversive activity.
The laws I have been describing apply to private citizens and groups. A special set of laws and procedures applies to Government employees. Here our purpose is to exclude or remove from Government service persons who may be disloyal, even though they have committed no crime, and to keep from positions of importance persons who cannot be trusted to maintain security regulations, even though they may be loyal citizens and satisfactory employees in all other respects.
More than three years ago, the Executive Branch revised and improved its procedures for dealing with questions of employee loyalty and security. These new procedures have proved effective in protecting the Government against disloyal persons and persons whose employment constitutes a security risk.
The various laws and procedures I have outlined make up a strong set of legal safeguards against acts by individuals and groups which strike at the internal security of the United States.
Over the last few years, we have successfully prosecuted several hundred cases in the courts under existing internal security laws. In this process we have obtained a great deal of experience in the application of these laws. We have discovered a few defects, some of them minor and others of greater importance, in some of the existing statutes. In view of the situation which confronts us, it is important that these defects be remedied. At this time, therefore, I wish to recommend that the Congress enact certain legislation before the close of the present session.
First, I recommend that the Congress remedy certain defects in the present laws concerning espionage, the registration of foreign agents, and the security of national defense installations, by clarifying and making more definite certain language in the espionage laws, by providing an extended statute of limitations (in place of the present 3-year statute) for peacetime espionage, by requiring persons who have received instruction from a foreign government or political party in espionage or subversive tactics to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, and by giving broader authority than now exists for the President to establish security regulations concerning the protection of military bases and other national defense installations.
Second, I recommend that the Congress enact legislation permitting the Attorney General to exercise supervision over aliens subject to deportation and to require them, under the sanction of criminal penalties, to report their whereabouts and activities at regular intervals. In a number of cases, aliens under deportation orders cannot be deported because no other country will accept them. A bill pending before the Congress would permit the Attorney General in certain cases to detain such aliens in his custody for indefinite periods of time--not pursuant to a conviction for crime but on the basis of an administrative determination. Such action would be repugnant to our traditions, and it should not be authorized. Present law, however, is inadequate to permit proper supervision of deportable aliens, and should be strengthened as I have indicated.
Under the leadership of the National Security Council, the agencies of the Government which administer our internal security laws are keeping these laws under constant study to determine whether further changes are required to provide adequate protection. If it does appear that further improvements in these laws are needed, I shall recommend them to the Congress.
By building upon the framework now provided by our basic laws against subversive activities, we can provide effective protection against acts which threaten violence to our Government or to our institutions, and we can do this without violating the fundamental principles of our Constitution.
Nevertheless, there are some people who wish us to enact laws which would seriously damage the right of free speech and which could be used not only against subversive groups but against other groups engaged in political or other activities which were not generally popular. Such measures would not only infringe on the Bill of Rights and the basic liberties of our people; they would also undermine the very internal security they seek to protect.
Laws forbidding dissent do not prevent subversive activities; they merely drive them into more secret and more dangerous channels. Police states are not secure; their history is marked by successive purges, and growing concentration camps, as their governments strike out blindly in fear of violent revolt. Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear.
We must, therefore, be on our guard against extremists who urge us to adopt police state measures. Such persons advocate breaking down the guarantees of the Bill of Rights in order to get at the communists. They forget that if the Bill of Rights were to be broken down, all groups, even the most conservative, would be in danger from the arbitrary power of government.
Legislation is now pending before the Congress which is so broad and vague in its terms as to endanger the freedoms of speech, press, and assembly protected by the First Amendment. Some of the proposed measures would, in effect, impose severe penalties for normal political activities on the part of certain groups, including communists and communist party-line followers. This kind of legislation is unnecessary, ineffective, and dangerous.
It is unnecessary because groups such as the communists cannot accomplish their evil purposes in this country through normal political activity. They will be repudiated by the people as they have always been.
It is ineffective because it does not get at the real dangers from the communists in this country. These dangers come, not from normal political activity, but from espionage, sabotage, and the building up of an organization dedicated to the destruction of our Government by violent means-against all of which we already have laws.
This kind of proposed legislation is dangerous because, in attempting to proscribe, for groups such as the communists, certain activities that are perfectly proper for everyone else, such legislation would spread a legal dragnet sufficiently broad to permit the prosecution of people who are entirely innocent or merely misguided. As far as the real conspirators against our institutions are concerned, such legislation would merely have the effect of driving them further underground and making it more difficult to reach them. Furthermore, if such legislation were held unconstitutional, as it well might be, it would make martyrs out of our worst enemies and create public sympathy for them.
Extreme proposals of this type reflect the widespread public concern about communism which most of our people feel today. In some communities, this concern has resulted in the enactment of unnecessary or unconstitutional laws or ordinances designed to suppress subversive activity.
We must not be swept away by a wave of hysteria.
It is natural, perhaps, to think that we can wipe out the dangers which confront us by passing a law. But we cannot get rid of communism just by passing a law. We must, of course, have effective legal defenses, but the principal protection of a free society against subversion is an alert and responsible citizenry dedicated to the advancement of freedom through democratic means.
This is the way to build real security for our country--and every citizen can help. Everyone in public life has a responsibility to conduct himself so as to reinforce and not undermine our internal security and our basic freedoms. Our press and radio have the same responsibility. Private groups of all kinds, and citizens in their daily work and in their homes, are equally concerned with the question of protecting our liberties and our national security. We must all act soberly and carefully, in keeping with our great traditions. This is important not only to our own country, but to the success of the cause of freedom in the world.
Throughout the world, communism is seeking to discredit our system of constitutional liberties. The communists know that the leadership and good will which our Nation enjoys arise in great measure from the fact that men here have the blessings of liberty. Consequently, the propaganda of communism is devoted to a bitter and unceasing attempt to blacken and distort our national character and our way of life.
This propaganda is a formidable threat to the unity of the free nations in working for peace. The best answer to it is not words, but deeds. We must demonstrate that we are a country in which men can live together and advance together as a free society. This alone can prove the falseness of the communist attack. It would be tragic in the highest degree if we were to frighten ourselves into destroying those very liberties which are the basis of our moral leadership in the struggle for peace.
I am determined that the United States shall be secure. I am equally determined that we shall keep our historic liberties.
Success in achieving both these objectives is of exceptional importance in the present period of international tension. For by our actions, we must maintain the United States as a strong, free people, confident in our liberties, and moving forward with other free peoples to oppose aggression and to build a just peace for all mankind.
HARRY S. TRUMAN
Note: For the President's veto of the internal security bill, later overridden by Congress, see Item 254.
Harry S. Truman, Special Message to the Congress on the Internal Security of the United States Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/231078