Handout F: Truman’s Veto of the Internal Security Bill, September 22, 1950 (Excerpts)
Directions: Read the excerpts and answer the questions that follow.
To the House of Representatives:
I return herewith, without my approval, H.R. 9490, the proposed Internal Security Act of 1950…
The idea of requiring communist organizations to divulge information about themselves is a simple and attractive one. But it is about as practical as requiring thieves to register with the sheriff. Obviously, no such organization as the Communist Party is likely to register voluntarily…
In so far as the bill would require registration by the Communist Party itself, it does not endanger our traditional liberties. However, the application of the registration requirements to so-called communist front organizations can be the greatest danger to freedom of speech, press and assembly, since the Alien and Sedition Laws of 1798. This danger arises out of the criteria or standards to be applied in determining whether an organization is a communist-front organization…The bill would permit such a determination to be based solely upon “the extent to which the positions taken or advanced by it from time to time on matters of policy do not deviate from those” of the communist movement…
The basic error of these sections is that they move in the direction of suppressing opinion and belief. This would be a very dangerous course to take, not because we have any sympathy for communist opinions, but because any governmental stifling of the free expression of opinion is a long step toward totalitarianism. There is no more fundamental axiom of American freedom than the familiar statement: In a free country, we punish men for the crimes they commit, but never for the opinions they have. And the reason this is so fundamental to freedom is not, as many suppose, that it protects the few unorthodox from suppression by the majority. To permit freedom of expression is primarily for the benefit of the majority, because it protects criticism, and criticism leads to progress.
We can and we will prevent espionage, sabotage, or other actions endangering our national security. But we would betray our finest traditions if we attempted, as this bill would attempt, to curb the simple expression of opinion. This we should never do, no matter how distasteful the opinion may be to the vast majority of our people. The course proposed by this bill would delight the communists, for it would make a mockery of the Bill of Rights and of our claims to stand for freedom in the world.
And what kind of effect would these provisions have on the normal expression of political views? Obviously, if this law were on the statute books, the part of prudence would be to avoid saying anything that might be construed by someone as not deviating sufficiently from the current communist propaganda line. And since no one could be sure in advance what views were safe to express, the inevitable tendency would be to express no views on controversial subjects.
The result could only be to reduce the vigor and strength of our political life—an outcome that the communists would happily welcome, but that free men should abhor. We need not fear the expression of ideas-we do need to fear their suppression.
Our position in the vanguard of freedom rests largely on our demonstration that the free expression of opinion, coupled with government by popular consent, leads to national strength and human advancement. Let us not, in cowering and foolish fear, throw away the ideals which are the fundamental basis of our free society…
Section 22 is so contrary to our national interests that it would actually put the Government into the business of thought control by requiring the deportation of any alien who distributes or publishes, or who is affiliated with an organization which distributes or publishes, any written or printed matter advocating (or merely expressing belief in) the economic and governmental doctrines of any form of totalitarianism…
This is a time when we must marshal all our resources and all the moral strength of our free system in self-defense against the threat of communist aggression. We will fail in this, and we will destroy all that we seek to preserve, if we sacrifice the liberties of our citizens in a misguided attempt to achieve national security…
No considerations of expediency can justify the enactment of such a bill as this, a bill which would so greatly weaken our liberties and give aid and comfort to those who would destroy us. I have, therefore, no alternative but to return this bill without my approval, and I earnestly request the Congress to reconsider its action.
HARRY S. TRUMAN
NOTE: On September 23 Congress overwhelmingly passed the bill over the President’s veto. As enacted, H.R. 9490 is Public Law 831, 81st Congress (64 Stat. 987).
Critical Thinking Questions
- Underline or highlight President Truman’s main objections to the McCarran Act. To what extent do you agree with Truman’s reasoning? What are the most persuasive/important points he made in his veto statement?
- Why do you think Congress overrode President Truman’s veto?
- Why did Truman see the McCarran Act as “a step toward totalitarianism”?
- Why, according to Truman, would this act “delight the communists”?