On the one hand, criticism of the government, and even proposals to replace the government with a different one, are within the realm of a civil liberty, while the advocation of violent overthrow is a premeditation bent on harming individuals and therefore punishable by law. But where, exactly, is the boundary line between the two?
A number of famous trials involved the Smith Act, and some of them reached the Supreme Court. A few of them involved leaders of the Communist Party (CP), which was operating in the United States as both an intelligence-gathering network for the Soviets, and as a network for those who were prepared to sabotage the U.S. government. This latter, active, aspect of the CP's presence in the USA ranged from influencing policy decisions in the federal government, so that decisions were made against the nation's best interests, to developing and preparing saboteurs who were prepared for acts of violence against persons and objects - prepared to shoot people and dynamite buildings. Ronald Radosh writes:
the post-war Smith Act trial that took place in 1949, when the Justice Department brought to the docket the top leaders of the American CP, and indicted them for conspiring to advocate the overthrow of the U.S. government by force. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court. In Dennis v. U.S., the Court, led by Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson, ruled in a 6–2 decision that the convictions were legal and that the Smith Act under which the defendants were indicted was constitutional. The Court’s majority decision stated that the government had a right to prohibit the intention to commit acts meant to overthrow the American republic, and to prosecute the plotters before they acted.
In reaction to the verdict in Dennis vs. U.S., those who supported the communists claimed that First Amendment rights were violated; that the defendants were being prosecuted for what they had merely said. The legal task here is to find the boundary between speaking about an act and preparing to commit an act. If a man speaks, in an abstract way, about changing governments, about the need for a new government, and even about the possibility of doing so by means of violence, then his speech, however unpleasant, may still be protected by the First Amendment. But when he begins to stockpile bombs and guns, when he makes specific and concrete plans about whom he will shoot and which buildings he will explode, when he is receiving instructions and materials from of hostile foreign government, and when he trains and organizes others to do so, he will at some point move out of the realm of those things which are protected by the First Amendment.
Over the past two decades, since the release of the so-called Venona decrypts of Soviet intelligence operations in the U.S. and the more recent Vassiliev KGB files, as well as documents found in Moscow by Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes, much evidence has been assembled that proves beyond any doubt that the American Communist party was not just another political party, but an institution whose policies, leadership, and programs were forged in Moscow, and that served as a recruiting ground for Soviet intelligence, with the participation and cooperation of the American party’s top leaders.
Despite the claims of the communists and their supporters, evidence proved beyond a reasonable doubt that they were under the supervision of Soviet intelligence agencies like the KGB. It must be remembered that in the late 1940s and 1950s, the USSR was actively preparing for war, anticipating a major conflict when it attempted to overrun those parts of Europe which it had not already dominated. The USSR was also preparing to trigger an overthrow of the United States government from within, by means of the Communist Party of the United States of American (CPUSA) - the official and alternative title for the American Communist Party.
the American Communist party was an organ of Joseph Stalin and a ready fifth column in the event that war broke out between the U.S. and the USSR.
Elizabeth Bentley was a spy for the Soviets from 1938 until 1945, when she defected from the communists and revealed what she knew to the FBI. She provided one of the biggest breaks in terms of uncovering Soviet espionage activity on American soil.
Soviet spying was not a figment of the imagination, and that the Smith Act indictments took place concurrently with the revelations by Elizabeth Bentley concerning the spy networks she handled in the United States.
One of the espionage networks with whom Elizabeth Bentley worked, and about whom she revealed data to the FBI, was the Silvermaster network, which carried out a number of operations for the NKGB (a predecessor of the KGB). One such operation was the theft of currency printing plates, which allowed the Soviet government to counterfeit currency, thereby simultaneously destabilizing the economy of the western allies and siphoning wealth from the United States to the Soviet Union.
Not only did members of the American Communist party have direct contacts with the NKGB, the KGB, and other Soviet espionage agencies, but some of them had been taken to Russia to be trained. Ronald Radosh explains that
a labor historian named Albert V. Lannon wrote a post on a historians’ Internet discussion group. Lannon is the son of Al Lannon, later a Smith Act defendant in the second New York Communist trial in 1951, who was the CP’s head of Communist waterfront dock workers in New York City. Lannon wrote that, at the time of his father’s trial, his father told him that while he was in Moscow at the Lenin school for party cadres, he was instructed that if war broke out between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, he was to organize party cadres in the factories and get those at the Celanese plant in Cumberland, Md., to engage in sabotage.
Some branches of the communist network in the United States were more violent than others; some directly planned to use physical violence, others kept it as an option to be used if needed.
one defendant, Gil Green, acknowledged that he had, in a speech, urged the use of violence to attain the party’s goal of achieving Communism in America. Green, he writes, “admitted that he had at times advocated violence — though only ... if, ‘heaven forbid, America becomes the victim of a fascist dictatorship and change became impossible by orderly, majority, and, above all, democratic means.’”
The insiders in the American Communist party were so thoroughly indoctrinated that they saw little difference between Adolf Hitler and Harry Truman. They saw the U.S. government as utterly unjust and as needing replacement. Holding such opinions, as bizarre as they might be, was within their First Amendment rights; planning sabotage was not.
hard as it is to comprehend, in 1949 the CPUSA believed that the U.S. was most of the way to fascism already, and that Pres. Harry S. Truman was the leader of the Wall Street warmongers who desired war with the USSR and the head of an essentially fascist government. Thus Green’s own words reveal that the prosecution was indeed correct in its assertion that the Communists were advocating force and violence, necessary because they lived in a fascist America.
In the minds of the CPUSA members, if Harry Truman were the moral equivalent of Benito Mussolini, and if the United States in the late 1940s and early 1950s were as fascist as Hitler's Nazi-controlled Germany, then a violent overthrow of the government was not only justified, it was a duty. To be sure, the United States wasn't then, and isn't now, perfect; but these moral equations seem at least odd, and perhaps even surreal. It is important to understand, however, that these equations were integrally woven into the worldview of the inner circle of the CPUSA members, which explains their readiness to use violence. Undeniably, there were also CPUSA members on the fringe of the organization who had not fully internalized the demonization of the United States and who were not contemplating the use of force in a political overthrow.
There is a historical irony in the tension between the fact that, on the one hand, the 1950s saw advanced in civil rights for African-Americans and a rise in the number of women obtaining college educations, while on the other hand the CPUSA saw the United States as a fascist country. Even as the USA was moving in the direction of still greater freedom, the CPUSA members were convinced that it was repressive, and to compound the irony, the CPUSA wanted to replace the U.S. government with a Soviet-style dictatorship, the alleged cure for the alleged repression!
The powerful hold which this worldview had on the minds of CPUSA members is seen in their behavior after they were convicted. Having been found guilty under the Smith Act, and awaiting verdicts, Ronald Radosh reports their continued preparations for a violent communist revolution on American soil:
After the guilty verdict came in, a few of the convicted defendants fled while on bail, and hid out for years. One of them was World War II hero Robert Thompson, who had received the Distinguished Service Cross. He came to the home of another underground party cadre, Carl Ross, asking to be put up in a safe house. He told Ross it was important that he, Thompson, stay free because he was both a senior CP leader and had military experience in both World War II and the Spanish Civil War, and he would be needed to lead U.S. Communist guerrillas against the American fascist regime, or during World War III should war break out between the U.S. and Russia.
Prosecutions under the Smith Act identified a list individuals who were undoubtedly Soviet agents. The lives and safety of ordinary citizens in the United States were in an amount of danger which seemed unlikely at the time. As the nation worked to return to a sense of normal life after WWII, the everyday concerns of living were about sending returning soldiers to colleges, an upsurge in the house construction market, and the Baby Boom as millions of young couples got married and began families. Few of them were thinking that the Soviets were so close to destroying their way of life.
So when key FBI informants — including ex-Communist Louis Budenz and Herbert Philbrick, an FBI infiltrator into the party — testified that, in the event of domestic repression, they would have become underground saboteurs, they were telling the truth.
The CPUSA was, then, a direct extension of Stalin's KGB and of other Soviet intelligence agencies, and carefully prepared to unleash a wave of sabotage and assassinations on U.S. soil. This is the unpleasant reality behind the image of daily life in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s.