Americans' civil liberties are guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, particularly by the Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments) and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, Fifteenth, and Nineteenth Amendments. The Bill of Rights guarantees Americans their basic civil liberties including, but not limited to, freedom of speech and association, the right to bear arms, the right against arbitrary search and seizure, and the right not to incriminate oneself. The Thirteenth Amendment outlaws slavery, and the Fourteenth Amendment denies the government the ability to "deprive any person of life, liberty, or property." The Fifteenth Amendment guarantees every citizen the right to vote regardless of "race, color, or previous condition of servitude"; however, it was not until the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 that women were granted the right to vote.
As the Cold War began to affect domestic society during the late 1940s and early 1950s, American politicians became increasingly concerned with the possibility of communist subversion within the United States and, more urgently, within the U.S. government. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) represented perhaps the first overt government institution to challenge the civil liberties of Americans by attacking freedom of speech and association. Established in 1938 to investigate disloyalty and subversion within the government, by the late 1940s HUAC had focused on eradicating domestic communism and in the process fueled the emerging Second Red Scare. The committee became infamous when, in 1947, it attacked Hollywood, accusing some of its more prominent actors, producers, directors, and screen-writers of being communists. After traveling to Washington, D.C., upon being subpoenaed by HUAC, one screenwriter and nine directors refused to respond to the committee's communist allegations. Despite the fact that they cited their Fifth Amendment rights, they were imprisoned for contempt of Congress. Upon their release, the so-called Hollywood Ten found themselves blacklisted and their hitherto promising careers ruined.
In 1948, a conservative Congress pressured the administration of President Harry S. Truman to implement a Loyalty Program applicable to all federally employed personnel. It required that all employees sign a pledge of loyalty to the U.S. government, admit to any past associations with "subversive" organizations, and promise not to join any such organizations in the future. Failure to sign the pledge or to admit to past activities was grounds for summary dismissal. Before long, many state and local municipalities had adopted similar programs, and many people lost their jobs as a result. In the early 1950s, Congress also passed two pieces of legislation containing anticommunist provisions over Truman's veto. The 1950 Internal Security Act required communists to register with the government, and the 1952 McCarran-Walter Immigration Act (also know as the Immigration and Nationality Act) specified the ability of the U.S. government to deport or deny entry to immigrants deemed "prejudicial to the public interest" or "subversive to national security."
The most infamous case of a politically motivated communist witch-hunt culminating in blatant disregard of civil liberties occurred during 1950–1954 in what has come to be known as McCarthyism. Senator Joseph R. McCarthy became a household name in February 1950 when, during a West Virginia speech, he waved a document in the air alleging that he had a list of 205 communists in the U.S. State Department. An otherwise obscure Republican senator from Wisconsin, McCarthy was instantly thrust into the national spotlight. Together with HUAC, McCarthy sought to identify suspected communists residing in the United States. In the end, public school teachers, college professors, labor union organizers, radio and television personalities, and even librarians found their careers and reputations ruined by questionable charges of disloyalty or of being a communist.
During the McCarthy era, loyalty oaths were required of immigrants and State Department officials alike. In 1953, even the State Department bowed to congressional pressure and ordered the removal of all books and art by suspected communists from government offices at home and abroad. During this period, basic rights such as freedom of speech, expression, and association were curtailed, and Americans' Fifth Amendment rights were often ignored, all in the name of national security. Although McCarthy was brought down in 1954 during the Army-McCarthy Hearings, the damage he wrought on the American body politic is incalculable.
American civil liberties were repeatedly breached, however, as anticommunism continued to arouse the suspicions of U.S. government officials, especially within J. Edgar Hoover's Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Of particular interest here is the FBI's Counter-Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO). The FBI formed COINTELPRO in 1956 after the Supreme Court challenged the constitutionality of several anticommunist measures, including the Loyalty Program, the 1950 Internal Security Act, and HUAC. COINTELPRO was a covert operations program targeted at American citizens believed to be communists or communist sympathizers. The program not only monitored but would also, in the FBI's parlance, "disrupt" or "neutralize" individuals or social groups that the FBI deemed threatening. However, those whom the FBI deemed threatening were often civil rights advocates, antiwar groups, and student organizations. The FBI justified its actions by claiming that groups such as the Black Panthers and Students for a Democratic Society were communist front organizations.
Often resorting to illegal wire taps, unlawful search and seizure, and unconstitutional invasions of privacy to collect intelligence on its subjects, COINTELPRO operated outside the guidelines established by the U.S. Constitution to protect citizens' rights. Although the FBI terminated the program in 1971, COINTELPRO became the focus of the 1975 Senate Select Committee to Study Government Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities (also known as the Church Hearings). The Senate committee concluded that the FBI had "conducted a sophisticated vigilante operation aimed squarely at preventing the exercise of First Amendment rights of speech and association."
During the Cold War, the United States was also culpable in repressing the civil liberties of citizens of other nations, particularly in the developing world. Through the U.S. Defense Department's Military Assistance Program and the Agency for International Development's Office of Public Safety, Washington changed the orientation of many nations' military forces from external defense to internal security in an effort to extinguish potential communist insurgencies. Although these programs frequently succeeded in repressing the Marxist threat, the trade-off was often military governance resulting in repression and gross human rights violations.
R. Matthew Gildner
Jones, Jacqueline, Peter H. Wood, Thomas Borstelmann, Elaine Tyler May, and Vicki L. Ruiz. Created Equal: A Social and Political History of the United States. New York: Longman, 2003.; Schmitz, David F. Thank God They're on Our Side: The United States and Right-Wing Dictatorships, 1921–1965. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.; Schrecker, Ellen. Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America. Boston: Little, Brown, 1998.