In 1919, during the post-World War I “Red Scare,” the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment protection of free speech was not applicable in circumstances in which there was a “clear and present danger” that “substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent” would occur as a result of that speech. In 1940, Congress passed the Smith Act, making illegal the advocacy of overthrowing state or national governments. Although the Act was not used against members of the Communist Party during World War II, 11 Communist Party leaders were convicted under the Act in 1949 following the build up of Cold War tensions. In the following opening statements of that trial, the U.S. prosecuting attorney, John F. X. McGohey and the general secretary of the Communist Party, Eugene Dennis, offered widely divergent descriptions of the Party’s goals. The Supreme Court upheld the guilty verdicts in 1951, ruling that government action against the defendants was required under the “clear and present danger” test. The ruling further argued that the Party, which was “in the very least ideologically attuned” with Communist countries, had formed “a highly organized conspiracy,” that created the present danger. In subsequent years, Congress passed additional anti-Communist laws, and courts obtained 93 convictions of Party members. After the liberal-leaning Warren Court’s 1956 ruling that mere advocacy of revolution was insufficient grounds to convict, the U.S. government ended their prosecution of Communists for Party membership alone.
John F. X. McGohey, Opening Statement on Behalf of the Government, March 21, 1949
The charge of conspiracy is set forth in the first paragraph of the indictment, which his Honor has just read to you.
The remaining nine paragraphs of the indictment set forth the details of the indictment. Briefly, these paragraphs charge that these defendants brought about meetings in New York City in June and July of 1945 of the National Committee and the National Board and the National Convention of the Communist Political Association, in order to dissolve that Association and to organize in its stead the Communist Party of the United States of America. They charged that it was a part of the conspiracy that these defendants would assume leadership of the Communist Party of the United States of America; it is further charged that the defendants would organize clubs, district and state units of their party; that they would recruit new members of their party; and that they, the defendants, would publish books, magazines, and newspapers; that they would organize schools and classes, in all of which it was planned that there would be taught and advocated the Marxist-Leninist principles of the duty and necessity of overthrowing and destroying the Government of the United States by force and violence.
Now, that is what we charge. To support that charge we propose to prove by witnesses on that stand, and documents which they will introduce, just what these defendants did, what these defendants said, and what these defendants caused others under their supervision and control to do, and to say what the defendants actually did at that Convention in July 1945, according to their own statements, was to reconstitute the Communist Party of the United States of America; to educate the working class in the course of its day-to-day struggles, for its historic mission, the establishment of Socialism. They based the party upon the principles of Marxism-Leninism. . . .
I ask you ladies and gentlemen to remember that phrase Marxism-Leninism. You will hear it frequently throughout this trial. We propose, we say, that we will establish that it is fundamental in the principles of Marxism-Leninism:
(1) That Socialism cannot be established by peaceful evolution but, on the contrary can be established only by violent revolution; by smashing the machinery of government, and setting up in its stead a dictatorship—a dictatorship of the proletariat.
(2) That this smashing of the machinery of government and setting up of the dictatorship of the proletariat can be accomplished only by the violent and forceful seizure of power by the proletariat under the leadership of the Communist Party.
The revolutionary doctrines of Marx, Lenin, and Stalin are constantly repeated in the lectures and in the discussions, and the thinking of both the teachers and the students is constantly checked against these revolutionary writers. In each of these schools it is reiterated constantly that the students are being trained as professional revolutionaries. Marxism, they are taught, is not merely dogma, it is a guide to action. . . . At the proper time, they are taught—the proper time being a time of national crisis, unrest, disorder brought about by a severe depression or war—at such a time the Party members will be in positions of influence in the key trades in the basic industries, and when the National Board decides that the revolutionary situation is at hand, the Party will lead the proletariat in violent revolution. They teach that this revolution cannot be without violence, for to be successful the entire apparatus of the Government must be smashed. Every vestige of the bourgeois state and class must be wiped out. Only when this has been accomplished can the program of Marxian Socialism be successfully carried out.
Now there are sections in the constitution of the Communist party which was adopted at its convention in July 1945 that purport to urge support of American democracy. These are in that document for legal purposes only, as we will show from witnesses on this stand. We will show that such declarations as I have referred to are mere talk; that they are just empty phrases, that they are inconsistent with the Marxist-Leninist doctrine of the overthrow of the Government by force and violence.
Eugene Dennis, Opening Statement on Behalf of the Communist Party, March 21, 1949
In view of the opening statement of the prosecution the defense is obliged to make sure that the jury fully understands just what the indictment charges and what it does not charge. The foreboding-sounding words “overthrow and destruction of the Government of the United States by force and violence” appear five times in the ten paragraphs of the indictment. But I call to your attention that not one of . . . these ten paragraphs charges that we Communist leaders at any time committed a single act, a single overt act of force and violence against the Government of the United States, or that we ever directly or indirectly advocated or attempted its forcible overthrow.
The alleged conspiracy as stated in the indictment limps only on three active verbs—to organize the Communist Party, to teach, and to advocate.
Since no overt criminal act is even alleged there is no X to mark the spot where it was not committed. . . .
The allegation of crime rests on the charge that we Communist leaders used our inalienable American rights of free speech, press, and association, and sought to advance certain general political doctrines which the indictment falsely says teach and advocate the duty and necessity to overthrow the Government of the United States by force and violence. . . .
We 11 defendants will prove that the very time when we allegedly began this menacing conspiracy we were in fact advocating and organizing all-out support to the Government of the United States. . . .
We will prove that all of us . . . taught the duty of upholding the United States Government and of intensifying the anti-Axis war effort . . . and we defendants will put in evidence the honorable war record of the 15,000 American Communists who, in accord with what we taught and advocated, served with the armed forces in the military defense of our country. . . .
We Communist leaders will show that in June and July of 1945 we thought that labor and the people could not rely on the Truman Administration to curb the greedy monopolists. We taught that, on the contrary, the people would have to resist the efforts of the administration and the bipartisan Congress, to scuttle FDR’s progressive policies. We will also prove that we did not even consider, let alone teach or advocate, that the Government, headed by President Truman, should therefore be overthrown by force and violence. We will establish that everything we did teach and advocate was in the interests of the American people and in accord with their understanding of achieving a Government of, by, and for the people. . . .
. . . My co-defendants and I will show that we put into practice the real principles of Marxism-Leninism, by teaching that labor and the people should intervene to defend their living standards, their democratic rights, and world peace. . . .
We will show with what peaceful intent we taught and advocated, amongst other things . . . to oppose American support to the unjust and criminal war against the Chinese people waged by the miserable Chiang Kai-shek, to oppose the civil war against the Greeks, waged by the monarchist-fascist puppet of the American trusts, with the American people footing the bill, to oppose the Anglo-American oil lords against the new State of Israel, and the people of Indonesia, and to oppose the restoration of the German and Japanese monopolies and war potential under the new management of the American cartelists. . . .
I and my co-defendants will show, we will show that we publicly advocated that all peace-loving Americans should unite that the Truman Administration enter into direct negotiations with the U.S.S.R. and respond in good faith to its repeated disarmament and other peace proposals. . . .
And to establish further the record of what we defendants actually have done in the period covered by the indictment, we Communist leaders will show that we have advocated defense of the people’s living standards as an inseparable part of the struggle for democracy and peace. . . .
. . . The defense will squarely meet and disprove the prosecution’s charge that the principles of scientific socialism teach or imply the duty or the necessity to overthrow the United States Government by force and violence. . . .
When the defense puts our Communist Party constitution in evidence, the jury will see that it speaks of the duty to organize and educate the working class, and declares that Socialism should be established, not by force and violence, but “by the free choice of the majority of the American people.”
We defendants will prove that we have always taught that capitalism in America or elsewhere cannot be abolished by plots, or conspiracies, or adventures, or by power revolutions. We will put in evidence our teaching that this fundamental change can be brought about only when both of two conditions have been fulfilled, when capitalism has fully outlived its social usefulness and when a majority of the American people—I repeat, a majority—led by labor and the Communists resolve to get rid of a system of social production that has become destructive of their right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. . . .
I have already indicated how we American Marxists will prove that we teach that Socialism is not an immediate issue in the United States today, but that the central issues, the central immediate issues confronting our people are peace or war, democracy or fascism. . . .
You will see that our Communist Party Constitution acknowledges not only that we learn from Marx and Lenin but that we owe much to and learn from the teachings of men like Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, William Sylvis, and Eugene V. Debs. . . .
. . . The prosecution asks this jury for what amounts to a preventative conviction, in order that we Communist leaders may be put under what the Nazis called protective custody. I ask the jury to weigh the prosecution’s case against the proof we defendants will offer to establish that we have taught and advocated the duty and necessity to prevent the force and violence of Fascism, imperialists of war and lynching and anti-Semitism. I ask you to weigh carefully our sincere offer of proof which demonstrates that we Communists are second to none in our devotion to our people and to our country, and that we teach and advocate and practice a program of peace, of democracy, equality, economic security, and social progress.
Source: Trial testimony in Joint Appendix, United States of America v. Eugene Dennis et al., United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, in Ellen Schrecker, The Age of McCarthyism: A Brief History with Documents (Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press, 1994), 174–78.
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