Smith Act to Trial Communist Party Leaders

Article

January 18, 2022

The trial of Communist Party leaders under the Smith Act in New York City from 1949 to 1958 was the result of prosecutions by the United States federal government during the postwar and Cold War eras. Leaders of the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) were accused of violating the Smith Act, a law that outlaws advocating violent overthrow of government. The defendants argued that they supported a peaceful transition to socialism and that the 1st Amendment guarantees of freedom of expression and association to the United States Constitution protect privacy their membership in a political party. Appeals from these courts were sent to the Supreme Court of the United States, which ruled in Dennis v. United States (1951) and Yates v. United States (1957). The trial of the first 11 communist party leaders was held in New York in 1949, one of the longest in American history. Every day, many supporters of the accused protest outside the court. The trial appeared twice on the cover of Time magazine. The defense regularly protests against the judge and the prosecution; five defendants went to prison for contempt of court, interruption of proceedings. The prosecution relied on secret suppliers who described the CPUSA's goals, interpreted communist documents, and testified that the CPUSA advocated violent overthrow of the government. While the first trial was taking place, external events affected public perception of communism: the Soviet Union tested its first nuclear weapon, and the communists won the Civil War. China. During this period, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) also began investigating and prosecuting Hollywood screenwriters and producers suspected of having communist influence. Public opinion against the defendants in New York. After 10 months of trial, the jury found all 11 defendants guilty. The judge sentenced the defendants to up to five years in federal prison, and sentenced all five defense attorneys to prison for contempt of court. Two of the lawyers were later stripped of their licenses to practice. After the first trial, prosecutors - spurred on by early successes - additionally indicted more than 100 CPUSA leaders for Smith Act violations. Some were tried just for being party members. Many defendants have difficulty finding an attorney. The trials removed CPUSA leaders. In 1957, eight years after the first trial, the U.S. Supreme Court's Yates ruling ended similar prosecutions. Accordingly, defendants can only be prosecuted for committing crimes, not because of political beliefs.

Context

After the revolution in Russia in 1917, the communist movement gradually gained a foothold in many countries around the world. In Europe and America, communist parties were formed, often allied with trade unions and the labor movement. During the First Red Crisis of 1919–1920, many American capitalists feared that Bolshevism and anarchism would lead to domestic chaos. In the late 1930s, the legislatures

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