wrote of that period: "Fears of Communism suddenly revived and inspired several unprecedented statutory restrictions on freedom of speech, press, and teaching." ( Free Speech in the United States, by Zecheriah Chafee Jr., Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1954.)
It was reminiscent of 1798 when the notorious Alien and Sedition Acts were adopted by an antidemocratic Congress. In fact, much of the reactionary legislation of the 1939-40 period was adopted in the name of combatting aliens. One measure, an amendment to the Alien Registration Act, slipped in by Rep. Howard Smith, a Virginia Dixiecrat, went further.
It made it unlawful for citizens as well as noncitizens to "advocate... the duty, necessity, desirability, or propriety of overthrowing or destroying any government in the United States by force or violence...." Not overt acts. Advocacy, speaking, teaching and writing of certain views were outlawed. Despite bitter opposition by Representatives Vito Marcantonio, Maury Maverick and a courageous handful of others, the measure was adopted overwhelmingly. This amendment had harder sledding but was passed 79 to 32 with most of the House members off the floor.
Passed by both houses of Congress, the amended Alien Registration Act became law on June 28, 1940 after President Roosevelt signed it. It was, Professor Chafee wrote later, "the first federal peacetime restriction on speaking and writing by American citizens since the ill-fated Sedition Act of 1798."
The excuse for the legislation was the need to get rid of Nazis and Fascists. Chafee noted that this was a thin pretext and that the reactionaries were really after workers of the Left. Wrote Chafee:
It is all very well to say that we need a sedition law to use against Nazis and Fascists, but if the Alien Registration Act of 1940 is thus employed, it will be almost the first time to my knowledge that a sedition act has been enforced against powerful men with money. The lamentable truth, which as a former employer I hate to admit, is that sedition laws operate in practice as a device to keep down the agitation of discontented workingmen.... What has happened? Hundreds of Communist workmen have been rounded up by immigration officials and deported. So far as I can ascertain, not one Nazi and not one Fascist has been arrested and shipped overseas. ( Chafee, Jr., op. cit.)
(The above was written by Chafee in late 1940 and early 1941 and was prophetic. In late 1941 and 1942 a few members of the Socialist Workers