The McCarran Act: Combating Internal Security Threats

The Cold War, U.S. internal security, and growing communist nationalism were all causing tension at the time the McCarran Act was enacted. The legislation aimed to combat the danger of domestic subversion and the rapidly escalating communism. A communist organization had to register with the Attorney General under the Subversive Activities Control Board (SACB), which was created by Title I of the Act. Additionally, it aimed to stop any activities that might support a dictatorship. Title II of the Act established an emergency detention statute under which the president could place individuals who were allegedly involved in sabotage in detention. President Truman aggressively opposed the passing of this bill but Congress overrode the veto, and the act was passed. However, the Supreme Court held that the activities of the SACB were unconstitutional.

Registration Requirements and the Right to Self-Incrimination

The SACB required the registration of every organization associated with communism with the U.S Attorney general. A party was required to disclose their members, officers, activities, and sources of funds. The Supreme Court in Albertson vs. Subversive Activities Control Board invalidated this requirement because such information forms the basis for prosecuting a communist party member, and the courts would charge them with a crime. By registering, an individual would be open to prosecution under both the act (McCarran) and the Smith Act. As a result, the McCarran Act deprives an individual of “the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination” (Meltzer, 1951), which states that “no person shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself. If, by answering, the witness could provide evidence that might aid the government in prosecuting him, then he has the right to refuse.” Therefore, the Supreme Court struck down the registration requirement of the McCarran act compelling because it exposes communist party members to criminal sanctions and violates the protection against self-incrimination.

Restrictions on Travel and Association

The SACB would investigate individuals suspected of taking part in the promotion of a communist government or a “totalitarian dictatorship.” These members would be prohibited from becoming U.S citizens and, to extreme extents, prevented from entering or leaving the country. A landmark case is the Aptheker v. Secretary of State (1964) which challenges Section 6 of the Subversive Activities Control Act where it was a crime for a communist organization member to attempt to obtain or use a passport. The individuals that would violate this provision would lose their citizenship in five years. The Supreme Court held that trying to deny communists passports is too broad, restricting the right to travel is discrimination, and it curtails the liberty granted under the Fifth Amendment. Therefore, the act was found “unconstitutional on its face.” The act also had the provision that communist party members had their opportunities limited and they could not work for the federal government or a defense facility. However, the Supreme Court struck down this provision because it violates an individual’s right to the First Amendment right of association (Patenaude, 2006).

The Supreme Court’s Defense of the Bill of Rights

In conclusion, President Truman was convinced that the McCarran Internal Security Bill weakens the U.S internal security and dramatically violates the bill of rights. The Supreme Court repealed Title 1 of the Act (the SACB) which required the registration of a communist party and prohibiting a member to get a passport. The court sought to defend the First and Fifth Amendments to the constitution and most importantly, ensure that the Congress follows the due process in making new legislation.


Meltzer, B. D. (1951). Required Records, the McCarran Act, and the Privilege Against Self-Incrimination. The University of Chicago Law Review, 18(4), 687-728.

Patenaude, M. (2006). The McCarran Internal Security Act, 1950-2005: Civil Liberties Versus National Security. Retrieved from

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