History Repeating? The Alien Registration Act of 1940
Enacted on June 29, 1940, the Alien Registration Act was a federal statute, which created means to charge individuals as criminals for activity which advocated the overthrow of the U.S. government. It also mandated all adult non-citizens register with the government.
The Act, aimed at curbing the threat of communism in the United States, ended up creating a hornet’s nest of reactionary, and questionable litigation in the years that followed.
The mess stretched into the 1950s when the Supreme Court finally reversed much of the damage due to the unconstitutional nature of the Act and litigation.
The Alien Registration Act It was one the worst violations of the First Amendment to pass muster in the 20th century, and possibly the worst ever.
Political climate of 1940
It was a year after the start of World War II, but it would be another year before the United States would enter that war.
The big baddie on the U.S. government’s mind, at least within the intelligence community, was the concept of the fifth column; an internal uprising of people opposed to the power center. In this case, it would be socialists or Nazi sympathizers.
Although the Cold War was still a few years away in 1940, and we would call the Russians our allies in the 2nd World War, Americans were plenty scared of Reds. We had been since that revolution of theirs in 1917.
The actual threat of socialists in the United States paled in comparison the Nazis and to a lesser extent Stalin’s Soviet Union. What was an even bigger threat to U.S. freedoms, things like the right to free speech, was the fear of fascism gripping down on the throats of every ignorant American in power.
Alien Registration Act
The Act, like so many others, sold itself as “no big deal” to the public. The ACLU had a problem with it, but they have a problem with everything, so whatever, right?
The deal was this: Foreigners have to register then stay out of trouble. Life goes on as normal. Registrations were to begin on August 27 of that year.
Before the end of the year, nearly 3-million registered. Those who failed to register could suffer penalties, jail, deportation. Everyone, in this case, included people with decades of living in the United States. Any foreigner, not yet a citizen, had to register.
Radio broadcasts at the time encouraged aliens to register, ensuring them that the restorations would not serve to persecute anyone. The registration process was a simple matter of paperwork, signatures, and fingerprinting.
This, it seemed, was as much a formality required to properly market the Act to the public. The people behind the Act didn’t really care about these registrations as much as they cared about pursuing the circles of individuals they wanted to cram into the square holes of the Act.
As it turned out, those registrations would turn into gold for the authorities.
Fallout from the Act
When the United States entered the war in 1941, the first thing the authorities did was use the registration list to persecute people on the list; the exact thing they promised would not happen.
Most know about the Japanese Internment camps of WWII, but the persecution didn’t stop there. Anyone from a nation falling on the wrong side of allied lines was subject to detainment. By the end of 1941, authorities interned almost 3,000 aliens.
In June of 1941, FBI agents raided the offices of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in Minnesota. A grand jury indicted 29 individuals connected to the SWP. The FBI accused them of organizing plots to overthrow the government.
This, of course, was nowhere near the truth, but it fit the Act. Of the defendants, the judge found 18 of them guilty.
On July 20, 1948, in a similar case, authorities arrested 12 individuals connected to the American Communist Party (ACP). In January 1949, 11 of the 12 stood trial. Despite the failure of the prosecution to prove the group had intentions for violence of any sort of revolution, the judge found them guilty.
Not only did the leaders of the ACP go to prison and suffer fines, so did their legal team. The case escalated to the Supreme Court in 1951, but they ruled 6-2 in favor of the judge’s decision.
During the summer of 1951, 46 more communists suffered arrest and hundreds more in similar cases throughout the 50s.
In 1957, on June 17, the Supreme Court ruled on a case (Yates v. the United States) declaring the convictions of party leaders arrested for teaching an idea as unconstitutional.
That same day they also ruled (Watkins v. the United States) that defendants could leverage their First Amendment rights as a defense against “abuses of the legislative process.”
For a long time, public opinion of what happened in the wake of this Act was that is was a mistake. Today, it seems public may have shifted. Hopefully, we do not have to replay this tape to know how the movie ends.