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The presidency of Harry S. Truman, the nation's 33rd president, was dominated by fears of communism, which led to laws that were challenged under the First Amendment and led to consequential Supreme Court decisions. The "clear and present danger test" was developed by the courts during the Truman presidency to measure whether speech could be restricted by government. Truman led the country out of World War II after making the decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan. He also was president during the Korean Conflict. (Photo of Truman in 1945, public domain)

Harry S. Truman (1884-1972) was born and raised in Missouri, spent about a year at Spalding’s Commercial College (a business college in Kansas City) without getting a degree, served in the U.S. Army during World War I, and returned to Missouri where he served as a haberdasher and farmer. He then became involved in politics with the help of the Democrat Pendergast Machine led by Tom and Jim Pendergast, which linked political and economic power.

Truman served in a number of political positions, including as a county judge and as a presiding judge, before being elected as a U.S. senator for Missouri. In the Senate, he enhanced his reputation by conducting investigations into military procurement policies, which brought him to the attention of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Roosevelt chose Truman as his vice-presidential running mate in 1944 to replace Henry Wallace who was viewed as too liberal.

Truman’s presidency

When Roosevelt died shortly after his reelection, Truman became the nation’s 33rd president without initially knowing about the Manhattan Project, which was a secret project to develop the atomic bomb.. Truman made the fateful decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, which  brought World War II to an end, but he soon confronted the growing power of the Soviet Union, which encompassed much of Eastern Europe. 

In 1947, Truman announced the doctrine that bears his name, promising to support countries threatened with Communist aggression or insurrection. When the Soviets blocked the city of West Berlin in 1948, Truman ordered an airlift that saved the city from Communist domination. Truman thereby sought to contain communism within its existing boundaries. Truman also supported the Marshall Plan, which provided aid to reconstruct Western European nations that had been devastated by World War II. 

Truman proposed a liberal “Fair Deal” policy to follow up on Roosevelt’s New Deal and successfully, and somewhat unexpectedly, won reelection against Republican Thomas E. Dewey in the presidential election of 1948. Truman’s running mate was Alben Barkley of Kentucky. 

Court upholds union regulations against free speech challenges

In 1947, Truman vetoed the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which he thought was too hard on labor, but Congress overrode the veto. In American Communications Association v. Douds (1950) and other cases, the Supreme Court  upheld provisions in the law that were challenged as violating First Amendment rights. One provision that was upheld required labor union leaders to indicate that they were not Communists before being able to utilize the benefits and protections of the National Labor Relations Board. Another upheld provision prohibited unions from encouraging people to strike against their employers to compel them to stop doing business with another employer with who the real labor dispute existed — so-called secondary boycotts.

Also in 1947, Truman issued Executive Order 9808, which established the President’s Committee on Civil Rights and warned of the dangers of sacrificing First Amendment freedoms in the name of security.

In 1948, Truman issued an executive order racially desegregating U.S. armed forces. He also established a Presidential Committee on Religion and Moral Welfare Guidance in the Armed Forces to assure that individuals serving would be “afforded every opportunity to deepen and practice their religious faiths, and the others who practice no faith must be well grounded in ethics — the art of getting along with one’s neighbor” (Gustafson 1966, 56). 

In 1948, Truman acknowledged the nation of Israel shortly after it declared its independence, initiating a friendship that has persisted into the 21st century.

In 1950, Communist North Korea invaded South Korea. Truman responded with force under the auspices of the United Nations rather than a formal declaration of war by Congress. General Douglas McArthur led a successful counterattack against North Korea that brought Chinese intervention as U.S. troops came close to China’s border. The continuing conflict and national war weariness helped Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower win the 1952 presidential election against Democrat Adlai Stevenson. 

During the Korean conflict, Truman seized U.S. steel mills to avert a strike that threatened to disrupt the provision of war supplies. The Supreme Court ruled in Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer (1952) that Truman had exceeded his executive powers, and the company was returned back to its private owners. 

Laws aimed against communism led to free speech questions

Fears of communism dominated much of Truman’s presidency. In 1947, Truman issued an executive order asking the government to catalog organizations that were engaged in subversion against the United States.  The list led to the investigation and firing of some federal employees.

Truman vetoed the McCarran Internal Security Act of 1950 that required members of the Communist Party and other organizations that were considered to be subversive to register with the government, but Congress adopted it over his veto. In time, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the law was unconstitutional. 

Truman warns against government regulating speech

In a speech on Aug. 8, 1950, Truman explained his own concerns over governmental regulations of speech. He pointed to the damage caused by the Alien and Sedition Laws of 1798. Reviewing the laws that were already in place to protect against treason, espionage and sabotage, Truman warned against laws that would censor speech. “Laws forbidding dissent do not prevent subversive activities; they merely drive them into more secret and more dangerous channels,” he said.

After pointing to the insecurity of police states, Truman noted:

“Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear.”

Referring to those who would adopt repressive measures, Truman said that “if the Bill of Rights were to be broken down, all groups, even the most conservative, would be in danger from the arbitrary power of government.” He argued that the key to democratic success was vigilance:

“By our actions, we must maintain the United States as a strong, free people, confident in our liberties, and moving forward with other free peoples to oppose aggression and to build a just peace for all mankind.”

Supreme Court decisions during Truman presidency

Supreme Court decisions during the Truman Administration were not always consistent. In Terminiello v. Chicago (1949) the Supreme Court ruled that a disorderly conduct conviction of a priest who had made inflammatory public comments had violated the free speech protections of the First Amendment, but in Feiner v. New York (1951), it upheld a conviction of a college student who refused to end a speech that police feared would lead to violence. 

In Dennis v. United States (1951), the Supreme Court upheld the conviction of 22 organizers of the U.S. Communist Party for violating the Smith Act, which made it a crime to “knowingly or willfully advocate, abet, advise, or teach the duty, necessity, desirability, or propriety of over-throwing . . . the government of the United States by force or violence.” The high court thought the actions of the Communist members posed a clear and present danger to U.S. security, although it would later raise the bar on what actions presented a danger in Yates v. United States (1957).

Court examines church-state issues involving religious schools 

 As it had earlier done with respect to freedom of speech and press, in Everson v. Board of Education  (1947), the Supreme Court extended the application of the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the states via the due process clause of the 14th Amendment. Despite powerful language supporting separation of church and state, the majority upheld the constitutionality of a New Jersey law that provided for publicly funded bus transportation of children to parochial schools. The high court relied in part on the “child benefit” theory, that sought to distinguish the provision of common services to school children from direct aid to parochial schools.

In Illinois ex rel. McCollum v. Board of Education (1948), the Supreme Court would later invalidate a “release time” arrangement through which public schools offered religious instruction on site during school time although it would in Zorach v. Clauson (1952) approve a “dismissed time” program where such classes were held off campus. 

Truman appoints Vinson, three others to Supreme Court

As World War II was coming to an end, Truman appointed Justice Robert H. Jackson as the chief U.S. prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials, which brought Nazi war criminals to justice.

Truman tended to rely on personal friendships in appointing judges and justices. He had the opportunity to replace Chief Justice Harlan Fiske Stone with Fred Vinson and three associate justices, none of whom would be particularly known for their ideology. Truman nominated Harold Burton to replace Owen Roberts, Tom Clark to replace Frank Murphy, and Sherman Minton to replace Wiley Rutledge, and all were confirmed by the U.S. Senate. 

John Vile is a professor of political science and dean of the Honors College at Middle Tennessee State University. This article was published on Jan. 12, 2024.

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