Internal Security Act

The Internal Security Act of 1950, passed in the midst of the Cold War and just after the outbreak of the Korean War, consisted of two parts: Title I or the Subversive Activities Control Act and Title II, the Emergency Detention Act. Both Titles I and II became known as the McCarran Act after Senator Pat McCarran, a cosponsor. The U.S. Supreme Court declared unconstitutional Title I's requirement that Communists register with the government, and that portion was repealed in 1968. But Title I's restrictions on organizations labeled communist, and all of Title II remained the law of the land.

Ironically, liberal politicians introduced Title II, hoping to derail the passage of Title I. McCarran called Title II a program for “establishing concentration camps into which people might be put without benefit of trial, but merely by executive fiat … simply by an assumption, mind you, that an individual might be thinking about engaging in espionage or sabotage” (Okamura, 73). Congress, however, passed both Titles I and II. President Harry Truman vetoed the legislation, scoring it as “a long step toward totalitarianism” and as putting the government into “the thought-control business,” but Congress overrode his veto.

Under Title II, the Justice Department prepared six internment camps, despite its head, Attorney General J. Howard McGrath's characterization of the act as “a symbol of the national hysteria over Communism.” The camps included the War Relocation Authority's concentration camp at Tule Lake, which had just been vacated in 1946. The Internal Security Act and Justice Department camps faded away with the end of the Korean War and a decline in anticommunist fervor. In 1957, Congress stopped providing funds to maintain the six detention centers, and the Internal Security Act might have become a relic of the Cold War except for the social movements of the 1960s.

Massive protests against the U.S. war in Southeast Asia, the African American– led civil rights movement, student protests and youthful rebellion, and urban unrest sparked renewed interest among Cold War warriors in protecting the nation from the threat of internal subversion. Civil liberties activists knew about the detention program, and the Citizens Committee for Constitutional Liberties asked journalist Charles Allen, Jr. to write an exposé of the camps in their attempt to get the Internal Security Act repealed. Allen's 60-page pamphlet, Concentration Camps, U.S.A., was published in 1966, and it described the FBI's Operation Dragnet, a secret program of mass arrests of “potential spies and saboteurs” within a few hours, and the Justice Department's internment facilities.

African Americans Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, and Martin Luther King, Jr. expressed fears of concentration camps for civil rights dissidents in their speeches, and shortly after King's assassination, Attorney General Ramsey Clark appeared on national television to deny the existence of Department of Justice concentration camps. He was asked if he supported repeal of Title II, Clark was evasive: “I believe there are more important things to work on, for example, passage of a fair housing law” (Okamura, 75).

On May 6, 1968, the House Un-American Activities Committee released a report on guerrilla warfare advocates in the United States, and the committee's chairman, Edwin Willis, associated the communist with the African American threat. “There can be no question about the fact that there are mixed communist and black nationalist elements in this country which are planning and organizing guerrilla-type operations against the United States,” he said. These elements have declared war on the United States, Willis maintained, and as such have lost their civil liberties and should be interned in concentration camps under the Internal Security Act of 1950. Despite Attorney General Clark's rejection of chairman Willis's opinion, the national press featured articles on “America's Concentration Camps.”

The Asian American Political Alliance (AAPA), formed about this time in Berkeley, California, of students and community members, distributed a leaflet entitled “Concentration Camps, USA,” which summarized the dangers of Title II. AAPA members joined in rallies sponsored by the Black Panther Party in nearby Oakland where they warned against Title II's concentration camps, and AAPA began a petition drive, calling on Congress to repeal Title II.

After the American Civil Liberties Union refused to join in this Title II repeal campaign, Raymond Okamura brought the matter to the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) for its endorsement. He and others formed a small group within the JACL in the belief that Japanese Americans, victims of World War II's concentration camps, should lead the campaign for repeal in solidarity with African Americans and other peoples of color who might be the victims of Title II. Throughout the summer of 1968, the group worked to get the JACL to commit to this effort. Most of the JACL leaders opposed the repeal campaign, but the activists won their case at the JACL national convention in August 1968, and Okamura was appointed cochair of the repeal committee.

JACL members, AAPA students, and volunteers set out to educate the American people about the Japanese American concentration camps and the dangers of Title II. JACL chapters petitioned members of Congress, and AAPA students began letter-writing campaigns. In Congress, a bill to repeal Title II was introduced on September 19, 1968, and the Law Center for Constitutional Rights filed suit on November 18, 1968, to have Title II declared unconstitutional. In the spring of the following year, deputy attorney general Richard Kleindienst added fuel to the fire when Atlantic magazine quoted him as saying: “If people demonstrated in a manner to interfere with others, they should be rounded up and put in a detention camp” (Okamura, 85).

By 1971, the nation's mood had turned from the threat of internal subversion to the interests of civil liberties. Politicians led the repeal effort, and Congress easily passed the Title II repeal bill. President Richard Nixon signed it into law on September 25, 1971, ending another legacy of the World War II concentration camps.

Gary Y. Okihiro


Okamura, Raymond. “Background And History Of The Repeal Campaign.” Amerasia Journal 2:2 (1974): 73–94.