For nearly five years, the United States and Great Britain allied with the Soviet Union to defeat the Axis Powers, during World War II. During the war, the usual tensions between the West and the Soviets took a back seat to their mutually convenient alliance. Tensions gradually resurfaced after Germany's defeat, and the Cold War was born. As the Soviets extended their influence by promoting and installing communist governments in the countries of Eastern Europe, a so-called iron curtain descended between Eastern and Western Europe. Fears of communist expansionism also began to grow in the United States. In 1949, China, a United States ally came under communist control. By 1950 the Soviets had acquired the atomic bomb and American soldiers were engaged in a war to defend South Korea from its communist neighbor to the north. As the nation faced communist threats from abroad, individuals who were perceived as potential subversives came under increasing scrutiny at home.
In 1940, just before World War II, Congress passed the Smith Act, which contained the first peacetime sedition laws since 1798. Among other things the Smith Act made it a federal crime to "advocate, abet, advise, or teach" the overthrow or destruction of any government in the United States by force or violence, or to become a member of a group devoted to such. Not only was performing any of these acts illegal, conspiring to do so was also a crime as well.
The Cold War was the most important issue of the presidential campaign of 1948. The Democratic Truman administration, feeling pressure from conservative Republicans to ferret out alleged subversive elements, brought to court 11 leaders of the Communist Party of the United States for violation of the Smith Act. They were not charged with any overt acts that contributed to violence or revolutionary activity, but rather with conspiring to teach and advocate such a activity in order to overthrow the government of the United States.
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