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Sixty years ago political divisions in the United States ran even deeper than today's name-calling showdowns between the left and right. Back then, to call someone a communist was to threaten that person's career, family, freedom, and, sometimes, life itself. Hysteria about the "red menace" mushroomed as the Soviet Union tightened its grip on Eastern Europe, Mao Zedong rose to power in China, and the atomic arms race accelerated. Spy scandals fanned the flames, and headlines warned of sleeper cells in the ...
Sixty years ago political divisions in the United States ran even deeper than today's name-calling showdowns between the left and right. Back then, to call someone a communist was to threaten that person's career, family, freedom, and, sometimes, life itself. Hysteria about the "red menace" mushroomed as the Soviet Union tightened its grip on Eastern Europe, Mao Zedong rose to power in China, and the atomic arms race accelerated. Spy scandals fanned the flames, and headlines warned of sleeper cells in the nation's midst--just as it does today with the "War on Terror."
In his new book, The Fear Within, Scott Martelle takes dramatic aim at one pivotal moment of that era. On the afternoon of July 20, 1948, FBI agents began rounding up twelve men in New York City, Chicago, and Detroit whom the U.S. government believed posed a grave threat to the nation--the leadership of the Communist Party-USA. After a series of delays, eleven of the twelve "top Reds" went on trial in Manhattan's Foley Square in January 1949.
The proceedings captivated the nation, but the trial quickly dissolved into farce. The eleven defendants were charged under the 1940 Smith Act with conspiring to teach the necessity of overthrowing the U.S. government based on their roles as party leaders and their distribution of books and pamphlets. In essence, they were on trial for their libraries and political beliefs, not for overt acts threatening national security. Despite the clear conflict with the First Amendment, the men were convicted and their appeals denied by the U.S. Supreme Court in a decision that gave the green light to federal persecution of Communist Party leaders--a decision the court effectively reversed six years later. But by then, the damage was done. So rancorous was the trial the presiding judge sentenced the defense attorneys to prison terms, too, chilling future defendants' access to qualified counsel.
Martelle's story is a compelling look at how American society, both general and political, reacts to stress and, incongruously, clamps down in times of crisis on the very beliefs it holds dear: the freedoms of speech and political belief. At different points in our history, the executive branch, Congress, and the courts have subtly or more drastically eroded a pillar of American society for the politics of the moment. It is not surprising, then, that The Fear Within takes on added resonance in today's environment of suspicion and the decline of civil rights under the U.S. Patriot Act.
"In his cogent, nuanced account of the 1949 prosecution of American communists under the Smith Act, Scott Martelle sees this case fitting into a troubling pattern. Martelle's scrupulous, lucid history resonates with contemporary relevance because it reminds us that freedom of speech and thought are most essential, not when we are feeling more confident, but when we are most afraid."
— Wendy Smith
"Martelle, a first-rate storyteller, unfolds the nine-month trial and, in the process, puts a face on all the defendants, their lawyers, the prosecutor and the judge. Although the Smith Act trial of 1949 generated much attention at the time, it has been conveniently forgotten. The Fear Within forces us to remember."
"Seasoned journalist Scott Martelle returns with an excellent analysis of perhaps the most important American political trial of the twentieth century."
"Journalist Martelle has written a vivid, engaging study of the 1949 Smith Act trial of the leadership cadre of the Communist Party, USA. Martelle captures very well the anticommunist hate and fear that gripped the country in the late 1940s and 1950s. An excellent read. Highly recommended."
"Martelle gives a detailed and highly readable account of the 1949 trial of 11 leaders of the Communist Party of the United States. He gives a balanced and effectively documented report on this oft-forgotten era of recent history."
An evenhanded revisiting of the trial of the U.S. Communist Party leaders that tested the pernicious efficacy of the Smith Act.
Journalist Martelle (Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West, 2007) focuses on Dennis v. the United States of America, which had dramatic and disturbing ramifications to First Amendment rights to this day—e.g., the Patriot Act, which the author mentions but does not dwell on. In August 1945, Soviet spy turned FBI informer Elizabeth Bentley spilled incriminating evidence about leaders of the U.S. Communist Party, and the two-count indictment was handed down, charging 12 men with violating the Smith Act because they "unlawfully, willfully, and knowingly did conspire with each other" by their society and meetings to "teach and advocate the overthrow and destruction of the Government of the United States by force and violence." Among the men were New York City Councilman Benjamin Davis, Jr.,Daily Workereditor John Gates, decorated war hero Robert Thompson, top party leader William Z. Foster and general secretary Eugene Dennis. The nine-month Foley Square trial became a cause célèbre, not only for the anti-Communist crusaders, including Harry Truman, who was up for reelection, but for defenders of the First Amendment and radical activists who believed fiercely that the men were innocent and being framed for their beliefs. Their defense should have been an opportunity to defend their political views and present an education in Marxism and Leninism, as Dennis did vociferously during the trial, representing himself. Instead, Judge Harold R. Medina threw the book at them, and at their attorneys, who received jail time and disbarment. Not until the Warren Court of the '50s did the "roundups" cease.
Martelle treads carefully through the evidence, keeping a close harness on his own sympathies for the defendants.