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The Fear Within: Spies, Commies, and American Democracy on Trial Hardcover – April 12, 2011


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Editorial Reviews

Review

"Starred" review in Publishers Weekly

In this illuminating examination of a troubling episode in America's past, veteran journalist (and PW contributor) Martelle (Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West) recounts the celebrated 1949 trial of 11 American Communists for violating the Smith Act, which outlawed advocating overthrow of the government by force. All were public spokesmen of the minuscule American Communist Party. During nine stormy months, the prosecution was reduced to quoting Karl Marx and obscure Communist texts to prove that the defendants had advocated violent revolution. Martelle presents convincing evidence that the judge favored the prosecution, goaded by defense lawyers who the author admits were tactless and quarrelsome. In the end the judge sent every defendant and many of the lawyers to prison. Few readers of this gripping history will quarrel with Martelle's conclusion that the defendants suffered for expressing unpopular opinions. Further, says Martelle, many Americans, including political leaders, continue to proclaim that those who want to destroy America should not be permitted to "hide behind" the Constitution. Photos. (May)

"In his cogent, nuanced account of the 1949 prosecution of American communists under the Smith Act, former Los Angeles Times staff writer Scott Martelle sees this case fitting into a troubling pattern...  He writes, 'The United States has a habit of convulsing with fear during times of stress, and in the process undercutting the very freedoms of speech, political belief and religious expression that Americans profess to hold dear.' The concerns that prompt this fear are real, Martelle stresses: There were communist spies in the 1940s, and there are terrorists at the turn of the 21st century. The steps taken to deal with them have generally been hasty and ill-considered, giving the government broad powers with unintended consequences." --Los Angeles Times

Star-Ledger Entertainment Desk -- Reviewed by Josh McMahon Americans love their freedoms and love talking about how the Constitution guarantees them. They’re essential to the American way of life — except in cases when we feel threatened, such as after 9/11, when Congress swiftly approved the Patriot Act, restricting some of those cherished freedoms. Scott Martelle’s new book looks in depth at another shameful episode in our history when paranoia trumped the Constitution. It was the 1940s and the “Red Scare” was infecting the nation. Commies were everywhere, even in the government. Armed with the constitutionally suspect Smith Act, the feds fought the Red philosophical monster. It rounded up 11 Communist Party leaders and put them on trial for what they believed — not for what they had done. 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. He also places the trial in its historical context, when the fear of Communism wafted in the wind from the White House to even the New York Times. Although the Smith Act trial of 1949 generated much attention at the time, it has been conveniently forgotten by Americans who like to tout their freedoms. “The Fear Within” forces us to remember.

From the Author

I dove into this project because I found the story fascinating, and relatively unexplored outside the realm of Cold War historians. The Smith Act Trials stand with the Palmer Raids of 1919-1920, the internments of Japanese Americans and others during World War Two, the FBI's Cointelpro activities in the 1960s, and the 9/11-spawned USA Patriot Act as examples of how the U.S. government reacts to external stress by undercutting the principals it professes to be fighting to preserve -- in this case, freedom of speech and assembly, among others.

The 11 convictions were upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court just after the Korean War broke out. But a change in the makeup of the court, and a lessening of the Red Scare passions, led the court six years later to effectively reverse itself and gut the 1940 Smith Act. But by then the men had each served five-year sentences (some more for going on the lam; some less for good behavior).

It's a fascinating story, complete with spies, riots, legal chicanery and intriguing characters. And while it is specific to the time, it also resonates through the years as an example of our darker national impulses.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 296 pages
  • Publisher: Rutgers University Press (May 12, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0813549388
  • ISBN-13: 978-0813549385
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.3 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,285,601 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Find details about author and journalist Scott Martelle, an editorial writer for the Los Angeles Times, at his website, www.scottmartelle.com, where he also occasionally blogs.

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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Joan Marsan Murphine on May 5, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Clear, concise and written with one crisp enlightening word after the other, The Fear Within brings forward a time in the life of the United States that must be reviewed and discussed in the context of today. In order to do this,dear reader, devour this book now. Martelle provides a great read along with scholarly notes and references following your digestion of the book content. Pages 259-283 are worth the price of admission.
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By SwissMiss on July 1, 2011
Format: Hardcover
I live in the US now, but I grew up in Europe and am too young to have experienced the growth of communism and the reaction to it in the US in the 1950s. This book helped me understand the American experiences and points of view. Martelle does a great job of bringing the participants in this story to life with vivid details, a fair shake for both sides, and a well-paced narrative. His subject is timely, too.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful By jkissell on July 6, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Martelle has done an excellent job of putting this (at the time) high-profile trial in the context of the political atmosphere of the times. He makes great use of the varied, often fascinating characters to drive the narrative. The echoes in his book of today's rising political temperatures need to be seriously considered if we are to avoid similar excesses.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Truth Seeker on November 23, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Excellent Read. Excellent historical presentation along with context for both the period the events occurred in as well connecting the story to contemporary events.
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2 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Paul Gelman on May 7, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Scott Martellle has added another significant book to augment the history of American fear and paranoia, a trend in American history that has been in the making since the eighteenth century to these days. In 1798 the Alien and Sedition Acts were legislated in order to combat radicals and perceived enemies. This tradition went on during the beginning of the twentieth century over fears of anarchists and Bolshevism, culminating during the Cold War times when this book picks up a tiny and forgotten episode which shows at length the prosecution and indictment of twelve men who held top positions in the Communist Part-USA. The charges were conspiracy to advocate the necessity to overthrow the US government, which was made illegal under the Smith Act, whose purpose was originally to force resident aliens to register with federal authoritites.
The starting point of the whole affair was after Elizabeth Bentley and Igor Gouzenko(in Canada)who were former communists, opened a Pandora box by revealing to what extent the USA government was riddled with Communist adherents and possible spies.
However, as Mr Metelle makes it clear, "the United States has a habit of convulsing with fear during times of stress, and in the process undercutting the very freedoms of speech, political beliefs and religious expresiion that Americans profess to hold dear".
The whole trial became a great farce under the auspices of judge Harold Medina, who grew extremely enraged by the tactics of the defendants' lawyers and, as a result, condemned them to jail for contempt.
Mr.Martelle offers the reader a fascinating and riveting story about all the trial proceedings and the things which followed it.
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