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Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime: From the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism 1st Edition

4.7 out of 5 stars 18 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 858-1000047094
ISBN-10: 0393327450
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Editorial Reviews

Review

"A must-read for all who treasure the First Amendment."

About the Author

Geoffrey R. Stone is the author of the prize-winning Perilous Times. A professor and former dean at the University of Chicago, he writes for the New York Times and the Huffington Post. He lives in Chicago, Illinois.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 800 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton; 1 edition (October 17, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393327450
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393327458
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.3 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #419,055 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Bruce J. Wasser on March 9, 2006
Verified Purchase
Throughout Geoffrey Stone's engrossing examination of free speech during times of war, two crucial conclusions emerge. Both drive from an explanation articulated by Justice Louis in 1927: "fear breeds repression" and "courage is the secret of liberty." Exquisitely researched, gracefully written and forcefully argued, "Perilous Times" is a compelling exploration of the First Amendment in wartime. Professor Stone, through argument and anecdotal evidence, develops a convincing thesis that the American people, hesitatingly and often with frustrating slowness, have embraced not only the right, but the need, to honor dissent during times of national emergency. This is a hard-earned victory for free speech, one gained only through the raw and open courage of dissidents and the often underestimated and unseen courage of jurists who stood for principle when it mattered most. "Perilous Times" is an unusual historical analysis; its scholarship is meticulous, making it an academician's treasure, and its narrative drive is irresistible, welcoming a large audience to its research and understandings.

Wartime political dissent invariably brings charges of disloyalty and suspicions of motivation. Stone chronologically analyzes six periods of the condition of free speech during times of war; from the nation's first attempts to thwart free speech during the "half war" with France in the late 1790s to its coming of age in respect for the First Amendment in the Vietnam War era, those in power have had an uneven approach to the First Amendment. Within a decade of writing the First Amendment, a repressive congress passed the nefarious Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, blatant contradictions to the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech.
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Perilous Times is a fascinating account, by Geoffrey R. Stone, of free speech in wartime, that is oddly both often a little frightening and quite hopeful. The six periods on which the author focuses are the sedition act of 1798, the Civil War, the two World Wars, the Cold War, and the Vietnam War. Three of these periods show a carlessness with the First Amendment (1798, World War I, and the Cold War) on the part of national leaders that is balanced with a less hysterical reaction in the other three wartime periods. The author is brilliant in analyzing why this is so and he tells a fascinating story of a progressive, though never inevitable or strictly linear, development of the importance of a free press and a free discourse of ideas, even (perhaps particularly) during times of national crisis. A brilliant, important, truly fascinating tale.
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"Perilous Times" is a great book about the fate of free speech during six American wars: the Quasi-War with France, the Civil War, World Wars I and II, the Cold War (really the McCarthy period), and the Vietnam War. The book reveals a dismal pattern: Wartime sets off a wave of fear. The public lashes out at "subversives" and "traitors" who supposedly threaten the war effort. Politicians pour gas on the fire and pass repressive laws to impress voters. Judges are not immune to the popular feeling and defer to the executive branch on questions of national security.

The response is always an overreaction and never justified by the real security risks. The witch hunts are not directed against enemy agents but against unpopular groups such as political radicals and ethnic minorities. Serious injustices are committed. Socialists and pacifists are locked up. Japanese-Americans are sent to concentration camps. New Deal bureaucrats are pilloried by loyalty boards. But once the emergency passes, the public and the judiciary sheepishly realize that many innocent people were wronged. They resolve to do better next time. As a result, Constitutional barriers to repression are erected, and the culture of free speech is strengthened.

That's the thesis anyway. Readers should read "Perilous Times" to see if they buy it. I'm not sure that I do. It's not clear to me, for example, that the substitution of FBI dirty tricks for open political repression during the Vietnam War was a sign of progress. And the public indifference to NSA eavesdropping and CIA torture in the War on Terror is evidence that many Americans still attach little value to human rights. But no matter what conclusion readers reach, they won't be disappointed by the book. It is well-written, exhaustively researched, and filled with nuanced legal analysis and vivid political history. It's long at almost 560 pages of text but I loved every page of it.
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We are creatures of our times.
When we live through events like the consequences of the Patriot Act, and many different modern events that come from fear and a search for security, political correctness, and a variety of other elements, we assume they are new to the country since they are new to us.
Any of these incredible infringements on our perception of what should be basic freedoms seems aberrant to the ideals and history of American Freedom. In this fascinating book Stone shows us how these very freedoms, which we assume as permanent ideals, have frequently been more aspired to than quite achieved.
So whereas today we have the 24 news cycle generating scandal for a variety of crisis, or non-crisis, we forget that even popular presidential candidates in America were arrested for their opinions. Stone remembers us of the incredible powers, vague mandate, and absurd enforcement of laws which makes the American current reality considerably less worrying.
The book isn’t truly concerned with describing our current reality. It deals from revolutionary times, the civil war, world wars, and ends by Vietnam. The target audience of this book are people with some knowledge of American history, otherwise you may miss much of the context of what is being said. I found this an illuminating and very timely book on how the current failures of liberty are not new, and therefore probably not enduring, as the others weren’t. In a strange way the frequent failure and recovery in the past gives us some hope for the present.
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