Decades ago, the historian Theodore Draper wrote about what he called the “minor academic industry” dedicated to resurrecting the reputation of the American Communist party. The industry’s ranks were composed of “post–New Leftists [who] have turned back to the Communist past in their search for a new faith and vision,” and — despite all that has been learned since Draper wrote those words — their effort continues without pause. Each year brings a variety of new books informing readers of how the American Communists were a major positive force for necessary progress in our country, and how, had not repression been heaped upon them, they would have been able to preserve those institutions — including the trade-union movement — that might have prevented the rise of American conservatism.
The latest in this genre is by a Los Angeles journalist, Scott Martelle, and he offers in The Fear Within a study of the post-war Smith Act trial that took place in 1949, when the Justice Department brought to the docket the top leaders of the American CP, and indicted them for conspiring to advocate the overthrow of the U.S. government by force. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court. In Dennis v. U.S., the Court, led by Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson, ruled in a 6–2 decision that the convictions were legal and that the Smith Act under which the defendants were indicted was constitutional. The Court’s majority decision stated that the government had a right to prohibit the intention to commit acts meant to overthrow the American republic, and to prosecute the plotters before they acted.
In 1957, the new Warren Court modified the Dennis decision. In Yates v. U.S., the Court argued that proving a defendant’s intent to teach revolution was not sufficient to prove that the defendant actually intended to try to make a revolution (and thus run afoul of the Smith Act). The defendants in Yates were acquitted. Even Justice Felix Frankfurter, who had concurred in the earlier decision, changed his mind: He had come to believe that First Amendment protections of free speech and assembly had been compromised. As Martelle writes, Yates “brought the Smith Act prosecutions to a screeching halt.”
The heart of Martelle’s book is a day-by-day account of the first trial, which led to the conviction of Eugene Dennis and the other first-string Communists. Although Martelle has made use of the papers of the presiding judge, Harold Medina, as well as the papers of some Communist leaders and the CPUSA’s archives at the Tamiment Library in New York, most of his account depends on the transcript of the nine-month trial. He would like his readers to share his conclusions: that the trial “helped propel [the ‘Red Scare’] by giving legal sanction to political persecution” that went far beyond the CPUSA itself, and that “the marginalization of progressive politics shifted the electoral mainstream to the right.”
It is clear, therefore, that Martelle writes from the perspective of the political left. His approach leads him to ignore much evidence in his own book that undercuts his arguments. Over the past two decades, since the release of the so-called Venona decrypts of Soviet intelligence operations in the U.S. and the more recent Vassiliev KGB files, as well as documents found in Moscow by Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes, much evidence has been assembled that proves beyond any doubt that the American Communist party was not just another political party, but an institution whose policies, leadership, and programs were forged in Moscow, and that served as a recruiting ground for Soviet intelligence, with the participation and cooperation of the American party’s top leaders.
The name of the late political philosopher Sidney Hook appears nowhere in Martelle’s book, but had he read Hook’s major essay “Heresy Yes — Conspiracy No,” he might have had to take into account those who, even back at the time of the trials, understood that the American Communist party was an organ of Joseph Stalin and a ready fifth column in the event that war broke out between the U.S. and the USSR. Martelle understands that Soviet spying was not a figment of the imagination, and that the Smith Act indictments took place concurrently with the revelations by Elizabeth Bentley concerning the spy networks she handled in the United States. Yet he exempts the American CP leaders from any connection to espionage, arguing that “no one was accused of spying,” and that no one indicted was charged with any “overt acts” or “detailed plans to attack the government.”
Martelle therefore buys the argument of the defendants’ allies that they were indicted only for the books they read, the institutions they supported, and, “in essence, their thoughts.” From the beginning, readers are told to understand that the trial was one of Americans for their ideas alone, and clearly a violation of our fundamental rights as citizens. It is highly ironic that, as Martelle acknowledges, the Communists themselves were initially supporters of Smith Act prosecutions: In 1941, he writes, the CPUSA “applauded” the wartime indictment of its Trotskyist enemies. What Martelle does not mention is that, in the 1941 case, the Communist party — in the words of party boss Earl Browder’s associate Philip Jaffe — “prepared for the Department of Justice an important collection of documents to help prove the guilt of the Socialist Workers Party”: These documents emphasized the SWP’s position that the war was an imperialist war, and concluded that the SWP was essentially a “sabotage organization, concentrating upon the disruption of the war effort.” What the CP argued in defense of the Smith Act is exactly what the 1949 Justice Department would argue was the danger posed by the CPUSA in the Cold War era.
When it comes to the 1949 trial, Martelle believes that all the testimony against the defendants from FBI informants and from ex-Communists was false. The Communists claimed, as one of them said at the trial, that they were “fighting the battle of constitutional democracy versus fascism” and the “right to associate, form a political party of their choice . . . without interference by the government.” The irony that cadres who wanted a dictatorship of the proletariat, with only one political party ruling all, would claim to believe in the principles of American democracy, evidently does not register with Martelle.
He writes that one prosecution witness testified that “party members were told that an emissary from Stalin had sent word that war was in the offing,” and that “when it began they were to go underground and sabotage the capitalist war machine from within.” He says this underscored other testimony “about the secretive nature of the party.” Were these statements as far-fetched as he implies? A few years ago, a labor historian named Albert V. Lannon wrote a post on a historians’ Internet discussion group. Lannon is the son of Al Lannon, later a Smith Act defendant in the second New York Communist trial in 1951, who was the CP’s head of Communist waterfront dock workers in New York City. Lannon wrote that, at the time of his father’s trial, his father told him that while he was in Moscow at the Lenin school for party cadres, he was instructed that if war broke out between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, he was to organize party cadres in the factories and get those at the Celanese plant in Cumberland, Md., to engage in sabotage.
Martelle also writes that one defendant, Gil Green, acknowledged that he had, in a speech, urged the use of violence to attain the party’s goal of achieving Communism in America. Green, he writes, “admitted that he had at times advocated violence — though only . . . if, ‘heaven forbid, America becomes the victim of a fascist dictatorship and change became impossible by orderly, majority, and, above all, democratic means.’” Martelle accepts this as a solid explanation. He ignores what he has, earlier in the book, demonstrated: that, hard as it is to comprehend, in 1949 the CPUSA believed that the U.S. was most of the way to fascism already, and that Pres. Harry S. Truman was the leader of the Wall Street warmongers who desired war with the USSR and the head of an essentially fascist government. Thus Green’s own words reveal that the prosecution was indeed correct in its assertion that the Communists were advocating force and violence, necessary because they lived in a fascist America.
Another defendant, Carl Winter, admitted that — in Martelle’s paraphrase — “the new communist government might have to use force to dissolve class distinctions and against the ‘repressive’ police forces.” According to Martelle, the defendants’ “long-winded answers decrying capitalism and the failures of the modern state to defend the poor and minorities reinforced [the prosecution’s] argument that these men were dangerous radicals bent on sowing the seeds of revolution.” Of course it did — because they were. After the guilty verdict came in, a few of the convicted defendants fled while on bail, and hid out for years. One of them was World War II hero Robert Thompson, who had received the Distinguished Service Cross. He came to the home of another underground party cadre, Carl Ross, asking to be put up in a safe house. He told Ross it was important that he, Thompson, stay free because he was both a senior CP leader and had military experience in both World War II and the Spanish Civil War, and he would be needed to lead U.S. Communist guerrillas against the American fascist regime, or during World War III should war break out between the U.S. and Russia.
So when key FBI informants — including ex-Communist Louis Budenz and Herbert Philbrick, an FBI infiltrator into the party — testified that, in the event of domestic repression, they would have become underground saboteurs, they were telling the truth. John Gates and Gil Green, two of the defendants who contended that that was not true, were both lying.
Years after the trial, I came to know John Gates. As I sat with him by a swimming pool in upstate New York one summer, he told me that going to prison was the best thing that had happened to him, because it was there that he both discovered America and learned the need to break away from the sectarian Communist world. In prison, he said, he had time to read and think. Later, after Khrushchev’s speech denouncing Stalin and after the Soviet invasion of Hungary, Gates led those American Communists who wanted to change the CP into a democratic organization. Gates would soon leave the party’s ranks and, eventually, go to work for David Dubinsky’s anti-Communist ILGWU garment-workers’ union, where he saw himself for the first time helping patriotic American workers with their real problems. Like Sidney Hook, Gates proudly defined himself as an anti-Communist social democrat, and strongly defended the U.S. war in Vietnam.
How unfortunate that writer Scott Martelle, unlike John Gates, still sees the U.S. during the Cold War years as a repressive power bent on stifling the free speech of innocent revolutionaries.
– Mr. Radosh, an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute, blogs regularly at www.pajamasmedia.com/ronradosh. He is the author of a memoir, Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left.