Something to Fear
The Fear Within: Spies, Commies, and American Democracy on Trial, by Scott Martelle (Rutgers, 296 pp., $26.95)


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.

August 29, 2011    |     Volume LXIII, No. 16

Books, Arts & Manners
The Long View  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Athwart  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Poetry  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Happy Warrior  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
The Bent Pin  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .