The Fear Within: Spies, Commies, and American Democracy on Trial (None)

Scott Martelle (Author)


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.

Product Details

Rutgers University Press
Publish Date
May 12, 2011
6.34 X 0.93 X 9.48 inches | 1.31 pounds
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About the Author

Scott Martelle, former Los Angeles Times staff writer, is a veteran journalist, and the author of the critically acclaimed Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West (Rutgers University Press).


"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."
"In this illuminating examination of a troubling episode in America's past, veteran journalist Martelle 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."--Publishers Weekly
"An evenhanded revisiting of the trial of the U.S. Communist Party leaders that tested the pernicious efficacy of the Smith Act."--Kirkus Reviews
"Scott Martelle's The Fear Within vividly and comprehensively chronicles a true nadir in U.S. Supreme Court history, the infamous Dennis v United States decision, a shocking denial of First Amendment liberties."--Barry Siegel "author of Claim of Privilege "

"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 "Los Angeles Times "
"Martelle details the 1948 arrest and trial of 12 Communist Party USA members, who were accused of espionage and conspiracy in violation of the Smith Act, which prohibited inciting acts of force and violence against the government. He carefully describes the primary defense argument, namely, that these people did nothing more than teach a doctrine and therefore the government's case amounted to political repression. The author underscores the defense argument that the constitutionality of the Smith Act is suspect because of its inherent conflict with the First Amendment and that because the allegations involved no acts, they did not constitute a clear and present danger to the government. Nevertheless, 11 of the accused were convicted, and the author concludes that the judge's charge to the jury was the deciding factor, as guilt rode on the defendants' intent to overthrow the government and their use of words as a rule for action. Aimed at an academic audience, this well-documented book is replete with analysis of the legal and political issues involved."

--Library Journal
"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."
--ForeWord Reviews
"This is a good read for the average public library reader. This book is enjoyable while still being educational. The defendants, members of the communist party, were arrested and ultimately convicted under the Smith Act, which severely restricted expression during the red scare. This book follows the case of the defendants to the Supreme Court and discusses both the opinion and the dissent."
--Hilary Albert "AAUP Books for Public and Secondary School Libraries "
"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."
--Orange Coast Magazine