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Book review: 'The Fear Within' by Scott Martelle

The former L.A. Times reporter writes persuasively about laws curtailing American civil liberties in times of stress.

May 01, 2011|By Wendy Smith | Special to the Los Angeles Times

They were correct, as it happened. On June 17, 1957, the Supreme Court, which had four new members, including Chief Justice Earl Warren, reversed a California Smith Act conviction on technical grounds. The court did not declare the act unconstitutional, but "the ruling effectively gutted the Smith Act," Martelle notes. "The Court ruled that intent is not good enough … the proof had to show a reasonable expectation of action." Three other decisions issued on the same day reined in HUAC and curtailed the government's ability to fire people based on unsubstantiated innuendo; the court had reaffirmed this country's basic commitment to civil liberties.

Writing in the 21st century, when the passions of the Cold War era have faded, Martelle does not pretend that all communists persecuted in the postwar years were blameless victims. The defendants in Dennis were tough political activists, and they did believe that socialism should replace the capitalist economic system whose injustices had led them to the Communist Party. But they were not spies, and they had taken no direct action to overthrow the U.S. government; they were tried for their beliefs under a law that violated the United States' first and most vital amendment. 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 most confident, but when we are most afraid.

Smith is a contributing editor to the American Scholar and reviews books for The Times, the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune.

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