Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
The Fear Within

The Fear Within: Spies, Commies, and American Democracy on Trial

Scott Martelle
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 256
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Fear Within
    Book Description:

    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, thatThe Fear Withintakes on added resonance in today's environment of suspicion and the decline of civil rights under the U.S. Patriot Act.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-5092-3
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xiv)
    (pp. xv-xvi)
    (pp. xvii-xix)
  6. ONE Fear, and Howard Smith’s Law December 1940
    (pp. 1-7)

    It had not been a white Christmas in New York City, nor anywhere else along the eastern seaboard for that matter. A high-pressure system moving slowly from the southwest carried unseasonably warm air with it, and by midafternoon on Christmas Day the temperature in Manhattan was fifty-eight degrees—a balmy gift of summer in the heart of winter. Walkers coursed through Central Park under an enticing blue sky, and children played with new toys on stoops and sidewalks. Farther north in the Berkshires, and into the Green and the White mountains, bare slopes ruined New England ski holidays, while out...

  7. TWO From Spies to Speeches August 23, 1945 New Haven, Connecticut
    (pp. 8-31)

    Elizabeth Bentley, moon-faced beneath dark hair, walked past the first-floor Federal Bureau of Investigation office and continued on a few doors down the street, stopped abruptly, then turned quickly and retraced her steps. She was nervous but controlled, watching with sharp eyes for loiterers, unusual movements, or men awkwardly staring into a shop window at some improbable purchase. Bentley did this a few times, on one pass walking with an imaginary purpose and address, and on another pacing as though impatient at a friend’s tardiness. It was hot, the dog days, but Bentley couldn’t be too careful, or too paranoid....

  8. THREE A Sudden and Violent Storm
    (pp. 32-55)

    As native Chicagoans, Gil Green and his brother Ben knew all too well how hot and miserable July could be in the Windy City, when humid Gulf of Mexico air would settle in a noxious, suffocating stew of factory smoke, exhaust from ill-tuned cars, and soot from coal-fired electric plants. The air had its own texture, its own bitter and cloying taste. Nighttime brought little relief inside sweltering apartment buildings. Merciful thunderheads could boil on the updrafts and bring short blasts of drama and coolness before drifting eastward over Lake Michigan, but the storms were short and the relief temporary....

  9. FOUR The Judge, and the Mood
    (pp. 56-74)

    As the size of the defense team grew, so too did the scope of their arguments, and the legal papers flew. Several judges had handled the early shotgun blasts of motions and proceedings, from bail hearings and arraignments to the requests for permission to travel. On August 16, Judge Harold Raymond Medina, whom Truman had appointed to the bench the previous summer, got his first taste of the case—a fairly routine request from Unger seeking an extension of the length of time he had to file motions. Unger wanted ninety days instead of the usual thirty. Medina, unfamiliar with...

  10. FIVE Battle Lines and Battle Scars
    (pp. 75-96)

    The trial opened on January 17, 1949, a warm—fifty-four degrees—and cloudy Monday on the cusp of a cold snap that would sweep into New York City by the middle of the week. During the six months of pretrial hearings, groups of Communist Party supporters had mounted regular demonstrations on the sidewalk outside the federal courthouse and across the street in Foley Square. The crowds were usually orderly but sometimes converged in numbers so large that Judge Medina complained he had trouble getting to work. On this morning, the authorities were anticipating the largest demonstration yet, so by 8:00...

  11. SIX The Trial Opens
    (pp. 97-120)

    If Medina thought that by questioning the potential jurors himself he was going to derail the defense’s play-it-slow strategy, he was mistaken. When the trial resumed on Monday, Medina entered Room 110 a little after 10:30 a.m., as had become his custom. With the bailiff ordering, “All rise!” Medina ascended the bench and settled into his big red leather chair. In the trial’s opening days people waited in line to snag one of the few seats reserved for the public. But as the often intensely boring debate over the legality of the federal jury process dragged on, the courtroom had...

  12. SEVEN Deserters and Spies
    (pp. 121-143)

    By the time Louis Budenz stepped up to the witness stand in Room 110, raised his right hand, and promised to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, he was among the best-known former communists in the United States—far better known than when he was managing editor for theDaily Worker. With his headline-spawning defection in 1945, Budenz had become a full-fledged cause célèbre, the man whose Catholicism and faith in God overwhelmed whatever it was that drew him to the Communist Party in the first place.

    And, to the communists and their supporters, Budenz was among...

  13. EIGHT Stool Pigeons and Turncoats
    (pp. 144-165)

    The prosecution’s witness list consisted primarily of spies or disaffected former communists, some with legitimate connections with the party, others who had ancillary and—for the purposes of the trial—inflated roles. In all, thirteen prosecution witnesses were called. Two were FBI investigators. The rest testified about their experiences in the party but also gave McGohey and his prosecution team a means of introducing sometimes decades-old Marxist and Leninist tracts as evidence of the political philosophy’s reliance on violent revolution to effect change. And, it should be noted, the prosecution ultimately did not call Bentley, Chambers, or anyone else who...

  14. NINE The Defense
    (pp. 166-188)

    McGohey’s decision to end his case caught the defense by surprise. A few days earlier, he had told the lawyers, out of court, that he thought it would take about two more weeks for him to finish presenting his evidence. When he announced he had wrapped up his presentation with Hidalgo, and Medina had dismissed the jury for the day, the defense lawyers complained bitterly to the judge, stopping just short of accusing McGohey of sandbagging them. They argued that McGohey’s surprise move was cause for a postponement so they could get their arguments and witnesses together. Medina disagreed.


  15. TEN The Peekskill Riots
    (pp. 189-210)

    Since the early days of the trial, Carole Nathanson, the actress using the stage name Carol Nason, had been making regular visits to juror—and Broadway producer—Russell Janney’s office, and keeping a diary of the conversations. She noted that he had said disparaging things about the defendants and communism, complained about the length of the trial, and maintained clippings—against Medina’s orders—that his assistant told her were research for the mystery novel he was writing. It’s unclear whether Janney’s comments to Nason were volunteered or drawn out by the actress, who was a party supporter, or whether the...

  16. ELEVEN Guilty
    (pp. 211-225)

    The summations were, to state the obvious, a rehash of the main arguments in the trial. McGohey, for the prosecution, was given a full day. The defense team was allotted four days, though Medina rejected a last-minute request by Davis, a lawyer, to fire his attorney and give his own summation to the jury. That prompted objections by the rest of the defense team, which led to yet another acerbic confrontation with Medina. The defense lawyers said Medina’s refusal to allow Davis to deliver his own summation was part of a pattern of discrimination by the judge toward the defendants....

  17. TWELVE In the Wind
    (pp. 226-248)

    All politics might be local, as the adage goes, but political success is a matter of timing and, often, manipulation. Joseph McCarthy used both to his maximum benefit.

    McCarthy’s story is already familiar: a Wisconsin farm boy turned ambitious lawyer, then politician, who, despite qualifying for a deferment as a circuit court judge, enlisted in the U.S. Marines early in World War II to bolster his political résumé. He left before the war ended, lied about his service to obtain a Distinguished Service Cross, nicknamed himself “Tailgunner Joe,” and, after losing his first shot at a U.S. Senate seat in...

  18. THIRTEEN Hollow Vindication
    (pp. 249-258)

    In late summer of 1953, Roberta Vinson, the Supreme Court chief justice’s wife, had been feeling so poorly that the Vinsons’ family physician, Dr. Henry Ecker, was making a series of house calls to tend to her. He was summoned to the couple’s Washington, D.C., apartment once again around 1:00 a.m. on September 8, but this time for a different patient—Vinson himself, who had awakened in extreme discomfort. A little more than an hour later, the affable Kentuckian and poker-playing pal of President Truman was dead of a massive heart attack.¹

    Vinson’s death—Frankfurter famously pronounced it evidence “that...

  19. NOTES
    (pp. 259-280)
    (pp. 281-284)
  21. INDEX
    (pp. 285-296)
  22. Back Matter
    (pp. 297-297)