Is America a Police State?

A new book condemns the trial of Communist Party USA bosses -- and refutes its own conclusions along the way.

Scott Martelle, The Fear Within: Spies, Commies, and American Democracy on Trial, Rutgers University Press, 2011, $26.95.

The trial of Communist Party USA bosses in 1949 was actually a trial of American democracy, an attack on civil liberties and free speech that, as the jacket copy says, “takes on added resonance in today’s environment of suspicion and the decline of civil rights under the U.S.A. Patriot Act.” That’s the basic story of The Fear Within: Spies, Commies, and American Democracy on Trial, which also holds deeper significance.

Coming out of the gate, it seems to be squarely in the genre of American history as a chronicle of oppression. The Fear Within could also pass for the latest edition of Commie Dearest, dedicated to all those whose lives are guided by “the desire to make a better world.” The cover shows more Stalinists per square inch than any book in recent memory.

“I am not a communist myself,” says author Scott Martelle, a former Los Angeles Times reporter, “though, in truth had I lived in the 1930s I likely would have been at some of the same meetings of political progressives that caused so much trouble for the attendees in the 1950s.” Even so, he notes that “The fear was not abstract – Hitler’s Abwehr and Stalin’s NKVD were actively trying to plant spies in the United States, and pro-Nazi and pro-Soviet agitation by American supporters was common.”

A book in this genre from 60s to the 80s would have avoided all that, along with the Nazi-Soviet Pact, the Comintern, the Profintern and other uncomfortable subjects Martelle feels compelled to mention. He is also fair to Elizabeth Bentley and Igor Gouzenko, defectors from Stalin’s spy service and both the target of countless attacks from the American left.

As for CPUSA bosses, “Their alliance with the Soviet Union was clear, but they were not engaged in covert acts against the United States.” The proceedings against Benjamin Davis, William Z. Foster (author of Toward Soviet America), Eugene Dennis et al., were based on the Smith Act, whose founder, Rep. Howard W. Smith was “xenophobic and virulently anti-communist.”  Likewise, back in the day, the Los Angeles Times was “virulently anti-communist.”

In this book, nobody is “virulently anti-American” or “virulently anti-capitalist.” And no person of any country other than the USA can possibly be xenophobic or indulge in hysteria. The defendants included black Communists Benjamin Davis and Henry Winston. Martelle provides some helpful background on racial issues. William Nowell, also a black Communist, was opposed to “the party’s call for a segregated black homeland in the Black Belt of the South.”

Like any legal proceedings, the tactics of the prosecution were open to criticism, but the trial was held in the open, under the rule of law, and duly covered by the press. The defendants, who as Communists did not believe in the United States Constitution, enjoyed full representation by competent counsel. Martelle fails to convince that this trial was a failure of American democracy.

The Communist defendants lost, which Martelle calls a “victory of the mob over the minority.” A more serious charge is that subsequent government actions against subversives, such as the Patriot Act, are “not the conditions of a free society. These are the acts of a police state. .  . ” And they stand American freedoms “on their head.”

Martelle turns rather uncharitable toward CPUSA bosses such as Gus Hall. After his beloved Soviet Union ceased to exist, Hall turned even farther left, and East. “The world should see what North Korea has done,” Hall said. In some ways it’s a miracle. If you want to take a nice vacation, take it in North Korea.” That’s where The Fear Within ends, and that’s a shame because Hall refutes Martelle’s major claim.

After the 1949 trial, the CPUSA continued to exist, supported by Soviet money, and no government campaign prevented Hall from running for President of the United States in 1972, 1976, 1980 and 1984. In 1980 and 1984, Angela Davis was his running mate. Davis went on to become a professor at UC Santa Cruz. Those are not the conditions of a police-state society.

The Fear Within, a self-refuting book, confirms that careful scholarship about Communism has taken a toll on revisionist writers, but they still have a way to go. Should any reader wish to balance Martelle’s account with a trial held by an actual police state, they should turn to Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin (Basic Books, 2010) for a treatment of the 1952 Slansky show trial in Czechoslovakia, held amidst hysterical fears of “Jewish bourgeois nationalism.”

Eleven of the defendents were Jews and the Czech Communist regime executed the eleven by hanging, then incinerated the bodies. The regime then took the ashes of the victims and used them to fill ruts in the road. That’s what a real police-state trial looks like.