Blogs > Liberty and Power > From "Brown Scare" to "Red Scare"

Jan 17, 2005 3:59 am


From "Brown Scare" to "Red Scare"



I just returned from a lively and well-organized Liberty Fund conference on civil liberties in wartime. The topics included Lincoln's denial of habeas corpus during the Civil War, Wilson's sweeping use of the Espionage Act, and the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Among those who attended were Orin Kerr, one of my favorite bloggers at the Volokh Conspiracy.

The conference reminded me of an example of wartime suppression of civil liberties that deserves more attention from historians: The Great Sedition Trial of 1944. The case began when the attorney general, after much pestering by FDR, decided to stage a show trial of about thirty assorted critics of the war. The defendants were a mixture of serious minded-isolationists and crackpots. The Department of Jusice used the The Smith Act to accuse them of promoting insubordination in the armed forces. The DOJ's case was ludicrous and the trial gradually collapsed into chaos and farce.

In his important, book, The Old Christian Right: The Protestant Far Right from the Great Depression to the Cold War, historian Leo Ribuffo coined the term"Brown scare" to characterize how FDR and his allies used these tactics to suppress dissent by smearing right wing critics as disloyal.

Many on the left, of course, suffered the same fate several years later under the hammer of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, Joe McCarthy's Senate committee, and the same Smith Act that had provided the basis for the Sedition Trial. In 1944, however, the Communist party and many New Deal liberals strongly applauded the trial and other witch hunts of the Brown Scare and called for even tougher action.

Once again, George S. Schuyler, who had condemned the internment of Japanese-Americans and the dropping of the atomic bomb, spoke up against injustice. In his column for The Pittsburgh Courier on March 18, 1944, he wrote the following:

This is a column about a white American. He is Lawrence Dennis, a graduate of Harvard university, an economist, a former American diplomat, and the author of two brilliant books....Dennis has been indicted with some thirty others for conspiracy to further Nazism in America and overthrow our so-called democratic form of government, the indictment being brought under the Smith Act of June 28, 1940, a law cooked up originally to enable the Government to jug Communists.....This was a period when Stalin and Hitler were dancing cheek to cheek and the Daily Worker was thundering that this war was a struggle between rival capitalist imperialisms and warning that 'the Yanks are NOT coming....

The point of this column is that we have come to the place in"free" America where it is dangerous to regard the politicians in power as not being omniscient and godly. If these thirty people can be convicted for criticizing the foreign and domestic policies of Messers. Roosevelt, Hull, Rosenman, et. al, then who is safe? I may be nabbed for speaking harshly about Brother Stimson's treatment of Negro lads in the Army. I may express surprise that Bilbo and Rankin are still at large, and find myself at Leavenworth. I may state that I regard the continued discrimination and segregation of service folk on the basis of Hitler's race fictions (borrowed from Anglo-Saxon"scholars) as treasonable, and find myself in the dock as a traitor. If the U.S.A. should find itself at war with Russia or England by another of those sudden world flip-flops, what would happy to all the current Anglophobes and Stalinists in our midst with such a precedent on the law record? Once you start jugging people for thier opinions, there is no limit and soon we shall be reduced to the intellectual stagnation of Mississippi and the terrorism of Tokio.

Liberty-lovers had better speak out now, before it is too late.




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mary lili jory - 8/17/2009

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Kenneth R Gregg - 1/18/2005

Typo. Tacky's Revolt in 1760 was in Jamaica, not Boston.
Mea Culpa
Just Ken


Kenneth R Gregg - 1/18/2005

As you pointed out, "Many on the left, of course, suffered the same fate several years later under the hammer of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, Joe McCarthy's Senate committee, and the same Smith Act that had provided the basis for the Sedition Trial. In 1944, however, the Communist party and many New Deal liberals strongly applauded the trial and other witch hunts of the Brown Scare and called for even tougher action." All too true
The cycle of anti-civil liberties moves back and forth across the political spectrum. Many of those on the libertarian right looked at the McCarthyism (although not all--Chodorov thought the McCarthyites to be terribly wrong-headed) of the '50's as payback for the pogrom against the isolationists of the '40's. Chodorov, of course, proclaimed that you couldn't get the commies out of the government, "it's their natural breeding ground." Others that I talked to about McCarthyism seemed to think it was a good start.
In Schuyler's autobiography, "Black and Conservative" (looking at it now, I think it should have been "Black and Libertarian"), he mentions his family's long tradition in the Free Black American experience, and I think it provides some understanding of the fuel for his passions. Certainly I could see him at Tacky's Revolt in Boston prior to the American Revolution, or a supporter of Robert Wedderburn a half-century later.
There are long cycles in the race relations in America. There have been times when it was close, then (often as a response to legislation of the times) distant and angry. And it changes over the definition. The Scotch-Irish (my background), Irish, Welsh and Germans were certainly as distant from "white" anglo-saxons as african-americans ever were. Then with the changing of the times, even the "dark-skinned" mediterraneans were redefined into "white" (whatever that means). Now, with the common connections between "white" and "black" and other former legal segregations, bi-racialism is being accepted as a legitimate category.
Of course, the reality is that we all are bi-racial. anglo-saxon is a mix of saxon, norman, pict, and who know what else. Every other category is a mix as well. Maybe this will become the accepted norm, or perhaps some new category will be the flavor of the month (or generation) for a time.

Just a thought, and Happy MLK Day!
Just Ken
kgregglv@cox.net
http://classicalliberalism.blogspot.com/

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