A book discussion featuring Donna Haverty-Stacke, Associate Professor of History at Hunter College and Roosevelt House Faculty Associate, on her book Trotskyists on Trial: Free Speech and Political Persecution Since the Age of FDR (NYU Press). Haverty-Stacke will be joined in conversation by Beverly Gage, professor of history, Yale University.
ABOUT THE BOOK
Passed in June 1940, the Smith Act was a peacetime anti-sedition law that marked a dramatic shift in the legal definition of free speech protection in America by criminalizing the advocacy of disloyalty to the government by force. It also criminalized the acts of printing, publishing, or distributing anything advocating such sedition and made it illegal to organize or belong to any association that did the same. It was first brought to trial in July 1941, when a federal grand jury in Minneapolis indicted twenty-nine Socialist Workers Party members, fifteen of whom also belonged to the militant Teamsters Local 544. Eighteen of the defendants were convicted of conspiring to overthrow the government. Examining the social, political, and legal history of the first Smith Act case, this book focuses on the tension between the nation’s cherished principle of free political expression and the demands of national security on the eve of America’s entry into World War II.
Based on newly declassified government documents and recently opened archival sources, Trotskyists on Trial explores the implications of the case for organized labor and civil liberties in wartime and postwar America. The central issue of how Americans have tolerated or suppressed dissent during moments of national crisis is not only important to our understanding of the past, but also remains a pressing concern in the post-9/11 world. This volume traces some of the implications of the compromise between rights and security that was made in the mid-twentieth century, offering historical context for some of the consequences of similar bargains struck today.
“Donna Haverty-Stacke’s Trotskyists on Trial makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of American radicalism, the Roosevelt administration’s response to criticism of its policies, and the Supreme Court’s interpretation of freedom of speech. Based on wide-ranging research, her analysis of legal, political, and social issues explains the implications not only for the labor movement but also for civil liberties in wartime and postwar America.”
—Richard Polenberg, Marie Underhill Noll Professor of History Emeritus, Cornell University
“In Trotskyists on Trial, Donna Haverty-Stacke locates the prosecutions of labor radicals under the Smith Act in the wider national landscape of struggles over national security, civil liberties, and freedom of speech. Crediting the defendants with the political vision and democratic optimism, she chronicles their role in petitioning the government and trying to secure appeal, pardon, and exoneration for those convicted. The civil liberties issues involved in this now forgotten case resonate in a society that lives under the shadow of the national security state and made vulnerable by the weakened political influence of the labor Left.”
—Elizabeth V. Faue, Wayne State University
“Haverty-Stacke’s book draws on newly available records, including FBI reports, to provide an important new perspective on an infamous moment in labor history, one that she persuasively links to the emergence of the Cold War Era’s security state. Well-written and deeply researched, this book spotlights a cast of players, that range from rank and file union dissidents to J.Edgar Hoover and a group of front line FBI agents whose behind-the-scenes role has not previously been revealed. In doing so it opens up the significance of this episode well beyond its previously understood role in the history of the Teamsters Union.”
—David Witwer, Penn State University Harrisburg