Scott Martelle's The Fear Within Illustrates Communist's Humanity

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Scott Martelle's The Fear Within: Spies, Commies, and American Democracy on Trial explains the trial of 12 leaders of the Communist Party USA in the context of the 1940-50's Red Scare. While the book does an excellent job documenting the trial itself, as Martelle cites numerous courtroom battles straight from reporters' notes and trial transcript, it really holds the readers' interest where it describes the lives of the people involved.

The book begins by examining the political atmosphere of the United States' post-World War II society. The period of time in which the U.S. and Soviet Union remained allies was swiftly dissolved by both the exposure of Soviet espionage as well as large corporate lobby groups' efforts to smear returning worker's desire to organize in their unions as a result of communist agitation.

An important observation is made early in the text: while there were members of the Communist Political Association who sought potential spies for the Soviet Union, including wartime Chair Earl Browder, such activity was not part of being a member of the CPUSA. Any illegal activity performed by persons who were communists was used to outlaw everyone's right to be a communist.

This was possible as long as communists were dehumanized, viewed as automatons who were not so much people as expressions of a monolithic "fifth column".

By explaining the trial of the CPUSA's leadership within the context of the Red Scare, The Fear Within shows that it was precisely this view that led to the conviction of the 12 defendants who were rounded up in the summer of 1948. By discounting defendant's testimony and that of several dozen witnesses, the CPUSA leaders were found guilty of advocating the violent overthrow of the government based on nothing more than the simplistic reading of the books they studied for theory.

Never mind the fact that the CPUSA's platform did not advocate violent revolution, or the fact their periodicals stated they fought to defend the people of the U.S., or even the presence of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln's portrait in their national office.

The prosecutors presented book after book, reading aloud from those which could not be submitted as evidence, emphasizing where communist theorists' stated that the governments of their time and place had to be overthrown, all the while neglecting the theory itself. In the face of strong political and economic opposition which bent communism into a menacing caricature, the defendants were unable to effectively communicate who they were as Marxists and how that theory really guided their lives.

In studying how the communists on trial actually lived, one readily identifies with what made them ordinary and finds what made them extraordinary worthy of praise.

One of the defendants, Robert Thompson, was a war hero.  

Prior to his arrest for being the chair of the Communist Party's New York district Thompson was a staff sergeant in the U.S. army.  He enlisted to fight fascism, something he had experience doing as part of the Abraham Lincoln brigade in Spain.  

While deployed in New Guinea Thompson swam across a small river under enemy fire to get to a location where he could find cover and effectively return fire, protecting his patrol of five men who were still scrambling on the bank from which he departed.  The others in his patrol were relieved from near constant fire and quickly followed Thompson, securing a bridgehead and surviving the fire-fight.  

Thompson earned the Distinguished Service Cross for protecting his service.

Another communist on trial also excelled in struggle, his set in the U.S. south.   

Benjamin Davis Jr., an African American member of the New York City Council, joined the CPUSA to continue his fight against racial injustice.   

Growing up, Davis helped his father distribute a paper written for Georgia's African American community.  When a town's postmaster refused to distribute the paper Davis would help his father deliver it door to door. Davis learned perseverance from his father and went on to earn a law degree from Harvard so he could assist his community from Atlanta. He became politically important and weathered frequent threats and racist vandalism as he practiced law.

Impressed by the CPUSA's post-conviction work in the Scottsboro trial, Davis decided to defend Angelo Herndon, an African American communist who was being tried for insurrection based on an outmoded law designed to thwart slave uprisings.

The trial was lost.  The court's reflection of society's prejudices led to Herndon's being convicted for insurrection, and Martelle noted the case itself hauntingly foreshadowed the one which led to Davis' conviction.  

One defendant whose life was most widely documented in The Fear Within was CPUSA Illinois Chair Gil Green.

When most of the CPUSA leadership was rounded up Green was vacationing with his family in a cabin in Wisconsin. They heard the news via radio as they sat lakeside at night. As the night progressed Gil, and his wife Lillian, talked quietly between pillows about how their life would change as their three children slept.

The trial was a strain on the family. Martelle used letters between Gil and Lil to show how everyone was affected. Lil was monitored and sometimes had fun making federal agents bake in their suits as her friends sat with her on the beach in the summer, but such playfulness was not common. The Green family was used to having Gil active in entertaining the three youngest members, neighbors remembering how he would play catch with his ten-year-old son, Danny, or give Josie, six, and Ralph, three, rides on the handlebars of his bicycle.

It took strong commitment and frequent letter-writing to keep the family together.

When Gil served his sentence, his youngest son had spent more than half his life without seeing his father. Upon being freed, Gil asked Ralph, then ten years old, "do you recognize me?"

"I think I do, Dad," the boy answered, in an emotional reunion on a New York courthouse's steps.

Martelle's detail is sure to be much appreciated by anyone, but I found this account particularly touching. Only a few days before I read it I was talking with the person who now holds the position Gil had in the CPUSA. I committed to taking notes for him on a conference call because he had a pressing duty as a father – the night of the call he would be supporting his daughter as she played her part in a music recital.

While the period we live in is different from the time documented in Scott Martelle's The Fear Within, ignorance of the most callous sort still persists. Despite all the pain people may have to blame broken and obsolete systems for the target of so many's scorn still remains other people.

It is good to read a book that discusses its subject in such context that it cannot help but teach those who read it a valuable lesson.

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  • Great review. Makes me want to buy the book. Now if I can just convince my wife we really need to add another book to our summer reading collection...but wait...next week is my birthday...problem solved!

    Posted by Rev. Paul White, 07/06/2011 11:50am (6 years ago)

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