When I was very young, I often explored my grandfather’s library, inhaling the musty secrets of tomes not opened for many years. It was on one such visit that I first came upon John Roy Carlson’s Under Cover.
Published in 1943, Carlson’s best-selling book—enticingly subtitled My Four Years in the Nazi Underworld of America—purported to be an exposé of the anti-interventionist movement. Carlson invented a new identity and started publishing a weekly mimeographed hate sheet called the Christian Defender, which repeated every antisemitic canard in the most offensive manner possible. Carlson’s book quoted obscure cranks and American Nazis as if they represented such leaders of the antiwar America First Committee as John T. Flynn and AFC chairman Gen. Robert E. Wood. The book was relentlessly promoted in the interventionist media, especially by the gossip columnist Walter Winchell.
John Roy Carlson was in the employ of the “Friends of Democracy,” a front group for the Communist Party, which was hankering for an American version of the Moscow Trials. The Carlson book was a dress rehearsal for a sedition indictment, and this is exactly what the President had in mind. As Attorney General Francis Biddle put it in his memoirs, FDR “was not much interested in the theory of sedition, or in the constitutional right to criticize the government in wartime. He wanted this antiwar talk stopped.” William Power Maloney, a left-wing New York lawyer and ardent New Dealer, was put in charge of the investigation. By the summer of 1942, the first indictment was handed down, naming 28 individuals. A second indictment in January of the following year expanded the scope of the case, naming five more individuals, including some members of Congress, 30 publications, and 26 organizations, among them the America First Committee, the National Committee to Keep America Out of Foreign Wars, the Constitutional Educational League, and a magazine, Scribner’s Commentator.
A storm of protest from anti-interventionist senators, such as Burton K. Wheeler, forced the Department of Justice to back down, albeit only partially. Biddle took Maloney off the case and issued a third indictment, dropping the mainstream conservative groups, such as the America First Committee, but adding six more individuals, including the prominent African-American intellectual and alleged “fascist” Lawrence Dennis.
At first, the trial was given a lot of coverage by the largely pro-war media: After all, they had played a large part in helping the Justice Department prepare its case. Washington Post reporter Dillard Stokes gave the prosecution a handle on the case by writing to the defendants—using a false name—and asking for antiwar pamphlets to be sent to him in Washington, D.C. This gave the government the excuse to prosecute the defendants in Washington, where the “rocket docket” was supposed to make short work of them.
Although the defendants for the most part had never even met each other before the trial, federal prosecutors maintained that the similarity of their ideas made them all part of a conspiracy to undermine the Armed Forces of the United States. Their crime was a thoughtcrime.
We see this same legal theory employed today by Obama’s Justice Department, in efforts to go after antiwar activists who recently had their homes and offices raided in Minneapolis and Chicago: Like Attorney General Biddle in the Great Sedition Trial of 1944, Attorney General Holder argues that the exercise of one’s First Amendment rights amounts to giving “material support” to “terrorism.” In the former case, the “evidence” consisted of the prosecutor reading long boring passages from the defendants’ writings, and juxtaposing them with equally long boring citations from official Nazi propaganda.
According to prosecutor John Rogge, the fact that the newspaper of the German American Bund had quoted from the writings of Lawrence Dennis proved that the eccentric and brilliant writer was an agent of Hitler. Judge Edward C. Eicher, a former Democratic congressman, was quite obviously biased against the defendants, whose motions he routinely denied. But he was outnumbered: With 30 different defense lawyers hectoring him at every opportunity, he had great difficulty controlling the courtroom.
After seven months of playing ringmaster, the trial judge suffered a heart attack and died. A mistrial was declared. The government—urged on by the left wing of the Democratic Party—refiled the charges, but they were thrown out on November 22, 1946, by Judge Bolitha Laws of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, who said that to allow the case to continue would be “a travesty of justice.”
Today, no travesty is too blatant to be called injustice. Our “Justice” Department has the legal tools to do what FDR failed to accomplish.