Cover image for Free speech in the good war
Free speech in the good war
Steele, Richard W.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : St. Martin's Press, 1999.
Physical Description:
x, 309 pages ; 22 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Central Library KF4772 .S74 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Troubled by the 'herd' instinct and repression unleashed by World War I, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes insisted that the right of any American to be heard depended on the right of all Americans to speak regardless of how obnoxious their views. This ideal, which was to become a defining aspect of the nation's political culture, was put to the test during World War II by the hate-filled rhetoric of Bundists, Christian fundamentalists, Black nationalists, and others. Idealism faltered as citizens, including erstwhile civil libertarians, demanded a new 'realistic' definition of free speech. This book tells the story of the brave, not always successful, efforts of a few officials to sustain the libertarian ideal in the face of military defeat, rumours of Fifth Columnist intrigue and demands that the appearance of national unity be sustained by government repression. This is a unique examination of how civil libertarian ideals, developed by the courts and legal scholars, were applied by government in crisis times. It therefore suggests, as few other works do, the viability and practicality of free speech orthodoxy.

Author Notes

Richard W. Steele is Professor Emeritus at San Diego State University

Reviews 2

Library Journal Review

A professor, archivist, and historian, Steele has worked in a research capacity for two federal agencies. His investigative power lays the foundation for the theme of the book. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's three wartime attorneys general were lawyers with a reformist bent, and all shared a high regard for free expression. What made their stance unique was the limited framework in which they articulated their libertarian ideology. Enjoying their support were sweatshop workers, sharecroppers, and migrant laborers who coalesced as a group of marginalized Americans protesting workplace exploitation. They were joined by racial and religious minorities who were demanding protection from organized intolerance. Conspicuously absent were political organizations and groups that espoused views at variance with the war effort. The public's negative perception of the various opposition movements combined with the power of a popular president to produce a Justice Department that selectively enforced the First Amendment. Rights and liberties are often strained during wartime, Steele notes, and World War II was no exception. Especially useful for students analyzing the effects of foreign conflict on domestic affairs and free speech.√ĄPhilip Y. Blue, New York State Supreme Court Criminal Branch Law Lib., New York (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Steele demonstrates the zealous efforts of the executive branch to squelch dissent during WW II in spite of overwhelming support by the citizenry for the war effort. He characterizes government tactics to suppress dissenters in WW I as excessive but notes WWI was less popular than WWII. While the strains and pressures of the war on civil liberties during WW II were seemingly less oppressive, some public servants strayed from revered principles, sacrificing civil liberties to satisfy the political exigencies of the times. Drawing extensively on original documents and secondary sources, Steele presents a masterful, meticulously researched account of the philosophy and actions of three attorneys general --Frank Murphy, Robert H. Jackson, and Francis Biddle--who served under Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He analyzes the backgrounds of each attorney general, including their views on civil liberties/free speech issues. Steele interweaves information from archival papers and texts to characterize relationships between the men responsible for meting out justice during WW II, including such fascinating personalities as John Edgar Hoover, Roosevelt, and the three Attorneys General. The book presents a powerful lesson that suggests democracy need not acquiesce to pressures to diminish free speech rights for transient causes, no matter how compelling they may be. Recommended at all levels. M. Hendrickson; Wilson College

Table of Contents

Acknowledgmentsp. ix
Introduction: A Legacy of Restraintp. 1
Part I Frank Murphy: 1939
Chapter 1 Champion of Civil Libertiesp. 17
Chapter 2 "Not a Soft, Pudgy Democracy"p. 37
Part II Robert H. Jackson: January 1940-June 1941
Chapter 3 A "Lawyerly Way"p. 53
Chapter 4 Changing Concepts of Civil Libertiesp. 69
Chapter 5 Searches, Stealing, and Tappingsp. 87
Chapter 6 Harry Bridges and the War on Communismp. 99
Part III Francis Biddle: June 1941-June 1945
Chapter 7 Attorney General by Defaultp. 115
Chapter 8 The "Minneapolis Reds": A "Clear and Present Danger"?p. 129
Chapter 9 Free Speech for Fascists?p. 143
Chapter 10 Nazi Themes and "Dirty Little Sheets": Postal Censorshipp. 161
Chapter 11 "Where Sedition Begins and Ends Among Negroes"p. 173
Chapter 12 The Denaturalization Strategyp. 189
Chapter 13 "Crackpots and Cranks from All Parts of the Nation"p. 205
Chapter 14 The Great Sedition Trial: The End of the Campaign Against Disloyaltyp. 223
Note on Referencesp. 235
Notesp. 239
Indexp. 303

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