Communism, Anti-Communism, and the Federal Courts in Missouri, 1952-1958: The Trial of the St. Louis Five
|Author: ||Birdnow, Brian E.|
The St. Louis Smith Case, “James Forest et al. v United States” offers a case study of the United States governmental campaign against state and local American Communists in microcosm. The indictments and arrests of CPUSA-Missouri members in 1952, their subsequent prosecution and convictions, and the ultimate reversal of those convictions closely mirror the “second-string” prosecutions at the national level.
The case of “James Forest et. al. v United States” is complex and multifaceted. The question of whether the defendants violated the Smith Act was only a small piece of the entire puzzle. The very legitimate questions of constitutional and civil liberties involved in the case were juxtaposed against an equally strong concern for the protection of an open society against those who understood to be seeking the destruction of that society. The larger question was whether American society could take steps to impair or hinder a movement whose existence was considered inimical to the national interest. First Amendment guarantees, national security concerns and ideological questions jumbled together in an uneasy co-existence in St. Louis during the 1950s, just as they did in the larger society. The St. Louis Smith Act Case, “James Forest et. al. v United States” is the focus of this inquiry.
This work utilizes a wise range of sources, both primary and secondary. It makes substantial use of official court records, U.S. Justice Department Files, and materials from the United States National Archives. In addition, many materials from the Harry S. Truman and Dwight David Eisenhower Presidential Libraries are also employed. The secondary literature on American Communism, the Post-World War II world and the McCarthy era is vast and is thoroughly examined. The literature is supplemented by a review of period journalism in the form of newspapers and periodicals.
The student of American political history will observe that “James Forest et. al. v United States” was a prototypical Smith Act prosecution. The St. Louis case encapsulated many of the elements that marked the first American Communist prosecutions and mirrored the other state level prosecutions of the CPUSA leadership. A close examination of the case offers a priceless insight into the primary elements common to all of the state and local Smith Act cases. A study of “James Forest et. al. v United States” presents a portal through which to view the sociocultural standards of the American Midwest during the 1950s. This work will prove itself an important contribution to social, cultural, political and legal history.
“For a decade and a half after the end of World War II, as the Cold War took shape internationally, anti-communism and the effort to expose Communists in the U.S. government preoccupied American domestic politics and society. Labeled “McCarthyism,” after Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy who more than any other individual personified this effort, this movement quickly became a topic of heated historical debate. Since then, historians have exhaustively analyzed the espionage cases, congressional legislation, and other events that were part of McCarthyism. And they have sharply disagreed on its meaning and its impact on the American political landscape. Some have portrayed this time as a period of political hysteria, where the civil rights of Americans were trampled on and reputations and careers ruined. Others have argued that the fear of Communist influence in government was legitimate, that Communist activity posed a clear threat to the security of the United States.
In recent years, newly available archival materials both in the United States and the former Soviet bloc have added to the understanding of this period and have triggered renewed controversy. Much of this new documentation confirms that the Soviet Union and its agents were indeed actively involved in espionage and that the Communist Party of the United States was a part of this effort. This has challenged historians to take a new look at the events of the McCarthy era. As a result, the historiography of this topic has mushroomed with the publication of books on every aspect of this phenomenon. Brian Birdnow’s study of the court case James Forest et al. v United States is an original and important contribution to this historical record. It is an examination of how McCarthyism played out at the local level, in St. Louis, a large midwestern city.
Birdnow’s exhaustive study traces the fate of the St. Louis defendants from the grand jury indictments to their 1954 conviction to the case’s ultimate dismissal in 1958. He deftly utilizes court records and numerous archival sources to trace the backgrounds of the defendants, lawyers, and witnesses. He takes the reader through the arguments and evidence put forward by the defense and the prosecution. And he places the whole affair in the context of the environment of St. Louis in the mid-1950s. Interestingly, he suggests that, while St. Louis at the time was anti-Communist, there was no hysteria that consumed its population.
Like other historians who have examined the Dennis Case and the second-tier cases that followed, Birdnow acknowledges the complex issues raised by the prosecution of these Missouri Communists. The question of whether they violated the Smith Act was only one of those. More important, as Birdnow argues, was the conflict between constitutional and civil liberties on the one hand and the right of a society to protect itself against a group or organization that it deemed inimical to its national interest on the other. He is sensitive to the civil rights issues … a work that is worthy of consideration and furthers our understanding of the McCarthy era.” – (from the Commendatory Preface) T. Michael Ruddy, Professor of History, Saint Louis University
“Meticulously researched and well agued, this book recounts the story of the federal case James Forest et.al. v United States that occurred in St. Louis from 1952-1958.… It is an important local study that serves as a microcosm of the American cultural milieu during the McCarthy era that sheds light on how Americans grappled with the timeless question: how do you balance issues of national security with the need to maintain fundamental civil rights, namely free speech and freedom of association in a free society”. The author argues that these Smith Act trials were not historical anomalies without precedent, but such campaigns to marginalize certain voices out of public discourse have deep and disturbing roots in American history dating back to the birth of the Republic.” – Robert Zabroski, Professor of Cultural Heritage, St. Louis College of Pharmacy
“Dr. Brian Birdnow’s study of the trial of the “St. Louis Five”, an event which was fueled by the onset of the Col War era between 1947 and the outbreak of the Korean War, and beyond, provides an important addition to the literature surrounding the passage of the Smith Act in 1940.… This scholarly work, then, provides us with a better understanding of the Communist Party in Missouri … This work is well-documented, and deserves a place in our libraries and universities, and should likewise be of interest to students of political science and American history alike, and with reference to the Cold War era in particular.” – G. W. Sand, Professor of History, St. Louis College of Pharmacy
Table of Contents
Preface by T. Michael Ruddy
1. The Smith Act: Its Causes and Origins
2. Communist and Anti-Communist Activities at the National and State Levels, 1946-1952
3. Prelude: Indictment, Arrest and Pre-Trial Maneuvers
4. The Trial
5. As St. Louis Goes, So Goes the Nation?