An investigation into how free speech and other civil liberties have been compromised in America by war in six historical periods describes how presidents, Supreme Court justices, and resistors contributed to the administration of civil freedoms, in an account complemented by rare photographs, posters, and historical illustrations. 20,000 first printing.
By Geoffrey R. Stone''s estimate, America has lived up to the ideals encapsulated in the First Amendment about 80 percent of the time over the course of its history.
Perilous Times''s focuses is on the remaining 20 percent, when, during war or civil strife, the better instincts of the public and its leaders have been drowned out by a certain kind of repressive hysteria. Stone, the former dean of law provost at the University of Chicago, identifies six periods of widespread free-speech repression, dating back to the administration of the nation''s second president, John Adams, and continuing through the Vietnam era. In between, two of history''s greatest presidents, Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, were involved in constitutionally questionable efforts to suppress dissent.
Stone examines these pivotal episodes with a lawyer''s attention to detail and precedence and a writer''s focus on character and story structure. From Adams''s secretary of state, the "grim-faced and single-minded" Timothy Pickering (who scanned the papers daily looking for seditious language) through John Ashcroft on one side, and the cheeky late-18th-century congressman Matthew Lyon and the Yippies of the 1960s on the other, there are plenty of characters enlivening these pages. Given its publication during the War on Terror, Stone''s work feels particularly timely and vital. He devotes only a few pages to the post-9/11 environment, crediting George W. Bush for his refusal to scapegoat Muslims in the immediate aftermath of the attack, but castigating his administration for "opportunistic and excessive" actions centering around the Patriot Act. One wonders if Stone will some day be forced to update Perilous Times with a full chapter on the early 21st century. --Steven Stolder
Stone''s history examines America''s tendency in wartime to compromise First Amendment rights in the name of national security. During the Civil War, a former congressman, Clement Vallandigham, was imprisoned and nearly executed for objecting to the conflict as "wicked, cruel, and unnecessary" in the First World War, the anarchist Mollie Steimer was sentenced to fifteen years for calling capitalism the "only one enemy of the workers of the world." Each of these measures seemed essential to victory at the time; later, however, pardons were issued. We may one day feel the same about Guantánamo and the Patriot Act, but not all wrongs are immediately remedied. In 1971, Attorney General John Mitchell tried to use the contentious Espionage Act of 1917 (which, largely forgotten, had never been revoked) to prevent the publication of the Pentagon Papers. It is still law today.
Copyright © 2005
The New Yorker
Most critics found new legal and critical insight in Stones examination of the First Amendment and how its principles have been compromised during wartime. But some readers may find Stones comprehensive, footnote-filled tome too scholarly for pleasurable reading. At least one reviewerHarvard Law School Professor and civil libertarian Alan Dershowitzbelieves Stone "exaggerates the role of war in the history of American censorship." (
Boston Globe) But nobody questions the authors credentials or the importance and timeliness of his topic. Thats undoubtedly why several publications
The New York Times Book Review,
The Washington Post,
The Los Angeles Times, and
The Christian Science Monitorincluded
Perilous Times on their lists of notable books of 2004.
Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc.
With growing concerns about national security and free speech as the nation reacts to terrorist threats, this book is particularly timely. With an engaging mixture of history and law, Stone, a law professor, identifies six periods when U.S. government has curtailed free-speech rights: on the verge of war with France, when Congress enacted the Sedition Act of 1789; during the Civil War, when the writ of habeas corpus was suspended; during World War I, when the government prosecuted opponents of the war and the draft; during World War II, when Japanese were interned; during the cold war and the virulent campaigns against Communists; and in the 1960s and 1970s, when the government sought to suppress civil disobedience and demonstrations against the Vietnam War. Stone devotes a section of the book to each period, highlighting the actions of presidents from John Adams to Richard Nixon; Supreme Court justices; and dissenters, including Emma Goldman, Lillian Hellman, and Daniel Ellsberg. Stone cautions that we as a nation have "an unfortunate history of overreacting to the perceived dangers of wartime."
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A compelling account...
Perilous Times tells a story every American should know, and tells it well. (Eric Foner,
The Nation --
Completely absorbing. --
Christopher Hitchens, The New York Times Book Review
Great, dramatic, and absorbing legal history at its bestbeautifully written, highly accessible, and critically important for our time. --
It''s hard to think of a scholarly study timelier than Stone''s new book...an important, indeed necessary book on freedom indispensable. --
Michiko Kakatani, The New York Times
Rarely has a work been more timely....must reading for every citizen interested in something called the First Amendment. --
Stone is a constitutional scholar and a zealous defender of free speech, but he is also a great storyteller. --
Jonathan Karl, The Wall Street Journal
Stone''s book will serve as an invaluable guide as we watch the actions of the government in the coming years. --
Michael Riccardi, Legal Intelligence, Philadelphia
The most important book of its kind since Zechariah Chaffee, Jr. first published his heralded
Freedom of Speech in 1920. --
Ron Collins, Resident Scholar, Freedom Forum
We have long needed this book, though perhaps never as badly as we do today. --
Christopher Capozzola, Washington Post
[Stone] has written, with knowing passion, a cautionary tale for our times. --
Herbert Mitgang, Los Angeles Times
Geoffrey R. Stone, the Harry Kalven, Jr., Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago Law School, was dean of the law school from 1987 to 1993. He lives in Chicago, Illinois.
It would be comforting to agree with Justice Hugo Black''s straightforward assertion in 1960 that the Founders really meant what they said when their Constitution banned all restrictions on speech. " ''No law'' means no law," harrumphed Black. But in a world of secessionists, anarchists, Nazi sympathizers and Lackawanna terror cells, that confidence has not always been shared. "Are all the laws, but one, to go unexecuted, and the government itself to go to pieces, lest that one be violated?" asked Abraham Lincoln at a moment when the republic really was in genuine peril. But when political crises are exploited for partisan gain and comedy-show writers are told to "watch what they say," the deferential approach embodied in the ancient Roman maxim inter arma silent leges ("in time of war, the laws are silent") seems sure to throw the constitutional baby out with the seditious bathwater.
Stone, a former dean of the University of Chicago''s law school, gambles on the proposition that even after Sept. 11 -- when, we are told, everything changed -- history can still offer us guidance. And what a sorry lesson it teaches. Perilous Times (Norton. 730 pp. $35) affirms that "the Constitution has never greatly bothered any wartime President," as Francis Biddle, attorney general during World War II, noted. In the 1790s, John Adams and the Federalists used the specter of revolutionary France to attempt to create a one-party state. Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus eight times and shut down some 300 opposition newspapers during the Civil War, while Union officers seized as many as 38,000 civilians and convened a special military tribunal for one of them, Clement Vallandigham, a sitting congressman guilty of nothing more than bluster.
History repeats itself here as tragedy: Woodrow Wilson claimed to target only those "who have poured the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life," but wartime legislation caught in its net the likes of suffragist Alice Paul, civil rights activist A. Philip Randolph and yet another blustery congressman, Milwaukee''s Victor Berger. History also repeats itself as farce: 13.5 million Americans signed loyalty oaths as a condition of employment during the 1950s, and the state of New York even required the sworn renunciation of communism by applicants for fishing licenses. Red herring, indeed.
Many of these efforts were colored by prejudice and suspicion of society''s outsiders: In 1798, Federalists accused their enemies of imported French sedition (plus ça change) and experimented with immigration restrictions; during World War I, immigration laws tightened, and Oklahoma even banned speaking German on the telephone. Cold War crusaders insidiously tied communism to Jews and gays. Perhaps the greatest injustice, as it emerges from Stone''s history, is not that civil liberties were violated, but that it was all done so recklessly. "A Jap''s a Jap," muttered Lt. Gen. John DeWitt as the ink dried on the evacuation orders in 1942, but when 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry asked the Supreme Court why, DeWitt spoke disingenuously of "military necessity."
Stone provides a Profiles in Courage for the Sept. 11 generation. But he rejects a simple story of heroes and villains, perhaps because the ragtag assembly of wartime victims in Perilous Times includes some truly unsavory characters: doctrinaire Stalinists, American Nazis, and Northern Copperheads who opposed Lincoln not because war was unhealthy for children and other living things but because they resented the "Negro mania" of the Great Emancipator. Crusaders like Emma Goldman, Roger Baldwin and Fred Korematsu get their due, but Stone reserves his deepest respect for history''s unsung heroes: second-tier Justice Department officials in World War I who reined in the Bureau of Investigation, and War department attorneys in World War II who questioned Japanese internment. Stone cherishes men and women with faith in the Constitution; with faith that the cure for bad speech is more speech; with faith, as Hugo Black noted in 1951, "that free speech will preserve, not destroy, the nation."
Does America''s current predicament warrant such faith? No, and yes. Perilous Times diagnoses our national compulsive disorder of hysterical excess followed by regret, amends and congratulatory back-patting. For Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who wrote a book on the same topic in 1998, this cycle of compulsion is the best we can hope for. Some rights, he argues, are necessarily suspended in wartime, but no matter -- they will be restored later. Cold comfort for a conscientious objector in a Navy brig for the duration, but Rehnquist''s approach is particularly unable to protect the Constitution during an undeclared war on terrorism that explicitly has no end. The combination of ceaseless crisis with blanket secrecy and no avenues for appeal makes our current situation so constitutionally dire. The bright sun of the Bill of Rights will probably protect even the loopiest wartime blogger, but can it shine into shadowy immigration-hearing rooms? If excess follows excess without reconsideration, will terrorism mean never having to say you''re sorry?
No, says the persistently optimistic Stone. "Over time we have made progress." The 20th century''s struggles for civil liberties taught us why protecting the speech we hate defends our own rights. Take comfort, he tells us, in what we have not done since Sept. 11: There have been no mass internments of Arab-Americans; Attorney General John Ashcroft''s Terrorism Information and Prevention System (TIPS) and its pizza-delivery spies were laughed off the legislative agenda; both left and right dismissed the creepy Total Information Awareness network; the Supreme Court stood up for due process rights for Guantánamo detainees. And, if America listens to its librarians (the profession most thoroughly radicalized by the war on terror), it will bury the USA PATRIOT Act when it expires on Dec. 31 of next year.
Perilous Times persuasively argues that real patriots don''t need acts. Stone''s scholarship found "not a single instance of a decision in which the Supreme Court has overprotected wartime dissent in a way that caused any demonstrable harm to the national security." Wholesale infringements of free speech in wartime demonstrate not strength, but weakness. "America is not made of the stuff that has to be coddled along with tales of winning to make her fight," insisted Rep. Thomas Schall of Minnesota during debate over the World War I Espionage Act. It would be enough, he argued, to "tell her the truth." And truth, these days, is in awfully short supply.
Reviewed by Christopher Capozzola
Copyright 2004, The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved.