1944 November 29

Mistrial in Right-Wing Sedition Trial


In the middle of World War II. the Justice Department under President Franklin D. Roosevelt indicted and tried a group of right-wing critics of the administration using the 1940 Smith Act, which made it a crime to advocate the violent overthrow of the government (see June 29, 1940). The trial ended on this day with a mistrial because of the death of the judge.

The defendants were a rag-tag group of right-wingers, Roosevelt haters, and anti-Semites. The more notable ones were Elizabeth Dilling, a fervent anti-Communist and Roosevelt hater, and George Sylvester Viereck, a right-wing writer and social critic. Many observers felt the case was a politically motivated attack on critics of President Roosevelt and had little legal basis. There was, for example, little evidence of any actions that met the terms of the Smith Act’s prohibition of advocating the overthrow of the government . The trial quickly degenerated into a circus and proved to be an embarrassment to the administration. The trial formally ended on this day, having been declared a mistrial upon the death of the presiding judge. It was labelled the “Great Sedition Trial” and is generally referred to by that name.

The case was authorized by Attorney General Francis Biddle because of intense pressure from President Roosevelt, who was in turn responding to pressure from some liberals and leftists who demanded action against “fascists’ in America.

The case is almost completely forgotten by Americans today, and is largely remembered by extreme right-wing and anti-Semitic groups.

Learn more: Maximilian St. George and Lawrence Dennis, A Trial on Trial: The Great Sedition Trial of 1944 (1946)

Read: Richard W. Steele, Free Speech in the Good War (1999)

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