1944 April 14

WW II “Great Sedition Trial” Begins


In the midst of World War II, the government prosecuted 30 right-wing individuals on charges of sedition and violating the Smith Act, which made it a crime to advocate the violent overthrow of the government (June 29, 1940). Many people then — and most experts today — believe the trial was politically motivated, urged on by President Franklin Roosevelt, and that it had a very flimsy legal foundation. The record strongly suggests that Attorney General Francis Biddle knew there was no valid case against any of the defendants, but was brow-beaten into bringing the case by the president. The defendants were a mixed bag of extreme right-wing intellectuals, cranks, and oddballs. There was little if any evidence of actions by any of them that met the terms of the laws under which they were indicted.

The trial, often referred to as The Great Sedition Trial, became a circus, and a mistrial was declared on November 29, 1944, after the judge suddenly died.

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

Learn about the trial from the perspective of the defendants: Maximilian St. George, A Trial on Trial: The Great Sedition Trial of 1944 (1946)

Learn more about freedom of speech in wartime: Geoffrey Stone, Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime from the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism (2004)

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

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