My review of Young J. Edgar by Kenneth D. Ackerman ran today at PopMatters.
Even if you have no prior knowledge of the 1919 red scare that made Hoover the man he was, the circumstances are awfully familiar. Foreign terrorists attack the nation and some strident and arrogant bureaucrats decide to substitute their own beliefs for the rule of law.
Ackerman’s account clearly comes from a leftist perspective, and demonstrates how our system of law and government depends on dissent, depends on good people to stand up for due process and justice when things get out of hand. It’s a great read about an amazing time in American history, but it’s also somewhat depressing to realize we’ve made the same mistakes all over again.
Despite the title, Young J. Edgar is more concerned with the constellation of people who were burdened with the effects of Hoover’s crusade and the noble figures who fought to push back the encroachment of civil liberties. It’s kind of a short history of American socialism, but although Ackerman is clearly not in Hoover’s camp, he doesn’t romanticize or lionize the socialists and communists who were persecuted.
Their warts are clear for all to see, their internecine fighting resulting in a myriad of ideological splits that remind one of the scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian where the Peoples Front of Judea and the Judean People’s Front explain their differences. Ackerman makes a clear distinction between the intellectual leaders of the movement who were spoiling for a socialist takeover of the government and the rank and file workers who simply wanted better wages, better working conditions, and a better life.
The real heroes of the story aren’t the defendants, they’re the defenders. People like Felix Frankfurter, Clarence Darrow, and Louis Post who threw caution to the wind and stood up to these unlawful arrests and prosecutions when public opinion was against them and threatened their very livelihoods. Their stories are where hope for our present situation can be found, as proof that individuals can help make a difference in the face of governmental malfeasance and the climate of fear.
[tags]J. Edgar Hoover, Civil Liberties, U.S. History[/tags]