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Smith Act Trial

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Black and white photograph of Socialist Workers Party members, ca.1941.

Socialist Workers Party members, ca. 1941. Back row left to right: Farrell Dobbs, Harry DeBoer, Edward Palmquist, Clarence Hamel, Emil Hansen, Oscar Coover, Jake Cooper; front row left to right: Max Geldman, Felix Marrow, Albert Goldman, James Cannon, Vincent Dunne, Carl Skoglund, Grace Carlson.

In 1941, Minneapolis leftists from the Socialist Workers Party and Teamsters union local 544 were accused of conspiracy to overthrow the government under the Alien Registration Act. Twenty-nine were indicted; eighteen were convicted and sentenced to prison.

On June 28, 1940, the “Alien Registration Act” (or “Smith Act,” after its author, Virginia senator Howard W. Smith) was signed into law. In addition to requiring immigrant registration, the act outlawed “subversive activity”—that is, activity that seeks to undermine or overthrow the government from within.

The first citizens accused of breaking this law were members of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and/or Teamsters local 544. Many SWP members had been leaders in the Minneapolis 1934 Truckers’ Strike and still held important union positions.

J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, worried that the SWP’s anti-war position and its ability to organize transportation workers threatened national security. If transportation workers were to strike, it could disrupt the national war effort. Hoover was given permission by the President to spy on those with leftist or communist politics. On June 27, 1941, FBI agents raided the SWP headquarters at 919 Marquette Avenue in Minneapolis and 138 East Sixth Street in St. Paul.

On July 15, a federal grand jury indicted twenty-nine people for violating the Smith Act. The main defendants were James P. Cannon, Dr. Grace Carlson, Harry DeBoer, Farrell Dobbs, V. R. Dunne, Max Geldman, Albert Goldman, and Carl Skoglund. (Grant Dunne was also among the accused but committed suicide before the trial.) All the defendants had ties to the labor movement, mostly for involvement in the 1934 Minneapolis Truckers’ Strike and Works Progress Administration (WPA) strikes.

The trial began on October 27, 1941, with twenty-eight defendants (the judge later dismissed charges against five). The prosecution, represented by Victor Anderson, began its case on October 29. They argued that the Trotskyists were using their influence in local 544 to disrupt the nation’s industrial sector as a precursor to revolution. They cited the existence of the “Union Defense Guard”—a unit formed to fight the fascist threat of the Silver Shirts—to argue that the defendants advocated violent resistance. According to Anderson, Marxist ideas were inherently seditious because they predicted and supported revolution.

The defense, led by Goldman, argued that the socialists did not present a “clear and present danger” to the U.S. government. In the Supreme Court case of Whitney vs. California, Justices Brandeis and Holmes had found that citizens forfeited their right to free speech only if they presented a “clear and present danger.”

The defense countered the accusation that they were planning violence by explaining their Marxist view that the fall of capitalism was inevitable and would involve violence. They did not advocate that violence; rather they predicted it. Furthermore, the SWP was a legitimate political party working within the government system. The accusation that their beliefs were illegal, they argued, was a violation of their first amendment rights to free speech.

On December 1, 1941, after fifty-six hours of deliberation, the jury handed down its verdict. It acquitted five defendants and found the remaining eighteen guilty of alleging seditious speech, publications and associations. On December 8, the eighteen were sentenced to prison. The longest term served was sixteen months.

During the appeals process, the eighteen spoke in public and raised funds through the Civil Rights Defense Committee (CRDC). Over two years, the CRDC took in $39,010 for defense and appeals. The defendants gained the support of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and more than a hundred labor unions and trade councils, representing over two million workers.

Having lost their appeal to the Supreme Court, the guilty parties turned themselves in on December 31, 1943. Most went to Sandstone Federal Prison in Minnesota.

Although some retired from political life after their release, Carlson, Dobbs and Dunne ran for office for the SWP. Through the early 1980s, the defendants sought a Presidential pardon. In 1981, Dobbs filed suit against the FBI for illegal surveillance; in 1986, after his death, the FBI admitted to its illegal acts.

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Farrell, James T. Foreword of Witch Hunt in Minnesota: The Federal Prosecution of the Socialist Workers Party and Local 544—C.I.O., by George Edward Novack. Los Angeles: Civil Rights Defense Committee, 1941.

——— . Foreword of Who Are the 18 Prisoners in the Minneapolis Labor Case?: How the Smith ’Gag’ Act Has Endangered Workers’ Rights and Free Speech. New York: Civil Rights Defense Committee, 1944.

Goldman, Albert. The Truth about the Minneapolis Trial of the 28: Speech for the Defense. New York: Pioneer Publishers, [1942?].

Haverty-Stacke, Donna T. Trotskyists on Trial: Free Speech and Political Persecution Since the Age of FDR. New York: New York University Press, 2015.

“Jury Opens Probe of Socialist Workers.” Minneapolis Star Journal, July 1, 1941.

Kramer, Dale. “The Dunne Boys of Minneapolis.” Harpers Magazine, March, 1942.

“May Challenge Legality of SWP Indictments; Surrender of 29 Waits Raising of Bond Cash.” Minneapolis Star Journal, July 17, 1941.

Novack, George E. The Bill of Rights in Danger!: the Meaning of the Minneapolis Convictions. New York: Civil Rights Defense Committee, 1941.

OH 73
Oral history interview with Vincent Raymond Dunne, April 27, 1969
Oral History Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
http://collections.mnhs.org/cms/display.php?irn=10446082
Description: Interview with Vincent Raymond Dunne, an organizer of the 1934 Teamsters' strike.

“Opinion and Sedition.” New Republic, December 8, 1941, 748.

P939: Dunne, Vincent Raymond
Clippings on Vincent Raymond Dunne
Manuscript Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Photocopies of Minneapolis Star newspaper clippings detailing Vincent R. Dunne’s activities as the 1930s founder and organizer of the Socialist Workers Party, especially regarding his role in the 1934 Minneapolis truck strike and relationship with other 1930s Minnesota politicians and leaders. Forms part of manuscript biographies collections.
https://mplus.mnpals.net/vufind/Record/001736541

“Socialist Worker Party Here is Raided By U.S.: Leadership Faces Federal Treason Charge.” Minneapolis Morning Tribune, June 28, 1941.

“Socialist Workers Leaders to Face U.S. Sedition Quiz.” Minneapolis Star, June 28, 1941.

“Socialist Workers in City Defy U.S. In Sedition Probe.” Minneapolis Star Journal, June 28, 1941.

“Tobin Statement Lashes Dunnes as Radicals and Hints the AFL May Ban Handling CIO Truck Cargoes.” Minneapolis Star Journal, June 13, 1941.

“The Issue at Minneapolis.” Nation, December 13, 1941.

“The Minneapolis ‘Sedition’ Trial.” Nation, October 20, 1941.

Schaeffer, Edward. “SWP Chief Conceded Candidate Won’t Win: Party Gain Forecast.” Minneapolis Star, October 22, 1966.

Sedition! The First Federal Peacetime Prosecution for Utterances and Publications Since the Alien and Sedition Act of 1798. New York: American Civil Liberties Union, 1941.

Sherman, Samuel N. “Soft Spoken Dunne Boys Threaten a Labor ‘War’: Switch of Their Powerful Truckers’ Union from AFL to CIO Already Stirs Repercussions.” Milwaukee Journal, June 15, 1941.

Socialist Workers Party (Minnesota Section) records, 1914–1980
Manuscript Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, Saint Paul
Description: Newspaper articles and other print material relating to the struggle between the AFL and the CIO, the Smith Act Trial, and Dunne’s political activity. See especially those boxes related to the civil rights defense committee; the trial; the Local 544 election; the Organizer; and scrapbooks of news articles.
http://www2.mnhs.org/library/findaids/00632.xml

“SWP Trial Jury Completed.” Minneapolis Star Journal, October 28, 1941.

Walker, Charles Rumford. American City: A Rank and File History of Minneapolis. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005.

“25 Face Indictment in U.S. Raids Here.” Minneapolis Daily Times, June 28, 1941.

Related Images

Black and white photograph of Socialist Workers Party members, ca.1941.
Black and white photograph of Socialist Workers Party members, ca.1941.
Black and white photograph of Harry de Boer and James H. Bartlett with Leon Trotsky, 1940.
Black and white photograph of Harry de Boer and James H. Bartlett with Leon Trotsky, 1940.
Black and white photograph of Jake Cooper, Oscar Coover, Harry DeBoer, and Max Geldman at the Minneapolis Headquarters during the time of their trial, 1941.
Black and white photograph of Jake Cooper, Oscar Coover, Harry DeBoer, and Max Geldman at the Minneapolis Headquarters during the time of their trial, 1941.
Black and white photograph of a Socialist Workers Party meeting, ca. 1940. Vincent R. Dunne and Grace Carlson in center.
Black and white photograph of a Socialist Workers Party meeting, ca. 1940. Vincent R. Dunne and Grace Carlson in center.
Black and white photograph of Grant Dunne, Minneapolis labor leader, ca. 1930s.
Black and white photograph of Grant Dunne, Minneapolis labor leader, ca. 1930s.
Black and white photograph of Socialist Workers Party members, ca. 1941. Left to right: James Cannon, Felix Marrow, and Albert Goldman.
Black and white photograph of Socialist Workers Party members, ca. 1941. Left to right: James Cannon, Felix Marrow, and Albert Goldman.
Black and white photograph of Albert Goldman, one of the defendants in the Smith Act Trial and the leader of the group’s legal defense, ca. 1942.
Black and white photograph of Albert Goldman, one of the defendants in the Smith Act Trial and the leader of the group’s legal defense, ca. 1942.
Black and white photograph of Vincent Dunne (left), James P. Cannon (center), and Arne Swabeck (right) in Los Angeles, August, 1954.
Black and white photograph of Vincent Dunne (left), James P. Cannon (center), and Arne Swabeck (right) in Los Angeles, August, 1954.

Turning Point

On June 28, 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs the Alien Registration Act (the Smith Act). It is the first peacetime anti-sedition law since 1798.

Chronology

1938

The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) forms with around 1,000 members.

1940

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signs into law the Alien Registration Act (the Smith Act) on June 28.

June 9, 1940

Six thousand teamsters vote to leave the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and join the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).

June 27, 1941

The FBI raids SWP headquarters in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

October 27

The trial begins.

November 18

The defense begins to present its case.

November 26

Closing arguments begin.

December 1

The jury announces its verdict.

December 8

Defendants are sentenced to prison.

July 30, 1942

Defendants file an appeal.

September 20, 1943

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals upholds the convictions of Dunne and others.

November 22

The Supreme Court refuses to hear the group’s appeal. The American Civil Liberties Union appeals to the Supreme Court twice more. The court denies the appeal three times.

December 31

The defendants turn themselves in and start their prison terms.

1945

The last remaining defendants are released from prison on January 24.