chapter  3
Erasing the Brown Scare: Referential Aft erlife and the Power of Memory Templates Th e third chapter describes the importance of forgetting to the establishment of collective memory. I examine the case of the “Brown Scare” in the early 1940s and how it came to be forgotten in American history in contrast to the widely remembered “Red Scare” of the 1920s and later 1950s. Th e Brown Scare involved attacks by the Department of Justice on proto-Nazi rightists in the period leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor and a subsequent sedition trial beginning in 1942. Th is trial was the largest sedition trial in American history, eventually leading to a mistrial aft er the death of the trial judge. Th e Brown Scare did not fi t subsequently established memory templates of political institutions and social movements, and indicates what happens to widely-known events that lack prominent and well-situated political backers
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On April 17, 1944, the largest sedition trial in American history opened in a federal courthouse in Washington, DC. Th is trial, United States v. McWilliams (1944), was two years in preparation, and brought charges against 30 alleged Nazi sympathizers. Th ese 30 defendants, the prosecution claimed, conspired with each other and with the German regime to under mine the United States’ war eff ort, weakening military eff ectiveness. Th is trial, which charged the defendants with violating the 1940 Smith Act, served as a model for the subsequent prosecutions of the pro-Soviet Communist left in the later years of the decade.1 Th e Smith Act, formally known as the Alien Registration Act, outlawed acts of sedition and advocating the overthrow of the government by force or violence (Belknap 1977:25). Th e McWilliams indictment and trial received extensive media coverage. Eventually in December 1944, with only one-third of the prosecution’s evidence presented, a mistrial was declared aft er the fatal heart attack of the trial judge, Edward Eicher. By the time of the mistrial, the Allies were on the verge of victory in the European theater and organizations on the far right were mori bund. Th e end of the war swept away the rationale for the trial, setting the stage for public forgetting-the absence of any future harm meant no further need existed to incapacitate the targeted group. Th e

country had moved on; the concerns of the war years were displaced with a new set of concerns involving the threat of communism. A retrial was never held. Aft er two years of government inaction, charges were dropped.