At first, it seems like no revelation whatsoever that when the United States declares itself at war with other nations, dissenters find free speech limited. But when that self-evident proposition is filtered through the prodigious scholarship and sharp mind of law professor Geoffrey Stone, it becomes revelatory indeed.
During wartime, Stone notes, the government can and does "conscript soldiers, commandeer property, control prices, ration food, raise taxes and freeze wages." Given those circumstances, he asks, "may it also limit the freedom of speech?"
The obvious answer of "yes" seems rational to supporters of a given war, who deem dissent disloyal. Critics who argue that a war is unjust or unnecessary might even be perceived as giving aid and comfort to the enemy.
To opponents of a war, however, limiting freedom of speech seems counterproductive. They are likely to view dissent during wartime as the ultimate patriotic act. As Stone posits, "Whether, when, for how long and on what terms to fight a war are among the most profound decisions a nation encounters. A democratic society must debate these issues throughout the conflict."
Stone, who teaches at the University of Chicago, understands the emotionalism that arises in wartime, including the powerful mass psychology that supports the government's actions. In his case, that understanding has bred contempt mixed with dismay. His research leads him to conclude, "The United States has a long and unfortunate history of overreacting to the perceived dangers of wartime. Time and again, Americans have allowed fear and fury to get the better of them. Time and again, Americans have suppressed dissent, imprisoned and deported dissenters and then - later - regretted their actions."
Stone's timely study is meant to help readers understand why these overreactions occur, and how the pattern can be broken in the future. He builds the book around what he says are the only six episodes during the life of the United States (until the 21st century) in which the federal bureaucracy "has attempted to punish individuals for criticizing government officials or policies":
• When war against France appeared imminent in 1798, Congress approved the Sedition Act, making the utterance of a disloyal statement a crime.
• During the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus, causing consternation among those arrested on vague charges of disloyalty to the Union in its war with the Confederacy.
• During World War I, under the aegis of the Espionage Act and the Sedition Act, President Woodrow Wilson, a renowned academic before reaching the White House, cast off his campus free-speech mantle to encourage prosecution of about 2,000 men and women because they opposed the military draft and US entry into a far away conflict.
• During World War II, 120,000 men and women were interned solely because of their Japanese descent. Less well-known abuses during this time included a campaign by the oft-revered democrat (and Democrat) Franklin D. Roosevelt to prosecute, denaturalize, and deport war critics.
• The cold war, Stone says, "marked perhaps the most repressive period in American history. In an aggressive effort to uncover subversion, the federal government initiated abusive loyalty programs, legislative investigations and criminal prosecutions of the leaders and members of the Communist Party of the United States. It was an era scarred by the excesses of the House Un-American Activities Committee and the rampage of Sen. Joseph McCarthy."
• During the Vietnam War, the Federal Bureau of Investigation disrupted dissident political activities, antiwar protesters faced prosecution for defacing the American flag or their draft cards, and the White House of Richard Nixon decided to suppress publication of a war history by The Washington Post, The New York Times, and other news organizations.
As Stone views the nation's history through this focused lens, he introduces hundreds of memorable antagonists - presidents, members of Congress, Supreme Court justices, attorneys general, and the nearly anonymous dissenters themselves.
Although the numbers of names and controversies could have seemed daunting, Stone eases the task with his effective narrative skills. When the characters in this avalanche of history become actors in an interestingly told drama, their individual stories are deeply memorable.
At the end of this thick book, Stone devotes a few pages to the current Bush administration's handling of free speech since 9/11. He briefly praises the president for refraining from prosecuting anybody who has spoken out in opposition to the war. But then he devotes 10 times as many paragraphs to scolding Bush loyalists for tarring opponents as disloyal and for refusing to release information that might help critics know the truth about various domestic and foreign activities.
As the current White House administration defends the USA Patriot Act, it would be reassuring to think that the president, Attorney General John Ashcroft, and other policymakers prosecuting the war on terrorism would read "Perilous Times." That assumes, however, that they understand the powerful teachings of history the way Stone understands them.
• Steve Weinberg, a freelance journalist in Columbia, Mo., is writing a biography of muckraking journalist Ida Tarbell.