The Great Sedition Trial of 1944: A Personal Memoir
David Baxter in 1946
I have the honor to discuss an historical event in which I played a personal role, the notorious Sedition Trial of 1944. As a Christian I have long since forgiven those who were responsible for instigating this persecution of American citizens and I have no axes to grind with anyone. Some of what I have to tell is merely personal recollection while some is indisputable fact. Historians must make these distinctions. I write here as a witness to history.
Before discussing the trial itself it is necessary to outline some background. I've always been idealistic and history was my favorite subject in school. Accordingly, in my youth I was greatly impressed by Edward Bellamy's book Looking Backward. I became an ardent socialist and joined the Socialist Party, which was then America's third largest party. Still, I was also nationalistic and supposed that socialism would be best for our country and its people. World government was not an issue and I'm sure that most of the socialist followers of Eugene V. Debs would have opposed it. We were concerned about America and its economic system, which was then about the most ruthless monopoly capitalism one can imagine.
Consequently, I was also very enamored of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. In the belief that the Roosevelt program fulfilled our hopes (but unaware of his world government philosophy), our California state Socialist leader, Upton Sinclair, joined the Democratic party and ran for Governor. I was the last remaining registered Socialist in San Bernardino County but finally gave in and, following Sinclair's lead, joined the Democrats. For two years I served as president of the largest Democratic Club in California. While the great depression was at its worst, I worked for several years as a W. P. A. supervisor. I believe that Roosevelt did do some good in emergency legislation, the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, banking reforms to protect citizens' savings, Social Security and the like.
My interest in political affairs never waned. I wanted to hear both sides of every issue. Accordingly, you might see me at a Communist rally, a Klu Klux Klan conclave, a Townsend old-age speech, a Jewish anti-Nazi gathering or a Silver Shirt meeting. Incidentally, the Silver Shirt leader, William Dudley Pelley, was one of my co-defendants in the Sedition Trial several years later, along with two Los Angeles German-American Bund leaders. Before the trial I had never met Pelley personally nor corresponded with him, and had only been introduced to the German-American Bunders at their open meeting. Yet I was later accused of conspiring with them. Actually, at that time I was simply a New Deal Democrat interested in what was going on in the country politically.
I've always been a little slow about jumping to conclusions, but as Chesterton once said, "The object of opening the mind is to close it again on something solid." Once thoroughly convinced of the rightness of a thing, I have jumped in on what I believe to be right with enthusiasm. It was after war broke out in Europe that I first began having doubts about Roosevelt's honesty. I had already become what is called a "middle of the roader" politically and economically, and I now found myself more and more sympathetic to those who stood for rugged individualism, disliked regimentation, and opposed Roosevelt's cleverly disguised efforts to get the United States involved in a foreign war that was none of our business. Because the President would say one thing to the people and do exactly the opposite, I frankly came to detest the ground he walked on. Moreover, I became convinced that there really was an international conspiracy that was using our nation as a pawn, as had been the case in World War I. Since I had no access to the press at that time, I began publishing a newsletter.
Politics indeed makes strange bedfellows. After Hitler and Stalin concluded a treaty, American Communists enthusiastically endorsed those of us who opposed getting into the European war between Germany and the British-French alliance. The Communists even stomached the Jewish issue that some of us raised and many Jewish Communists, who wanted the United States to join the war against Hitler, left their party. All that changed overnight, however, when war broke out between Germany and Russia. The Communists then turned against us with a vengeance and eagerly backed F.D.R. and American participation in the war to save the Soviets. Those of us who had been anti-war from the beginning were now even more set against such an adventure. England and France were now practically out of the conflict. Now let the Nazis and Russians slug each other while the United States remained neutral, we felt. When the smoke cleared neither of the big European powers would have much strength left, there probably wouldn't be any Soviet Union, and the United States would emerge unscathed with not a man lost. We could also resolve our own domestic problems without attention being diverted by war. I wrote one article after another and sometimes ghost-wrote speeches for visiting speakers of the American First Committee, of which I was a member. Apart from the Democratic and Socialist parties, it was the only political organization I ever joined. I also tried to organize a correspondence circle of anti-war people to be called the Social Republic Society, but it was never amounted to anything. Or so we thought.
After the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, which even then many of us claimed Roosevelt and Churchill had schemed to bring about (and which is now known fact), America Firsters found themselves in hot water. All of our political supporters in Congress and elsewhere disappeared as if by magic. Even Hamilton Fish, Robert Taft, Burton Wheeler and Claire Hoffman were misled and carried away by the Administration-created hysteria. They did not even suspect Roosevelt's skullduggery in bringing about the Pearl Harbor attack. They all jumped aboard the war bandwagon, except for a very few diehards, of whom I was one. To us, if a thing was wrong in principle before an official declaration of war by the President, it was just as wrong afterwards. Despite our limited numbers and political insignificance, some of us then took it upon ourselves to tackle one of the most improbable jobs imaginable -- a Peace Offensive. We believed that although America had made a mistake in getting into the European inferno, we could still negotiate an honorable peace and save millions of lives. I then suddenly found myself thrust into national prominence and my name appeared in several major newspapers. I was actually proposed as a presidential candidate by Edward Price Bell, a retired editor of the Chicago Daily News. Although Bell was prominent in the Republican party, he was just as opposed to the GOP's Wendell Willkie as he was to the Democrat Roosevelt. He opposed American subservience to foreign interests as much as I did. His article in the Saturday Spectator brought me directly to Roosevelt's attention and triggered my speedy political demise.
I was quickly subpoenaed to appear before a California State Senate anti-subversion committee headed by Senator Jack Tenney, before which I testified and was labeled a "hostile witness." Years later, after he became enlightened, Tenney personally apologized to me. After that subpoena a U.S. marshall served me with a "Presidential Warrant" signed by Franklin D. Roosevelt which ordered me to appear before a grand jury in Washington D.C. I tore up the warrant and told the marshal to tell F.D.R. to go to hell, where he belonged. Roosevelt had no more authority to order me around than any other citizen. Accordingly, a few days later a marshall served me with a proper subpoena to appear and I promptly left for Washington. I had never been in the capital before.
At the same time, Walter Winchell, Drew Pearson and a raft of others went after me over the radio. Pearson called me a "fascist" and Winchell constantly demanded, "Why doesn't somebody do something about it?" When I arrived in the capital, the Washington Post kept up a page-one running attack against me as a "revolutionist." The other Washington papers were more restrained, although one headlined me as a "Jap apologist," probably because of some things I had written in defense of Japanese-American citizens who had been rounded up and sent to concentration camps without any semblance of legality. Being called a "Jap apologist" didn't make me any more popular with the average American. In those days most Americans were hysterical about anything Japanese after Pearl Harbor, not knowing that their own President was responsible for it. I was practically without friends. Anti-war members of Congress whom I had loyally supported pretended that they had never heard of me. People who had known me for years were afraid to be seen with me. Quite frankly, I felt depressed and disillusioned.
The Washington grand jury session was pretty fiery. A number of people I had heard of but had never met were there from all over the country, including Charles B. Hudson, Gerald B. Winrod (a minister and a spokesman for Social Justice and Father Charles Coughlin), Congressman Claire Hoffman of Michigan, and many others. When I got into a row with the federal prosecutor, William Power Maloney, and was cited by the grand jury for contempt, newspapers were full of it and my home town paper, the San Bernadino Sun-Telegram, ran a screaming headline: "Baxter Defies Federal Grand Jury."
An interesting feature of the grand jury investigation was when a bailiff entered the witness room and called out several times, "Jefferson Breem." Jefferson Breem was there, all right, but he didn't answer. That was because he was really a reporter for the Washington Post named Dillard Stokes. It was Stokes who wrote the Post stories which referred to me as a "revolutionist" and smeared me and other witnesses from pillar to post. "Jefferson Breem" was one of many people who had written to me to ask for copies of my writings. After all, none of my work was secret and my writings were in some libraries. The Hoover Library of Stanford University, for example, had requested and received my literature. Anyway, when the grand jury later indicted about 30 of us who had been witnesses, accusing us of sedition, it was largely on the basis of literature we had sent to Stokes, alias Breem, in Washington. In order to try us in Washington as a group, it was necessary to establish that a crime had been committed in the District of Columbia, thus giving jurisdiction to the federal courts there. So the grand jury, which was obviously controlled by the prosecutor, charged us with the crime of sedition, and then established District of Columbia jurisdiction to try us on the grounds that a District of Columbia resident, "Jefferson Breem," had received the allegedly seditious literature. Thus was the alleged "crime" committed in the capital. The defendants were charged with having conspired in the District of Columbia, despite the fact that I had never been in Washington in my life until ordered there by the grand jury. Even then I was not allowed to have legal counsel.
After the grand jury hearing I returned to California and tried to rebuild my small outdoor advertising business, which the adverse publicity had almost ruined. Even my neighbors were suspicious of me. After the war a railroad union official told me that some union members had talked about tarring and feathering me. They were dissuaded when he told them, "I've known Dave Baxer for years. Let him have a fair trial and if he's guilty, I myself will apply the tar." As it was, two gunmen sneaked up to our house one night and tried to bushwhack me. It was only when I suddenly leaped out on to the front porch with a .38 caliber pistol in my hand that they fled. My wife remembers that incident very well. She jumped under the bed.
This may be hard to believe, but the fact is that although I had come to believe firmly that an international conspiracy of Jewish Sanhedrin-bankers existed and influenced the President and government, I had never heard of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith. I had never had the slightest animosity against anyone because of race or creed. I had many Jewish personal friends, whom I was convinced had no knowledge of an international Sanhedrin. Or at least they were my friends until I was smeared as "anti-Semitic." I first heard of the Anti-Defamation League when a cousin of my wife's, who worked in the office of a lawyer named Julius Novak in San Bernardino, one day came to our home greatly agitated. I had never had anything against Novak, but our cousin said that she was in an adjoining room when a delegation she called the "Anti-Defamation League" conferred with Novak and she overheard him say, "We'll get Dave Baxter if it's the last thing we ever do." A few days later my close friend, the San Bernardino postmaster, quietly leaked to me that an Anti-Defamation League group had called on him and asked him to inspect my mail. I then began to suspect who was behind most of my troubles and started researching this organization.
Actually, the Anti-Defamation League was the catalyst behind the entire Sedition Trial. I couldn't prove it then but I can now. A few years ago I demanded, through the Freedom of Information Act, that the FBI turn over to me its investigation records of my activities during the early 1940s leading up to the Sedition Trial. I learned that the investigation had extended over several years and covered hundreds of pages, which I now have. The FBI blocked out the names of those who had given information about me, much of it as false as anything could be. I was never given a chance to face these people and make them prove their accusations. Yet everything they said went into the investigation records. Oddly enough, in a great many cases, it wasn't the FBI that conducted the investigation but the Anti-Defamation League, with the FBI merely receiving the reports of ADL investigators. One can hardly tell from the reports whether a given person was an FBI or an ADL agent. But at the time all this was so hush-hush that I didn't even suspect the web-spinning going on around me. I hadn't considered myself that important. Anyone who wishes to inspect my FBI file is welcome to do so. It's a masterpiece of intrigue, cunning and deception.
One day my wife, Bernice, our two youngsters and I were on a fishing trip in Newport Beach. A U.S. marshal came out from behind our rented cottage, arrested me and, without any explanation, whisked me off to the Los Angeles County jail. Three days later, FBI agents whom I knew well visited me there. They said that there had been a statewide manhunt for me and that I had been indicted along with 29 others before U.S. Commissioner David B. Head during which the charge against me was read. The federal prosecutor was Leo Silverstein, a character who looked like a recycled transsexual. Two American Civil Liberties Union attorneys, A.L. Wirin and Fred Okrand, visited me in jail. For some reason the ACLU had decided to defend me. Its paper announced that while it was unusual for the ACLU to defend "rightists," my case was a clear violation of civil liberties. So I did not obtain a private lawyer. My bail was originally so high that I couldn't make it, but even when it was reduced I still refused to post bond on general principles and spent several months in jail while legal proceedings dragged on. The Justice Department had so far failed to extradite me to Washington. I finally agreed to go voluntarily, believing that since I wasn't guilty of anything, a jury would certainly acquit me. Talk about naivete! A lawyer warned me: "If they get you back there they'll railroad you for sure." But I still had abiding belief in impartial American justice and bullheadedly insisted in going to Washington for trial. Federal Judge Ralph Jenny finally ordered me released on my own recognizance and I returned home to San Bernardino to prepare for the trip to Washington. I was almost broke by then, so I asked the government to pay my railroad fare. Accordingly, I was told to report to the U.S. Marshall in Los Angeles for transportation, which I did. Two marshals reserved a drawing room on the Sante Fe railroad and accompanied me. We became quite friendly and called each other by our first names, but as we boarded the train one of the marshals shame-facedly showed me a telegram he had received from Washington which ordered: "Bring the prisoner back in chains and handcuffs." The marshall said,"Forget it, Dave. You're no dangerous criminal." "Right," I replied, "but you aren't going to lose your job for refusing to obey orders. You're going to do as ordered." So that was that. I never missed an opportunity, when passing through a crowd in a railroad station, to call out, "I'm a guest of your President, who is also your enemy, as you will someday find out."
An interesting sidelight at this time was when my dearly beloved wife tried to find employment to support herself and the children after I was jailed. She was from an old San Bernardino County pioneer family and well thought of. She had worked in the court house before marrying me. She was hired at the San Bernardino Air Depot and was praised for her efficiency. But shortly thereafter, Col. Adrian Cote, who commanded the depot, learned who she was and dismissed her on the ground that she was the wife of David Baxter. He then told her in a letter, which I still have, that if she wished to divorce me she could have her job back. When she refused he wrote another letter telling her that she was discharged with prejudice so that she could not get another job. All that happened before I had been tried or been convicted of anything. (As it turned out, I never was convicted of anything.) Yet even the school kids taunted our youngsters, "You're daddy's in jail."
After my arrival in Washington I was not permitted freedom on my own word, as I had been in Los Angeles, so that I couldn't find a job to support my wife and kids. I was hustled off to the District jail without counsel or the opportunity to obtain a lawyer. The jail admission officer was a big, sloppy-appearing guy who, after asking my name, said to me, "What's your address? Where do you want your body shipped?" Sedition defendants in the jail nicknamed him "Anus" (Annas was a high priest at Jesus' trial.) He was an ornery rascal who liked to gloatingly mention the execution chamber in the facility.
My cell was cold. My hearing was already bad and it became worse, with earaches and no medical attention. The food was terrible, consisting mostly of plain bread and heavily-peppered soup, with one cup of weak coffee. When fellow defendant Leon de Aryan once looked out the barred window of the window of the dining room and remarked, "It looks like rain," I glanced at my cup and replied, "Yeah, but it smells a little like coffee." We were finally allowed a dish of chocolate pudding as a special diet. The U.S. Marshal's bullpen in the District Court House basement was even worse. Defendants George Viereck, Ralph Townsend, Bill Lyman, Edward James Smythe and I were thrown into one large room with a galaxy of criminals and suspects of all kinds. The single toilet without a lid was covered with excrement and cigarette butts, and a leaky old faucet was our only drinking supply. Our "dinner" consisted of one piece of bread, one slice of baloney, and coffee. Talk about punishment before trial -- and in our own American capital!
Bill Lyman was in England when the indictment was issued. Instead of fleeing, he immediately booked passage home and surrendered himself to the authorities. But rather than allowing him freedom to earn a living while awaiting trial, he was handcuffed and put in leg irons in the District jail. After several months in jail, Howard S. Le Roy learned that I was there and called on me. At first he was frankly skeptical of my description of jail conditions, but after investigating on his own he said that he had never known anything like it. Political prisoners were usually treated more leniently and, if wealthy, were generally put under mere "house arrest." Thanks to an old friend, Henry G. Reinsch of Tacoma, Washington, who had never disowned me despite extreme pressure, I was released on $1,000 bond. I still didn't like the bond idea, but it was better than spending a lifetime in jail without trial.
Now this may seem absurd, but to this day I am thankful that my enemies were successful in their persecution. The reason is that while in the Washington jail I became a convert to Jesus Christ. You can bet your bottom dollar that wasn't in the enemy's plans. Yet, thank God, they were actually instrumental in bringing about that very thing. For years I had been a confirmed agnostic, although my wife was a Christian. It was while reading a Gideon Bible left in my cell that this miraculous event occurred. As I was making notes on alleged biblical contradictions, expecting to someday write an article about this, I found myself more and more drawn to Christ. What He said and His apostles wrote made more sense than I had ever imagined. He had the same enemies I had, but He certainly suffered infinitely more than I ever did. What's more, I had to admit that I was a sinner and needed spiritual salvation, which Jesus alone of all the prophets that ever lived provided. The shedding of His blood now really meant something to me. Whatever happened to my mortal body, His enemies and mine would never be able to conquer my soul. I was so happy about my salvation that it wasn't long before we even had a sizable Bible class among the prisoners during the occasional recreation periods. A Washington missionary named Harvey Prentice, in charge of the Gospel Mission, was a big help during this period, bless his soul. So I returned to California a Christian, much to the joy of Bernice and the kids, who ran out to meet me on the porch late one night upon my arrival home.
In the meantime the federal courts in Washington threw out the indictment and I wound up on Los Angeles's Skid Row trying in vain to find a job. Every prospective employer was warned against hiring me. Nevertheless, back in San Bernardino I started painting signs for people, was welcomed by city officials who by now had their own ideas about the cause of my trouble, spoke in churches, and soon ran a thriving sign shop. The enemy arranged for another indictment in 1943 but the courts scuttled it. Despite that, a third indictment was issued after Roosevelt appointed a New York lawyer named O. John Rogge to the Justice Department as an assistant attorney general specially in charge of the Sedition Case. Roosevelt also appointed a former Iowa Congressman, Edward C. Eicher, as Chief Justice of the federal court in Washington with direct orders to try the Sedition Case. Rogge was a protege of Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, who had planted his "hot dog boys" in sensitive government positions.
Columnist Drew Pearson testified that Attorney General Francis Biddle had advised against the whole Mass Sedition venture from the beginning, but Roosevelt ordered him to proceed anyway, adding, "I will appoint the judge." With Eicher now in place as Chief Justice of the U.S. District Court, the trial began on 17 April 1944 with Eicher presiding. There were some 30 defendants, including some of those originally indicted. I well remember Mrs. Elizabeth Dilling, Joseph Dilling, Joseph McWilliams, Lawrence Dennis, Robert Edmondson, Col. Eugene Sanctuary, Robert Noble, Ellis Jones, German-American Bunders Herman Schwinn and Hans Diebel, Garland Alderman, Prescott Dennett, Lois de Lafayette Washburn, August Klapprott, Elmer J. Garner, George Deathage, William Dudley Pelley, James True, and others. My name had appeared on all three indictments, so it seemed that someone had a special interest in wanting to railroad me into prison. Even though several of the German-American Bundists had already been convicted in other trials, they were added to our group in an effort to collectively discredit all the defendants as alien and "un-American." Actually, those who arranged our trial did not consider us the ultimate targets. Our trial was meant to intimidate others and set an important precedent. After disposing of us the people behind the venture planned to put the leading opponents of Roosevelt's war policy on trial, including American First Committee spokesman Charles A. Lindbergh, General Robert Wood of Sears Roebuck, several senators and congressmen, and possibly Father Charles E. Coughlin and Henry Ford. Our trial was intended to be a "warm up" for trials of really prominent Americans who dared oppose Roosevelt's policies.
As one paper wrote, "all hell broke loose" when the trial opened. It was covered in every American daily newspaper. Along with the Communist sheets, Marshall Field's leftist New York paper PM bombarded us on page one day after day. The liberal press was somewhat more restrained, including the Washington Post, which had helped to instigate the case. For some reason, though, their former star reporter, Dillard Stokes, alias "Jefferson Breem," was missing from the courtroom. Most conservative papers assumed a wait-and-see attitude, although the Chicago Tribune and the New York Daily News forthrightly opposed the Justice Department and gave decent, unbiased coverage of the defendants. A United Press report published in those papers in 1943 even went so far as to state:
Under pressure from Jewish organizations, to judge from articles appearing in publications put out by Jews for Jews, the new indictment even more than the first was drawn to include criticisms of Jews as "sedition." It appeared that a main purpose of the whole procedure, along with outlawing unfavorable comments on the administration, was to set a legal precedent of judicial interpretations and severe penalties which would serve to exempt Jews in America from all public mention except praise, in contrast to the traditional American viewpoint which holds that all who take part in public affairs must be ready to accept full free public discussion, either pro or con.
I took Bernice and our children with me on this trip to Washington. After prosecutor Rogge tried unsuccessfully to revoke my bond, we found what passed for an apartment in a tenement. Because I was short of funds, I had a court-appointed lawyer, Hobart Little, who was a fraternity brother of Chief Justice Eicher. During the trial Hobart roomed with Joseph McWilliams' lawyer, Maximilian St. George, and after he learned the whole story about the case he took a really active interest in defending me. That happened in the case of other defendants as well, much to the consternation of the judge and prosecutor, who had obviously intended to make short work of the Sedition Trial. Far from letting their clients be sacrificed, court-appointed lawyers like James McLaughlin stormed into court and in just a few days had the proceedings in an uproar. Mr. Little and I, however, remained calm and were careful to show respect for an American court -- even this one. The trial got almost completely out of hand and Eicher spent a lot of time banging his gavel. After at least a dozen attorneys were found in contempt, they came into court wearing buttons bearing the insignia "E.C.C." When the judge asked about the buttons, McLaughlin informed him that the initials stood for "Eicher Contempt Club." The attorneys eventually named Eicher a defendant in a suit they brought during the trial accusing him of holding office illegally. He was not a resident of the District of Columbia, as the law required. The judge once had to recess the trial to defend himself against our lawyers in another court. As I recall, his case had still not been settled when he died.
The trial caused such a scandal that even the staid District Bar Association found itself in an uproar about it. Lawyers not connected with the Sedition Trial demanded an investigation and called the case a "judicial farce." The Bar Association finally appointed a committee of observers to sit in on the trial. A good example of the trial's legal high jinks occurred when our little boy, David, came down sick and his doctor reported that he suspected diptheria. After spending several hours with David, I returned to the courtroom. Attorney McLaughlin then immediately jumped up and said to the judge, "I move that the defendant Baxter be seated next to Prosecutor Rogge." That made Rogge furious, but the unrelenting pressure on him from some 30 lawyers kept him angry most of the time anyway. He was losing his case and knew it. Even the jury sometimes laughed when a defense lawyer needled the prosecutor. Rogge spent much of his time reading from literature written by the defendants. I could see from the jurors' faces that they were more bored than impressed, waiting for him to present some direct evidence that the accused were actually guilty of the charges he accused them of. He never did that. Indeed, the thing became so loose that before long I was even on friendly terms with the male jurors I often met in the restroom, although we didn't discuss the trial. After about a month, when Bernice and I entered the cafeteria, some of the jurors who were having lunch called out, "Hey Dave, you and your wife bring your trays over and eat with us." If they had voted, I doubt that a single one of them would have convicted me.
Washington's a broiler in the summer. Our tenement was as hot as a furnace, and Bernice and the kids really suffered. I found a job working evenings after court sessions doing art work and lettering, but it only lasted a couple of months. As usual, someone called on the boss and told him who I was. We received a little income from my California business but the fellow I had left in charge was a poor manager and even that source finally trickled out. The defense lawyers were unpaid but they managed to collect a few small donations now and then which they shared with us. Mrs. Dilling, Dr. Winrod and a few other co-defendants were more affluent and they collected about $100 each from their followers for our family and others. I've never forgotten those two $100 gifts.
Fellow defendant Elmer J. "Pop" Garner was 82 years old and very deaf. He had headlined me in his little Kansas paper, Publicity. Garner could barely afford a cheap boarding room and during the noon recess all he could afford for lunch was a doughnut and cup of coffee. I wasn't in much better shape, but "Pop" and I stuck it out and even joked during our talks. "Pop" Garner was an old Kansas pioneer and one of the finest men I've ever known. He couldn't hear a word of his trial and died after a few months. Prosecutor Rogge had his body sent back to his widow stark naked in a plain pine box. That really enraged not only the defendants but even several newspapers and many people with common decency. After his death, whenever Rogge mentioned old "Pop" before the jury he referred to him as "the conspirator Garner." He never prefixed the term "conspirator" to any of us still living, for we were there with our lawyers. At least "Pop" Garner no longer had to endure the trial or the Washington heat.
One torrid day I came home from court and said to Bernice and our youngsters, "Let's get out of here for a while, board a streetcar and go somewhere, anywhere, to cool off." So we boarded the first trolley that came along, marked "Cabin John." We didn't know where Cabin John was, or care, just so we could sit in the breeze as the car rolled along. The streetcar eventually left the city itself and followed the track through beautiful, cool woods along the Potomac River. Bernice had an inspiration and suggested that we get off at a stop and walk along the river bank. We hiked along, admiring the woods and river, when we came to an abandoned cruiser high up on the bank. It was a really nice little ship and equipped for living. Even the engine was still in place. We played Robinson Crusoe on it for a while and then continued our walk, coming to a fishing camp a short distance away. We talked with the owner of the camp, a man named Crampton. When we mentioned the boat, he said that it had belonged to a Swedish mariner who had moored it to the river bank, left and never returned. A flood had left it high and dry, and it was now in receivership. Thinking that we might manage a small down payment on the boat or rent it for the duration of the trial, we had Crampton call up the receiver, who lived across the river. A short time later he came over in a boat.
As it turned out, the receiver was anxious to settle the estate and, after some haggling, told us we could have the cruiser for less than $200 cash. That was most of the money we had left, but to this day I've never heard of such a bargain. We bought it on the spot. Crampton and some other men brought over some equipment and got the boat into the water. It was in perfect condition and so, a few days later, we left the tenement apartment and moved aboard our new home. During the remaining months of the trial we lived in cool comfort on the river under a big shade tree that hung out over the water. The kids went back and forth on a gangplank and played in the woods. The fishing was excellent. I rode to court each morning on the street car. Of course, the other defendants and their lawyers were always welcome aboard when they could visit us and we were glad to be able to show them a good time. It was at least a diversion from the bad time the Justice Department was giving us in court.
After the first few months of excitement, the trial settled down to a humdrum presentation of the government's case, which consisted of a perpetual reading aloud of defendant literature by Rogge. The jurors were getting fidgety and finally asked how long the case would last. They had had to neglect their business and family affairs and were obviously bored stiff. On one occasion, while Rogge was heatedly denouncing a defendant as an "anti-Semite," one of them glanced at me and yawned. Later, in the wash room, he didn't say a word to me, but shook his head, gave me a slight smile, and managed a little wink. I don't think that Justice Eicher ever realized what he was getting into when Roosevelt decided to use him. Eicher was a professing Christian -- an Iowa Mennonite -- and the case was obviously getting on his nerves. He became more testy as the trial droned on and finally asked Rogge when he was going to start presenting solid evidence. The fact was that Rogge didn't have any, as was later proved. The case might have gone on for years.
Then suddenly one day Judge Eicher asked me to stand up and announced that he was severing me from the case on the ground that I wasn't able to hear my own trial. That was true. My hearing had declined from the time of my imprisonment so that I was now 85 percent deaf. I wore a hearing aid but the devices were far from their present-day level of near-perfection. I couldn't hear a single witness on the stand some fifty feet away and my lawyer had to translate for me. What caused Eicher to make his decision is conjectural. Several times attorney Little had moved for a severance for me because I was deaf, but Eicher had overruled him. And yet, after several months, he ordered me to see a specialist for a hearing examination. After receiving the specialist's report he severed me without even a motion from Mr. Little to do so. Later that day Judge Eicher asked to see me privately in his chamber. When we met he smiled, held out his hand, and said: "Go back to California and forget about it, Dave." Frankly, I was glad to be through with the whole ordeal, as were Bernice and Mr. Little, who were there with me. So I replied, "Well, your honor, forgetting it won't be easy, but as a Christian I'm glad to forgive." We immediately sold the cruiser and were preparing to take a train to California when Eicher again asked to talk to me. This time he said that if we wanted to buy an automobile and drive back he would help, and actually handed me a whole roll of gasoline coupons. (During the war every motorist had to have those coupons to buy gasoline, which was severely rationed.) All the same, we returned by train, but back in California we had a car and those coupons certainly came in handy.
Judge Eicher then began severing other defendants, even though Rogge was far from resting his case. The Washington Post (16 July 1944) commented editorially:
The severance of three cases from Washington's mass sedition trial is the best news that has come out of this dreary affair in Justice Eicher's court. It clearly suggests belated recognition of the mistake that was made in bringing 30 individuals of widely varying temperaments and backgrounds to trial at the same time and place for a series of alleged offenses classified as sedition.
One defendant recently died. Another is too ill to attend court sessions regularly. A third found it difficult to follow the proceedings because of limited hearing. A fourth proved to be so obstreperous as seriously to interfere with the progress of the trial. In other words, the exigencies of human life are such as to defeat most any attempt to dispose of complicated criminal charges en masse with both fairness and dispatch. It is a pity that the Department of Justice did not foresee this elementary objection to mass trials before embarking on such an adventure.
The fact that four cases have been eliminated from the trial is overshadowed, therefore, by the larger fact that 26 cases remain before the court. We hope that better progress can be made but no end to even the presentation of evidence by the prosecution is in sight after 13 weeks. How can the jurymen be expected to remember testimony given many weeks before their verdict will be rendered? How can they, in these circumstances, distinguish the varying degrees of guilt, if any, among the 26 remaining defendants? We fear that whatever may be the outcome of this trial it will stand as a black mark against American justice for many years to come.
Such were the remarkable words of the very paper whose own reporter had plotted with the original prosecutor to entrap the defendants and bring them to trial in Washington. "Oh what tangled webs we weave, when first we practice to deceive." As if to add insult to injury, the Post issued another blistering editorial some two weeks later headed "Courtroom Farce." (28 July 1944). The lengthy editorial included these remarks:
We think the time has come to recognize the unlikelihood of securing any fair approximation of justice from this unhappy experiment. The end of the Government's testimony is nowhere in sight. Prosecutors have 4000 exhibits to offer in evidence and only about one-eighth of them are in the record at present. At its present rate of progress, therefore, the trial may run on for several years after the war is over. Meanwhile it is gravely undermining confidence in American justice.
The editorial concluded:
After all, this is a trial of men and women accused of sedition, not a contest in befuddlement. In our opinion the trial can continue its present course only at the cost of serious impairment of our judicial system and the reputation of those responsible for this travesty.
Apparently the Post didn't consider itself among those responsible for what it now called "this travesty." In any case, the paper indignantly withdrew its reporter, James Chinn, from the courtroom. Post Managing editor A.F. Jones told a PM reporter: "I'm not going to keep a man tied up on a lot of baloney." Seeing the way the trial was going, it's clear that the Washington Post was now anxious to obscure its own role in bringing it about. The paper was now calling the case a "black mark against American justice for many years to come" and a "travesty."
What remained of the ill-fated Sedition Trial ended abruptly when Justice Eicher died suddenly of a heart attack on 30 November 1944. That trial could have killed any judge with a Christian conscience and any semblance of fairness. I felt genuinely sorry about Justice Eicher's death. Although Rogge was still reluctant to end the business, he now had a new judge to contend with. Justice Bolitha Laws, a veteran federal judge in the District of Columbia, took over and promptly made it clear that he was a no-nonsense jurist who wanted definite and purposeful action. After Roosevelt died suddenly and mysteriously in April 1945, Rogge admitted to Justice Laws that he had a weak case, but with the European part of the war over, he asked for time to visit Germany to interview Nazi officials and get evidence. After all, he had accused the defendants of having conspired with Adolf Hitler and German officials in the indictment. Laws granted Rogge's request for a continuance in order to question former high Nazis in Germany. Several months later Rogge again appeared before his honor. He was empty-handed. None of the Nazi officials had ever heard of me. They knew that one defendant, George Sylvester Viereck, had been a registered American agent for the German government before the war, when such representation was (and is) quite legal. Most foreign governments retain respected Americans who are registered to represent their interests.
Justice Laws repeatedly asked Rogge if he wanted a new trial. When the prosecutor kept hesitating and even expressed doubt about the government's chances of winning, Laws blasted the Justice Department for its "lack of diligence" (in his exact words), and dismissed Rogge for good. The new President, Harry Truman, then fired Rogge. It later turned out that Rogge had been a good friend of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, was involved in numerous Communist front groups, and had visited Russia where he spoke in the Kremlin and laid a wreath at the grave of American Communist Party co-founder John Reed in Red Square. His wreath was inscribed, "In loving memory from grateful Americans." Along with movie actor Charlie Chaplin, Rogge was an American delegate to a world Communist "peace conference" in Paris and was a lawyer for many Communists in trouble with the law. He was the attorney for David Greenglass, the atomic spy who saved his own life by turning state's evidence against his sister and brother-in-law, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. The Rosenbergs went to the electric chair for turning over U.S. atomic secrets to the Soviets. John Rogge, Roosevelt's choice to prosecute the Sedition Trial and Supreme Court Justice Frankfurter's right-hand man, was thus eventually exposed for what he was. No wonder he was so fanatical in his hatred against the Sedition Trial defendants, all of whom were anti-Communists. After Justice Eicher severed me from the case, Rogge met me in the deserted courtroom and called me a "fascist" to my face. "Fascist" is a favorite term Communists apply to their enemies.
With Rogge out, an assistant attorney general who had helped him named T. Lamar Caudle took over. Probably prompted by the same people who had been behind Rogge, Caudle tried to continue the persecution and appealed Justice Laws' decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals. But that court turned him down, using strong language. Caudle was himself later convicted of "fixing" the income tax of a St. Louis merchant named Wolfe and he received five years in the federal penitentiary.
It should be noted that during those five years and three indictments, the public was continuously propagandized against us in radio broadcasts and best-selling books. I was attacked in at least five books. One was the famous best seller Under Cover by John Roy Carlson. It turned out that "Carlson" was one Avedis Derounian, a writer for the Communist Daily Worker newspaper. Radio propagandist Walter Winchell had collaborated with him on the book and then advertised it over nationwide radio. Derounian, alias "Carlson," was later found guilty of libel in United States District Court in Chicago. Trial judge Barnes commented in sentencing that Derounian would "write anything for a dollar" and that, after hearing the evidence, he would not "believe anything Derounian said under oath." A similar best-selling book of the time, warmly promoted by Winchell, Drew Pearson and then U.S. Senator Claude Pepper of Florida, was Sabotage: The Secret War Against America. The authors were Michael Sayers and Albert E. Kahn, later reported by congressional investigators to be members of the Communist Party. But at the time the public was given to understand that all these propagandists were just good American patriots exposing America's enemies.
Well, five years of this was enough for me. I went to work, paid off all our bills, worked for the Santa Ana (California) Register for a couple of years, wrote a syndicated column, studied theology, and thought I was through with politics. But not the real conspirators who had all but ruined our family life and seen their court case blown to smithereens. A couple of years after the trial, one of the Congressional spokesmen, Adolph Sabath of Illinois, began beating the drum to start a whole new Sedition proceeding and started pressuring the Justice Department.
So now I'll tell you why I'm not made of the stuff of heroes. I gave up. My nerves were half shot from the five-year persecution. At that time a "friend" visited to tell me that if I wished to make my peace with Mr. Sabath and avoid further molestation, I could write Sabath a letter apologizing for my alleged "anti-Semitism" and assuring him that because I had become a Christian and was confining myself to religious affairs, I would not return to political activity. At first I strongly rejected this "offer." Furthermore, I really wasn't anti-Jewish as such, and felt that that point should be clarified. (Of course, the Anti-Defamation League was quite another matter.)
I was concerned about my children and my wife, Bernice, who begged me to ask Sabath's mercy. She pleaded, "Dave, we can't stand any more. We don't want to die. For my sake and our children's, please don't let us go through this again."
I caved in and wrote the required letter to the Congressman. I received a cordial reply. The pressure on the Justice Department stopped as suddenly as it had begun. The incident demonstrated the terrifying power to manipulate the United States government wielded by hidden forces. I was now out of the game, broken and disillusioned. I had given my all to be a solid American but there's a limit to every person's endurance. I recovered enough to become a well-known newspaper editor, theologian and writer for many Christian magazines. And I sometimes became involved in issues requiring that I take a firm stand one way or another. Thank God, I still have some of that spirit at 76 years of age. I have no regrets about the Sedition Trial. Bernice and I celebrated our golden wedding anniversary in 1983. Our children are now middle-aged and successful. We are still firmly dedicated to our Christian faith and American nationalism, with charity toward all and malice toward none.
For the sake of the historical record I would still like to see the U.S. Congress acknowledge that an injustice was done against 30 American citizens in the Sedition Case. Not one of us ever received a penny in compensation for our mistreatment and expenses, much less any official acknowledgment that our government made a serious mistake. Only Congressional committees have made such admissions. Yes, I would like to see our Congress vindicate itself before history by at least partially erasing what the Washington Post called "a black mark against American justice" and the federal courts declared "a travesty upon justice." I believe that God will one day bring this about.
From The Journal of Historical Review, Spring 1985 (Vol. 6, No. 1), pages 23-40. This article is adapted from a paper presented at the Sixth IHR Conference, Feb. 1985, in Anaheim, California.,
About the Author
Born in 1908, David M. Baxter, died in February 1989 in Morrilton, Arkansas.
For more about the wartime sedition trial, see A Trial on Trial: The Great Sedition Trial of 1944, a book by the most prominent defendant, Lawrence Dennis, and his lawyer, Maximilian St. George.