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LLRX Book Review by Heather A. Phillips - Books on Trial: Red Scare in the Heartland

By Heather A. Phillips, Published on December 23, 2007
Books on Trial: Red Scare in the Heartland

Armed with trumped up search warrants, the police raid a book store. The police then arrest everyone in the bookstore, as well as the occupants of a car pulling up outside the store. These people are held incommunicado, and the police list them under false names. They are not informed of the charges against them. When they manage to secure the services of an attorney, the authorities interfere with his access to his clients.

Surprisingly, this is not the tale of any of America's "enemy combatants", nor that of any of those arrested as material witnesses or held for immigration infractions in the wake of 9/11. These people were arrested in 1940, and they were being held under Oklahoma's criminal syndicalism statute. The four defendants who were eventually tried were convicted and sentenced to ten years in prison. Though the convictions were later overturned on appeal, the hue and cry raised by the ACLU, publishers, librarians and unions turned the trials (and subsequent appeals) into a cause célèbre of national scale.

The similarities are no accident. Shirley and Wayne Wiegand have purposefully emphasized the parallels between this 1940s Red Scare and current fears about terrorism. In this detailed account, the Weigands tell a cautionary tale of innocent people caught up in the madness of their times.

This thoroughly researched account does not examine these events in a vacuum. Rather, the book examines it within the legal and cultural circumstances of its time. From the Green Corn Rebellion and segregation to the Great Depression and America’s eventual entry into WWII, the Weigands show the effect of external events on the atmosphere surrounding these arrests, trials and appeals. In the hands of less skillful writers, this broad approach could have resulted in an unfocused book, full of interesting but distracting interludes. Happily, that is not the case here.

Particularly interesting was the Weigands’ examination of the local people and institution that played a role in these events. They portray John Eberle, the prosecutor, as an ambitious man motivated by racism and anti-Semitism as much as he was driven by anticommunism. They go on to illustrate how both social and legal power was wielded by Eberle (with support from local media and businesses) to squash individuals’ civil rights. They further illustrate that Eberle’s success was made possible by citizen’s fears of communist subversion.

This book could have been written from either a legal perspective, or a library perspective. And while either of these options doubtless could have resulted in a well-written, interesting, informative book, the Weigands have chosen to take a more nuanced, blended approach, resulting in a work with a unique perspective. In addition to being married, the Weigands each represent one of the essential disciplines that influence law librarianship. Shirley Wiegand is a law professor at Marquette University, and Wayne Wiegand is a professor of Library and Information Studies as well as American Studies at Florida State University. The Weigands have taken advantage of their backgrounds in writing this book, resulting in a work exhibiting a unique fusion of law and library science.

This book would be a good addition to law libraries collecting in the areas of legal history and First Amendment issues, as well as those that collect in the area of Oklahoma history. Moreover, I believe that academic libraries that support American Studies and Library Science programs would also benefit from considering this book for their collections.

cover of Books on Trial: Red Scare in the HeartlandBooks on Trial: Red Scare in the Heartland
Author: Shirley A. Wiegand,Wayne A. Wiegand
Binding: Hardcover
List price: $24.95 USD
Amazon price: $22.43 USD