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Julian Assange and the new McCarthyism

There are parallels between the red-baiting years of the 1950s and the treatment of the Wikileaks founder today, argues HELEN MERCER

“IF WARS can be started by lies, they can be stopped by truth”: Julian Assange, publisher.

Nearly 70 years ago, in 1951, the founder and director of International Publishers Ltd, Alexander Trachtenberg, was one of a group of communists arrested and indicted under the 1940 Alien Registration Act, known as the Smith Act. 

Indictments under this Act formed part of the general process known as McCarthyism which effectively succeeded in its aim of disarming and immobilising the CPUSA. 

Trachtenberg received a three-month sentence, which ended when the key witness retracted. He was convicted again in 1956 but the conviction was later overturned.

Many Star readers may find books published by International Publishers on their shelves: works by Marx, Engels and Lenin (including the Little Lenin Library) and works developing their ideas; analyses of modern-day imperialism, of Soviet economic development, of US industry and labour conditions and the history of negro slavery; works of new US “proletarian” writers. 

In 1952 a public meeting was held in defence of Trachtenberg, and the speeches at the meeting were brought together in a pamphlet, Publisher on Trial: the case of Alexander Trachtenberg. 

Speakers included William Patterson, executive secretary of the Civil Rights Congress, Howard Fast and the historians Philip S Foner and Herbert Aptheker, as well contributions sent from Britain by DN Pritt and Rajani Palme Dutt. 

Speakers focused on two elements. First, the charges against Trachtenberg as a publisher represented an attack on the right to hold alternative views or to read alternative literature, as Howard Fast noted: “The indictment has a singularity as exercised toward him. Both the man and the books he has published are on trial.” 

Second, the speeches linked the indictments to mounting militarisation and preparation for war. 

There are striking parallels between the words used in this pamphlet to defend Trachtenberg, and the words used currently by defenders of Julian Assange. 

The wider intention of the prosecutions against both men was and is to stifle all dissent and especially to silence the voices raised against mongering cold and hot, old and new wars. 

Both cases have dire implications for other publishers. 

In 1950 Albert Maltz wrote: “If Alexander Trachtenberg is locked behind bars then the shadow of those bars will fall upon the desk of every publisher in the United States. 

“Imprison the publisher of Marxist works today and then let us see what other publishers will dare print tomorrow.” 

In 2020 the charges against Assange, as his lawyer Jen Robinson has stated, relate to “activity that journalists engage in all the time and any prosecution and extradition of Mr Assange for having done so or [being] alleged to have done so will place a massive chill on investigative journalism the world over.”

In both cases, the charges brought under the Smith Act in 1950 or at Assange’s extradition hearings in 2020 under the US Espionage Act are prima facie violations of the First Amendment of the US constitution. 

Following the collapse of the appeal to the Supreme Court that the Smith Act violated the First Amendment, Justice William O Douglas issued a dissenting opinion, arguing that the judgement “is to make freedom of speech turn not on what is said but on the intent with which it is said. 

“Once we start on that road we enter territory dangerous to the liberties of every citizen … we then start probing men’s minds for motive and purpose; they become entangled in the law not for what they did but for what they thought.”

The Washington Post in 1950 saw the aim of the legal attack on the CPUSA as “not so much the protection and security of the state as the exploitation of justice for the purpose of propaganda.” 

With regard to the indictment against Assange, the New York Times stated on May 23 2019: “The new charges focus on receiving and publishing classified material from a government source. 

“That is something journalists do all the time. They did it with the Pentagon Papers and in countless other cases where the public benefited from learning what was going on behind closed doors, even though the sources may have acted illegally. 

“This is what the First Amendment is designed to protect: the ability of publishers to provide the public with the truth.”

Supposed guardians of a free press and many left radicals and liberals deserted Trachtenberg just as Julian has experienced today. 

In the case of Trachtenberg, condemnation was made automatic through the intense red-baiting of the day. 

As a result, “the people whose professional duty is to be the guardian of the free press — the publishers, professors, teachers in the schools, librarians, booksellers…” kept silent, “saving their reputations,” wrote Maltz.

Assange was systematically and interminably defamed by reference to allegations of rape, now dropped: “The result is that Assange has become a pariah,” according to Patrick Cockburn. 

“Lost is the fact that he and Wikileaks did what all journalists should do, which is to make important information available to the public, enabling people to make evidence-based judgments about the world around them and, in particular, about the actions of their governments.”

The speech by Angus Cameron, himself a radical publisher and later blacklisted, explained what was at stake: “Americans must come to realise before it is too late that the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press which they take for granted are the right to express heresy to the current view whether that current view be the precepts of a tyrannical 17th-century theocracy in Massachusetts or against the precepts of a 20th-century financial-military oligarchy in Washington DC and New York City.” 

The same applies today in the defence of Julian Assange.


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