Saturday, May 01, 2010

Five U.S. Treason Cases

I'm going to stop apologizing for the intermittent blogging schedule around here, while also promising to do a little better in the weeks ahead. The return from Los Angeles, in the immortal words of my brother Ed, kicked every ass I had, and I came home to a sick dog, a broken car, some missed deadlines, and the one-and-only weekend of Gaslight's "Evening of One Acts," which opened last night and closes tonight. (Yes, tickets are still available. Click here for details.)

Among the marvels and wonders I saw at the LA Times Festival of Books was a blizzard of flyers advertising a May Day rally by the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA. May Day is, of course, the international socialist holiday, but the word "revolution" caught my eye, especially because the flyer used the word "overthrow" as well — not in specific terms, but in vague sometime-in-the-future language.

Like most over-educated young women, I went through a phase of embracing the communist ideal, which in my case consisted mainly of a belief that people should share their material possessions and agree to behave well toward each other. While I still believe that, I no longer see it as a valid basis for government, because 40+ years of empirical evidence have shown me that sometimes people just suck. Government exists for this reason: to restrain people's worst impulses (greed, lust, rage, paranoia, carelessness) and minimize the effects of those impulses on the general population.

In that context, treason is a strange concept. The quotation above the auditorium in Georgetown University's Intercultural Center, which opened my freshman year, is Teilhard de Chardin: "The age of nations is past. It remains for us now, if we do not wish to perish, to set aside the ancient prejudices and build the earth." I believed that when I was 16, I believe it now. But given that nations do still exist, and that nations do not respect human rights equally, laws against treason expect us to defend our own nation's principles and integrity against those who would subvert or overthrow it. At the same time, the First Amendment gives us the right (if not the obligation) to challenge those principles — so where does the line fall?

The Constitution is actually pretty clear on this. Article III, Section 3: "Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort. No Person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court." It's a high standard, and in the 234-year history of the United States, the Federal government has only prosecuted about 30 treason cases. Here are five of the most interesting.

1. United States v. Aaron Burr, 1807. Aaron Burr was a brilliant and charismatic soldier and lawyer who served as Attorney General of New York (1789-91) before being elected to the U.S. Senate, defeating Alexander Hamilton's father-in-law and starting a lifelong feud. Burr tied Thomas Jefferson in electoral college votes for the Presidency in 1800, throwing the election into the House of Representatives. Jefferson ultimately won, making Burr Vice President under the system at the time; this election led to the 12th Amendment, which separated the elections for President and Vice President, creating the "ticket" system that survives to this day. Blaming Alexander Hamilton for his loss of the Presidency and a subsequent defeat in a run for the New York governor's seat, Aaron Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel in 1804, and killed Hamilton with his first shot. Indicted for murder, he fled to South Carolina, but eventually returned to Washington to complete his term as Vice President. A year later he lit out for the territories, where he apparently intended to rally the western states (meaning, at this point, those states east of the Mississippi and west of the original 13 colonies) to secede from the Union with himself as head of a new Republic. President Jefferson denounced the scheme with an October 1806 proclamation, and had Burr arrested in Mississippi in January 1807. Burr escaped, was recaptured in Alabama, and stood trial for treason in May 1807. He was acquitted after a six-month trial, and left for several years in Europe immediately after that. He returned to the U.S. quietly in 1812, and died in 1836 at the age of 80.

2. Virginia v. John Brown, 1859. All the seeds of the Civil War were present in this suit, which tried the violent abolitionist John Brown for murder, inciting slaves to insurrection, and treason — but treason against the commonwealth of Virginia, not treason against the Federal government. Accounts conflict, but at least one contemporary account quoted the trial judge, Richard Parker, as telling the jury that he would not express his feelings about one who would "invade by force a peaceful, unsuspecting portion of our common country, raise the standard of insurrection amongst us, and shoot down without mercy Virginia citizens defending Virginia soil against their invasion." Nope, he didn't want to influence them . . . the jury took only 45 minutes to convict Brown of treason, and he was hanged a month later, on December 2, 1859. Interestingly, the trial was held in Charles Town, which became the capital of West Virginia when that part of the state chose to remain with the Union after the rest of Virginia seceded.

3. United States v. Tomoya Kawakita, 1948–1952. Tomoya Kawakita was born in the United States in 1921, but went to Japan with his father in 1939 to study at Meiji University. After Pearl Harbor, he stayed on to finish his education. He became a translator for the Japanese government in 1943, translating orders to American prisoners of war at a mine in Kyoto province. When the American occupation forces arrived in 1945, he served as a translator for them. He returned to the U.S. in 1946 and went back to school at USC, where a former POW recognized him as someone who had tortured American prisoners. Kawakita was charged with treason, tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. He appealed this conviction all the way to the Supreme Court, arguing that he had renounced his U.S. citizenship while in Japan and could therefore not be guilty of treason to a country he no longer owed allegiance to. The Supreme Court ruled unanimously, in its 1952 decision Kawakita v. United States, that a U.S. citizen owes allegiance to the United States and can be punished for treasonable acts voluntarily committed regardless of dual nationality or citizenship. President Eisenhower commuted Kawakita's sentence to life in prison; President Kennedy pardoned him in 1963 on condition that he be deported to Japan for the rest of his life.

4. United States v. Iva Ikuko Toguri D'Aquino, 1949. She called herself "Orphan Ann" on an English-language radio show broadcast to Allied soldiers in the South Pacific during World War II, but the soldiers always called her "Tokyo Rose." She was born in Los Angeles to Japanese immigrants in 1916. She graduated from UCLA with a degree in zoology. She was a registered Republican, and voted for Wilkie in 1940. In June 1941, she sailed for Japan to visit relatives with only a Certificate of Identification, not a passport; once in Japan, she applied to the U.S. Consul for a passport, but was not issued one before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December. Pressured to renounce her U.S. citizenship, she refused to do so. She found work as a typist for a Japanese news agency, then for Radio Tokyo, and was pulled into "The Zero Hour," a program hosted by prisoners of war under duress. She refused to say anything on the air against the United States, and in fact she never did; her radio broadcasts were comedy sketches and music introductions. She never even read the news. Nevertheless, she was arrested after the war. Pregnant, she asked to come back to the United States so that her child would be born here, but the government denied this request, and the child died soon after birth. U.S. military authorities finally brought D'Aquino back to the United States in 1948, to stand trial on eight charges of "overt acts" of treason. After what was then the longest and most expensive trial in U.S. history, D'Aquino was convicted of a single count of treason and sentenced to ten years in prison. (She served in the same facility that later housed Martha Stewart, the Federal Reformatory for Women in Alderson, West Virginia.) Paroled in 1956, she moved to Chicago. Her husband, a Portuguese citizen of Japanese-Portuguese descent, was banned from the United States, and they never saw each other again. Revelations of perjury in Toguri's trial led to President Gerald Ford granting her an unconditional pardon in 1977 and restoring her U.S. citizenship. The World War II Veterans Committee gave her its Edward J. Herlihy Citizenship Award in 2006, citing "her indomitable spirit, love of country, and . . . example of courage." She died later that year.

5. United States v. Adam Gadahn, 2006. In October 2006, the Department of Justice announced its first treason indictment in more than 50 years. The target of the indictment is Adam Gadahn, an American-born spokesman and operative for al-Qaeda. Gadahn was born Adam Pearlman in Oregon in 1978. His father changed the family name to Gadahn when he converted to Christianity, before Adam was born. Adam was homeschooled until the age of 16, when he moved to his grandparents' home in Orange County, California. There he got a job in a computer store and started studying Islam; he converted to Islam in 1995. Authorities believe he moved to Pakistan in 1998 and married an Afghan refugee. He stopped communicating with his family in 2001, around the time that al-Qaeda's media arm, As-Sahab, released its first video — a production Gadahn is believed to have been heavily involved in, if not responsible for. Since 2004 he has appeared in several al-Qaeda videos as "Azzam the American," threatening attacks on other world cities and denouncing the United States, Israel, and Zionism. Most recently, he appeared in a March 2010 video that called for American Muslims to follow the example of Nidal Malik Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter, in taking up arms "to reap the rewards of jihad and martyrdom." Still at large, he is on the FBI's Most Wanted list.


Natasha Fondren said...

Wow, that was a fascinating read. That's very cool! Sad about Tokyo Rose, though, really sad. Geeze. After she tried so hard to be honorable!

Yvonne said...

Clair, I too found this fascinating and feel great sympathy for Iva Ikuko Toguri D'Aquino.

I wonder if you've heard of William Joyce, an Irish-American who made pro-fascist broadcasts from Germany during WWII. He was known as Lord Haw Haw and was executed for treason in England in 1946. Here's the Wiki

I think soldiers can be tried for treason for deserting during battle. I have a dim recollection of reading something of this kind in Sebastian Barry's great novel about WWI 'A Long Long Way'. As I say, a dim recollection because I am both tired and old. ;)

JIM LAMB said...

I think I will start posting on my blog again. I just find that facebook is too quick and the posting too short. In regard to treason, I recall my Grandfather making a remark when I was young to the effect that anything that will kill an Englishman can't be all bad. He was talking about Nazis and Communists. My father was shocked and his reaction to the remark was what made me remember it over the years. I daresay that many Irish people living in New York around 1950 would have agreed with him.
I do know that most Irish Americans wanted to enter the war on the German side and not the English side in 1917.
But in the end the Irish Regiments did their duty. No Irishman wants to be left out of a good fight and they aren't too particular about which side they pick.

Karen said...

Very interesting read, Clair. It's odd how the writers of history books pick and choose the same cases to cover again and again, but leave out such interesting ones like those that you chose to bring to light. Thanks!

AnswerGirl said...

Yvonne, I had no idea that Lord Haw-Haw was an American citizen! The fact that the UK tried him for high treason is all the more intriguing, since he wasn't a subject of the Crown — I wonder if the fact that he tried to enlist in the British Army was the basis for the charge of treason.

Dad, it's all the more interesting about the Irish affinity for Germany in the World Wars, because William Joyce was an Irish unionist before he joined the British Union of Fascists.

And Karen, the high standard for treason means that a lot of the people we think of as having been tried for treason were actually convicted of other charges. Benedict Arnold was never tried for anything, because his act of treason happened pre-Constitution, and the British rewarded him. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were tried, convicted and executed on charges of conspiracy to commit espionage, not treason.

Yvonne said...

Clair, I wasn't sure myself how William Joyce came to be tried for treason in England but I read this on his biographer's website - "Joyce’s trial, in 1945, was a media sensation. The outcome was controversial, for William Joyce was not, technically, British. He had been born in America – the son of a naturalised American – and had grown up in Ireland. He had, in 1933, made an application for a British passport, in which he had mendaciously claimed to have been born in the United Kingdom. By this act, claimed the prosecuting attorney Sir Hartley Shawcross, Joyce had wrapped himself in the Union Jack: his value to the Reich was as a supposed Britisher." (via