Before we leave the 19th century, a word from our sponsor: Geoffrey R. Stone, Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime from the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism (W. W. Norton 2004). Buy one in the next six hours and you can read the next entry in this blog ASOLUTELY FREE!!
We tend to think of World War I as a generally popular war, like World War II. Nothing could be further from the truth. After the war broke out in Europe in 1914, the vast majority of Americans wanted nothing to do with it. The saw the carnage of the European battlefields and decided the conflicted implicated no vital interests of the United States. Indeed, Woodrow Wilson was reelected in 1916 on the platform that “He Kept Us Out of War!”
In 1917, however, Wilson sought a declaration of war. The reason he sought to enter the war was to preserve the “freedom of the seas.” Under international law, a neutral is entitled to trade with belligerants. The Germans, however, were using U-boats to sink American ships that were bringing munitions, arms, and other supplies to England and France. Ironically, the English and French were also blocking American shipping to Germany. But because Germany had little access to the sea, they could do this my minimg a few harbors and rivers. The only way the Germans could reciprocate was by warning Americans not to trade with English and France, on pain of submarine attacks. Nonetheless, Wilson got his declaration.
Many Americans were angry. They were perfectly happy to forego trade with England and France, rather than get involved in the war. They saw this, not as a “War to Make the World Safe for Democracy,” as the president now billed it, but as a “War to Make the World Safe for Armanents and Munitions Manufacturers.” People like Emma Goldman, Eugene Debs, and Jane Addams vigorously criticized the decision to enter the war.
Wilson had two problems. First, he had to generate enthusiasm for the war. Second, he had to repress dissent that would undermine morale. To address the first problem, he established the Committee on Public Information, a propaganda arm of the United States goverment, the charge of which was to produce a floot of leaflets, pamplets, lectures, and movies designed to promote a hatred of all things German and a suspicion of anyone who might be “disloyal.” To address the second problem, he led Congress to enact the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918, which effectively made it a crime for any person to criticize the war, the draft, the president, the government, the flag, the military, or the Constitution of the United States.
Some 2,000 dissenters were prosecuted under these provisions. They ranged from such obscure dissidents as Mollie Steimer, a 20-year-old Russian-Jewish emigre who threw leaflets in Yiddish from a rooftop on the lower East Side of New York, to such prominent figures as Eugene Debs, the national leaders of the Socialist Party, who had received one million votes for President in 1912 (6% of the total), who gave a speech in Ohio criticizing Wilson for the draft and for his suppression of free expression. Moreover, unlike the Sedition Act of 1798, where the maximum jail term was 6 months, judges enforcing the World War I legislation routinely sentenced people to prison terms of 10-20 years in jail, and many of these people (like Mollie Steimer and Emma Goldman) were deported for their dissent.
And what, you ask, of the Supreme Court of the United States? In a series of decisions in 1919 and 1920, the Court upheld the convictions of these defendants. In effect, the Court ruled that, in time of war, government could punish such criticism of its policies and programs because such dissent could persuade people not to support the war, and that could in turn lead them to do things like refusing induction if they were drafted or being insubordinate if they were in the army. To prevent such harms, the government could constitutionally make essentially any criticism of the war or the draft unlawful.
Things today don’t look quite so bad, do they?