December 16, 2004  ·  Geof Stone

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?

  • Fernando

    So it seems! However, it�s not just that our nation�s democratic experience has refined and gained collective wisdom since then, but that our judicial process, including the great justices that turn the gears, has/have undergone the same evolutionary strain.

  • Brentmeister General

    fernando,

    what “collective wisdom” have we gained since then?

  • Fernando

    In Response to: Brentmeister General

    Quite a number of social changes have occurred since 1919 and 1920. One of which is the increased number of institutions of higher education. With all those faculties to fill-in, the numbers of professors who teach the nations lucky few who actually make it to decent lectures, quite a bit of the democratic participants, assuming students participate in the process, contribute to the �collective wisdom� of the nation. These are then the students that make up the work force, the management, the entrepreneurs, etc. which has given us the cutting edge in the art of governance, the muscle in our judicial systems, and the global market. That�s only one fraction of the population, but it�s improving both quantitatively and qualitatively.–I admit that sounds optimistic, but its based on actual observation and cumulative data.

  • Brentmeister General

    with all due respect, you just said the same thing but said that there are new institutions that have been contributing to this collective wisdom. i could believe we’ve become more collectively stupid since 1919, but i don’t see any evidence of collective wisdom.

  • Fernando

    In reply to Brentmeister General:

    Count the plethora of non-profit organizations that have sprung into existence since the early phases of the 1920s. Or count the watchdog organizations. Both have contributed in shaping legislation and social policy. In addition, one can include the vast collection of literature generated in scholarly journals, some of which contain seeds of powerful truth and the type of perspectives that really affect many people. Then again there�s mass media for what it�s worth. Mass media serves multiple social functions; some channels of information contribute to �collective wisdom�–a type of learned shared worldview, objective in framework.

  • Max Lybbert

    One of the big differences today is the lack of a military draft. In the past, a draft could exist even without a war. That changed public perception. It’s kind of like France relying on the US to provide national security, so that it can recruit fewer soldiers to send to its former African colonies.

    Not that I want a return of the draft. The military says that today’s level of technology makes a draft useless. However, the lack of a draft does change the public’s perception of the military.

  • fourleggedant

    regarding Fernando’s comments,

    “Count the plethora of non-profit organizations that have sprung into existence since the early phases of the 1920s. Or count the watchdog organizations. Both have contributed in shaping legislation and social policy.”

    yes. but compare their contributions to that of the military industrial complex in particular, and industry in general. to say the contribution of nfp’s and watchdog groups has been negligable is generous.

    “In addition, one can include the vast collection of literature generated in scholarly journals, some of which contain seeds of powerful truth and the type of perspectives that really affect many people.”

    you were correct until you wrote “many people”. what proportion of the population reads scholarly journals? again, negligible is generous.

    “Then again there�s mass media for what it�s worth. Mass media serves multiple social functions; some channels of information contribute to �collective wisdom�–a type of learned shared worldview, objective in framework.”

    the mass media is incredibly harmful and has contributed enormously to the information starvation that most americans appear to be stricken with. the general level of enlightenment has been in decline since the advent of television and once it established itself as *the* source of news that decline avalanched. that is not to say that it is all bad, just most of it. in fact, i believe that the current debate of ‘war’ has been skewed by the mass media. consider how often they drop the name “al qaeda”. any time anything blows up anywhere it is a “possible al qaeda attack”. almost overnight al qaeda apparently grew from a fringe radical islamist group to an internation organisation rivaling any government’s intelligence agency in size and complexity.

    i would even go so far as to suggest that the complicity of the mass media in the current war alleviates the govenment’s need, to a significant degree, to impose the level of censorship seen during the first world war.

    . -ant

  • Fernando

    A hermeneutic interlude,

    1. �Yes. but compare their contributions to that of the military industrial complex in particular, and industry in general. to say the contribution of nfp’s and watchdog groups has been negligable is generous.�
    Perhaps this is the case, but notice that I did not introduce such a relative comparison. To do so is arbitrary and irrelevant. Moreover, if one intends to play the arbitrary inclusion of factors that either increase �collective wisdom� or increase �collective stupidity�, one can easily introduce the effect that sub-atomic particles have had on the formation of thought in individuals, and, by the stretch of the imagination, go on to claim that physical forces are either more or less impacting than non-profit or watchdog organizations.
    2.�you were correct until you wrote “many people”. what proportion of the population reads scholarly journals? again, negligible is generous�
    By �many people,� I literally meant what I said. There are a relatively select few who actually read scholarly work. But there are important catalysts included in the aforementioned class, judges and policy makers–one can also include the crafty court clerks. When such writing is incorporated into the framework of legal deliberation and decision making, many under the scope of case law are affected, and that�s a rather large civil corpus.
    3.�i would even go so far as to suggest that the complicity of the mass media in the current war alleviates the govenment’s need, to a significant degree, to impose the level of censorship seen during the first world war.�
    That might be true. But irrelevant to the point established in the conversational thread.

    Thanks to fourleggedant for the helpful criticism!

  • http://howling.fantods.com/ hf

    Walter Karp’s book “The Politics of War” covers Wilson’s shenanigans in great detail. It’s a disturbing story, one I never learned in school, but an important part of U.S. history.

  • http://davidp1.blogspot.com/ DavidP

    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.

    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.”

    A year or so ago there was a 10-part series on the First World War, which was shown on Channel 4 in the UK. There it was pointed out that the US had lent Britain and France a lot of money to finance their war effort. For the US, military involvement became a necessity when it looked like Britain and France might actually lose the war and they would not get their money back.

    http://davidp1.blogspot.com/2004/12/wartime-rights.html