The Long Shadow of World War I and America’s War on Dissent

Part 1

“War is the health of the state.” So said the eerily prescient and uncompromising antiwar radical Randolph Bourne in the very midst of what Europeans called the Great War, a nihilistic conflict that eventually consumed the lives of at least 9 million soldiers, including some 50,000 Americans. He meant, ultimately, that wars – especially foreign wars – inevitably increase the punitive and regulatory power of government. He opposed what Americans commonly term the First World War on those principled grounds. Though he’d soon die a premature death, Bourne had correctly predicted the violations of civil liberties, deceptive propaganda, suppression of immigrants, vigilantism, and press restriction that would result on the home front, even as tens of thousands of American boys were slaughtered in the trenches of France.

This, the war on the free press, free speech, and dissent more generally, is the true legacy of the American war in Europe (1917–18). More disturbing, in the wake of 9/11 and Washington’s two-decade-old wars for the Greater Middle East, the dark, twisted, underbelly of World War I’s legacy has again reared its ugly head. Bipartisan, interventionist presidential administrations – unilaterally tyrannical in foreign affairs – from George W. Bush to Barrack Obama to Donald Trump have sought mammoth expansions of executive power, suppressed civil liberties, trampled on the Constitution, and waged outright war on the press.

All this was done – in 1917 and today – in the name of “patriotism,” what Oscar Wilde (perhaps apocryphally) labeled the “virtue of the vicious.” World War I produced the repressive and now-infamous Espionage and Sedition Acts, along with brutal vigilante attacks on Germans and other immigrants. The 21st century’s endless wars have engendered the equally autocratic USA PATRIOT Act, and their own reinvigorated brand of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim abuses. It is for this reason that a brief reflection on America’s troubled – and oft-forgotten – experience on the home front during the First World War is more relevant than ever.

Rethinking American intervention in World War I

The truth about this particular war, at least of America’s own late intervention, is that it was unnecessary. That is not, of course, how World War I is today collectively remembered, but it was a common – perhaps even majority – viewpoint in the interwar period of 1919–1940. The more common modern memory, of Uncle Sam rushing into the war at last to save the day, ensure victory, and thereby “save democracy,” was, in fact, carefully crafted in the aftermath of the Second World War when the United States decided, once and for all, to seek global imperium. No doubt, the Germans were no angels during the First World War. None of the belligerents was. All contestants (even little Belgium) were land-hungry belligerent states with sometimes large (and distant) overseas empires. If the great sin of Germany was to violate Belgian neutrality (Britain’s declared casus belli for war), it was instructive that nothing was said about Brussels’s decades-long rape of the Congo, a campaign that bordered on the genocidal.

Early in the war, there were, now famous, German attacks on U.S. ships that sometimes killed American citizens, and that had already whipped up anti-German rancor among some, but did not lead to outright war. They included the German submarine sinking of the famed British ocean liner Lusitania, which killed more than 100 Americans. Jumping to conclusions, as the former president was apt to, Theodore Roosevelt denounced the attack as “murder on the high seas.” The problem was, it turned out that Germany had been correct: the liner was carrying armaments in secret, including a total of 1,248 cases of 3-inch artillery shells and 4,927 boxes of rifle cartridges bound for the British Army. When he felt Woodrow Wilson protested too vehemently, Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan – an ardent opponent of intervention – resigned in protest. “A Ship carrying contraband, should not rely on passengers to protect her from attack,” the outgoing secretary accurately noted regarding the Lusitania, adding that “it would be like putting women and children in front of an army.” Nonetheless, the biggest dove in the Wilson cabinet was gone and the path to war became that much more open.

Nevertheless, Germany did – by the winter of 1916-17 – declare unrestricted submarine warfare on US merchant ships bound for the Allies, and even sent a telegram to Mexico that appeared to entice Mexico’s entry into the war on the Kaiser’s side in exchange for the reclamation of its lost provinces of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. These seemed, to many, to be unacceptable provocations that required war. But were they?

Germany had a point, after all. For years, as Washington pledged neutrality, it had floated massive banking loans to the Allies, traded almost exclusively with Allied states, and hardly raised a peep about Britain’s own violation of neutral trading rights through its starvation blockade of German ports. Feeling itself backed into a corner, squeezing the British economy seemed the only way to end the war on terms favorable to Germany. While unrestricted warfare turned out to be a tactical blunder, it need not have prompted outright American military intervention. The United States might have insisted on true neutral trading rights whereby its merchant ships could pierce the blockade of Germany, and refused loans or arms deals of any kind to any belligerent power. True neutrality – in action – just might have averted war. It was not to be.

It seems ironic that it was Woodrow Wilson – a self-described “Progressive” who had run just months earlier on the campaign slogan “He kept us out of war” – who asked Congress for a martial declaration against Germany on April 2, 1917. Wilson had always favored the British and French Allies over the Central Powers of Germany and Austria, but he had once seemed genuinely leery of the potential consequences of intervention. In 1914, he had said, “Every reform we have won will be lost if we go into this war.” He’d soon be proven correct.

Contrary to common – albeit now debunked, but still prevalent – historical mythology, the pre–Great War United States was never a full-tilt isolationist state. Although since the War of 1812 at least, Washington had tended to avoid intervention in Europe’s endless conflicts, Uncle Sam had nevertheless expanded its own continental empire through aggressive conquests at the expense of Indians and the state of Mexico. Then, after 1898, the United States joined in the overseas imperial game, gobbling up Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and various other Pacific and Caribbean Islands in the wake of the one-sided, unnecessary Spanish-American War.

Nevertheless, Washington’s early spring 1917 entrance into a catastrophic and epic European ground war was a profound departure from America’s past. The United States would have to raise armies exceeding even those of the Civil War and somehow deploy them to France. Intervention would also, inevitably, alter society. As the historian David M. Kennedy summarized, “The war temporarily required the United States … to discipline and mobilize its citizens in a manner from which history and geography had theretofore singularly spared them.” Only, as it turned out, those economic and social changes would prove far from temporary. Furthermore, as war always does, the war across the Atlantic eventually came home, affecting domestic politics, constitutionally protected civil liberties, and the very existence of the ostensible republic.

Civil liberties in the First World War

“Woe be to the man or group of men that stand in our way.”
– President Wilson in a June 1917 warning to peace advocates

In this, one of the darker, if rarely remembered, phases of American history, the US government waged a veritable war on peaceful dissent. Pacifism, skepticism, radicalism: seemingly overnight all three were officially or practically criminalized. In a familiar pattern in the suppression of civil liberties, the White House would raise the national-security alarm and request the power to curtail freedom and squash protest; then Congress would do the president’s bidding and pass repressive legislation forthwith; much later the courts tended to uphold the highly questionable laws.

War fever produced a vehement “patriotic” crusade against even the sentiment of peace or doubt. When, in the congressional debates that followed Wilson’s request for war, some representatives and senators questioned the case for intervention, they were regularly met with shouts of “Treason! Treason!” Earlier, in response to the Progressive senator Robert La Follette’s opposition to the arming of US merchant ships, Teddy Roosevelt had quipped that the Wisconsin senator “has shown himself to be an unhung traitor, and if the war should come, he ought to be hung.” When even a still-popular, and ostensibly Progressive, former president used such provocative language, it proved unsurprising that thousands of private citizens would indeed inflict violence on their antiwar neighbors in 1917-18.

Had La Follette been so far off the mark in his criticism? Honest analysis proves otherwise. Prudently, if rarely among his contemporaries, the senator questioned the Manichean duality of Wilson’s official framing of the war as one between liberal Western states and autocratic Germanic states. After all, where did monarchical Tsarist Russia – a core member of the Allies – fit into that equation? And what of the massive overseas imperium of Britain and France, which dwarfed the German and Austrian empires? On April 4, 1917, during the congressional war debate, La Follette pointed out the contradictions then at work, as he asserted “[Wilson] says this is a war … for democracy…. But the president has not suggested that we make our support of Britain conditional to her granting home rule to Ireland, Egypt, or India….” It was a fair point; indeed, World War I was a war between empires, not – as Wilson pretended – against empire.

The primary tool of oppression for the US government was the Sedition Act, overwhelmingly passed into law on May 16, 1917. The impetus for the bill was Attorney General Thomas Gregory’s request for an amendment to the press-constricting Espionage Act, which would allow him to prosecute “disloyal utterances.” The result was a new law that prohibited “any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government … or Constitution … or flag of the United States, or the uniform of the Army or Navy.” Beyond the law’s troubling, and obvious, attack on free expression, the very vagueness of the statute lent itself to abuse.

It was the fanatic Gregory who would wield this new tool of federal oppression. He performed his duties with glee, stating of war opponents, “May God have mercy on them, for they need expect none from an outraged people and an avenging government.” It didn’t take particularly violent or catalyzing speech to earn an arrest, conviction, and federal prison sentence. When a New Hampshire citizen cited his opinion that “this was a [banker J.P.] Morgan war and not a war of the people,” he received a three-year prison sentence.

More famous, when the prominent Socialist leader Eugene V. Debs delivered an antiwar speech in Canton, Ohio – which focused mainly on the supposed ills of capitalism and hadn’t explicitly urged violation of conscription laws – he was arrested and earned a ten-year term in the federal penitentiary. Ultimately, the martyrdom of Debs partly backfired. Running, from federal prison, for the presidency in 1920, he earned nearly a million votes, the highest popular vote percentage by a Socialist in American history.

No court challenges of the deplorable Sedition Act bore fruit, and the law remained on the books until repealed in December 1920. By then the war was over, precedent was set, and damage was done. Many languished in prison for years for the crime of war opposition, even criticism. As historian David Kennedy concluded, “Commentators ever since have rightly viewed it as a landmark of repression in American history…. [It] reveals a great deal about the popular temper at the midpoint of American belligerency.” Indeed it was, and did.

That the Sedition Act needed to be used so broadly deflates the myth that Americans rushed en masse to recruiting stations and waged war with great enthusiasm. In reality, when the government called for one million military volunteers only 73,000 enlisted. Six weeks later the United States settled on conscription. Throughout the war 330,000 Americans were officially classified as war evaders and thousands of pacifists were detained in so-called Conscientious Objector Prison Camps.

One outgrowth of the government war on dissent – and the failed yet furious counteraction – was the formation of what later became the still-prominent (if controversial) American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The battles waged by the new organization and countless other grassroots protests against the war and liberty violations demonstrated the potential power, and vigorous persistence, of dissenters. The battle rages again today, as after 9/11 to be antiwar is to be brushed with the toxic brand of “Un-Americanism.”

Part 2

Upon US entry into the war, in 1917 the Wilson administration proposed and a compliant Congress almost immediately passed the Espionage Act, a direct attack on American press freedom. The law criminalized newspaper journalists who dared to oppose the war, question the official narrative, or encourage dissent. Massive fines and stiff prison sentences were dealt out with regularity throughout the war. The postmaster general, Albert Burleson, used the Act with particular vigor, banning socialist and antiwar publications from the mails, which then was the only serious method of media distribution.

The actions of Burleson and the government were manifold and nefarious. Bilingual “watchdogs” (mainly university professors) were assigned to monitor the then-vibrant foreign-language publications for “material which may fall under the Espionage Act.” Burleson went past the foreign press and denied mail access to any publication that even vaguely criticized the war, or dared, as he declared, “to impugn the motives of the government” or even criticize “improperly our Allies.” Thus, even the esteemed liberal journal The Nation was banned in September 1918, simply for criticizing the pro-war labor leader Samuel Gompers. This official trampling of press freedom encouraged local organizations to take mass surveillance and thought policing to ever-more extreme levels. For example, the Iowa Council of Defense urged each member to spy on his fellow citizens and “find out what his neighbor thinks.”

Attorney General Thomas Gregory even boasted of his having crafted an effective mass surveillance state. Indeed, it was so effective that it can now be seen as a precursor – though less technologically advanced – of the digital surveillance state that NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden unmasked during the Obama years. In April 1918, Gregory claimed, “Scores of thousands of men are under constant observation throughout the country.” The connections to the present day are manifold, relevant, and discomfiting. It was the nearly century-old Espionage Act, in fact, that Barack Obama used to wage his war on leakers, including Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning and Edward Snowden. Indeed, the liberal darling Obama prosecuted more persons under the Espionage Act than all of his predecessors combined.

Still, while Obama indicted leaker after leaker, i.e., journalistic sources, his justice department stopped short of indicting a publication itself, citing the potentially dangerous precedent it would set. The Trump administration has followed in Obama’s footsteps by bringing charges against Julian Assange, who – like him or not – runs a viable publication, WikiLeaks. While WikiLeaks itself has not been indicted, that is certainly still a possibility. While the mainstream U.S. press failed to rally to Assange’s side, it would behoove them to do so. If Assange is jailed or WikiLeaks is shut down, there is nothing to stop Trump or future presidents from indicting officials in the Washington Post or New York Times or the publications themselves for printing classified information gleaned from leakers. By then, using World War I vintage tools, the war on the press will be over, the federal government triumphant once and for all.

American propaganda at home

When the United States declared war, many millions of Americans remained uncertain about the need for intervention and skeptical of the official justifications. After all, Democrats won the presidency in 1916 on the popularity of a specifically antiwar platform. Such sentiments were hardly vanquished in April 1917. That presented Wilson with a serious problem, one that needed to be solved immediately. The most prominent, and infamous, government answer was George Creel’s Committee on Public Information (CPI). While Wilson and Creel vehemently protested that CPI would not peddle propaganda, that’s exactly what the organization felt compelled to do: to “cultivate – even to manufacture” favorable public support for the war, in the words of historian David M. Kennedy.

What followed bordered on the ridiculous. Countless pamphlets were produced depicting German troops as rabid beasts, often shown as strangely threatening to white American women. The teaching of German was banned in many local school districts, as were history textbooks seen as too pro-German. CPI also collaborated with the hawkish National Board for Historical Service to craft and distribute various “war study courses” to the nation’s schools. Education, too, is a regular victim of the warfare state.

Creel had few compunctions about his work and left behind an instructive legacy of unsubtle statements. He unapologetically described his job as “the fight for the minds of men, for the conquest of their convictions.” His methods were varied and increasingly nefarious. CPI unleashed 75,000 “Four-Minute Men” on local communities. They were prominent citizens with reliably pro-war viewpoints who whipped up support through millions of brief speeches across the nation. Creel’s agency also distributed 75 million copies of pamphlets explaining the official government case for war. What’s more, the Committee even published pro-war advertisements in popular journals such as the Saturday Evening Post to shamelessly persuade the people. Consumerism, it seemed, had finally dovetailed with government propaganda.

The war on “hyphenated” Americans

“Any man who carries a hyphen about with him carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of the Republic.” – Woodrow Wilson (1919)

Nativism and xenophobia are as American as apple pie, and are pervasive themes in U.S. history. However, the flames of anti-immigrant sentiment reached a fever pitch in the World War I era. By then, the recent wave of new immigrants – Italians, Poles, Slavs, and Jews – outnumbered the old-stock immigrants composed of Western and Northern Europeans. This inspired fear among native Anglo Americans. Just before the war, Henry Ford’s automotive workers on the assembly line attended a factory school for immigrants in which the first English sentence students learned was “I am a good American.”

By 1916, even the supposedly progressive Wilson framed his campaign partly around the concept of Americanism, as defined by the Anglo elite. So-called hyphenated Americans had no place in a United States, and new loaded terms such as “100 percent Americanism” took hold. Even before the war, Wilson gave voice to xenophobia, directed at once-admired German-Americans, as he stated, “There are citizens of the United States, I blush to admit, born under other flags but welcomed under our generous naturalization laws … who have poured the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life…. Such creatures … must be crushed out.” Then, during his official war address, he claimed that there were “millions of men and women of German birth and native sympathy who live amongst us…. If there should be disloyalty, it will be dealt with, with a firm hand of repression….” It was.

Scapegoating of German and new immigrants and the vigilantism against them straddled the lines of official and unofficial policy. Quasi-vigilante groups such as the massive American Protective League (APL) even managed to enter into a formal relationship with Gregory’s Justice Department. APL members, who stood 250,000 strong by war’s end, spied on neighbors and co-workers, sniffing out even the vaguest hints of dissent. Owing to his vitual deputization of the APL members, Attorney General Gregory went so far as to boast, “I have today several hundred thousand private citizens … engaged in … assisting the heavily overworked Federal authorities in keeping an eye on disloyal individuals and making reports of disloyal utterances.”

APL members rapidly slid into more nefarious arenas – burglary, illegal wiretapping, slander, citizens’ arrests, opening private mail, and, eventually, even physical violence. For perhaps the first time in US history, whites – mostly Germans, pacifists, and socialists – were lynched wholesale. Some were viciously tarred and feathered, others outright murdered. The perpetrators almost never faced punishment. In one representative case, a German-American who had actually attempted (unsuccessfully) to join the US Navy was humiliated, paraded through the streets, and murdered before a cheering crowd. At their trial, the ringleaders wore red, white, and blue ribbons. Their defense counsel described their act as “patriotic murder.” Within 25 minutes the jury found them all not guilty. The “respectable” Washington Post then commented, “In spite of excesses such as lynching, it is a healthful and wholesome awakening in the interior of the country.”

Which all links to the relevant present. Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign calls to “ban Muslims” coming from certain countries, and to “take out” the families of terrorists; and his characterizations of some Mexican and Central American refugees and migrants as “rapists” no doubt set the conditions for, and incited, a recent wave of domestic terror attacks. True, violence against Muslims – which first manifested in the highly emotive post–9/11 Bush years – and Hispanics (including the recent mass shooting in El Paso, Texas), and the recent rise in attacks on Jewish communities do not rise to the level of the First World War. Nonetheless, such actions follow in the mold of the xenophobia, racism, and alarmism the Great War produced.

Déjà vu all over again

The American people live, to a large extent, in the shadow of the world the Great War created. All war, especially war on such a grand scale, inevitably suppresses dissent, curtails liberty, and centralizes power in the federal government. Not only did that occur in World War I, but it did so to such a degree that the relationship of Americans to the federal government was completely transformed. US presidents now unilaterally wage war – at home and abroad – with near total impunity.

It seems that while World War I did end, the post–9/11 “terror wars” may never come to a close. A major reason for that is the century-long centralization of foreign-policy and war-making power in the office of the president. Though Congress actually sanctioned (or rather rubber-stamped) war in April 1917, the Great War nevertheless transferred massive power to the executive branch. Indeed, Wilson’s unilateral military expeditions against Russian communists when he (and later his successor, Warren G. Harding) intervened in the Russian Civil War (1918-20) were a harbinger of things to come, great-grandfather to today’s unsanctioned interventions (and killing) in Libya, West Africa, Syria, and beyond. In retrospect, World War I and its more devilish stepchild, the Second World War, proved to be the last two actual declared.

What’s more, the tacit – yet wildly vague and open-ended – congressional “authorizations” for force in Afghanistan (2001) and then Iraq (2002) bear a striking resemblance to the legislative rubber-stamp in April 1917. Wilson had said as much in his war address. It was, he declared, the “[executive branch] upon which the responsibility of conducting war and safeguarding the nation will most directly fall.” And indeed it would. Today’s executive-as-emperor political culture is partly an outgrowth of Wilson’s precedent.

Political tribalism, no doubt prevalent today, was also common during the First World War. In spite of the cynical announcement of Republican Sen. Henry Cabot Lodges, a fierce Wilson opponent – “When this country is at war, party lines will disappear…. Both Democrats and Republicans must forget party in the presence of the common danger” – Lodge intended all along to criticize Wilson and the Democrats for their “insufficient vigor” in war prosecution. Much the same has unfolded in the “forever wars.” Bush and the Republicans pressured early Democratic acquiescence, but Dems rebelled and criticized (rightly) Bush’s failing Iraq War from 2006 to 2008. Only later, when one of their own – Barack Obama – was in office, did they suddenly support the war expansion, and it became the Republicans who portrayed the president as weak on terror. The formula flipped again when Trump took office. War, whether in 1917 or 2019, is as politically partisan as any other issue.

When the president filled the power vacuum in World War I, and Congress enabled him, it became clear that the federal courts could not and would not save liberty. Repeatedly, the Supreme Court upheld both the Espionage and Sedition Acts. As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, once a darling of Progressives, wrote in Schenck v. United States, “when a nation is at war many things that might be said in time of peace are such a hindrance to its effort that their utterance will not be endured.” With those words Holmes essentially spiked the promise of freedom in future wars. The same is true today, as the Supreme Court has failed to overturn the USA PATRIOT ACT or the much-abused Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), or to shut down Guantanamo Bay and the Obama-escalated drone assassination program.

Modern liberalism, and the Democratic Party – as the Great War demonstrated – won’t save liberty either: in 1917, the vast majority of self-proclaimed Progressives sold out and followed “their man” Wilson into war, just as neo-Progressives sheepishly followed Obama down his path of war expansion. Democrats, Progressives, and too many (small “l”) liberals inflicted perhaps permanent damage on their once-optimistic social philosophy of progress. As such, according to David Kennedy, “the idea of the ‘people’ as good and educable, gave way to the ‘masses,’ brutal and volatile.”

The pro-war Progressive Walter Lippmann sensed this by war’s end, and proposed radical, undemocratic measures. The solution to man’s irrationality was to abandon real democracy and create an “intelligence bureau” to pursue “the common interests that very largely elude public opinion … managed only by a specialized class.” From that era, then, one may date the “substantial nagging fear of the people among modern liberals.”

It may be said, then, that the true casualty of the First World War was not just liberty, but the very “progressive” soul, the perhaps always-misplaced faith in government as a potential force for good. It is this cynical postwar world that Americans inhabit.

Bibliographical note: This piece draws extensively on David M. Kennedy’s book Over Here: The First World War and American Society as well as the author’s own teaching notes as lecturer from his time at West Point. Interested readers should read Kennedy’s work in full for a broader and more in-depth treatment of this massively complex subject.

This originally appeared in two parts at the Future of Freedom Foundation.

Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer and regular contributor to His work has appeared in the LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, Truthdig, Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. His forthcoming book, Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War is now available for pre-order. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet. Check out his professional website for contact info, scheduling speeches, and/or access to the full corpus of his writing and media appearances.

Copyright 2020 Danny Sjursen