Essay 2, Unit II
Describe the impact of World War I on civil liberties in the United States, noting specific laws and Supreme Court decisions.
Civil liberties, those guarantees of individual freedoms in the Bill of Rights, were among the casualties of World War I. This was especially true for the first amendment rights of free speech and free press. Fearful that allowing any criticism of the government or American involvement in the war would impede military victory, President Wilson both encouraged private repression of any dissent and pushed legislation to suppress any criticism or dissent. This hysterical overreaction by the government was reflected by the state governments and the American people at large.
One example of legislation impinging upon free speech and press was the Espionage Act. This law provided for up to twenty years imprisonment for obstructing recruitment or causing insubordination in the military. Thus one ran the risk of being prosecuted under this law merely for speaking out against the draft. One man who ran afoul of this act was convicted for printing a pamphlet denouncing the draft.
When his conviction was appealed on the grounds that the Espionage Act was unconstitutional, the Supreme Court in the case of Schenck v. U. S. declared that the law did not violate the first amendment. The basis for this decision was that the government could outlaw any action which posed a "clear and present danger" to national security.
The Trading with the Enemy Act was another law designed to suppress expression of any anti-war sentiment. While those provisions forbidding commerce with enemy nations "or their associates" and empowering the President to impose an embargo on any imports posed no real threat to individual freedoms, another section did. It empowered the President to establish censorship of materials passing between the United States and any foreign country. The Postmaster-General , Albert S. Burleson of Texas, demonstrated a lack of tolerance and judgment in establishing a capricious censorship. He banned, for example, three Socialist publications from the mails and suppressed all anti-British and pro-Irish publications.
Far more dangerous a threat to civil liberties was the Sedition Act. This law provided for imprisonment for any "disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language" about the government, its policies, or the flag. In a time when almost any expression of disagreement with the government could be construed as "disloyal" or "abusive" this law had a "chilling effect" on free speech. And in the case of Abrams v. U.S. the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the act by applying what the Court called the "bad tendency" test. This left room for a very broad interpretation of the ambiguous phrase "bad tendency" as meaning anything in any way critical of the government.
Nor was the administration content to curtail criticism or dissent merely through legislation by the federal government. President Wilson established a Committee on Public Information, under the leadership of George Creel, to sell the war to the American people and call into question the loyalty of anyone who dissented against the nation's involvement in the war. The committe used all branches of the media and the arts to launch an anti-German propaganda campaign and to portray the war in a positive fashion. This committee contributed to the hysterical reaction by the American people to anything that might be broadly construed as "disloyal."
Examples of this overreaction by the American people to any dissent or"radical" criticism ranged from punishing individuals for crticizing the Red Cross and the Y.M.C.A. to ostracizing them for saying that war was contrary to the teachings of Christ to boycotting businesses of those with German surnames. One labor leader in Idaho who denounced U.S. participation in the war was summarily tied to a car, dragged through town until his kneecaps were torn off, and then publicly hanged - all without benefit of any formal charges or trial. The leader of the Socialist Party, Eugene V. Debs, was sentenced to ten years in prison for expressing his "revulsion" at the war as a way to increased profits for industry.
Nor were state governments lagging in their desire to suppress any dissent or criticism of the war. Mounting hysteria led the legislatures of Montant and Missouri to pass criminal syndicalism acts prohibiting any language "calculated to bring the American Consitution, form of government, flag, or armed forces into disrespect or contempt." From an academic standpoint the ultimate expression of hysteria may have been the passage by several state legislatures of laws outlawing the teaching of the German language in any public schools.
While President Wilson encouraged repression of anti-war sentiment and the Congress enacted the Trading with the Enemy, Espionage, and Sedition Acts, it should be noted that the adminstration was not alone in bearing responsibility for supression of First Amendment freedoms. They were reflecting, as well as condoning, the war-time hysteria and hatred that converted countless normally decent and constitution-loving law-makers, district attorney, judges, juries and ordinary Americans into persecutors of dissenting minorities. Nor was World War I the first or last time in American history when such hysteria-induced "witch hunts" have occurred, as will become apparent when studying the post World War II "Great Red Scare."