america puts aside civil liberties -- 7/14/22

Today's encore selection -- from The Great Influenza by John M. Barry. Once President Woodrow Wilson decided that America should enter World War I, he did so with fire and fury, brushing aside individual liberties and crystalizing Americans around the single focal point of war:

"His fire informed virtually everything that happened in the country, including fashion: to save cloth, a war material -- everything was a war material -- designers narrowed lapels and eliminated or shrank pockets. And his fury particularly informed every act of the United States government. During the Civil War, Lincoln had suspended the writ of habeas corpus, imprisoning hundreds of people. But those imprisoned presented a real threat of armed rebellion. He left unchecked extraordinarily harsh criticism. Wilson believed he had not gone far enough and told his cousin, 'Thank God for Abraham Lincoln. I won't make the mistakes that he made.'

"The government compelled conformity, controlled speech in ways, frightening ways, not known in America before or since. Soon after the declaration of war, Wilson pushed the Espionage Act through a cooperative Congress, which balked only at legalizing outright press censorship -- despite Wilson's calling it 'an imperative necessity.' The bill gave Postmaster General Albert Sidney Burleson the right to refuse to deliver any periodical he deemed unpatriotic or critical of the administration. And, before television and radio, most of the political discourse in the country went through the mails. A southerner, a narrow man and a hater, nominally a populist but closer to the Pitchfork Ben Tillman wing of the party than to that of William Jennings Bryan, Burleson soon had the post office stop delivery of virtually all publications and any foreign-language publication that hinted at Iess-than-enthusiastic support of the war.

William Allen Rogers. "Now for a Round Up."
Published in the New York Herald, May 9, 1918.
Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

"Attorney General Thomas Gregory called for still more power. Gregory was a progressive largely responsible for Wilson's nominating Louis Brandeis to the Supreme Court, a liberal and the court's first Jew. Now, observing that America was 'a country governed by public opinion,' Gregory intended to help Wilson rule opinion and, through opinion, the country. He demanded that the Librarian of Congress report the names of those who had asked for certain books and also explained that the government needed to monitor 'the individual casual or impulsive disloyal utterances.' To do the latter, Gregory pushed for a law broad enough to punish statements made 'from good motives or ... [if] traitorous motives weren't provable.' The administration got such a law.

"In 1798, Federalist President John Adams and his party, under pressure of undeclared war with France, passed the Sedition Act, which made it unlawful to 'print, utter, or publish ... any false, scandalous, or malicious writing' against the government. But that law inflamed controversy, contributed to Adams's reelection defeat, and led to the only impeachment of a Supreme Court justice in history, when Samuel Chase both helped get grand jury indictments of critics and then sentenced these same critics to maximum terms.

"Wilson's administration went further, yet engendered little opposition. The new Sedition Act made it punishable by twenty years in jail to 'utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the government of the United States.' One could go to jail for cursing the government, or criticizing it, even if what one said was true. Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote the Supreme Court opinion that found the act constitutional -- after the war ended, upholding lengthy prison terms for the defendants -- arguing that the First Amendment did not protect speech if 'the words used ... create a clear and present danger.'

"To enforce that law, the head of what became the Federal Bureau of Investigation agreed to make a volunteer group called the American Protective League an adjunct to the Justice Department, and authorized them to carry badges identifying them as 'Secret Service.' Within a few months the APL would have ninety thousand members. Within a year, two hundred thousand APL members were operating in a thousand communities. In Chicago a 'flying squad' of league members and police trailed, harassed, and beat members of the International Workers of the World. In Arizona, league members and vigilantes locked twelve hundred IWW members and their 'collaborators' into boxcars and left them on a siding in the desert across the state line in New Mexico. In Rockford, Illinois, the army asked the league for help in gaining confessions from twenty-one black soldiers accused of assaulting white women. Throughout the country, the league's American Vigilance Patrol targeted 'seditious street oratory' sometimes calling upon the police to arrest speakers for disorderly conduct, sometimes acting more ... directly. And everywhere the league spied: on neighbors, investigated 'slackers' and 'food hoarders,' demanded to know why people didn't buy -- or didn't buy more -- Liberty Bonds.

"States outlawed the teaching of German, while an Iowa politician warned that 'ninety percent of all the men and women who teach the German language are traitors.' Conversations in German on the street or over the telephone became suspicious. Sauerkraut was renamed 'Liberty cabbage.' The Cleveland Plain Dealer stated, 'What the nation demands is that treason, whether thinly veiled or quite unmasked, be stamped out.' Every day the Providence Journal carried a banner warning, 'Every German or Austrian in the United States unless known by years of association should be treated as a spy.' The Illinois Bar Association declared that lawyers who defended draft resisters were 'unpatriotic' and 'unprofessional.' Columbia University president Nicholas Murray Butler, a national leader of the Republican Party, fired faculty critical of the government and observed, 'What had been tolerable became intolerable now. What had been wrongheadedness was now sedition. What had been folly was now treason.'

"Thousands of government posters and advertisements urged people to report to the Justice Department anyone 'who spreads pessimistic stories, divulges -- or seeks -- confidential military information, cries for peace, or belittles our effort to win the war.' Wilson himself began speaking of the 'sinister intrigue' in America carried on 'high and low' by 'agents and dupes.'

"Even Wilson's enemies, even the supposedly internationalist Communists, distrusted foreigners. Two Communist parties initially emerged in the United States, one with a membership of native-born Americans, one 90 percent immigrants.

"Judge Learned Hand, one of Simon Flexner's closest friends, later observed, 'That community is already in the process of dissolution where each man begins to eye his neighbor as a possible enemy, where nonconformity with the accepted creed, political as well as religious, becomes a mark of disaffection; where denunciation, without specification or backing, takes the place of evidence; where orthodoxy chokes freedom of dissent.' But American society hardly seemed to be dissolving. In fact it was crystallizing around a single focal point; it was more intent upon a goal than it had ever been, or might possibly ever be again."



John M. Barry


The Great Influenza


Penguin Group


Copyright John M. Barry, 2004, 2005


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