the espionage act of 1917 -- 11/13/23

Today's selection -- from American Midnight: The Great War, a Violent Peace, and Democracy's Forgotten Crisis by Adam Hochschild. War has often been the occasion for curbing civil liberties in the name of national safety, as it was in the U.S. during World War I:

“Fear that dissenters might resist the draft, or otherwise thwart the war effort, provided the excuse for a relentless erosion of civil liberties that Americans had long taken for granted. 

“Someone whose role was strengthened by the nation's bellicose mood was Ralph Van Deman, now newly promoted to lieutenant colonel. He used his mastery of army bureaucracy to make sure his new Military Intelligence operation was lavishly funded. Based in a converted apartment building in downtown Washington, it would soon swell to 282 officers, 29 sergeants, and more than 1,000 civilians. Many of the latter were volunteers: businessmen, lawyers, or retired army officers. They were thrilled to have a role too hush-hush to talk about with outsiders, shuffling paperwork stamped secret or confidential. 

“Van Deman found such recruits easily because his worldview, formed in the small Ohio town where he had grown up, reflected that of millions of Americans. He saw himself as virtuously defending the traditional social order against rebels of all sorts at home and revolutionary ideologies from abroad. Deeply suspicious of immigrants, he always demanded an ethnic breakdown of any group under his surveillance. 

“The army was largely segregated, and at Van Deman's headquarters a ‘Memorandum for Colored Women Employees’--most of them typists working on the building's sixth floor--ordered them to use only the ladies' room on the first floor and no others. A Black major (something rare in the army of 1917) investigating ‘Negro Subversion’ for Van Deman was placed in a separate building, safely distant from embarrassing encounters with white officers he outranked, who would have to salute him if they met.

“Alert to possible rivals, Van Deman skillfully blocked an attempt by the army's Signal Corps to start its own domestic counterespionage operation. Before long the network of people working for him far surpassed the size of competitors like the Justice Department's Bureau of Investigation. He recruited Military Intelligence agents from Pinkerton and other private detective agencies with experience spying on labor unions. Just as when tracking rebels in the Philippines, he compiled data about American people and organizations on file cards, whose number would grow to the hundreds of thousands by the war's end.

Van Deman as a general

“In cities around the country, Van Deman set up half a dozen branch offices. One agent in New York became an early expert in the art of telephone tapping. With odd clicks on their calls and strangers taking notes at meetings, it did not take long for people to realize that they were under watch. When a Socialist Party activist addressed a crowd on the Boston Common in June 1917, he began, ‘Mr. Chairman, friends, conscripts, and secret agents …’

“The government's actions soon moved beyond surveillance. Wars are always an excuse to restrict freedom of speech--this had occurred during the Civil War, for instance--and it happened on an ominous scale in 1917. The most damaging blow came from a new law that, amended, is still in effect today, the Espionage Act, which Congress passed in mid-June. Despite its name, it had almost nothing to do with spies. Both opponents and supporters saw it for what it was: a club to smash left-wing forces of all kinds. Congressman Albert Johnson, who hated Wobblies as much as he did immigrants, told his fellow lawmakers that the bill would be a splendid way of getting rid of these ‘outlaw leaders.’ The IWW's ‘whole object is to breed hatred and treason.’ A North Carolina senator declared that the Espionage Act was needed to prevent propaganda ‘urging Negroes to rise up against white people.’

“The act defined opposition to the war of almost any sort as criminal. The penalties were draconian: ‘a fine of not more than $10,000 or imprisonment for not more than twenty years, or both.’ And what actions could send you to jail for 20 years? The far-reaching list was a prosecutor's dream. At risk, for instance, was anyone who ‘shall willfully make or convey false reports or false statements with intent to interfere with the operation of the military or naval forces of the United States.’ Robert La Follette was horrified. ‘Treason cannot be committed by the use of language,’ he jotted down in a note to himself. ‘Treason must be committed by an overt act.’

“Dismaying liberal intellectuals who had previously admired him, Wilson wanted still more. ‘President Wilson today renewed his efforts to put an enforced newspaper censorship section into the espionage bill,’ reported the Washington Evening Star as the act was under debate in Congress. He wrote to the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, saying, ‘The great majority of the newspapers of the country will observe a patriotic reticence about everything whose publication could be of injury, but in every country there are some persons in a position to do mischief.’ This clause of the act would be defeated, and members of Congress would promptly congratulate themselves on having preserved free speech.

“However, the new law allowed censorship; it just didn't use the word. For, at a time when there was no other way to distribute publications nationally, it gave to the postmaster general the authority to declare any newspaper or magazine ‘unmailable.’ That power could not have landed in more dangerous hands.”



Adam Hochschild


American Midnight: The Great War, a Violent Peace, and Democracy's Forgotten Crisis


Mariner Books


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