America’s Dangerous Inheritance From World War I

The article was originally published in the Future of Freedom.

“War is the health of the state.” So said the eerily prescient and uncompromising anti-war 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 “patriot-ism,” 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 anti-war 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 U.S. 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 anti-war 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 anti-war is to be brushed with the toxic brand of “Un-Americanism.”

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