Free Speech, World War One, and the Problem of Dissent

Michael O’Malley, Associate Professor of History and Art History, George Mason University


World War One pitted England, France and Russia against Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was difficult, at the beginning of the war, to determine who was the worst of the warring paries, and Americans faced the conflict with divided loyalties. For many Americans of English descent, England seemed like our natural ally. Many American political leaders, most prominently Woodrow Wilson, felt a strong sense of "anglophilia," or love of England. But Germans and Irish were the two largest immigrant groups to the United States in 1917. Irish immigrants carried bitter memories of English oppression, while German Americans, not surprisingly, tended to favor their homeland, or at least not to regard it as an enemy.

Wilson worried about this division and regarded it as dangerous. Regarding Italian-Americans, German-American, Irish-Americans as suspect, he once declared "Any man who caries a hyphen around with him carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of the republic." Once he was committed to America's entry on the side of England and France, he began an unprecedented propaganda campaign to rally support for World War I. He hired a publicist, George Creel, to head the "Committee on Public Information" (CPI), a propaganda ministry designed to "sell the war" to the American people. The CPI produced films, pamphlets, curriculum guides and other instruments designed to "paint Germany in a bad light." It encouraged businesses to spy on their employees, parents to spy on their children, and neighbors to spy on neighbors, and to report "disloyal," pro-German sentiments. In the most ridiculous moments of the campaign, Americans banned the teaching of German in schools, tore German folksongs like "Oh Tannenbaum" from children's songbooks, changed German street names, and renamed saurkraut "victory cabbage." On the more serious side, those regarded as pro-German were hounded from their jobs, pressured to change their German names, and in a few cases beaten or lynched.

Along with this anti German hysteria, Congress passed several measures designed to supress any criticism of the war The Espionage Act, passed in June 1917, specified a fine of $10,000 or twenty years in prison for, among other things, "whoever, when the United States is at war, shall willfully obstruct the recruiting or enlistment service of the United States, and whoever, when the United States is at war, shall willfully utter, print, write, or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States, or the military or naval forces of the United States, or the flag." The act also targeted anyone who shall "urge, incite, or advocate any curtailment of the production in this country of any thing or things necessary or essential to the conduct of the war." Nor, under the act, was it legal to teach, suggest, defend, or advocate any of the criticisms or positions described above. This remarkable act made it virtually illegal to criticize the war or the government in any way.

This act quickly came under fire as unconstitutional. But the Supreme Court supported it, arguing the government had the right to repress free speech in time of "national emergency."

The climate of repression continued after the war ended: this time, government interest focused not on Germans but on communists, Bolsheviks and "reds" generally. The climactic phase of this anti communist crusade occurred during the "Palmer Raids" of 1918-1921. A. Mitchell Palmer, Wilson's Attorney General, believed communism was "eating its way into the homes of the American workman." In his essay "The Case Against the Reds," Palmer charged that "tongues of revolutionary heat were licking the alters of the churches, leaping into the belfry of the school bell, crawling into the sacred corners of American homes, seeking to replace marriage vows with libertine laws, burning up the foundations of society." With a broad base of popular support, in 1919 Palmer intensified the attacks on political dissent that had begun during the war.

The year 1919 saw a great deal of social conflict--a wave of strikes, the passage of both Prohibition and Women's Suffrage, and the Chicago race riot. A series of bombings by suspected anarchists began in Summer 1919; on June 2, bombs went off in eight cities, including Washington D.C., where Palmer's home was partially destroyed. Just who set the bombs remains unclear. Although there were only about 70,000 self professed Communists in the United States in 1919, Palmer viewed them as responsible for a wide range of social ills, including the bombings. Encouraged by Congress, which had refused to seat the duly elected socialist from Wisconsin, Victor Berger, Mitchell began a series of showy and well publicized raids against radicals and leftists. Striking without warning and without warrants, Palmer's men smashed union offices and the headquarters' of Communist and Socialist organizations. They concentrated whenever possible on aliens rather than citizens, because aliens had fewer rights. In December of 1919, in their most famous act, Palmer's agents seized 249 resident aliens. Those seized were placed on board a ship, the Buford, bound for the Soviet Union. Deportees included Emma Goldman, the feminist, anarchist and writer who later recalled the deportation in her autobiography, excerpted here.

The "Red Scare" reflected the same anxiety about free speech and obsession with consensus that had characterized the war years. Two documents included here point to the absurdity of some of these fears. In the case of "The Most Brainiest Man," a Connecticut clothing salesmen was sentenced to sixth months in jail simply for saying Lenin was smart. A story that same year in the Washington Post notes with approval how in Chicago a sailor shot another man merely for failing to rise during the national anthem. Finally, a satirical essay by the humorist Robert Benchley mocks the public's hunger for enemies, invented enemies if necessary. The Red Scare suggests how quickly legal rights can succumb to hysterical rhetoric and public fear.