The First World War had its last gasp in 1971.
At least that’s one way to look at it, from the perspective of those whose job it is to defend and protect the United States from those who would aid the enemy in wartime. People like leftists, radicals, Communists, Socialists, and other subversives.
When the United States decided to enter World War I, President Wilson knew that he had to have the American people on his side. In fact, he insisted on it. So on April 13, 1917, with the stroke of a pen, he created the U.S. Committee on Public Information, for the express purpose of getting the people’s sentiment in line with their government’s.
George Creel, the newspaperman enlisted to head this operation, set about propagandizing. He was aided, among others, by journalist and commentator Walter Lippmann and by “the father of public relations” in America, Edward Bernays – the man who saw his job of shaping public opinion as “the engineering of consent.”
To say that this effort achieved its purpose would be an understatement.
This was during the same period that revolution and civil war swept Russia, producing a corollary fear in this country that some of those socialistic, communistic spores could drift across land mass and ocean to become embedded on American soil. It wasn’t a great time to be a Leftist in America. (Is wartime ever?)
Two groups stood above the rest – the Socialist Party of America and the Industrial Workers of the World, the latter also known as the “Wobblies.” Both groups came out strongly against U.S. involvement in World War I and were targeted almost at once by the government. And any activity that might even have the whiff of their involvement became suspect.
The Wobblies had been one of the first labor unions to admit women, Blacks, and immigrants – this was subversive enough in early twentieth-century America. During the war it was led by “Big Bill” Haywood, one of its original organizers. Eugene Debs, who ran for President several times as a Socialist, had also been one of its founders, as well as Mary Harris “Mother” Jones.
In spite of Haywood’s attempts to lower their profile in light of the group’s anti-war stance, the organization was targeted and made an example of under the recently enacted Espionage Act. Laws against espionage were not at all new, but this law expanded the definition of espionage to include openly expressing political opinions that could be construed as “helping” the enemy. Over 150 of the Wobblies’ leaders were rounded up, tried, and convicted. Haywood was among them.
A series of amendments to the Espionage Act, the Sedition Act of 1918 prohibited “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” about the United States, its flag, or armed forces during wartime. Included was any language that caused anyone to view the United States with contempt.
Both the Executive Branch and the Legislative Branch were absolutely serious about shutting down dissent.
A series of strikes in the period right after the war continued to stoke fears of revolution and anarchy in various quarters. The first major strike took place in the shipyards of Seattle in 1919.
After two years of wage controls during the war, workers launched a strike in an attempt to get pay increases. The shipyard workers were joined by other unions, including the Wobblies. It wasn’t long before some in the press connected this incident to the Russian Revolution, since some of the union workers evidently supported it. A pamphlet entitled “Russia Did It” was being distributed during the strike. It read in part:
The Russians have shown you the way. What are you going to do about it? You are doomed to wage slavery till you die unless you wake up, realize that you and the boss have nothing in common, that the employing class must be overthrown, and that you, the workers, must take control of your jobs and through them, the control of your lives instead of offering yourself up to the master as a sacrifice six days a week, so that they may coin profits out of your sweat and toil.
The Seattle shipyard strike didn’t even last a week. There was no violence. But it was seen as the work of “Bolsheviks,” so there were reprisals. The Wobblies were targeted, predictably, as ringleaders; several dozen were arrested.
Subsequent strikes were blamed on “Reds,” including a strike by Boston police and a nationwide steelworkers strike.
The federal government was on a mission to unearth the Bolshevik menace in America. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer appointed J. Edgar Hoover as head of a new radical-hunting division in the Bureau of Investigation. Thousands of “radicals” were arrested; some were imprisoned and others were deported. At the same time, numerous state legislatures were smitten with anti-radical fever. Famously, the New York legislature expelled five Socialist members from its ranks.
Anti-radical sentiment was at its peak.
But by the spring of 1920 a pushback was underway in the country. As one writer summarized events:
In May twelve prominent attorneys (including Harvard professor Dean Pound, Zachariah Chaffee, and Felix Frankfurter, who later became a Supreme Court justice and a proponent of Sacco and Vanzetti’s innocence) issued a report detailing the Justice Department’s violations of civil liberties.
The New York Assembly’s decision to bar its Socialist members was met with disgust by national newspapers and leaders such as then-Senator Warren G. Harding, former Republican presidential candidate Charles Evans Hughes and even Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer who felt it unfair to put Socialists and Communists in the same category.
Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes criticized proposed anti-sedition bills possibly because the proposed bills were viewed as censorship; most newspapers came out against the anti-sedition bills. Industry leaders, who were early proponents of anti-Communism, began to realize that deporting immigrants (as many of the Communists were alleged to be) drained a major source of labor, which would result in higher wages and decreased profits.
But what really made this Red Scare come undone was The Plot That Never Was.
J. Edgar Hoover’s agents told the Attorney General that radicals were planning an attempted overthrow of the U.S. government on May Day 1920. Palmer and Hoover tried to brace the nation for the terror to come. All kinds of preparations were made to thwart this overthrow.
May Day came. And nothing happened.
Newspapers across the country ridiculed the Attorney General. This was the beginning of the end of what is now known as the First Red Scare of America.
In December of 1920 the Sedition Act was repealed.
The Espionage Act, its parent, has never been repealed. One of its first victims was Eugene Debs, who was arrested and sentenced to 10 years in prison; after about 3 years he was pardoned by President Harding. Another famous victim was the poet e. e. cummings, who got in trouble while serving in an ambulance corps in France during the war. Supposedly he had been guilty of not being sufficiently hateful in discussing the Germans. He actually spent three and a half months in a military detention camp.
The last time the government applied the Espionage Act was in the case of New York Times Co. v. United States, otherwise known as the Pentagon Papers case. The government lost in its attempt to keep this information from going public, but the Espionage Act was not specifically ruled to be unconstitutional.
As I said at the outset, it was the final whimper of President Wilson’s quest to keep the world safe for democracy.