Espionage History (1917-1918)

Espionage history: During World War I, those who dared to speak against the war were fined and imprisoned under the Espionage and Sedition Acts (1917-1918).

Before the United States entered World War I, there was strong resistance against the war among the American people. In fact, Woodrow Wilson's reelection in 1916 was at least partly due to his success in keeping the U.S. out of that European war. However, the German decision in early January of 1917 to resume unrestricted submarine warfare led President Wilson to break diplomatic relations with Germany. During the next two months, five American ships were attacked by German U-boats.

On 24 February 1917, British intelligence informed the U.S. of a telegram sent by German foreign secretary Alfred Zimmerman to the German ambassador in Mexico. The telegram suggested that if the U.S. did enter the war against Germany, then Germany, Japan, and Mexico should form an alliance. The telegram also promised to return to Mexico its "lost territories" of Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico.

On 2 April, Wilson went before Congress and called for a declaration of war. Both the House and the Senate voted overwhelmingly in favor of going to war with Germany.

Despite earlier widespread resistance to entering the war, once war was declared American society was overwhelmed by patriotic fervor, quickly rising to the level of wartime hysteria. Deliberately stirred up by an intense propaganda campaign to encourage enthusiasm for the war, this patriotic fervor soon developed into rigid ideological conformity and outright suppression of all forms of dissent. All progressive, dissident, socialist, radical, or pacifist groups became targets of repressive actions by the government, and often also by private vigilante groups.

The new techniques of advertising were enlisted to overcome opposition to the war, but before long the government propaganda machine grew into a coercive arm of the executive branch. George Creel, formerly a progressive reformer and journalist, was named head of the Committee on Public Information (CPI), the most effective of the government's propaganda agencies, and soon displayed a talent for authoritarianism. The original mandate of the CPI was to provide trustworthy information to the American public, so they would not be at the mercy of unsubstantiated wartime rumors. In fact, however, the CPI propagated the government's heavily doctored version of reality, and aggressively worked to discredit, even to destroy, any who dared question the government's version of things.

The effect of such incessant propaganda was to promote hysterical hatred of all things German. Resident aliens, American citizens with German surnames, and those who taught German in the schools were hounded and abused as subversives and traitors. German books were pulled out of libraries and sometimes destroyed. Even foods like hamburgers, sauerkraut, and frankfurters were rechristened with American names, and towns with German-sounding names also underwent name changes. One German-born man was lynched by a mob of over five hundred people.

Anyone who dared to criticize the war was assaulted verbally at least, often physically as well""and sometimes even murdered. Unionists, socialists, and radicals of all stripes were subject to the same sorts of abuse, even if they had nothing to do with criticizing the war effort.

With enormous popular support, Congress passed the Espionage Act of 1917, prescribing fines of up to ten thousand dollars and prison sentences of up to twenty years for a whole list of vaguely defined antiwar activities. The Sedition Act of 1918 (also called the Sedition Amendment to the Espionage Act) was even more draconian, imposing heavy penalties on anyone convicted of using "disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language" about the Constitution, the government, the military, or the flag. Similar laws were passed in several states as well.

Those who spoke or wrote against the war were arrested in droves. Over fifteen hundred people were charged under these laws for the crime of expressing an opinion the government did not agree with. One socialist, Rose Pastor Stokes, was sentenced to ten years in prison for telling an all-female audience that she was for the people, while the government was for the profiteers. Eugene V. Debs, a prominent socialist leader, was sentenced to ten years in a federal penitentiary for a rather academic speech analyzing the economic causes of war.

A provision in the Espionage Act authorized the postmaster general to bar a wide variety of materials from being sent through the mail. Wilson's postmaster general, Albert S. Burleson, seized and suppressed all kinds of publications that he deemed radical, dissenting, or otherwise suspect.

Nor did the Supreme Court defend the basic constitutional rights of those convicted under these repressive laws. In 1919 the Court upheld the convictions of three people who had been imprisoned for speaking out against the war. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., justified such repression by saying that when the exercise of free speech constituted a "clear and present danger" to the nation, then the government could suspend the right of free speech. Of course, the government got to decide what constituted a "clear and present danger," and both the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918 were wielded like blunt instruments against anyone who dared to disagree with the government.

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