Don’t Speak

Brian talks to historian Beverly Gage about socialist leader Eugene Debs, who was arrested for speaking out against the war in 1918.

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Brian Balogh: Most Americans rallied around the war effort, but there was dissent as well, especially after Congress instituted the draft. Some three million eligible men refused to register, and there were large scale public protests against the war. President Wilson and Congress reacted by passing the Espionage Act of 1917, and the 1918 Sedition Act. In 2017 I spoke to Beverly Gage about how the Espionage and Sedition Acts repressed civil liberties in the wake of the war.

Beverly Gage: Those laws basically banned criticism of the war effort, criticism of the government, criticism conveniently of the president, and particularly criticism and disruption of the draft.

Brian Balogh: Thousands of Americans were arrested for speaking out against the war. Gage points out that the government wasn’t just stifling dissent. US officials were worried about German spies, especially after German saboteurs blew up a munitions depot in New York Harbor in 1916.

Beverly Gage: There were real concerns, but the question was how you were going to deal with those concerns, what the legal lines would be, what the cultural lines would be, and I think that, let’s just say, the United States did not always get that balance right.

Brian Balogh: Political radicals were the chief targets of the government crackdown. They included anarchists, socialists, and the members of left wing labor movements who all believed the conflict was-

Beverly Gage: Just a war of blood and treasure. It’s empires fighting each other. The working man should not be going to war.

Brian Balogh: Consider the case of Eugene Debs.

Beverly Gage: Eugene Debs really was the most famous socialist in the United States at this moment, and from the vantage point of the 21st Century that might not sound like much, but you actually had a huge and pretty widespread socialist movement in the United States at this point. A lot of that movement was centered in the Midwest. Debs himself was from Indiana, and so he was sort of the standard bearer of good, corn fed Midwestern American socialism.

Brian Balogh: Debs had run for president several times, first as a democrat, and then as a socialist candidate. In the 1912 election he won a million votes.

Beverly Gage: Even people who aren’t in the socialist party like to show up at Debs’ rallies to hear him speak. He’s this kind of famous charismatic figure, and anyone in the United States in 1917, if you said the name Eugene Debs, they would know who he was.

Brian Balogh: Debs didn’t buy Wilson’s rhetoric, that he was making the world safe for democracy, but in his anti-war speeches Debs had to choose his words very carefully.

Beverly Gage: Debs, like many political radicals then faces a question of his own, which is that he’s still pretty opposed to this war, he still thinks it’s a war for blood and treasure, a war that’s exploiting the working class, and he feels this deep in his soul, but he knows that he probably shouldn’t say everything that he is thinking. So a lot of his speeches during the war try to kind of strike that balance, and he said, you know, “I don’t believe that we should be drafting working men into the army, but I’m not going to go too far with that,” and so he really tries to strike a balance.

Brian Balogh: Right. And Debs runs afoul of that enhanced Espionage Act in June of 1918. Tell us what he does.

Beverly Gage: So Debs finally does get in trouble for a speech that he makes in Canton, Ohio in the spring of 1918, and again, he’s pretty careful about what he’s saying. He goes and visits some working men who are themselves in jail for various speech violations, for criticizing the war effort, and he comes out and says, and I’ll just read a little of his speech here. He says, “They have come to realize as many of us have that it is extremely dangerous to exercise the constitutional right of free speech in a country fighting to make democracy safe for the world. I realize in speaking to you this afternoon that there are certain limitations placed on the right of free speech,” so in the end he actually gets thrown in prison for a speech that is about how difficult it is to preserve the right of free speech in a time of war.

Brian Balogh: In a country that is fighting a war, to quote Debs, to preserve democracy.

Beverly Gage: That’s right. That’s one of the great contradictions of the first World War, is that Woodrow Wilson is going around the world saying we are the great champions of democracy, we’re fighting a war for democracy, but at home it’s really one of the most repressive periods in American history. So many thousands of Germans are put into internment camps, several thousand people who have spoken out against the war are prosecuted, and then there are a whole series of really pretty gruesome vigilante attacks against anti-war protestors, against German immigrants, that really give this period a flavor of repression and fear on the home front.

Brian Balogh: And how long is Debs jailed for when he’s convicted, jailed for defending free speech?

Beverly Gage: He’s given a pretty serious sentence of 10 years.

Brian Balogh: Wow!

Beverly Gage: And this is for nothing more than a speech really. And he appeals this, the case goes all the way up to the Supreme Court, and they say that seems fine, the Espionage Act is a fine law and we uphold it. One of the, I guess ironies of Debs’ jail sentence is that he ends up not going to prison until after the war is already over, and he only ends up spending a couple of years there, but they’re pretty significant years. So he runs for president in 1920 from federal prison, which is a pretty remarkable thing. There are these amazing photos of Debs sort of standing there in his prison uniform near his cell, trying to look very presidential. But he actually looks pretty old and defeated. He is not a young man at this point-

Brian Balogh: Was anybody yelling, “Lock him up?”

Beverly Gage: Well, it was a little late at that point, but they had been yelling it before.

Beverly Gage: After that, one of the good things that Warren Harding does is actually commute Eugene Debs’ sentence, so he’s let out of prison in December of 1921, so he spends about two and a half years there all together. And at the time his allies already saw him as a martyr, but many Americans thought this was a perfectly justifiable thing to have done, to have put someone who was a traitor to the country into prison. I think over time mainstream opinion started to shift on that, and the Supreme Court’s ideas about speech restrictions really began to change and you began to get a new, kind of more mainstream civil libertarian consensus starting to emerge.

Brian Balogh: Bev, if I could get you to step back, does fighting to preserve democracy around the world mean a threat to democracy at home in the United States?

Beverly Gage: I’m not sure I would put it quite so starkly, but I do think that World War I turned out to be a moment of contradictions and a moment of experimentation. So part of what is going on in the United States with things like the Espionage Act, or the German interment camps, or federal political surveillance that’s really beginning to emerge during this moment is that the government is trying to figure out what you do to fight this kind of war, and some of the things that it sets precedents for turn out to be very lasting things. You see both the creation of forms of federal political surveillance and the first federal intelligence agencies really getting to work in a significant way, but you also see the birth of a kind of reaction against that, and the best symbol of that is a new civil liberties consciousness that then takes form, first in something called the National Civil Liberties Bureau in 1917 that later goes on to be better known as the ACLU, and they really go on to have a huge influence in shaping how the courts are going to think about these questions, but also in shaping how ordinary Americans are going to think about civil liberties.

Beverly Gage: So I think it’s not quite that fighting for democracy abroad represses democracy at home, but it is a moment for people to really have a pretty significant struggle and pretty significant debate about what it’s going to mean to be involved in the world this way, and what it’s consequences at home will be.

Brian Balogh: Beverly Gage is a professor of history at Yale University. She’s the author of the book, The Day Wall Street Exploded: A Story of America in it’s First Age of Terror.