From THE GROWTH OF THE AMERICAN REPUBLIC, vol. 2
By Samuel Eliot Morison and Henry Steele Commager
New York, London, Toronto, Bombay, and Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1942
"Propaganda justifying the war [World War I] at home and abroad was not enough. It was thought necessary to search out disloyalty and punish it. 'If there should be disloyalty,' said [President Woodrow] Wilson, 'it will be dealt with with a firm hand of stern repression.' Despite large and active disloyal groups, North and South, both the Confederate and the Federal governments had managed to get through the Civil War without enacting sedition laws, but in 1917-18 the United States abandoned itself to an hysteria of fear. The Espionage Act of 15 June 1917 and the Sedition Act of 16 May 1918 were as extreme as any legislation of the kind anywhere in the world. The Espionage Act fixed a fine of ten thousand dollars and twenty years' imprisonment upon anyone who interfered with the draft or attempted to encourage disloyalty; the Sedition Act extended this penalty to anyone who should obstruct the sale of United States bonds, incite insubordination, discourage recruiting, 'wilfully utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States, or the Constitution . . . or the flag . . . or the uniform of the Army or Navy . . . or bring the form of government . . . or the Constitution . . . into contempt . . . or advocate any curtailment of production in this country of any thing necessary or essential to the prosecution of the war.'
"Under these harsh laws the government arrested over fifteen hundred persons for disloyalty; among those convicted and sentenced to prison were Eugene V. Debs, who had polled almost one million votes in the Presidential contest of 1912, and Victor Berger, Socialist Congressman from Milwaukee. A drive against 'conscientious objectors,' who were theoretically excluded from the draft, netted four thousand, of whom over four hundred were hurried to military prisons.
"More disturbing even than this official crusade against sedition was the unofficial witch-hunting that engaged the energy of sundry old ladies of both sexes. It was a great opportunity to bring patriotism to the aid of personal grudges and neighborhood feuds; the intelligent and independent-minded sort of citizen who was known to his conforming neighbors as a 'tory' in the Revolution, a 'Jacobin' in 1798, and a 'copperhead' in the Civil War, became a 'pro-German traitor' in 1917, and was lucky if he did not have disjointed and garbled scraps of his conversation sent in to the Department of Justice or flashes from his shaving-mirror reported as signals to German submarines. The German-Americans, of course, had the worst experiences of this sort. Many of them were opposed to our entry into the war, but the vast majority were loyal to the United States and did their part as well as the native-born. They were subjected, however, to all sorts of indignities. Schools dropped German from their curricula, and even some universities abolished their German departments; German books were withdrawn from public library circulation, and German publications driven under cover. The Governor of Iowa even promulgated an edict that 'conversation in public places, on trains, or over the telephone should be in the English language.' Frederick Stock, distinguished conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, was deprived of his baton; the patriotic mayor of a Jersey town refused to permit Fritz Kreisler to appear on the concert stage; and Brown University revoked the honorary degree which it had conferred upon Bernstorff.
"'We are glad to fight,' said Wilson in his war message, 'for the privilege of men everywhere to choose their way of life and of obedience.' But this exalted ideal did not apply to the United States, and one of the most appalling revelations of the entire war was the ease with which modern technique and mass-suggestion enables a government to make even a reasonably intelligent people, with an individualistic, democratic background, believe anything it likes. Wilson's melancholy prophecy that 'to fight you must be brutal and ruthless, and the spirit of ruthless brutality will enter into the very fibre of our national life, infecting Congress, the courts, the policemen on the beat, the man in the streets,' was fulfilled. For this fulfilment he and his underlings were in large part responsible."
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