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The Independent Institute
Commentary

World War I and the Suppression of Dissent


The years surrounding America’s involvement in World War I were a watershed for how the United States treated foreigners within its borders during wartime. Immigrants had flooded the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. When the United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, almost a third of Americans were either first or second-generation immigrants. Those born in Germany and even American-born citizens of German descent fell under suspicion of being disloyal.

Later, partially in reaction against the Bolshevik Revolution and the rising tide of socialism in Europe, a more general anti-immigrant sentiment gripped America. For example, through the Palmer Raids of the 1920s, the Department of Justice rounded up thousands of foreigners who were alleged communists, anarchists, labor reformers, or otherwise menaces to society. Many were forcibly deported.

World War I was America’s first extensive international conflict, but legal precedent existed for the mistreatment of resident foreigners.

In 1798, the threat of war with France loomed: immigrants from France and Ireland—a nation aligned with the anti-British French—were viewed with political suspicion. Accordingly, Congress passed four laws collectively known as the Alien and Sedition Acts. The Naturalization Act required aliens to be residents for 14 years before becoming eligible for citizenship. The Alien Act authorized the deportation of “dangerous” aliens. The Alien Enemies Act allowed the arrest, imprisonment, and deportation of any alien who was the subject of an enemy power.

The Sedition Act provided fines and jail penalties for anyone who

shall write, print, utter or publish . . . false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States, or either house of the Congress . . . or the President . . . with intent to defame . . . or to bring them . . . into contempt or disrepute; or to excite against them . . . the hatred of the good people of the United States . . .

The acts had been pushed forward by the federalists—those who favored a strong federal government and a loose interpretation of the Constitution: the federalists dominated Congress. One of their motives was to silence opposition from their political rivals, republicans, whom immigrants tended to support. The prominent republicans Thomas Jefferson and James Madison believed that the powers claimed by President John Adams under the Acts resembled those of a monarch. They denounced the Sedition Act in particular as “unconstitutional,” as a violation of the First Amendment. Both the Kentucky and Virginia legislatures passed Resolves that rejected the Acts and set forth the doctrine of nullification.

Although no one was prosecuted under the first three measures, a series of influential republicans—including prominent editors and printers—were quickly charged under the Sedition Act, forcing some newspapers to close. One of the men prosecuted was Benjamin Franklin’s grandson and the editor of the Philadelphia Aurora. The charge: libeling President Adams. His arrest sparked a public outcry against the Acts, which helped give the presidency to Jefferson in 1800. Once in office, Jefferson pardoned those convicted under the Sedition Act and Congress repaid the fines collected, with interest.

Thus, from America’s earliest years, the issues of alien residents and free speech have been linked during crisis. Although the early republicans were not necessarily more sanguine about resident aliens than federalists, they were intensely suspicious of expanding the federal government’s authority. They believed that the power to suppress constitutional freedoms would be used inevitably to quash political opposition.

The Alien Enemy Within

On April 16, 1917, all males older than 14 who were still “natives, citizens, denizens, or subjects” of the German Empire became alien enemies. In 1918, an act of Congress included women aged 14 and older. In time, however, the term “alien enemy” came to apply to virtually any foreign resident the government deemed undesirable. It became an effective weapon the government wielded against individuals and organizations which were pacifist, critical of the war, or otherwise objectionable politically.

Alien enemies were a high priority on the wartime agenda. On the same day that Congress declared war, President Wilson issued 12 regulations for their treatment. Alien enemies were prohibited from owning such goods as firearms, aircraft, or wireless apparatus. They could not publish an “attack” upon any branch of the U.S. government. They could not reside in an area designated as “prohibited” by the president. They could be removed to a location designated by the president. Alien enemies could not depart the United States without permission and they were required to register with the government to receive a registration card.

On November 16, 1917, 8 more regulations were added to the original 12. They restricted how closely and under what circumstances enemy aliens could approach facilities such as docks, railroads, and warehouses—thus, de facto restricting their employment. Aliens were banned from air travel and from the District of Columbia. The restriction embodied in Section 20 provided the foundation for the later internment of aliens; it read, in part:

The Attorney General is hereby authorized to make and declare, from time to time, such regulations concerning the movements of alien enemies as he may deem necessary in the premises and for the public safety, and to provide in such regulations for monthly, weekly, or other periodical report by alien enemies to federal, state or local authorities; and all alien enemies shall report at the times and places and to the authorities specified in such regulations. [Full text of the regulations.]

One motivation behind the regulations was clearly to establish control over radical groups who disagreed with government policies, including policies on the war.

World War I ushered in a vast program of conformity and centralization into American society. For example, within commerce, the Railway Administration Act gave de facto control of the railroads—the major source of transportation—to the federal government. The War Labor Board, the War Industries Board, and a slate of other government agencies centralized commerce in the name of supporting the war effort. Fuel rationing, the draft, price controls—these and many other measures thrust the federal government deeply into the economic lives of the average American.

The Assault on Civil Liberties

The federal government also intruded upon civil liberties, especially the right to dissent. The radical labor movement became a focus of government for several reasons. It was successful: in the first decades of the 20th century, labor unrest had spread like wildfire across broad sections of America and sparked effective strikes. It was anti-war: its prominent communist and socialist leaders believed the war was being fought for capitalism and they felt comradeship, not hostility, toward foreign workers. Socialism, in general, had become a political threat: in every presidential election from 1900 to 1912, the labor leader Eugene Debs had run on the American Socialist Party ticket, receiving close to a million votes in 1912.

The radical labor movement was also an easy target because of its immigrant-heavy membership. Politically minded immigrants had a history of bringing radical ideas with them. For example, in the last decades of the 1800s, the International Working People’s Association (IWPA) issued no fewer than five papers out of Chicago alone, three of which were in German.

Moreover, by World War I, there was a bitter history of clashes between radical labor movements and the authorities. The Haymarket incident in Chicago is a notorious example. In the spring of 1886, 65,000 workers in the city either went on strike or were locked out by their employers. On May 3, the police fired upon a crowd of laborers, killing several. The next day, a protest meeting ended in a violent clash that left seven policemen and an unknown number of workers (estimated at about 20) dead.

Eight radicals—both immigrant and American-born—were prosecuted. Or, more accurately, their ideology was put on trial. The prosecuting attorney admonished the jury, “Law is on trial. Anarchy is on trial. These men [the defendants] have been selected . . . because they are leaders . . . Convict these men . . . save our institutions, our society.” Although they were demonstrably innocent, four of the defendants were executed, with one escaping his fate through suicide.

By World War I, it was difficult to cleanly separate the issues of radical labor, socialism, opposition to war, and alien enemies from each other. The federal government viewed all as menaces.

A primary target became the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) or “Wobblies,” which grew so quickly that it became a household name throughout much of America in the early 20th century. Today, few people have heard of the IWW. Its importance in U.S. social history has been almost forgotten. Its mercurial rise to prominence was matched in drama only by its disastrous collapse as a result of government repression. Its history is a cautionary tale.

In the summer of 1905, labor radicals assembled in Chicago to found a new group—the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). It operated in competition with the more conservative American Federation of Labor (AFL), then the most powerful labor group in the United States. As well as embodying socialism, the IWW embraced less-restrictive membership policies than the AFL. It actively organized and recruited among migrant workers, blacks, and immigrants, from whom it received enthusiastic support.

Leaders such as William “Big Bill” Haywood thought all workers should organize into a single industrial union to avoid the possibility of individual trade unions’ being pitted against each other. The IWW employed a grassroots approach: the executive was purposefully weak; membership was open to everyone; local strikes were encouraged. Thus, under American-born leaders, the IWW became the most prominent voice of immigrant workers, who were often snubbed by other labor organizations.

Conflict with authority was inevitable, even before World War I. Part of the reason was the IWW’s willingness to use bare-knuckle tactics, such as sabotage and violent confrontation with strike-breakers. But the unresolvable conflict was ideological. To the IWW, the government was a tool of capitalist exploitation. To the authorities, the IWW was a revolutionary organization that sought to overthrow the existing government.

Thus, when 165 IWW leaders were arrested in 1917, charges ranged from treason to the use of intimidation in labor disputes.

In June 1917, Congress enacted the Espionage Act, which prescribed heavy fines and prison sentences for vaguely defined anti-war activities. The Act was quickly used against the IWW. In September, IWW meeting halls across the nation were raided by government agents. More than 160 IWW officers, members, and sympathizers were arrested.

One hundred and one defendants went on trial in April 1918, including IWW head Big Bill Haywood. After five months, the trial ended in a “guilty” verdict for all, with Haywood and 14 others each receiving sentences of 20 years in prison. Collectively, the defendants were fined a total of $2,500,000. The IWW was virtually destroyed.

The shattering of the IWW caused little public protest, as most people associated it with un-Americanism—a charge fueled by the large number of minorities and foreigners in its membership. Even the language of the IWW was deemed unpatriotic because its impassioned rhetoric too closely mirrored that of socialists in other lands. An incident known as the Bisbee Deportation illustrates the depth of the public hatred toward the IWW and foreigners.

In the mining town of Bisbee, Arizona, the IWW recruited members among Mexican and European workers who routinely labored at lower-paying jobs than native-born Americans. In June 1917, the IWW presented a list of demands to Bisbee’s mining companies, including an end to discrimination against minority and foreign workers. When the companies turned down every demand, a strike was called.

Then a rumor erupted: the IWW had been infiltrated by pro-Germans. At 2 a.m., hundreds of armed vigilantes rounded up nearly 1,200 men, whom they forced into 24 cattle cars of a train, shipped them to New Mexico, and abandoned them in a remote area. The deportees were without shelter for weeks until U.S. troops escorted them to facilities where many were held for months.

The authorities in Bisbee guarded all roads into town to prevent the men, or any other undesirables, from entering. Other local workers were put on trial and deported if found guilty of disloyalty to the mining companies. A federal commission investigated the deportations but found no federal laws had been violated. The matter was referred to the state of Arizona, which took no action against the mining companies.

A report in the Los Angeles Times (July 15, 1917) captured the general public’s response:

On our own soil is an enemy . . . preaching revolution and invoking anarchy . . . the I.W.W.’s. From Butte to Bisbee, from Seattle to Leadville, that international organization, filled with foreigners, officered by convicts, and attempting vaguely to guise its sabotage behind the specious title of “Industrial Workers of the World,” is in open warfare against our government.

The Bisbee deportation was coordinated by private vigilantes from whom the government often received enthusiastic support. Queen Silver, who attended IWW meetings in Los Angeles as a child, recounted in her writings,

When the [IWW] person got up to make a collection speech that was a signal to all the American Legion people in the audience to arrest the one or two people who were beside them, as they had been deputized to do. Mother was one of the people arrested. They were all turned loose later on. It was harassment.

Grace Verne Silver—the arrested mother—was not taken to the police station. A private business interest, the Merchants and Manufacturers Association, maintained files on radicals for the police and Grace was detained there.

The American public had shown a willingness to tolerate and even to participate in the rounding up, harassment, and forced “deportation” of native-born Americans. The forced deportation of foreign-born radicals from U.S. territory would soon follow.

The End of World War I

As America entered the last year of World War I, 1918, “patriotic” fervor seemed to swell. In May, the Sedition Act imposed “a fine of not more than $10,000 or imprisonment for not more than twenty years, or both . . .” upon anyone disposed to “utter, print, write, or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States.”

In October 1918, Congress passed the Alien Act, by which “any alien who, at any time after entering the United States, is found to have been at the time of entry, or to have become thereafter, a member of any anarchist organization” could be deported.

Libertarians of the day, including Albert Jay Nock, H.L. Mencken, Randolph Bourne, and Oswald Garrison Villard spoke out in protest against such measures. But most voices still remained silent.

The various acts of 1917 and 1918 were used to destroy what was left of the left wing in America. Victor Berger, the first socialist elected to Congress, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for hindering the war effort. (While Berger was free on appeal, his constituency returned him to Congress.) The socialist labor leader Eugene V. Debs was sentenced to 10 years in prison for making an anti-war speech.

On November 11, 1918, the Allies and Germany signed an armistice: the war was over.

But political panic—partly stemming from the Bolshevik Revolution—gripped America. In 1919, strikes broke out, crippling some segments of industry; sometimes fierce violence broke out on both sides. Race riots shook cities across America, including Chicago, where five days of rioting left 38 people dead, several injured, and about a thousand homeless: the race riots were called the “Red Summer” of 1919.

One event was pivotal: on May 1, 1919, several bombs were delivered through the mail to prominent figures, including Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer; this was the beginning of the “Red Scare.” The surviving Palmer blamed communists, who he believed were overwhelmingly immigrants. In his essay “The Case against the ‘Reds’,” Palmer explained:

My information showed that communism in this country was an organization of thousands of aliens who were direct allies of Trotzky. Aliens of the same misshapen caste of mind and indecencies of character, and it showed that they were making the same glittering promises of lawlessness, of criminal autocracy to Americans, that they had made to the Russian peasants (see http://chnm.gmu.edu/courses/hist409/palmer.html for the full text).

The Palmer Raids

With the power to deport, Palmer and his assistant, John Edgar Hoover, launched a crusade against the radical left.

Beginning in the fall of 1919, between 5,000 and 10,000 suspected alien residents were arrested without warrants in what became known as the Palmer Raids. No evidence of a proposed revolution was uncovered; many of those arrested were found to be American citizens affiliated with a union or the “wrong” political party. The vast majority of arrestees were eventually released but hundreds of “enemy aliens”—including the anarchist Emma Goldman, a naturalized citizen who was “denaturalized”—were eventually deported to the Soviet Union.

The Supreme Court failed to uphold the constitutional rights of the American citizens arrested under the acts. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. justified the repression in a famous decision in which he stated that when the exercise of free speech constituted a “clear and present danger” to America—“danger” as defined by the government—the authorities could legitimately suspend the First Amendment.

The Palmer Raids continued into 1920. As anti-war scientists and protesters, union members, and socialist leaders continued to be brutally arrested without warrants and held without trial, however, public approval shifted away.

Opposition began to organize. For example, in 1920 the American Civil Liberties Union formed to protest the violation of constitutional rights such as arrest without warrant, unreasonable search and seizure, the denial of due process, and police brutality. Its first director, Roger Baldwin, was a pacifist and a member of the IWW.

Palmer himself suffered a series of embarrassments that hurried the demise of his political influence. For example, he predicted a communist uprising on May 1, 1920, and caused such panic that the New York State legislature refused to seat five Socialists who had been elected. When the uprising did not occur, sharp resentment and skepticism replaced panic.

By 1921, the Red Scare was effectively over. It stands as a reminder of how national-security interests can be used by government to suppress dissenting political ideas even beyond the period of warfare. This is especially true when those expressing the ideas can be vilified as “foreign.” Indeed, any segregated group that threatened the political status quo came under suspicion.

For example, blacks. Race became tangled with labor interests and political intolerance. When black laborers migrated northward en masse to the industrial cities, race riots were sparked.

The lynching of blacks increased dramatically and black Americans became victims of the Red Scare, as well. The Jamaican-born Marcus Garvey—one of the most powerful black voices in America—was targeted by the FBI for deportation and an organization he founded, the Universal Negro Improvement Association, was infiltrated and discredited by federal agents.

The journalist H.L. Mencken, who himself fell under government suspicion for his German descent and love of German culture, commented on the folly of trading fundamental liberties for security. He wrote of Holmes’s “clear and present danger” opinion:

One finds a clear statement of the doctrine that, in war time, the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment cease to have any substance, and may be set aside by any jury that has been sufficiently inflamed by a district attorney itching for higher office . . . . I find it hard to reconcile such notions with any plausible concept of liberalism. (Quoted here.)


The article is reprinted with permission. Copyright 2002, Future of Freedom Foundation.
Wendy McElroy is a Research Fellow at The Independent Institute. Her books include the Independent Institute volumes, Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century, and Freedom, Feminism, and the State.

The article is reprinted with permission. Copyright 2002, Future of Freedom Foundation.

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