McCarthy, the Wilsonite
By Bryan Caplan
Wilson sounded the keynote for the ruthless suppression of anyone who interfered with his war effort: “Woe be to the man or group of men that seeks to stand in our way in this day of high resolution.” His Attorney General Thomas W. Gregory seconded the President, stating, of opponents of the war: “May God have mercy on them, for they need expect none from an outraged people and an avenging government.”
The Espionage Act of 1917, amended the next year by the addition of the Sedition Act, went far beyond punishing spies. Its real target was opinion. It was deployed particularly against socialists and critics of conscription. People were jailed for questioning the constitutionality of the draft and arrested for criticizing the Red Cross. A woman was prosecuted and convicted for telling a women’s group that “the government is for the profiteers.” A movie producer was sentenced to three years in prison for a film, The Spirit of ’76, which was deemed anti-British. Eugene V. Debs, who had polled 900,000 votes in 1912 as presidential candidate of the Socialist Party, was sentenced to ten years in prison for criticizing the war at a rally of his party.
We have all been made very familiar with the episode known as “McCarthyism,” which, however, affected relatively few persons, many of whom were, in fact, Stalinists. Still, this alleged time of terror is endlessly rehashed in schools and media. In contrast, few even among educated Americans have ever heard of the shredding of civil liberties under Wilson’s regime, which was far more intense and affected tens of thousands.
P.S. The details of the Debs affair are still enough to make me wince:
In 1920, the United States–Wilson’s United States–was the only nation involved in the World War that still refused a general amnesty to political prisoners. The most famous political prisoner in the country was the Socialist leader Eugene Debs. In June, 1918, Debs had addressed a Socialist gathering in Canton, Ohio, where he pilloried the war and the U.S. government. There was no call to violence, nor did any violence ensue. A government stenographer took down the speech, and turned in a report to the federal authorities in Cleveland. Debs was indicted under the Sedition Act, tried, and condemned to ten years in federal prison.
In January, 1921, Debs was ailing and many feared for his life. Amazingly, it was Wilson’s rampaging Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer himself who urged the President to commute Debs’s sentence. Wilson wrote across the recommendation the single word, “Denied.” He claimed that “while the flower of American youth was pouring out its blood to vindicate the cause of civilization, this man, Debs, stood behind the lines, sniping, attacking, and denouncing them . . . he will never be pardoned during my administration.” Actually, Debs had denounced not “the flower of American youth” but Wilson and the other war-makers who sent them to their deaths in France.
On a happier note, Raico doesn’t miss this prime opportunity to raise the status of Warren Harding:
It took Warren Harding, one of the “worst” American Presidents according to numerous polls of history professors, to pardon Debs, when Wilson, a “Near-Great,” would have let him die a prisoner. Debs and twenty-three other jailed dissidents were freed on Christmas Day, 1921. To those who praised him for his clemency, Harding replied: “I couldn’t do anything else. . . . Those fellows didn’t mean any harm. It was a cruel punishment.”