World War I is the gift that just keeps on giving. Although the U.S. government’s intervention into this senseless, immoral, and destructive war occurred 100 years ago, the adverse effects of the war continue to besiege our nation. Among the most notable examples is the Espionage Act, a tyrannical law that was enacted two months after the U.S. entered the war and which, unfortunately, remained on the books after the war came to an end. In fact, it is that World War I relic that U.S. officials are now relying on to secure the criminal indictment of Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks head who released a mountain of evidence disclosing the inner workings and grave wrongdoing on the part of the U.S. national-security establishment, especially with respect to the manner in which it has waged it undeclared forever wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
Some news media commentators are finally coming to the realization that if the Espionage Act can be enforced against Assange for what he did, it can be enforced against anyone in the press for revealing damaging inside information about the national-security establishment — i.e., the Pentagon, the CIA, and the NSA. Therefore, they are calling on the Justice Department to cease and desist from its prosecution of Assange.
Of course, they are right, but the problem is that they don’t go far enough. Their mindsets reflect the customary acceptance of the status quo. The mindset is that we Americans simply have to accept the way things are and plead with the government to go easy on us.
That’s just plain nonsense. It is incumbent on the American people to start thinking at a high level, one that doesn’t just accept the existence of tyrannical laws and instead calls for their repeal. After all, isn’t that what our Declaration of Independence says — that when government becomes destructive of the legitimate ends for which it was formed, it is the right of the people to alter or even abolish it and form new government?
What does that mean with respect to the Espionage Act? It means that the law should simply be repealed and that Americans need to start demanding repeal rather than simply pleading with the Justice Department to enforce it in a more judicious manner.
Let’s keep in mind that the law is the fruit of a rotten foreign intervention. Hardly anyone defends the U.S. intervention into World War I. That war was, quite simply, none of the U.S. government’s business. President Wilson, however, was hell-bent on embroiling the U.S. in the conflict. Wilson believed that if the force of the U.S. government could be used to totally defeat Germany, this would be the war to finally end all wars and to make the world safe for democracy.
Wilson’s mindset, of course, was lunacy. Sure enough, the U.S. intervention resulted in Germany’s total defeat, which was then followed by the vengeful Treaty of Versailles, which Adolf Hitler would use to justify his rise to power. Nazism and World War II soon followed. So much for the war to end all wars and to make the world safe for democracy. Tens of thousands of American men were sacrificed for nothing.
Moreover, Wilson had to force American men to fight in World War I. He conscripted them. Enslaved would be a better word. When a government has to force its citizens to fight a particular war, that’s a good sign that it’s a bad war, one that shouldn’t be waged.
In fact that was one of the reasons for the Espionage Act—not to punish people for spying but rather for criticizing the draft and the war. The law converted anyone who publicly criticized the draft or attempted to persuade American men to resist the draft into felons. And make no mistake about it: U.S. officials went after such people with a vengeance, doing their best to punish Americans for doing nothing more than speaking.
One example was Charles Schenck, who was prosecuted and convicted of violating the law after circulating a flier that opposed the draft. When the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, the Court upheld the conviction, one of the earliest examples of judicial deferment to the military, a deference that would become virtually complete after the U.S. government was officially converted to a national-security state after World War II.
Another example was Eugen Debs, who got convicted for criticizing the war and for encouraging men to resist the draft. President Wilson called Debs “a traitor to his country.”
How in the world can such prosecutions and convictions possibly be reconciled with the principles of a free society? Freedom necessarily entails the right to criticize government for anything, including its wars, its enslavement of people, its tyranny, and anything else. Perhaps it is worth nothing that both Schenk and Debs were socialists, something that today’s crop of Democrat presidential candidates might want to take note of.
Longtime supporters of FFF know that one of my favorite stories in history is the one about the White Rose, a group of college students in Germany who, in the midst of World War II, began distributing pamphlets calling on Germans to resist their own government and to oppose the troops. (See my essay “The White Rose: A Lesson in Dissent.” Also, see the great movie Sophie Scholl: The Final Days.) When they were caught and brought to trial, the members of the White Rose were berated by the presiding judge, who accused them of being bad German citizens and traitors, just as Wilson, the Justice Department, and the U.S. Supreme Court had said of Americans who were violating the Espionage Act.
Today, any U.S. official would praise the actions of the White Rose, but that’s just because it was foreign citizens opposing an official enemy of the U.S. government. The fact is that if the White Rose members had done the same thing they did in Germany here in the United States, U.S. officials would have gone after them with the same anger and vengeance as German officials did. And they would have used the Espionage Act to do it.
It’s time to acknowledge that the horror of U.S. intervention into World War I and the horrible consequences of that intervention. It’s also time to rid our nation of the horrific relic of that intervention, the Espionage Act. We need to continue demanding the dismissal of all charges against Assange. But let’s not stop there. Let’s repeal the tyrannical World War I-era Espionage Act under which he is being charged to ensure that this cannot happen to others.