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World War I and the Suppression of Dissent, Part 1


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THE YEARS SURROUNDING Americas 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 Americas 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 Franklins 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 Americas 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 governments 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 20 regulations is online.]

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 Peoples 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.

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    Wendy McElroy is an author for The Future of Freedom Foundation, a fellow of the Independent Institute, and the author of The Reasonable Woman: A Guide to Intellectual Survival (Prometheus Books, 1998).