published in Inquiry,
19 & 23 June 1980.
entry into World War I was marked by a system of repression of
dissent and civil liberties unprecedented our history. The repression
ranged from the jailing of thousands of critics of the war, most
notably Socialist leader Eugene Debs, to banning the playing of
Beethoven (a Hun), changing the name of sauerkraut to Liberty
cabbage, and seeking to prohibit the teaching of the German language
in the public schools ("Speech of Hated Hun Forbidden,"
was how the press saw one such triumph). Leading the nationwide
assault was the federal government; the executive branch also
orchestrated councils and organizations on the state and local
level, and gave official sanction to vigilante activities of superpatriots
engaging in surveillance of their neighbors.
state of individual freedoms in the United States was sketched
by H. L. Mencken in the early 1920s, when he satirically suggested
what was "wrong" with civil libertarians from the viewpoint
of the average American. The problem was that they were too dogmatic,
too doctrinaire in the espousal of the Bill of Rights, a bunch
of troublemakers and semi-anarchistic johnny-one-notes constantly
bemoaning the alleged threats to liberty in this freest land on
earth. In short, Mencken wrote in mock scorn, they were "the
same fanatics who shake the air with sobs every time the Postmaster-General
of the United States bars a periodical from the mails because
its ideas do not please him, and every time some poor Russian
is deported for reading Karl Marx, and every time a Prohibition
enforcement officer murders a bootlegger who resists his levies,
and every time agents of the Department of Justice throw an Italian
out of the window…"
historians have long been rather embarrassed by this veritable
reign of terror during and following World War I. For they
have a particular problem: At the top of the pyramid of repression
was none other than Woodrow Wilson, one of the great triad of
"strong" presidents (the others are Lincoln and FDR)
who are supposed to have brought America to its present pinnacle
of preeminence. As Mencken put it, their attitude has been that
Woodrow Wilson was the natural candidate "for the first vacancy
in the Trinity." What then to do about Wilson as commander
in chief of the repression machine? Up until the last two decades,
the solution was to levitate him above the carnage; not Wilson
but his impetuous and reactionary advisers were to blame, both
for the wartime repression and for the notorious Palmer "red
raids" conducted well after the end of the war.
in recent years historians have been more willing to topple their
idols. Paul Murphy’s new book is a welcome addition to the newer
tough-minded literature on the suppression of civil liberties
in the war. Woodrow Wilson is given the primacy and the major
responsibility for the terror system that he so richly deserves.
Murphy provides us with a competent and useful account of the
suppression and the emergence of the organized civil liberties
movement. Although his brief treatment lacks some of the juicy
details of H. C. Peterson and Gilbert Fite’s Opponents
of War, 19171918, Murphy is particularly good on
an area relatively neglected in the other treatments: the reaction
of lawyers and jurists to the civil liberties issue.
however, is often skimpy, perhaps a function of the severe space
limits that the otherwise excellent Norton series in American
history seems to impose on its authors. The treatment of the Progressive
period is scanty and unsatisfactory, with no discussion of the
anti-anarchy laws that swept the nation after the assassination
of McKinley, or of Teddy Roosevelt’s fortunately unsuccessful
attempt to revive the charge of federal seditious libel against
the New York World in 1910 for its exposé of his
chicaneries in the Panamanian revolution. And there is no treatment
of the Palmer raids of 191920, which clearly grew out of
the wartime hysteria and continued it into peacetime.
might have been at least a mention of the fact that on the day
war was declared, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels managed
to get Wilson to nationalize the radio waves and to place radio
in Navy Department hands where Daniels unsuccessfully tried
to keep it after the war had ended. Or of the bizarre establishment
by the War Department of its own lumber union, the Loyal Legion
of Loggers and Lumbermen, as part of the government’s successful
effort to crush the radical IWW. And Murphy misses the fact that
the Post Office’s suppression of an issue of The Nation was
a reaction against libertarian Albert Jay Nock’s editorial attacking
leader Samuel Gompers for his pro-war activities within the international
labor movement. Apparently, a mere criticism of Gompers was enough
to get even a leading magazine banned from the mails.
But the major
problem with Murphy’s book is his fundamental confusion about
the nature of the Progressive movement that underlay the war effort
and the war mobilization. Murphy seems torn between the older
myths and the more recent insights about the Progressives, as
witness his belief that this fundamentally militaristic and imperialistic
movement had been at least half pacifist. And although he acknowledges
the vital role of such classical liberals and anti-statists as
Roger Baldwin and Oswald Garrison Villard in the battle against
war and on behalf of civil liberties, he attacks classical liberal
property rights theory as furnishing, in essence, protection to
only the civil liberties of the "propertied." What he
misses is the fundamental Lockean axiom that every individual,
by virtue of being human, has a "self propriety"
a property right in his own person, including his life and liberty.
The argument that there can be no firmer groundwork than this
for civil liberties for all, he doesn’t even bother to tackle.
crucial failure is in not understanding that the Progressive movement
was a comprehensive drive for statism and big government across
the board in every area of American life, from the economy
to foreign policy to the treatment of dissent, and even to sex
and the consumption of alcohol. The movement was a coalition of
certain big business groups and new circles of technocratic intellectuals,
devoted to a planned and cartelized economy in which they would
share the rule. The embracing of the war by John Dewey and countless
other Progressive intellectuals was no incomprehensible betrayal
of their reform ideals, but rather part and parcel of their vision
of a nationalized future. In James Weinstein’s insight, the Progressives
saw the war as the "fulfillment" of their cherished
goals. And Progressive jurists, as Murphy only partly recognizes,
were devoted not to the classical doctrine of property rights,
but to governmental intrusion and interference with those rights.
And so Murphy
misses the crucial fact that the entire Wilson administration
was "progressive," from the President on down. The greatest
censors and oppressors during the war were Attorney General Thomas
W Gregory and Postmaster General Albert S. Burleson, leading Texas
progressives. Both were placed in their posts in Washington by
the President’s mysterious alter ego, "Colonel" Edward
M. House, long the grey eminence of the progressive wing of the
Texas Democratic party. And the notorious A. Mitchell Palmer,
who became attorney general in 1919, was a leading Pennsylvania
progressive. From Murphy’s own account it is also clear that the
members of the U.S. Supreme Court, which put its vital imprimatur
on the wartime repression, were almost all progressives, including
Chief Justice Edward D. White of Louisiana, Joseph McKenna of
California, and William R. Day and John H. Clarke of Ohio.
One of Murphy’s
welcome contributions, in fact, is to debunk the allegedly civil
libertarian position of the sainted Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.
As Murphy perceptively sees, Holmes’s progressive commitment to
judicial realism and restraint meant that the courts could no
longer serve as a bulwark of either property rights or civil liberties
against government invasion. As Murphy states, Holmes revealed
an attitude of "permissive majoritarianism and a commitment
to judicial self-restraint," and hence advocated "permitting
the federal government and the states to use power positively
to confront a variety of situations and to impose social control
where necessary." And since rights were supposedly "social
and not natural," Holmes was "fairly well in tune with
the growing tendency in twentieth-century America toward community
control, with its corresponding limitation upon individual freedom."
Yet Murphy is not convincing when he tells us that Holmes had
been converted to supporting a civil liberties position by the
time of the Abrams case in late 1919. During the Volstead
Act (Prohibition) and other cases of the 1920s, Holmes was back
at the same old "permissive majoritarian" stand.
period of the First World War was a watershed in the evolution
of the corporate-liberal warfare state. It saw the burgeoning
not only of the government-business alliance in industry, and
American militarism and globalism, but also of the ideology and
apparatus of the national security state. In the years and crises
to come, the threats to civil liberties would be systematized.
As the latest depredations by the CIA, FBI, and other federal
agencies show, these have far from disappeared.