With Astonishment Woodrow Wilson’s Reign of Terror in Defense of
New Freedom Replaces the Old Ones
standard US history text will at least mention, in passing, the
suppression of American antiwar dissent in World War I. The great
conservative sociologist, the late Robert Nisbet, wrote in 1988
blunt fact is that when [under Wilson] America was introduced to
the War State in 1917, it was introduced also to what would later
be known as the total, or totalitarian, state."
bit harsh, what? American historians really hate coming to grips
with what happened in America, starting in April 1917. They so fail
because a fair reading would entail some responsibility for St.
Woodrow, who oversaw the whole sorry show. Instead, his worshippers
like to quote his little, operationally meaningless expressions
of regret about it. But as Nisbet notes, Wilson "was an ardent
prophet of the state, the state indeed as it was known to European
scholars and statesmen…. He preached it…. From him supremely comes
the politicization, the centralization, and the commitment to bureaucracy
of American society during the past seventy-five years."
historians don’t dwell on Woodrow’s reign of terror. They imagine
that "reactionary" subordinates and local bullies did
it all, while Woodrow was busy running the war effort and planning
the better world to come. Such a kindly fellow was our Woodrow.
Historians, in short, would rather devote whole chapters to "McCarthyism,"
which inconvenienced a few Stalinists for a time, than deal with
a real saga of repression and embarrassingly stupid violence.
Hysterical Cretins Take Charge
read the story of American official and popular attitudes toward
our allegedly highly valued freedoms during World War I is to conclude
that the country was overrun with vicious morons. Some of the morons
were judges, legislators, and bureaucrats. Others arose from the
masses, so to speak, to demand that the people make political war
on themselves, the better to fight those terrible Germans. On any
fair reading of the period, there was probably more real freedom
of speech in Germany and in the German Reichstag in the same years
than in the "home of the free" or the World’s Greatest
(and Least) Deliberative Body.
repression drew on pre-existing conflicts. Cases are so numerous
that only a few can be mentioned here. The pre-war numskull state-level
sedition laws did service during Wilson’s crusade. Some politicians
and businessmen used the crisis to crush their trade union antagonists,
in a continuation of pre-war labor struggles. The administration
suppressed its critics to the Left, while warring on the whole German-American
population. This raises an interesting question: if you have allowed
immigrants from a particular society to settle among you for almost
a century, is it really great statesmanship to find yourselves a
war with their country of origin? Conversely, if you anticipate
a future war or "war" with a particular society or state,
it is great statesmanship to allow members of that society or state
to settle among you, now, as motor voters? Perhaps the morons
who run this country can look into it.
Anglophile Willies Find Us A War
Anglophile Wilson administration’s decided lack of genuine neutrality
toward the European war had produced a series of crises. By late
February 1917, the President asked Congress for power to outfit
American merchant ships with arms – a perfect way to insure an incident
which would lead to war between the US and Germany. Senator Robert
M. LaFollette of Wisconsin, Progressive Republican, led a filibuster
– along with the few remaining antiwar Senators against the bill.
It was known during the debate that at least one Senator on the
pro-war side had a loaded revolver on him. Tempers were strained,
and Senator Lane of Oregon stood near LaFollette with a sharpened
rat-tail file in his pocket, in case the latter needed defending
from the ardent patriots in the world’s greatest deliberative
bill failed, but Wilson asserted a new-found "presidential
power" to arm the ships on his own motion. In April, he asked
for, and received, a declaration of war. During the rather tense,
even hysterical debate, pro-war speakers began handing out accusations
of "treason" to their fellow members of the great deliberative
body. LaFollette and a few others voted No. On his way out of the
chamber, a "patriot" handed LaFollette a coil of rope,
underscoring, one supposes, the refined good manners to which warmongers
adhere, especially when they have gotten their way.
later commented that "the espionage bills, the conscription
bills, and other forcible military measures… being ground out by
the war machine in this country" demonstrated the war party’s
"fear that it has no popular support." Certainly, the
administration acted as if it thought so. A sedition bill so insanely
broad that it would have embarrassed the Federalist Party was quickly
passed. It was now a federal crime entailing draconian penalties
to question the war, its conduct, its costs, or anything. A great
steel door shut down on the American mind, such as it was.
Freedom via the Abolition Thereof
free communication came to an end. People were arrested and indicted
for casual remarks made in private conversation. It was not
the New Left of the 1960s that actually invented the claim that
the personal is the political – it was the United States government.
great wave of repression came down on "the freest people in
the world," as Americans liked to call themselves. Government
gumshoes, federal, state, and local, delighted in following up idle
charges of "disloyalty," "treason," "pro-Germanism,"
and "slacking." Legislatures outlawed the teaching of
the German language and the public performance of music by such
dangerous Teutons as Beethoven. Wilson and the administration –
in charge of the enlarged federal apparatus of repression
encouraged, aided, and abetted local efforts, including those of
self-appointed, hyperthyroid "patriotic" snoops and bullies.
Tarring and feathering came back in style for those accused of the
"crimes" mentioned above. Here and there, a local Barney
Fife, or an Army officer who hadn’t quite made it over to Northern
France, would shoot a "traitor" for saying the wrong thing
in a public place. The hero would then be tried for it, acquitted,
and finally, lionized in the moronic press.
fully satisfied with their good works so far, many hotheads and
morons in positions of public authority demanded redoubled efforts
to ferret out "traitors" and "slackers." They
called for military courts to try domestic dissenters. Firing squads,
they said, should be kept busy, full time. I am leaving out the
names of these authentically American Robespierres to spare the
feelings of their descendants, who might perhaps agree that these
fellows were vicious idiots.
not satisfied with forcing supposed "traitors" to kiss
the flag or sing the praises of the Archangel Woodrow, mobs of patriotic
fellows would occasionally hang someone. Meanwhile, Congress, deliberating
again, strengthened the Espionage Act to criminalize whatever microscopic
bit of free discussion might accidentally still remain. Congress
even considered outlawing all discussion of the origins of the war
or how America entered, which would have effectively ended all work
by historians. Fortunately, however, many of the historians were
otherwise employed in producing propaganda for the cause.
For a good discussion of these matters, see H. C. Peterson and Gilbert
C. Fite, Opponents
of War, 1917-1918 (University of Wisconsin Press, 1957).
Faux Pas Hardly Noticed At Home
saving and improving the world, high administration officials, including
the President, said next to nothing the whole time, only pausing
to chide the patriots when their excesses were bad for business
or began to look bad in the eyes of the world. Appearances
matter, you know, old chap. Mustn’t embarrass the British. US leaders
did not really ask anyone to stop.
France and Britain had ever been embarrassed about crusading for
high values alongside the autocratic Czar of Russia, they must have
felt some discomfort with the under-civilized Americans coming to
their aid. For civilized people everywhere, including in North America,
the combined outburst of state repression and popular mob violence
made the United States the laughing stock of the world. Violent
morons did indeed appear to be having their day in the "freest
land on earth." Conservative historian John Lukacs once wrote
that the problem with the United States has been, not barbarism,
but savagery. Surveying Woodrow’s home front, one begins to understand.
judges and courts were utterly useless for spotting American freedoms
allegedly "protected" by ten amendments. They were indeed
part of the problem. They were about as judicious as Judge Jeffreys
or Judge Freissler. The celebrated Justice Holmes was on the wrong
side of every case that came before him, his celebrated dissents
suppose that the unbounded moronism and cretinhood of the patriotic
forces in World War might be written off as one of the necessary
costs of state-building. Some, like Albert Jay Nock, Randolph Bourne,
and Oswald Garrison Villard – who lived through the period – came
to question the state building project itself. H. L. Mencken, a
German-American, was as such a target of the marching morons,
and his observation of the wartime debasement of American life formed
the context for his low opinion of American politics and civilization.
people’s participation in suppressing their own rights, so to speak,
calls to mind the radical phase of the French Revolution. There,
everyone who was not a republican zealot was thought of as an "enemy"
to be guillotined. In the American variation, the Rousseauian form
of republicanism, in which the people force particular individuals
"to be free," held hands with Americans’ notion of their
natural goodness as "natural men" produced by the frontier
experience. A decaying Protestantism kept watch over the whole sideshow.
The constant attack on evil German Kultur suggests that many
of the participants doubted, down deep, that America had any sort
of culture at all. Perhaps much of this reflected the absence of
genuine natural social authority in the United States, the
lack of which drove people – screaming bloody murder – into the
arms of state power.
is the most remarkable thing imaginable: a "war," effectively,
against the American people and their rights, waged with the support
of the above-mentioned moronic sections of the people, allegedly
in service of defeating the German enemies of freedom. What utter
rubbish. Thanks, Woodrow.
loyalty oaths were demanded. The flag salute became institutionalized,
so long ago that "conservatives" now defend it as a timeless
national institution. No one asked Why, in a free society, anyone
should be under any obligation to salute anyone or anything? No
one asked whether or not hounding, harassing, and brutalizing people
was really the best means for winning them over to the lovely government
and society based upon freedom.
1917-1918, it was largely the Left that resisted, and insisted on
discussing the war and its causes. Their failure of analysis – i.e.,
that "capitalism" as such caused the war – must not blind
us to their heroism. The I.W.W. (Wobblies) were especially tough
to take down. For their resistance to Woodrow, one can almost forgive
them their crazy ideology.
contrast, the public seems to have accepted World War II with complete
resignation. A clear majority had opposed entry into the Second
Global Bloodbath. Pearl Harbor ended all discussion – though its
origins held a certain interest for some – and people did what they
had to do. Perhaps some of them didn’t mind being dragooned
into being the now topical "Greatest Generation." My own
feeling is that popular resignation in World War II rested partly
on the fact that, having seen Woodrow’s minions at work in 1917-1918,
would-be critics knew what to expect and chose not to be martyrs.
War for Perpetual War
there any parallels to the present situation, since Tuesday? There
may be, but this is not the time for them. My main interest is in
whether or not the geniuses who helped bring about the latest crisis
will feel a need to suppress all possible criticism. I suppose we
could get used to being silenced. It will be very difficult, however,
if they cross the line and demand that we agree with them.
If they do that, all bets are off, the Van Creveld thesis about
legitimacy comes into play, and we’ll all be regretting any number
of past historical turning points and wondering which one of them
was most important in bringing about the final unraveling of the
I first composed this piece, I thought that I had perhaps used the
word "moron" too many times. Now comes word that some cretin has
managed to murder a Sikh, and another fool has disposed of a Pakistani.
Looking for an unarmed, inoffensive Arab to kill, the bozos can't
even get that right. Morons.
Joseph R. Stromberg [send him
mail] is the JoAnn B. Rothbard Historian in Residence at the
Ludwig von Mises Institute and
a columnist for Antiwar.com.
© 2001 LewRockwell.com