• Wilson's Raiders

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    First
    published in Inquiry,
    19 & 23 June 1980.

    America's
    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.

    The parlous
    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…"

    Establishment
    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.

    Fortunately,
    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, 1917–1918
    , Murphy is particularly good on
    an area relatively neglected in the other treatments: the reaction
    of lawyers and jurists to the civil liberties issue.

    The discussion,
    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 1919–20, which clearly grew out of
    the wartime hysteria and continued it into peacetime.

    There also
    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.

    Murphy's
    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.

    The
    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.

    Murray
    N. Rothbard

    (1926–1995) was dean of the Austrian School, founder of modern
    libertarianism, and chief academic officer of the Mises
    Institute
    . He was also editor – with Lew Rockwell –
    of The
    Rothbard-Rockwell Report
    ,
    and appointed Lew as his executor. See
    Murray’s books.

    Copyright
    2005 by the Ludwig von Mises Institute.
    Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided
    full credit is given.

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