wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Jonah Goldberg

Liberal Fascism

Under the Espionage Act of June 1917 and the Sedition Act of May 1918, any criticism of the government, even in your own home, could earn you a prison sentence (a law Oliver Wendell Holmes upheld years after the war, arguing that such speech could be banned if it posed a 'clear and present danger'). In Wisconsin a state official got two and a half years for criticizing a Red Cross fund-raising drive. A Hollywood producer received a ten-year stint in jail for making a film that depicted British troops committing atrocities during the American Revolution. One man was brought to trial for explaining in his own home why he didn't want to buy Liberty Bonds.'

No police state deserves the name without an ample supply of police. The Department of Justice arrested tens of thousands without just cause. The Wilson administration issued a letter for U.S. attorneys and marshals saying, 'No German enemy in this country, who has not hitherto been implicated in plots against the interests of the United States, need have any fear of action by the Department of Justice so long as he observes the following warning: Obey the law; keep your mouth shut.' This blunt language might be forgivable except for the government's dismayingly broad definition of what defined a 'German enemy.'

The Justice Department created its own quasi-official fascisti, known as the American Protective League, or APL. They were given badges—many of which read 'Secret Service'—and charged with keeping an eye on their neighbors, co-workers, and friends. Used as private eyes by overzealous prosecutors in thousands of cases, they were furnished with ample government resources. The APL had an intelligence division, in which members were bound by oath not to reveal they were secret policemen. Members of the APL read their neighbors' mail and listened in on their phones with government approval. In Rockford, Illinois, the army asked the APL to help extract confessions from black soldiers accused of assaulting white women. The APL's American Vigilante Patrol cracked down on 'seditious street oratory.' One of its most important functions was to serve as head crackers against 'slackers' who avoided conscription. In New York City, in September 1918, the APL launched its biggest slacker raid, rounding up fifty thousand men. Two-thirds were later found to be innocent of all charges. Nevertheless; the Justice Department approved. The assistant attorney general noted, with great satisfaction, that America had never been more effectively policed. In 1917 the APL had branches in nearly six hundred cities and towns with a membership approaching a hundred thousand. By the following year, it had exceeded a quarter of a million.

One of the only things the layman still remembers about this period is a vague sense that something bad called the Palmer Raids occurred—a series of unconstitutional crackdowns, approved by Wilson, of 'subversive' groups and individuals. What is usually ignored is that the raids were immensely popular, particularly with the middle-class base of the Democratic Party. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer was a canny progressive who defeated the Republican machine in Pennsylvania by forming a tight bond with labor. He had hoped to ride the popularity of the raids straight into the Oval Office, and might have succeeded had he not been sidelined by a heart attack.

It's also necessary to note that the American Legion was born under inauspicious circumstances during the hysteria of World War I in 1919. Although it is today a fine organization with a proud history, one cannot ignore the fact that it was founded as an essentially fascist organization. In 1923 the national commander of the legion declared, 'If ever needed, the American Legion stands ready to protect our country's institutions and ideals as the fascisti dealt with the destructionists who menaced Italy.' FDR would later try to use the legion as a newfangled American Protective League to spy on domestic dissidents and harass potential foreign agents.

Vigilantism was often encouraged and rarely dissuaded under Wilson's 100 percent Americanism. How could it be otherwise, given Wilson's own warnings about the enemy within? In 1915, in his third annual message to Congress, he declared, 'The gravest threats against our national peace and safety have been uttered within our own borders. There are citizens of the United States, I blush to admit, born under other flags...who have poured the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life; who have sought to bring the authority and good name of our Government into contempt, to destroy our industries wherever they thought it effective for their vindictive purposes to strike at them, and to debase our politics to the uses of foreign intrigue.' Four years later the president was still convinced that perhaps America's greatest threat came from 'hyphenated' Americans. 'I cannot say too often—any man who carries a hyphen about with him carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of this Republic whenever he gets ready. If I can catch any man with a hyphen in this great contest I will know that I have got an enemy of the Republic.'

This was the America Woodrow Wilson and his allies sought. And they got what they wanted. In 1919, at a Victory Loan pageant, a man refused to stand for the national anthem. When 'The Star-Spangled Banner' ended, a furious sailor shot the 'disloyal' man three times in the back. When the man fell, the Washington Post reported, 'the crowd burst into cheering and handclapping.' Another man who refused to rise for the national anthem at a baseball game was beaten by the fans in the bleachers. In February 1919 a jury in Hammond, Indiana, took two minutes to acquit a man who had murdered an immigrant for yelling, 'To Hell with the United States.' In 1920 a salesman at a clothing store in Waterbury, Connecticut, received a six-month prison sentence for referring to Lenin as 'one of the brainiest' leaders in the world. Mrs. Rose Pastor Stokes was arrested, triecLand convicted for telling a women's group, 'I am for the people, arid the government is for the profiteers.' The Republican antiwar progressive Robert La Pollette spent a year fighting an effort to have him expelled from the Senate for disloyalty because he'd given a Speech opposing the war to the Non-Partisan League. The Providence Journal carried a banner—every day!—warning readers that any German or Austrian 'unless known by years of association should be treated as a spy.' The Illinois Bar Association ruled that members who defended draft resisters were not only 'unprofessional' but 'unpatriotic.'

German authors were purged from libraries, families of German extraction were harassed and taunted, sauerkraut became 'liberty cabbage,' and—as Sinclair Lewis half-jokingly recalled—there was talk of renaming German measles 'liberty measles.' Socialists and other leftists who agitated against the war were brutalized. Mobs in Arizona packed Wobblies in cattle cars and left them in the desert without food or water. In Oklahoma, opponents of the war were tarred and feathered, and a crippled leader of the Industrial Workers of the World was hung from a railway trestle. At Columbia University the president, Nicholas Murray Butler, fired three professors for criticizing the war, on the grounds that 'what had been wrongheadedness was now sedition. What had been folly was now treason.' Richard Ely, enthroned at the University of Wisconsin, organized professors and others to crush internal dissent via the Wisconsin Loyalty Legion. Anybody who offered 'opinions which hinder us in this awful struggle,' he explained, should be 'fired' if not indeed 'shot.' Chief on his list was Robert La Follette, whom Ely attempted to hound from Wisconsin politics as a 'traitor' who 'has been of more help to the Kaiser than a quarter of a million troops.'

Hard numbers are difficult to come by, but it has been estimated that some 175,000 Americans were arrested for failing to demonstrate their patriotism in one way or another. All were punished, many went to jail.