That Time in WWI America When Censorship Was Legal

Detail from cover of The World Remade

Editor's Note:

G. J. Meyer is a former Woodrow Wilson Fellow with an M.A. in English literature from the University of Minnesota. The World Remade is his latest book. He joins Signature to discuss a time in American history, during and directly after WWI, when censorship was the rule of the land.

Many things remain controversial about the First World War.

Could it have been averted, even after the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand? Who should be blamed for starting it? Once it was started, did it have to go on until 20 million people were dead? Was the settlement that followed it just? Could it have ended in a way that did not lead to an even bloodier conflict just two decades later?

Mysteries linger. How high did the plot to kill Franz Ferdinand go in the government of Serbia? Why was the liner Lusitania left to fend for herself in submarine-infested waters, when sources of help were nearby? When munitions factories blew up, were these industrial accidents or the work of enemy saboteurs? What explains America’s erratic behavior at the Paris Peace Conference?

A century on, however, only one major aspect of the war remains not just disputed, not just mysterious, but almost entirely forgotten. It has to do with the United States exclusively. Not with the huge new army the U.S. created and sent to France, not with international diplomacy, but with a purely domestic matter: the government’s brutal and sustained suppression of free speech and other civil liberties. This crackdown began on the day of America’s declaration of war one hundred years ago this April. It continued long after the fighting ended in November 1918. It is without parallel in our history before or since, and remains one of the most troubling episodes in that history.

That is why the story remains so little known: because it is so inconvenient, and so impossible to reconcile with what we want to think of ourselves. The irony is that it happened not only with the approval of but at the eager insistence of a man still regarded as one of the greatest champions of liberty the human race has ever produced: President Woodrow Wilson. The gulf separating Mr. Wilson’s lofty reputation from his trampling on the Bill of Rights is both one of the war’s most intriguing mysteries and proof of his skill at self-promotion and image-building.

Even before war was declared, the Wilson administration prepared a bill authorizing the president to censor the press. The president himself declared this to be absolutely essential. Not even a Congress deep in the grip of war fever could bring itself to approve such a grossly unconstitutional measure, but the bill that it did pass authorized the Post Office Department to refuse to mail all publications of which its chief did not approve. Postmaster General Albert Sidney Burleson wielded this unprecedented weapon widely and with relish, putting scores of publications out of business.

The new law’s artfully vague language made it a felony to (among many other things) “utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States.” Zealous prosecutors and jurors eager to demonstrate their patriotism were quick to convict almost anyone accused. The penalties were draconian, the consequences often outrageous.

A few all-too-typical examples must suffice. A movie producer, because his latest feature dealt with the American Revolution and showed Redcoats bayoneting civilians and ravishing colonial damsels, was charged with fostering hatred of America’s ally Britain. Convicted, he was sentenced to ten years in prison and his company went bankrupt. Socialist and former Congressman Victor Berger, having run for the Senate pledging to seek “immediate, general and permanent peace” and received impressive numbers of votes, was indicted under the new law and given a sentence of twenty years.

It was not necessary to be prominent to become a target. In South Dakota an elderly man was sentenced to five years in Leavenworth federal prison for calling the war “foolish” and claiming that it was “fought for the sake of Wall Street.”

Victory in Europe brought no relief. As war fever slowly subsided, it was replaced by an equally fevered Red Scare. The government staged violent raids on people and groups suspected of disreputable opinions. It made mass arrests, crowded suspects into foul makeshift prisons, and prepared to deport non-citizens of whom it did not approve to newly Communist Russia. Even those who had never been to Russia. Even if they had spouses and children in the U.S.

By 1920, Attorney General Mitchell Palmer was urging that the most severe of the wartime measures be made permanent. It proved to be a near thing.  Palmer was supported first by President Wilson, then by the U.S. Senate.

Only the House of Representatives refused to go along, thereby bringing to an end what one historian has called the American Reign of Terror. May we be as fortunate in this new century as we were a hundred years ago.