Explore Freedom

Explore Freedom » World War I and the Suppression of Dissent, Part 2

FFF Articles

World War I and the Suppression of Dissent, Part 2

by

Part 1 | Part 2

IN THE SUMMER OF 1905, labor radicals assembled in Chicago to found a new group the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). It operated in competition with the more conservative American Federation of Labor (AFL), then the most powerful labor group in the United States. As well as embodying socialism, the IWW embraced less-restrictive membership policies than the AFL. It actively organized and recruited among migrant workers, blacks, and immigrants, from whom it received enthusiastic support.

Leaders such as William Big Bill Haywood thought all workers should organize into a single industrial union to avoid the possibility of individual trade unions being pitted against each other. The IWW employed a grassroots approach: the executive was purposefully weak; membership was open to everyone; local strikes were encouraged. Thus, under American-born leaders, the IWW became the most prominent voice of immigrant workers, who were often snubbed by other labor organizations.

Conflict with authority was inevitable, even before World War I. Part of the reason was the IWWs willingness to use bare-knuckle tactics, such as sabotage and violent confrontation with strike-breakers. But the unresolvable conflict was ideological. To the IWW, the government was a tool of capitalist exploitation. To the authorities, the IWW was a revolutionary organization that sought to overthrow the existing government.

Thus, when 165 IWW leaders were arrested in 1917, charges ranged from treason to the use of intimidation in labor disputes.

In June 1917, Congress enacted the Espionage Act (for text see www.staff.uiuc.edu/~rcunning/espact.htm), which prescribed heavy fines and prison sentences for vaguely defined anti-war activities. The Act was quickly used against the IWW. In September, IWW meeting halls across the nation were raided by government agents. More than 160 IWW officers, members, and sympathizers were arrested.

One hundred and one defendants went on trial in April 1918, including IWW head Big Bill Haywood. After five months, the trial ended in a guilty verdict for all, with Haywood and 14 others each receiving sentences of 20 years in prison. Collectively, the defendants were fined a total of $2,500,000. The IWW was virtually destroyed.

The shattering of the IWW caused little public protest, as most people associated it with un-Americanism a charge fueled by the large number of minorities and foreigners in its membership. Even the language of the IWW was deemed unpatriotic because its impassioned rhetoric too closely mirrored that of socialists in other lands. An incident known as the Bisbee Deportation illustrates the depth of the public hatred toward the IWW and foreigners.

In the mining town of Bisbee, Arizona, the IWW recruited members among Mexican and European workers who routinely labored at lower-paying jobs than native-born Americans. In June 1917, the IWW presented a list of demands to Bisbees mining companies, including an end to discrimination against minority and foreign workers. When the companies turned down every demand, a strike was called.

Then a rumor erupted: the IWW had been infiltrated by pro-Germans. At 2 a.m., hundreds of armed vigilantes rounded up nearly 1,200 men, whom they forced into 24 cattle cars of a train, shipped them to New Mexico, and abandoned them in a remote area. The deportees were without shelter for weeks until U.S. troops escorted them to facilities where many were held for months.

The authorities in Bisbee guarded all roads into town to prevent the men, or any other undesirables, from entering. Other local workers were put on trial and deported if found guilty of disloyalty to the mining companies. A federal commission investigated the deportations but found no federal laws had been violated. The matter was referred to the state of Arizona, which took no action against the mining companies.

A report in the Los Angeles Times (July 15, 1917) captured the general public’s response:

On our own soil is an enemy … preaching revolution and invoking anarchy … the I.W.W.s. From Butte to Bisbee, from Seattle to Leadville, that international organization, filled with foreigners, officered by convicts, and attempting vaguely to guise its sabotage behind the specious title of Industrial Workers of the World, is in open warfare against our government.

The Bisbee deportation was coordinated by private vigilantes from whom the government often received enthusiastic support. Queen Silver, who attended IWW meetings in Los Angeles as a child, recounted in her writings,

When the [IWW] person got up to make a collection speech that was a signal to all the American Legion people in the audience to arrest the one or two people who were beside them, as they had been deputized to do. Mother was one of the people arrested. They were all turned loose later on. It was harassment.

Grace Verne Silver the arrested mother was not taken to the police station. A private business interest, the Merchants and Manufacturers Association, maintained files on radicals for the police and Grace was detained there.

The American public had shown a willingness to tolerate and even to participate in the rounding up, harassment, and forced deportation of native-born Americans. The forced deportation of foreign-born radicals from U.S. territory would soon follow.

The end of World War I

As America entered the last year of World War I, 1918, patriotic fervor seemed to swell. In May, the Sedition Act (see www.lib.byu.edu/~rdh/wwi/ 1918/usspy.html for text) imposed a fine of not more than $10,000 or imprisonment for not more than twenty years, or both … upon anyone disposed to utter, print, write, or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States.

In October 1918, Congress passed the Alien Act, by which any alien who, at any time after entering the United States, is found to have been at the time of entry, or to have become thereafter, a member of any anarchist organization could be deported.

Libertarians of the day, including Albert Jay Nock, H.L. Mencken, Randolph Bourne, and Oswald Garrison Villard spoke out in protest against such measures. But most voices still remained silent.

The various acts of 1917 and 1918 were used to destroy what was left of the left wing in America. Victor Berger, the first socialist elected to Congress, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for hindering the war effort. (While Berger was free on appeal, his constituency returned him to Congress.) The socialist labor leader Eugene V. Debs was sentenced to 10 years in prison for making an anti-war speech.

On November 11, 1918, the Allies and Germany signed an armistice: the war was over.

But political panic partly stemming from the Bolshevik Revolution gripped America. In 1919, strikes broke out, crippling some segments of industry; sometimes fierce violence broke out on both sides. Race riots shook cities across America, including Chicago, where five days of rioting left 38 people dead, several injured, and about a thousand homeless: the race riots were called the Red Summer of 1919.

One event was pivotal: on May 1, 1919, several bombs were delivered through the mail to prominent figures, including Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer; this was the beginning of the Red Scare. The surviving Palmer blamed communists, who he believed were overwhelmingly immigrants. In his essay The Case against the Reds, Palmer explained:

>My information showed that communism in this country was an organization of thousands of aliens who were direct allies of Trotzky. Aliens of the same misshapen caste of mind and indecencies of character, and it showed that they were making the same glittering promises of lawlessness, of criminal autocracy to Americans, that they had made to the Russian peasants (see http://chnm.gmu.edu/courses/hist409/palmer.html for the full text).

The Palmer raids

With the power to deport, Palmer and his assistant John Edgar Hoover launched a crusade against the radical left.

Beginning in the fall of 1919, between 5,000 and 10,000 suspected alien residents were arrested without warrants in what became known as the Palmer Raids. No evidence of a proposed revolution was uncovered; many of those arrested were found to be American citizens affiliated with a union or the wrong political party. The vast majority of arrestees were eventually released but hundreds of enemy aliens including the anarchist Emma Goldman, a naturalized citizen who was denaturalized were eventually deported to the Soviet Union.

The Supreme Court failed to uphold the constitutional rights of the American citizens arrested under the acts. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. justified the repression in a famous decision in which he stated that when the exercise of free speech constituted a clear and present danger to America danger as defined by the government the authorities could legitimately suspend the First Amendment.

The Palmer Raids continued into 1920. As anti-war scientists and protesters, union members, and socialist leaders continued to be brutally arrested without warrants and held without trial, however, public approval shifted away.

Opposition began to organize. For example, in 1920 the American Civil Liberties Union formed to protest the violation of constitutional rights such as arrest without warrant, unreasonable search and seizure, the denial of due process, and police brutality. Its first director, Roger Baldwin, was a pacifist and a member of the IWW.

Palmer himself suffered a series of embarrassments that hurried the demise of his political influence. For example, he predicted a communist uprising on May 1, 1920, and caused such panic that the New York State legislature refused to seat five Socialists who had been elected. When the uprising did not occur, sharp resentment and skepticism replaced panic.

By 1921, the Red Scare was effectively over. It stands as a reminder of how national-security interests can be used by government to suppress dissenting political ideas even beyond the period of warfare. This is especially true when those expressing the ideas can be vilified as foreign. Indeed, any segregated group that threatened the political status quo came under suspicion.

For example, blacks. Race became tangled with labor interests and political intolerance. When black laborers migrated northward en masse to the industrial cities, race riots were sparked.

The lynching of blacks increased dramatically and black Americans became victims of the Red Scare, as well. The Jamaican-born Marcus Garvey one of the most powerful black voices in America was targeted by the FBI for deportation and an organization he founded, the Universal Negro Improvement Association, was infiltrated and discredited by federal agents.

The journalist H.L. Mencken, who himself fell under government suspicion for his German descent and love of German culture, commented on the folly of trading fundamental liberties for security. He wrote of Holmes’s clear and present danger opinion:

One finds a clear statement of the doctrine that, in war time, the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment cease to have any substance, and may be set aside by any jury that has been sufficiently inflamed by a district attorney itching for higher office…. I find it hard to reconcile such notions with any plausible concept of liberalism. (Quoted at http://apollo3.com/~jameso/first5.html.)

Part 1 | Part 2

  • Categories
  • This post was written by:

    Wendy McElroy is an author for The Future of Freedom Foundation, a fellow of the Independent Institute, and the author of The Reasonable Woman: A Guide to Intellectual Survival (Prometheus Books, 1998).