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Eugene Debs and the Fight for Free Speech

Posted By Paul Comstock On June 26, 2008 @ 8:41 pm In Biography,Economics,Espionage,History,Military,Non-Fiction Reviews,Politics | 2 Comments

CLR INTERVIEW: Ernest Freeberg is Associate Professor of History at the University of Tennessee. His new book, Democracy’s Prisoner, tells the story of Eugene V. Debs, a five-time Socialist Party of America candidate for President. In 1918 Debs was sentenced to ten years in prison for violating the Espionage Act. Below is Ernest’s interview with the California Literary Review.

Democracy’s Prisoner: Eugene V. Debs, the Great War, and the Right to Dissent
by Ernest Freeberg
Harvard University Press, 392 pp.

Who was Eugene Debs and what brought him into conflict with the government?

Debs was the great voice of socialism in the United States for the first two decades of the 20th century, a five-time presidential candidate for a third-party crusade against capitalism. He was a homegrown rebel, born and raised in Indiana, and a powerful speaker who knew how to translate socialism into an American idiom. In his view, when citizens finally threw out the “plutocrats” who were running the country, they would be taking the next step in realizing the democratic promise of the American Revolution. He claimed that, just as the abolitionists fought to liberate the chattel slave, socialism was about to liberate the “wage slaves.”

While many politicians and newspaper editors thought Debs was a dangerous crank, he was not molested much until America entered World War One. Debs was no pacifist—he figured that violence was sometimes necessary to move history forward. But, like most of his fellow radicals, he believed that wars were a symptom of capitalist greed. Rich men declare wars, and make money off wars, while poor men die in them. The “Great War” between rival European empires seemed to him a perfect example of the point, and he had no use for Woodrow Wilson’s claim that Americans were fighting for the loftier goal of “making the world safe for democracy.” Saying as much got him a ten year jail sentence in 1918.

How were Americans persuaded of the necessity to enter the First World War? Who was George Creel?

When Woodrow Wilson brought America into the war, he put George Creel in charge of building public support for the war. That was a big job since the country was deeply divided for a variety of reasons. Creel ran the Committee on Public Information, the first time the government created a full-time propaganda machine to promote enthusiasm for a war, and it worked all too well. Creel hired thousands of America’s best academics, artists, writers and ad men to whip up a campaign that he called “advertising America.” Creel was a true believer in Wilson’s crusade to create a new world order out of the war, and he claimed that he was only bringing the mighty power of truth to bear on a great public question.

One of his critics, the Republican senator Hiram Johnson, saw it differently. He called it “picking our pockets to poison our minds.” If you go back and look at some of the beautiful but lurid war posters, or read some of the academic studies published by Creel’s group, you have to conclude that Johnson was on to something there.

World War I Propaganda Poster

What were the Espionage Act and the Sedition Act?

At the president’s request, Congress passed the Espionage Act soon after the US entered the war. Wilson asked for power to censor all newspapers, but editors in the mainstream press hooted him down. But the Espionage Act contained two key provisions that the government used to go after war critics. First, the postmaster was allowed to deny mailing privileges to any publication that seemed to be undermining Americans’ enthusiasm for the war. Post Office censors used that power in a ham-fisted way, and succeeded in driving much of the nation’s lively radical press into bankruptcy by the end of the war.

And second, the law banned any speech that stirred up disloyalty in the army. If you go back and look at the Congressional debate over the Espionage Act, it seems clear that many lawmakers only meant to target saboteurs, those trying to encourage mutinies, that sort of thing. But prosecutors used the law more broadly, arresting people who made anti-war speeches, or even in a number of cases folks who made off-hand comments against Wilson and his war in saloons and on street corners. The government claimed that these malcontents were guilty of trying to incite young men to break the law, discouraging them from doing their duty by submitting themselves to the draft.

A couple thousand anti-war speakers were arrested under the law, Debs among them, and about twelve-hundred were convicted, sentenced in many cases to ten or more years. But by the summer of 1918, the attorney general claimed that too many dissenters were slipping though his net, so Congress added amendments, known as the Sedition Act, which stand as a high-water mark of American intolerance. Under this law, people could be arrested for using “profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” when discussing the constitution, the flag, and the military uniform. The law was so extreme that even the attorney general thought this went too far, and used it more sparingly.

What role did vigilantes play in suppressing opposition to the war?

When federal agents arrested war dissenters, they sometimes claimed that they were doing the protestors a favor—the alternative for them was often being attacked by a swarm of outraged patriots. This form of direct and democratic “justice” has a long history in America, but the emotions of the war unleashed an unprecedented number of attacks on unpopular speakers. These vigilantes believed they were doing their part for the war effort by tearing folks off soapboxes, kidnapping and torturing some of them, humiliating those suspected of disloyalty, forcing immigrants to buy bonds or salute the flag, and even lynching some.

The government did little to reign in this violence, and even encouraged it. The attorney general asked Americans to report suspicious activities among their neighbors, and gave semi-official status to vigilante groups. In turn these volunteer spies searched homes and offices without warrant, destroyed property, and intimidated many into silence. After the war ended, things did not improve since the American Legion, formed by returning veterans, devoted itself to enforcing its brand of patriotism, and led quite a number of attacks.

The press, particularly the New York Times, comes across in your book as the Fox News of its day. How did the press cover the war and the opposition to it?

The press defended its own right to operate without censorship, but most editors were also eager to demonstrate their enthusiasm for the war and their loyalty to the government. They did this in part by bashing the radicals. It seems odd that these editors were so jealous of their own First Amendment rights, and so cavalier about the speech rights of others. But they held the common view that constitutional rights only belong to those who use them responsibly. In their view, the radicals wanted the right to say things that might, in the end, lose the war and even tip the country into a revolution that would overturn the Constitution.

And so they were happy to see Debs go to jail. The New York Times ridiculed Debs’s claim that he enjoyed a First Amendment right to speak his mind about the war, insisting that the government had a more important right to “defend itself against unbridled speech.” And the Washington Post called Debs a “a public menace” whose free speech claims were nothing more than “hairsplitting over the infringement of liberty.” My favorite, though, is the editor who called Debs a “treasonably-inclined blatherskite.”

The radicals were not surprised by any of this. Long before the war broke out, they had argued that the mainstream press was owned by, and operated for, the master class. Their critique of the impact of media monopoly on democratic debate was prescient.

Eugene Debs delivering the 1918 Canton, Ohio speech that led to his incarceration.

What did Debs say in his Canton, Ohio speech that landed him in jail?

Debs defended his comrades who had already been sent to jail for speaking against the war, some of them his close friends, and he disputed the common charge that the Socialists were pro-German. He added that America’s greatest enemy was not the Kaiser, but those American businessmen who had taken the country to war, and were making inordinate profits from the venture. Debs also repeated the standard socialist talking point that wars were a nasty by-product of capitalist greed, and that when working people took charge of the earth, peace would reign. The most often quoted line from that speech was Debs’s comment, “you need to know that you are fit for something better than slavery and cannon fodder.”

Debs knew that federal agents were in the crowd, and he may have expected to be arrested, though I don’t think he was actively courting martyrdom—more likely, he was saying what he felt he had to say. He was in his 60s and in frail health, and he certainly did not relish the prospect of spending his last days in prison, but he felt it was his duty not to remain silent while his friends were going to jail. He was a reluctant martyr.

What were Debs’ thoughts on the Bolshevik Revolution and communist Russia?

Like most radicals in his day, Debs welcomed news of the Russian Revolution, and claimed to be an American Bolshevik. At a time when socialists were being routed in the US, and the European movement had been disgraced by its failure to stop the war, the Russians offered radicals the one ray of hope. When the war raged, critics denounced Debs as a friend of the Kaiser. After the Bolsheviks took over, they thought he was even more dangerous, since he was an agent of Leninism.

Debs remained an admirer of the Russian Revolution all his life, but he had serious misgivings about the Bolsheviks’ methods—their use of show trials and violence against other socialists, and their attempt to impose their will on socialist parties around the world. In the end Debs decided to reject communism, and stick with his beloved Socialist Party, even as it was disintegrating. He hated the idea that socialism needed to be ushered in by a “dictatorship of the proletariat.” In spite of all he had suffered at the hands of the American justice system, he remained convinced that the best path to realizing socialism was the democratic process.

What brought about Debs’ release from prison?

The first half of Democracy’s Prisoner explains how Debs ended up sentenced to ten years in prison. The second half tells the equally important story about how he got out, and in three years, not ten. When Debs went to prison, radicals were outraged, but there’s not much evidence that most Americans felt sorry to see Debs go. That soon changed, in large part because a variety of labor radicals, civil liberties lawyers and average citizens joined forces to demand what they called “amnesty” for America’s “political prisoners.” The American Civil Liberties Union emerged out of this fight to free Debs and the other jailed dissenters. Union workers by the thousands debated amnesty, and many locals sent petitions to the president calling for a pardon for these “class-war” prisoners. And the National Archives holds many hundreds of letters from Americans of every background who were finally fed up to see a man like Debs behind bars for speaking his mind—even if they disagreed with his politics and with his views on the war. One of my favorites was the working-class woman from Chicago who told the president, “a government that will deliberately take away the inalienable rights of natural born citizens, throttle free speech, institute espionage and intimidation systems, cannot be held in low enough contempt by its subjects.”

In the end, this amnesty movement provoked an intense three year national debate over the meaning of the First Amendment, the start of an ongoing conversation over the best way to reconcile the right to free speech with the demands of national security.

All that pressure never worked on Wilson, who bore a bitter grudge against Debs by the time he left office in 1921. But Warren Harding was a more jovial and less rigid fellow, and he soon decided that he had nothing to gain by keeping Debs and his comrades in jail. As part of his plan to return America to “normalcy,” he let Debs out of prison on Christmas morning, 1921. Harding did not do many things right, but that was one of them.

Eugene Debs at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary

And how did Debs eventually die?

Debs left prison in bad shape physically, and the socialist movement was shattered, the victim of government persecution and also a bitter schism between communists and socialists. Debs tried to unite the radical movement, but failed. Instead, he left another legacy that we have all benefited from. By standing up against the Wilson administration’s abuse of executive power, and maintaining his dignity through the ordeal of his trial and imprisonment, he forced many thousands of Americans to grapple with meaning of free speech rights in times of war. In the end, that debate not only liberated Debs, but set in motion bigger changes that have expanded our own right to dissent.


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