Subscribe via RSS Feed

The Long Arm of Woodrow Wilson

[ 53 ] February 27, 2012 |

Woodrow Wilson’s reputation has been torn to shreds in the last ten years. This can go a bit too far; in the end, regardless of his motives, Wilson did sign a lot of legislation the country really needed. Nevertheless, it’s easy to argue that, outside of JFK, Wilson is the most overrated president in American history. We can argue about the worst thing Wilson did, but I don’t think any of his actions have a more detrimental effect on American society today than the Espionage Act of 1917. Wilson first proposed this law in 1915, but with the entry of the U.S. into World War in April 1917, the Espionage Act, along with a lot of other very bad legislation, became law. The government intended to use the war to crack down on all the radicals threatening it, threats many Americans defined very broadly, mostly to include the “foreign” of various definitions, races, and ideologies. For instance, the 18th Amendment became law during these years after a sixty year temperance movement because alcohol became equated with foreigners in the minds of self-respecting Americans. In my own research, this law comes to bear upon the Industrial Workers of the World and the opening government repression gave to local communities to eliminate radicals once and for all, whether we are talking about the Bisbee Deportation of 1917 or the Centralia Massacre of 1919.

The Espionage Act gave the government broadly defined powers to crack down on any behavior that might be seen as undermining America’s military operations or to promote the success of its enemies. Wilson wanted the ability to censor the press, but at least Congress denied him this. It was followed by the even more terrible Sedition Act of 1918 which prohibited speech seen as detrimental to American interests, of course vaguely defined. The Sedition Act was repealed in 1921 but the Espionage Act remains on the books.

Usually, the Espionage Act is forgotten about but the government has occasionally brought it out to crack down on people it wanted to silence. It was the Espionage Act that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were charged with violating when they gave secrets to the Soviet Union. Nixon used it unsuccessfully to prosecute Daniel Ellsberg and others for leaking the Pentagon Papers.

Today, the Obama Administration has revived the Espionage Act in a broader way than probably any administration since Wilson. David Carr details how aggressively Obama has used the law to crack down on whistleblowers and leakers within the government. This is really unacceptable. The Obama Administration is completely hypocritical in praising freedom of the press overseas while using the Espionage Act to protect its own actions at home. I’m usually fairly unsympathetic to Glenn Greenwald’s argument that Democrats allow Democratic Administrations to get away scot free with actions that they would howl about if Republicans were doing them, but in this case, that line of argument makes sense. Were this the administration of George W. Bush and John Ashcroft, this would be a major story of how the Republicans don’t respect our basic rights. Instead, the use of the Espionage Act against leakers and whistleblowers is a blip on the radar of the Democratic public.

This is wrong. The Espionage Act needs to be repealed immediately and President Obama needs to be called to the carpet on his use of this loathsome law. Moreover, I don’t think historians look back kindly on any situation when the government has used this law. It always reeks of repression and is a black mark on any administration. I don’t want historians to look back on Obama in 50 years and see a president who used an antiquated and repressive law to eliminate low-level leaks in his administration. Alas, that is the road the president presently drives.

Share with Sociable

Comments (53)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Anonymous says:

    I’d say Jackson and Adams are more overrated. Adams was signing sedition acts almost two hundred years before it was cool.

    • Anonymous says:

      Obviously meant to be John and not John Quincy, who appears to be properly regarded as the middling sort (at least as President).

      • Scott Lemieux says:

        In context, I would say that Wilson is worse than Adams. The Sedition Law wasn’t significantly worse than a lot of other free speech restrictions at the time. The 1917 law was a major step backward.

  2. David Kaib says:

    That this law is still on the books is absolutely ridiculous, as is the fact that it’s being used in this manner. The presumption in a democratic society should be that the people should know what the government is up to – exceptions should be very narrow. We don’t need to know about troop movements, or the identity of spies, but we do need to know what our government is doing in our name.

  3. joe from Lowell says:

    The British have an Official Secrets Act, to distinguish between passing information to the enemy and mere blabbing. We don’t have such a law in this country, so blabbing ends up being treated like passing atomic secrets to foreign agents.

    • pete says:

      Theoretically. In practice, the Official Secrets Act has been abused flagrantly for generations. This BBC article hints at the way this has in practice happened, but you have to read between the lines: generally speaking, it’s a secret that something is secret …

      • wengler says:

        Yeah I wouldn’t use the British as a positive example when it comes to free speech.

        • joe from Lowell says:

          Neither of you seem to have understood what I wrote.

          I’m not talking about cases which fall on either side of the line between free speech and blabbing, but on the line between blabbing and espionage.

          • Murc says:

            I think the logic pete and wengler are using, which I agree with, goes like this.

            You make the point that we don’t have an equivalent of the Official Secrets Act here, and because of that “blabbing ends up being treated like passing atomic secrets to foreign agents.”

            Their riposte would seem to be “The British treat mere blabbing as it were hideous espionage conducted by pod-people traitors to the Crown all the time, despite the presence of the OSA. Indeed, the OSA is used to JUSTIFY treating them like that.”

  4. TT says:

    Wilson’s foreign policy, in terms of both ideology and operations, unleashed some pretty nasty consequences. And for any skeptic of liberal or neocon interventionism Wilson is undoubtedly the Great Satan.

  5. c u n d gulag says:

    Erik,
    You’re right about us needing to take the President and the administration to task over this.

    But they won’t listen. They’re too busy trying to separate themselves from us DFH’s to even try to listen.

    And with this Congress, and the current state of our MSM, you’d have a better chance of creating nuclear fusion by banging around M&M’s in a tambourine, than of anyone repealing this Act.

    • Holden Pattern says:

      Look, if there were a constituency who both gave a shit about this and who had the power to actually move the needle*, our rulers might give a damn. But the only people who care about this sort of thing are roundly mocked as a vanishingly small group of naive purists who hate America, don’t understand politics, and the Republicans are insane, so SFTU.

      * Again, it’s fascinating that this small group is told to STFU both because they have no power AND because they have the ability to play the spoiler and make Dems lose. It’s a razor thin space between those two conditions, but that group just fits into it.

      • joe from Lowell says:

        Huh.

        All this time, I’ve been using the word “fascinating” wrong.

        • Mike Schilling says:

          There are places where fascinating and horrifying overlap.

          And Mr. Pattern is entirely correct. The unanswerable argument is “It doesn’t matter how much crap we pull. You need to go along, because the Republicans would be worse”. Which the Republicans do their best to make plausible, every single day.

          • joe from Lowell says:

            There are places where fascinating and horrifying overlap.

            But there are no places where “fringe group veers between irrelevancy and spoiler status” overlaps with either “fascinating” or “horrifying.”

            • Mike Schilling says:

              You don’t find it horrifying that people who care about individual rights are a fringe group?

              • joe from Lowell says:

                If the only people who cared about individual rights were a fringe group, I would find that horrifying.

                That a fringe group proclaims itself to be “the only people who care about individual rights,” on the other hand, is somewhere between mildly irritating and mildly amusing.

              • joe from Lowell says:

                BTW, the allegedly-horrifying, allegedly-fascinating thing in Holden’s comment isn’t “caring out individual rights.”

                It’s “left-wing fringe liberals being described as alternately irrelevant and spoilers.”

              • Honorable..BOB says:

                You don’t find it horrifying that people who care about individual rights are a fringe group?

                Only in ObamanWorld….

                How interesting that the American left are finally coming to the obvious conclusion that they’ve been HAD (fucked)…

              • DocAmazing says:

                Simple answer: he doesn’t. Ask him about NDAA, or al-Awlaki.

      • Scott Lemieux says:

        mall group is told to STFU both because they have no power

        By who?

  6. Jay says:

    When I applied for a security clearance, they made me read and sign the Espionage Act. It’s pretty harsh.

  7. rea says:

    Kiriakou ought not to have named covert active duty CIA agents, and deserves prosecution just as much as those who named Valerie Plame. Maybe those agents did wrong by participating in waterboarding–but that needs to be resolved with a trial, not a lynch mob (and Kiriakou, oddly, disclosed the names of alleged waterboarders in support of waterboarding, and falsely claimed to have participated in waterboarding himself)

    • Honorable..BOB says:

      Well, I’ll be damned!

      rea uses common sense. You simply can’t have people outing CIA agents and then whine about how harsh the law is against FUCKING OVER THEIR OWN COUNTRY.

  8. Jay B. says:

    Eric, you buried the lede. Most people have already picked up the thread and now want to history-geek the demerits of fucking John Adams versus those of Woodrow fucking Wilson with all kinds of chin scratching deep thinkin’. That Obama is, right now, trying his fucking damnedest to be legally worse than either (to say nothing of the literally criminal administrations of Nixon, Reagan and GW Bush) seems to be the more important story.

    And if you do need historical context here — Wilson’s balls-out assault on American civil liberties helped make the career of J. Edgar Hoover. Some vicious asshole is, right now, convinced of his above-the-law rectitude in going after someone who may or may not be doing anything wrong. What could go wrong?

  9. Craigo says:

    Actually, only three responses mention historical rankings, and those explicitly in terms of civil liberties (the tension between the national security establishment and civil libertarians is not exactly a new development). In fact, the very response above you offered a reasonable counterpoint regarding the facts of this very case.

    But that’s okay, Jay fucking B., go ahead and pretend that everybody else in an asshole, and we’ll go on having this conversation without your cogent input.

    • Craigo says:

      (Was that enough “fucks”? I feel like someone who’s so much fucking tougher and ballsier than all the other assholes will ignore my post, unless I demonstrate a willingness to be bellicose in the safe, anonymous environment of an internet that’s at least as embarrassing as his.)

      • Jay B. says:

        So defensive Craigy. I don’t think everyone else is an asshole, but you are for sure. Why? Because you managed to internalize and personalize something that clearly bothers you, yet your only reaction to the actual point is to whine at me.

        Eric DID call out Obama’s awfulness on the issue, it was just buried in irrelevant historical detail. You, on the other hand, felt faint at the language. Poor dear. Extra points for whining about the anonymous environment of the internet using your clear and defined name “Craigo”.

        Beyond that, I love history and the study of it. But I find things like Where will history judge the awful civil rights record of the current administration? To be a bit premature and irrelevant considering it’s actually happening now.

  10. david mizner says:

    I’m usually fairly unsympathetic to Glenn Greenwald’s argument that Democrats allow Democratic Administrations to get away scot free with actions that they would howl about if Republicans were doing them, but in this case, that line of argument makes sense.

    Why does it make sense in this case but not in regard to the codification of indefinite detention, escalation of the war in Afghanistan, the dirty war in Yemen featuring cluster bombs and hits on Americans, the denial of basic rights at Bagram, civilian-killing drone warfare in five countries, the abuse of Bradley Manning, the attacks on Wikileaks, the massive expansion of special ops etc. etc. etc.

  11. Erik Loomis says:

    If Jay B. wants to skyrocket up the ranks of my most disliked commenters, he will continue to use terms like “irrelevant historical detail.”

  12. Mike Schilling says:

    Nevertheless, it’s easy to argue that, outside of JFK, Wilson is the most overrated president in American history.

    I’d say that it’s next to impossible to argue that, as anyone who’s flown into DC recently would have been reminded.

  13. joe from Lowell says:

    I’m usually fairly unsympathetic to Glenn Greenwald’s argument that Democrats allow Democratic Administrations to get away scot free with actions that they would howl about if Republicans were doing them, but in this case, that line of argument makes sense. Were this the administration of George W. Bush and John Ashcroft, this would be a major story of how the Republicans don’t respect our basic rights.

    Notice the verb tenses.

    Why is it that I only ever see this claim made in a conditional tense – that is, the one we use for speculative or imaginary situations? Why are the people who make this claim so certain of what would happen in a theoretical situation, when they can’t point to any actual, non-theoretical, non-imaginary examples that can be described using the simple present and past tense?

    If there aren’t any actual, non-imaginary cases to provide such examples, might it be a bit presumptuous to assume the existence of double-standards being applied in theoretical situations?

    • elm says:

      I’m not sure I follow your point. Are you suggesting that Bush/Ashcroft were engaged in this activity and Democrats were silent?

      • joe from Lowell says:

        No. I’m not suggesting anything I haven’t stated explicitly.

        I’m stating that it is unwarranted for people to continually assert that liberals would have behaved differently if Bush and Ashcroft had done X, Y, and Z than when Obama and Holder do X, Y, and Z, when there aren’t any A though Ws they can point to that Bush and Ashcroft actually did, which were treated differently by liberals than when Obama and Holder did them.

        My point is that this double standard is imaginary. As evidence that it is imaginary, I’m pointing out that the only instances anyone can ever point to of this alleged double standard consist of speculation about what liberals would have done in an alternative reality.

        If there was a double standard being used, shouldn’t there be some actual instances of the same policy being treated differently?

        • Murc says:

          I dunno, joe. It seems like you’re being unfair.

          It seems like you’re saying “Well, because Obama hasn’t done something exactly the same as Bush, we can’t criticize people who are silent in the face of what he’s doing for being hypocrites.”

          I mean, I understand your point, but… if someone goes out stealing Dodges, and I roundly condemn him for it, and another guy goes out and starts stealing Toyotas, and I remain silent, it seems like people who point out my hypocrisy have a colorable point. If I try to argue “Well, this guy isn’t stealing Dodges. He’s stealing Toyotas. That’s a totally different car made by a company in a whole other country! Entirely different situation.” I would be laughed at, and rightly so.

          The argument I usually see, that I think is quite valid in a lot of instances, is that many people who were howling at the top of their lungs about civil rights/liberties abuses IN GENERAL during the Bush years suddenly went silent about Obama’s egregious actions with regards to both those things. That seems like a fair time to make an accusation of hypocrisy to me, even if the bad things Obama does are different than the bad things Bush did in the specifics.

          • joe from Lowell says:

            It seems like you’re saying “Well, because Obama hasn’t done something exactly the same as Bush

            I’m not saying that, at all. I’m not drawing some fine distinction between the actions of Obama and Bush; the people making this accusation, themselves, aren’t even postulating some equivalency.

            If people were making this double-standards argument by pointing to something Obama was doing that is, allegedly, like what Bush used to do, that would be like what you’re talking about, but they’re not. They’re most emphatically not.

            Instead, I’m only seeing this argument made in cases in which Bush hasn’t done anything similar to what Obama is doing, as demonstrated by the familiar “If Bush had done this…” language.

            That the people making this argument are framing their criticism this way shows that even they aren’t talking about something similar the two administrations are doing. If they were, they’d be able to use simple-past and simple-present tense. “Bush did this, and Obama does this.”

            But they don’t; that’s the point. They can only make this argument in terms of some imaginary action Bush might have taken. There is no parallel like in your example. They, themselves, acknowledge this. Instead, they’re accusing Obama of stealing Dodges, and saying “If Bush had stolen Fords…”

            The argument I usually see, that I think is quite valid in a lot of instances, is that many people who were howling at the top of their lungs about civil rights/liberties abuses IN GENERAL during the Bush years suddenly went silent about Obama’s egregious actions with regards to both those things.

            You know, maybe the fact that they have to make up imaginary bad acts by the Bush administration – which, Lord knows, has enough bad acts to their credit – in order to justify the charge of double-standards should suggest something about whether the Obama administration is actually doing egregious things. Either that, or we’re looking at the most incredible coincidence in the world, in which the Obama administration is engaged in egregious violations of civil liberties, but for some reason, just happens to never, ever hit on any of the egregious actions taken by the Bush administration.

            • Murc says:

              Instead, they’re accusing Obama of stealing Dodges, and saying “If Bush had stolen Fords…”

              Ah, I see. You’re making the point that the differences between Obama and Bush on civil liberties are ones of KIND, rather than of DEGREE. That is, rather than one of them stealing cars and one of them housebreaking, one of them was stealing cars and the other is littering?

  14. wengler says:

    I’ve been waiting for this post and it’s nice to finally see it. There is no excuse for these archaic laws with draconian punishments being meted out to democratic activists.

    • Honorable..BOB says:

      There is no excuse for these archaic laws with draconian punishments being meted out to democratic activists.

      Lessee….law has been there since 1917 and yet it’s not been a problem until King Obama decides to use it to fuck over activists.

      Isn’t that *really* the issue? Not the law as intended, but the abuse of it by this administration?

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.