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This Day in Labor History: June 16, 1918

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On June 16, 1918, the socialist leader and former head of the American Railway Union Eugene Debs gave a speech in Canton, Ohio, criticizing the United States’ actions in World War I and urging resistance to the draft. Two weeks later, Debs was arrested under the Espionage Act and charged with ten counts of sedition.

Something often forgotten in American history is how divisive wars actually are. The only major American war that did not lead to serious internal resistance was World War II, which to a modern generation is the touchstone by which to compare all wars. There wasn’t a lot of dissent around Korea, but people also didn’t call it a war at the time. Every other war created very real internal dissent. This was certainly true during World War I. President Wilson charged into war in 1917 without preparing the American people. A large swath of Americans opposed it for various reasons–pacifists, Quakers, the IWW, anarchists, the Irish, many of the ethnic groups under the Austro-Hungarian Empire, socialists. There was significant draft resistance in rural America among people who fundamentally did not care about the war in Europe and wouldn’t die for it.

The Wilson Administration needed to raise an army, but a lot of Americans did not want to be drafted. Wilson and other warmongers were determined to crush the left resistance to the war by any means necessary. This led to the largest systemic violation of civil liberties in the nation’s history. The copper barons of Bisbee used the war as an excuse to kick all unionists out of town. The military sent troops to the Pacific Northwest to end IWW led strikes in the forests, under the auspices of needing wood for airplanes. Most importantly, the government passed the Espionage Act and Sedition Act. Combined, these two laws made it a crime to criticize the United States government or inhibit the American war effort in any public way, with of course the government deciding who crossed the line against its own program of suppressing dissent. Arrests of radicals and the Red Scare followed.

Into all this came Eugene Debs. After his leadership of the failed Pullman Strike in 1894, Debs became a socialist and, along with Big Bill Haywood, the major leader of the left in the United States. He was involved in the founding of the IWW in 1905, splitting with that organization along with the rest of the Socialist Party in 1912. He first became the Socialist candidate for the presidency in 1900, something he repeated five times, reaching a height of 6% of the popular vote in 1912.

Debs went to Canton to urge resistance to the draft. In his speech, he claimed that the Central Powers and Allies were both fighting over capital plunder and that the people deserved better than to die in the trenches for a capitalist war. He urged the United States to remain neutral in the draft and for people to save their lives by resisting the draft. Essentially, Debs presented the widely held leftist view of World War I. He knew that if he simply gave the Socialist Party position on the war, he would likely be arrested. He replied, “I’ll take about two jumps and they’ll nail me, but that’s all right.” In Canton, Debs spoke to about 1000 supporters at Nimsilla Park. Only a bit of the speech was about the war. The rest was fairly standard Socialist fare. But it didn’t matter. Debs was arrested on June 30 in Cleveland. You can read the original New York Times story about his arrest here.



Debs speech, possibly the Canton speech of 1918, although this is disputed.

Clarence Darrow represented Debs. But even the great orator and defender of radicals could do little in the face of overwhelming anti-radical sentiment. The jury consisted of anti-socialist men and he was found guilty of violating the Espionage Act, whereupon he received 3 concurrent 10-year sentences.

Near the end of his trial, Debs gave a 2-hour long speech. It included the following:

Your honor, I have stated in this court that I am opposed to the form of our present government; that I am opposed to the social system in which we live; that I believe in the change of both but by perfectly peaceable and orderly means….

I am thinking this morning of the men in the mills and factories; I am thinking of the women who, for a paltry wage, are compelled to work out their lives; of the little children who, in this system, are robbed of their childhood, and in their early, tender years, are seized in the remorseless grasp of Mammon, and forced into the industrial dungeons, there to feed the machines while they themselves are being starved body and soul….

Your honor, I ask no mercy, I plead for no immunity. I realize that finally the right must prevail. I never more fully comprehended than now the great struggle between the powers of greed on the one hand and upon the other the rising hosts of freedom. I can see the dawn of a better day of humanity. The people are awakening. In due course of time they will come into their own.

When the mariner, sailing over tropic seas, looks for relief from his weary watch, he turns his eyes toward the Southern Cross, burning luridly above the tempest-vexed ocean. As the midnight approaches the Southern Cross begins to bend, and the whirling worlds change their places, and with starry finger-points the Almighty marks the passage of Time upon the dial of the universe; and though no bell may beat the glad tidings, the look-out knows that the midnight is passing – that relief and rest are close at hand.

Let the people take heart and hope everywhere, for the cross is bending, midnight is passing, and joy cometh with the morning.

Debs was convicted and sentenced to ten years in prison. He ran for the presidency again in 1920, this time from prison, receiving over 900,000 votes, about 3.4% of the electorate. By this point, the public began souring on the Red Scare and public denunciations of Debs turned into sympathy (in some quarters) for his plight. Woodrow Wilson thought about pardoning Debs in 1919, but under the strong disapproval of his anti-radical Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, he figured it would empower those who opposed the Versailles Treaty and give succor to radicalism, so he refused. Eventually, Warren Harding commuted Debs’ sentence in 1921. His health broken, Debs died in 1926.

Debs’ 1920 campaign material

The best recent book on Debs and civil liberties is Ernest Freeberg, Democracy’s Prisoner: Eugene V. Debs, the Great War, and the Right to Dissent, published in 2008.

This is the 65th post in this series. Previous entries are archived here.

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