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This Day in Labor History: June 15, 1917

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On June 15, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Espionage Act into law. This law was directly targeted at leftist and labor organizations critical of the U.S. entering World War I, a sign of how, especially in an era of limited labor rights, even the slightest criticism of American policy could be weaponized to suppress basic constitutional rights to free speech and assembly.

Before Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson was unquestionably the most pro-labor president in American history. In fact, even when the Espionage Act is taken into consideration, this is probably true. Wilson had signed groundbreaking laws such as the LaFollette Seamen’s Act that attempted to improve labor conditions on ships around the globe. When World War I began, he brought American Federation of Labor head Samuel Gompers into the government in a way completely unprecedented in American history. In fact, this helped move Gompers away from his traditional relatively apolitical stance, at least so long as government involvement in labor was beneficial to unions. Both Wilson and Gompers were committed to a respectable, moderate labor movement. They also both despised radicals. And there were plenty of radical workers in the American labor movement, especially in the Industrial Workers of the World, as well as the various socialist and anarchist groups organizing through the country. Both Wilson and Gompers would be happy to use World War I to crush these groups.

Now, Wilson wanted this piece of legislation quite a bit before the nation entered the war. In the 1915 State of the Union, he stated:

There are citizens of the United States, I blush to admit, born under other flags but welcomed under our generous naturalization laws to the full freedom and opportunity of America, who have poured the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life; who have sought to bring the authority and good name of our Government into contempt, to destroy our industries wherever they thought it effective for their vindictive purposes to strike at them, and to debase our politics to the uses of foreign intrigue …

I urge you to enact such laws at the earliest possible moment and feel that in doing so I am urging you to do nothing less than save the honor and self-respect of the nation. Such creatures of passion, disloyalty, and anarchy must be crushed out. They are not many, but they are infinitely malignant, and the hand of our power should close over them at once. They have formed plots to destroy property, they have entered into conspiracies against the neutrality of the Government, they have sought to pry into every confidential transaction of the Government in order to serve interests alien to our own. It is possible to deal with these things very effectually. I need not suggest the terms in which they may be dealt with.

The slippery slope of this kind of law is obvious from Wilson’s first statement about it. What does disloyalty mean? Progressives such as Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt, very different people with different ideas, could come together around needing to use newly expansive federal power to crush radicalism. For all Roosevelt gets credit for intervening in the 1902 Anthracite strike, he also was happy to keep the army in Goldfield, Nevada to eliminate the Industrial Workers of the World–even after he discovered he had been lied to about violence in that town. The IWW was the great fear of the late Progressive Era elite. Even though the vast majority of these people were just workers trying to make a better life, IWW propagandists used over the top, incendiary rhetoric about masculine violence that made the case for government repression for the government. Big Bill Haywood insisted that revolutionary politics were impossible without industrial sabotage. Talk of blowing up buildings, setting forest fires, or destroying corporate property scared employers. The IWW did not have to do any of these things for their words to be used against them—in fact, the number of actual incidents of sabotage was surprisingly small. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn later aptly called it “infantile Leftism.”

None of this justified the Espionage Act. And Congress was pretty indifferent until the U.S. entered the war. The Senate passed a version in February 1917 but the House didn’t bother voting on it. When the war came, Wilson wanted this very bad. Moreover, he wanted the censorship of the press in it. That wasn’t acceptable to Congress and it the Senate stripped it out over Wilson’s objections. With the press censorship bit taken out, it passed the Senate 80-8 and the House 261-109.

The Espionage Act became an excuse to crack down on socialists protesting against American involvement in the war. The IWW saw what was coming and thus did not actually come out officially against World War I, saying instead that workers should follow their own conscience. That disgusted far-left Wobblies such as Frank Little, who would soon give his life for the cause. Moreover, it didn’t work. The IWW and other socialists were the target and with actual enforcement largely left to U.S. Attorneys, giving a speech in the wrong state could lead to prosecution. That’s what happened to Kate Richards O’Hare, who gave anti-war speeches in many states, but was arrested and prosecuted by a particularly zealous U.S. Attorney in North Dakota. When Eugene Debs gave a speech in Canton, Ohio opposing the draft, he was arrested and sentenced to 10 years in prison, running for president from prison in 1920 and serving nearly 5 years of the sentence before Warren Harding commuted the rest of it.

Films about the Revolutionary War that made our allies the British look bad were seized as anti-American. The paper of Tom Watson, noted Populist and racist, was suppressed because he opposed the draft; in fact, there was massive draft resistance in rural southern communities by people who had no idea why we were fighting the war in the first place and didn’t want to leave home for it. The postmaster in New York suppressed the socialist paper The Masses, but the famous judge Learned Hand saw this as a threat to freedom and reversed it, one of the only examples of the powerful doing the right thing in the aftermath of the law’s passage.

Only 4 days after Wilson signed the Espionage Act, Gompers and Secretary of War Newton Baker would agree to create a tripartite board to control wages, hours, and working conditions for construction workers laboring for the government, helping to ensure union protections for those laborers through the war. For Gompers, there was nothing anti-labor about the Espionage Act, nor would he see it as an anti-labor act.

The Espionage Act was soon followed up with the Sedition Act, which technically was a series of amendments to the former, more explicitly making illegal, “any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States … or the flag of the United States, or the uniform of the Army or Navy.” Again, what that meant was left up to whoever wanted to prosecute someone. That was finally repealed in 1921 but the Espionage Act is still on the books. This was the beginning of the Red Scare, with massive violence against the left continuing until 1921. The Supreme Court upheld the Espionage Act in Schenck v. U.S. in 1919 and again in Abrams v. U.S. in the same year. But with the war ending and the Palmer Raids completely over the top in their suppression of the left (plus Palmer’s ridiculous predictions of leftist revolutionary violence providing unfounded) the use of the Espionage Act finally faded.

However, it never fully ended. In fact, both Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden were prosecuted under it, as well as the Rosenbergs and other Cold War spies. In the 1980s and 1990s, such lovely congresscritters such as James Traficant, B-1 Bob Dornan, and Arlen Specter wanted to expand it so that more people could be executed if found violating the law. We really should repeal the Espionage Act entirely.

This is the 274th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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