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The Long Arm of Woodrow Wilson

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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 The Sedition Act was repealed in 1921 but the Espionage Act remains on the books.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.

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