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Excerpt from The Culture of Make Believe

Espionage (p. 454)

From chapter "War"

The U.S. government used World War I as an excuse to break radical unions and to eliminate socialists as a political force in the United States. One of the primary ways it did this was through something called the Espionage Act of 1917, which did not have so much to do with espionage as providing legal basis on which to prosecute those who spoke out against the war. But the law’s title revealed while it concealed. The word espionagecomes from the French espionnage, traceable back to espionner, to spy, from espion, spy, from Old Italian spione, from spia, of German origin, akin to Old High German spehon, to spy. Looking up spyreveals that spehonis akin to Latin specere, to look at, from the Greek skeptesthaiand skopein, to watch, look at, consider. Which takes us, of course, back to Noah. Those prosecuted under the Espionage Act of 1917—and nearly two thousand were— had seen those in power as they were, in all their naked power, and they had spoken out against them: given witness.

Because the war was wildly unpopular—in the first six weeks after the United States declared war only 73,000 men volunteered (out of a million that the government said it needed)—Congress overwhelmingly voted to institute a draft. Socialist antiwar meetings drew huge crowds, for example, five, ten, and twenty thousand farmers at meetings in Minnesota to protest the draft, the war, and profiteering. Numbers voting Socialist Party increased tenfold.

In response, Congress passed the Espionage Act, which prohibited anyone from obstructing the draft, including the act of speaking out against it (this law, by the way, is still in effect). A test case (in which someone distributed pamphlets stating that the Conscription Act—which the pamphleteer called “a monstrous deed against humanity in the interests of the financiers of Wall Street”—violated the Constitution’s Thirteenth Amendment provision against involuntary servitude, and suggested that people who were drafted assert their right not to go) soon found its way to the Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously that the Espionage Act was constitutional. You may have heard of this ruling, because Oliver Wendell Holmes delivered here his most famous line: “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic. . . . The question in every case is whether the words are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.” On one level Holmes was, of course, being disingenuous, straining his eyes hard to the right so as not to see that which was in front of his face. In no reasonable way can urging people to avoid a war they do not see as being in their best interest (to the degree that civilized wars ever are) be likened to shouting fire in a crowded theater. The historian Howard Zinn compares it more accurately to someone standing outside a theater telling people not to enter, because they will be burned alive by the fire inside. But there is another level on which Holmes is bull’s-eye accurate: Consider again his next sentence: “The question in every case is whether the words are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.” From the perspective of one who worships at the altar of production, what would constitute a clear and present danger? What sorts of actions would Congress—sort of a production priesthood— consider evil? And what would they consider it their right to prevent? Let me put this another way: What is the substantive difference between Oliver Wendell Holmes’s statement, and Noah cursing Ham?

The prosecutions were as absurd as one would expect. People were prosecuted for saying that a referendum should have preceded a declaration of war, and they were prosecuted for saying that war was contrary to the teachings of Christ (this absurdity makes sense only if you remember that our God is a god of production, meaning his son must be a Christ of War). They were punished for criticizing the Red Cross or the Y.M.C.A. It was considered a crime to discourage women from knitting, by the remark, “No soldier ever sees these socks.” A woman was sentenced to ten years in prison for saying to another woman, “I am for the people and the government is for the profiteers,” because, according to the judge in the case, what is said to mothers, sisters, and girlfriends may lessen men’s enthusiasm for war. A man was convicted of attending a meeting at which a speaker attacked conscription: Because he applauded, and gave twenty-five cents, and though he left when the meeting was half over, he was sentenced to a year in jail. The obvious question becomes: How long would he have been forced to serve had he stayed till the end? There was a case where strangers came to a man’s house saying they’d run out of gasoline. The man invited them to dinner, during which they argued about the war. His guests turned him in, and he was imprisoned. Because an elderly farmer said to a young man “that the war was for the big bugs in Wall street; that it was all foolishness to send our boys over there to get killed by the thousands, all for the sake of Wall Street; that he should not go to war until he had to,” he was sentenced to five years in prison. A German American who did not buy war bonds was visited in his house by a committee wanting to know why not: He courteously replied he did not wish either side to win the war, and for this he was arrested. During an argument about the war, a South Dakota farmer said, “If I were of conscription age and had no dependents and were drafted, I would refuse to serve.” He was sentenced to a year and a day in Leavenworth federal penitentiary. Robert Goldstein was prosecuted for making a film about the American Revolution—called The Spirit of ’76—which in one scene depicted British soldiers bayoneting women and children and carrying away girls. He finished the film before the United States declared war. Because, the judge said, the film tended to “question the good faith of our ally, Great Britain,” the film was seized, the company thrown into bankruptcy, and Goldstein was sentenced, in a case entitled U.S. V. Spirit of’76, to ten years in prison. The judge gave a reason: “No man should be permitted, by deliberate act, or even unthinkingly, to do that which will in any way detract from the efforts which the United States is putting forth or serve to postpone for a single moment the early coming of the day when the success of our arms shall be a fact.”

The Espionage Act criminalized singing the third verse of the national anthem. There are rumors that singing the third verse of the Star Spangled Banner was decriminalized in 1997, but the third verse is conspicuous by its absence from official government Web sites such as the West Point Web site and the National Park Service official Fort McHenry Web site.

A man was sentenced to fifteen years in prison for circulating a pamphlet suggesting voters not reelect a congressman who voted for conscription. “There is no better way,” the judge said in this case, “of unsettling the confidence of the people and stirring their souls against the war than to paint it as a war of capitalism, organized by capitalists and for capitalists, and painting the officers of the government as representing the willing tools of Wall Street. There is no better way.”

The socialist Kate Richards O’Hare was sentenced to five years in prison for saying that “the women of the United States were nothing more nor less than brood sows, to raise children to get into the army and be made into fertilizer.” The radical union, Industrial Workers of the World, was broken, as the Espionage Act was used to put away more than a hundred IWW leaders for up to twenty years in prison. One of the IWW leaders told the court, “You ask me why the IWW is not patriotic to the United States. If you were a bum without a blanket; if you had left your wife and kids when you went west for a job, and had never located them since; if your job had never kept you long enough in a place to qualify you to vote; if you slept in a lousy, sour bunkhouse, and ate food just as rotten as they could give you and get by with it; if deputy sheriffs shot your cooking cans full of holes and spilled your grub on the ground; if your wages were lowered on you when the bosses thought they had you down; if there was one law for Ford, Suhr, and Mooney [three IWW organizers], and an other for Harry Thaw [an heir to a fortune who not only got away with the rape and beating of his fiancée and later wife, and the murder of another of her suitors (who had also raped her), but became extremely popular]; if every person who represented law and order and the nation beat you up, railroaded you to jail, and the good Christian people cheered and told them to go to it, how in hell do you expect a man to be patriotic? This war is a business man’s war and we don’t see why we should go out and get shot in order to save the lovely state of affairs we now enjoy.” Eugene V. Debs was prosecuted for saying, “Wars throughout history have been waged for conquest and plunder. . .. And that is war in a nutshell. The master class has always declared wars; the subject class has always fought the battles.” Before he was sentenced, Debs said, “Years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” The judge was unmoved, and before sentencing Debs to ten years in prison, attacked him as one “who would strike the sword from the hand of this nation while she is engaged in defending herself against a foreign and brutal power.”