September 11, 2018 Harry Blain / AntiWar.com & Robert M. La Follette
The First World War -- known as the "Great War" in Europe -- has largely faded from memory on this side of the Atlantic. Arguably, this is because our involvement was so brief -- joining the slaughter over two years after it began and leaving it just over eighteen months later. But, beyond the fact that it claimed the lives of over 100,000 Americans, there are good reasons why, a century later, we should remember this chapter in our history, not least because it has ominous parallels with today.
Everything About 2018 Shows Why
Americans Should Remember World War I Harry Blain / AntiWar.com
(September 11, 2018) -- It wasn't the good war. But, in our popular imagination, it wasn't the bad one either.
Instead, it's identified by a vague mixture of concepts, names, and events: the Lusitania, "Wilsonian Idealism," Versailles, Theodore Roosevelt.
The First World War -- known as the "Great War" in Europe -- has largely faded from memory on this side of the Atlantic. Arguably, this is because our involvement was so brief -- joining the slaughter over two years after it began and leaving it just over eighteen months later.
But, beyond the fact that it claimed the lives of over 100,000 Americans, there are good reasons why, a century later, we should remember this chapter in our history, not least because it has ominous parallels with today.
The political science textbooks tell us that "checks and balances" are central to American democracy.
And, with a mechanical and historically dubious recounting of Marbury v. Madison (1803), students are immediately taught about the rise of one of these great barriers to tyranny: judicial review. Unlike in the crusty old monarchies, they learn, wise and dispassionate judges can protect us from oppressive laws and power-hungry politicians.
The Founding Fathers would find this view surprising. As Alexander Hamilton succinctly put it, the power of the judiciary would always be limited because it had "no influence over either the sword or the purse." And Madison repeatedly warned about the weakness of "parchment barriers" laid down in the constitution.
In 1917 and 1918, these fears -- and worse -- were justified.
Far from merely accepting the various censorship laws passed by Congress, one of the country's most revered Supreme Court Justices, Oliver Wendell Holmes, affirmatively endorsed them.
The crime was committed by Charles Schenk, General Secretary of the Socialist Party in Philadelphia, whose organization was distributing leaflets protesting the first ever nationwide conscription law (the Union and Confederacy had separate conscription laws during the Civil War).
Opposition to the draft came from many motives and groups: socialists who saw this as the rich man's war and the poor man's fight; second- or third-generation immigrants whose parents had come to America to escape conscription in Europe; German- or Austrian-Americans who objected to killing their own friends and family in the trenches.
But for Holmes, none of this mattered.
Starting with the obnoxiously famous remark -- "The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic" -- Holmes argued further: "When a nation is at war, many things that might be said in time of peace are such a hindrance to its effort that their utterance will not be endured so long as men fight, and that no Court could regard them as protected by any constitutional right."
This was essentially an eloquent, lawyer-speak translation of Attorney General Thomas Gregory's chilling promise to the antiwar movement: "May God have mercy on them, for they need expect none from an outraged people and an avenging government."
Schenk was found guilty and so were many others.
Few high-profile socialists avoided the reach of the Espionage and Sedition Acts, which defined both "espionage" and "sedition" as almost any criticism of the war. A very partial list of targets would include Eugene Debs, Rose Pastor Stokes, Joseph Stilson, Frederick Krafft, Abraham Sugarman, and Edwin Firth.
Not to mention less famous people like Walter Matthey in Iowa, who was sentenced to a year in jail for (in the words of the attorney general) "attending a meeting, listening to an address in which disloyal utterances were made, applauding some of the statements made by the speaker . . . and contributing 25 cents." (Details of all these cases can be found in HC Peterson and Gilbert C Fite's book, Opponents of War, 1917-1918).
Media Support and Flag Worship
Thankfully, we have the "fourth estate" for times like these: dogged, fearless, whiskey-drinking journalists working through the night to keep our democracy on life support.
Here's a sample of how the New York Times' editorial board approached this mission during and after the war (again, documented by Peterson and Fite): * "It is the duty of every good citizen to communicate to the proper authorities any evidence of sedition that comes to his notice" (June 6, 1917).
* "The Selective Draft Act gives a long and sorely needed means of disciplining a certain insolent foreign element in this nation" (June 10, 1917).
* "The I.W.W. [Industrial Workers of the World] agitators are, in effect, and perhaps in fact, agents of Germany. The Federal Authorities should make short work of these treasonable conspirators against the United States" (August 4, 1917).
* "There is no reason for sympathy with [Eugene] Debs" (March 12, 1919).
* "[Amnesty for political prisoners] is of impudence and unreason all compact" (April 5, 1921).
Meanwhile, the Washington Post lamented the lack of war enthusiasm on the East Coast, in contrast to the "healthful and wholesome awakening in the interior of the country," which was praiseworthy "in spite of excesses such as lynching."
Other "excesses" included tarring-and-feathering, vandalism against people who didn't buy enough Liberty Bonds, the burning of German books, and -- almost unbelievably -- rituals of forced flag-kissing, which, "by 1918, had become so frequent" that they were "hardly first-rate news."
Eerily, Peterson and Fite recount: "Along with flag-kissing came a great sensitiveness about respect for the national anthem," as "disorderly conduct" fines were dished out to people who failed to stand for the Star-Spangled Banner across the country.
Drawing from the Dissenters
The main reason we know about these events is because they were meticulously documented by an obscure organization called the National Civil Liberties Bureau, initially part of the American Union Against Militarism.
Yet, it survived the war years, and renamed and reorganized itself into what we now know as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) -- a crucial, if not saintly, defender of the Bill of Rights ever since.
The ACLU will be the first to tell you that we are now living under a president whose gutter patriotism and disdain for free speech rivals the worst demagogues of that shameful era.
As this same president edges closer to war with Iran -- and continues the permanent war against "terrorists" -- we would do well to heed the advice of Wisconsin Senator Robert LaFollette, expressed in one of Congress's greatest speeches on April 4, 1917: "We should not seek to hide our blunder behind the smoke of battle to inflame the mind of our people by half-truths into the frenzy of war in order that they may never appreciate the real cause of it until it is too late."
[A longer version of the speech appears below. -- EAW]
Harry Blain is a PhD student in political science at the Graduate Center, CUNY (City University of New York). Reprinted with permission from Foreign Policy In Focus.
Robert M. La Follette:
US Senate Speech (April 4, 1917) Excerpts from the Original Electronic Text at History Matters
The events of the first few months of 1917, from the resumption of unrestricted submarine attacks to the Zimmerman telegram, broke the back of the antiwar movement and substantially increased enthusiasm for American intervention. But some dissident voices remained. Among the firmest congressional opponents was the progressive Wisconsin senator Robert M. La Follette.
On April 4, 1917, two days after President Woodrow Wilson's call for war, La Follette argued in this speech before Congress that the United States had not been even-handed in its treatment of British and German violations of American neutrality.
A Republican senator from a state with a large agricultural and German-American population, La Follette worried that the war would divert attention from domestic reform efforts. But even in Wisconsin La Follette met opposition; the state legislature censured him, as did some of his longtime progressive allies. One of them said that he was "of more help to the Kaiser than a quarter of a million troops." -- History Matters.
Mr. President, I had supposed until recently that it was the duty of senators and representatives in Congress to vote and act according to their convictions on all public matters that came before them for consideration and decision.
Quite another doctrine has recently been promulgated by certain newspapers, which unfortunately seems to have found considerable support elsewhere, and that is the doctrine of "standing back of the President" without inquiring whether the President is right or wrong.
For myself, I have never subscribed to that doctrine and never shall. I shall support the President in the measures he proposes when I believe them to be right. I shall oppose measures proposed by the President when I believe them to be wrong.
The fact that the matter which the President submits for consideration is of the greatest importance is only an additional reason why we should be sure that we are right and not to be swerved from that conviction or intimidating in its expression by any influence of its power whatsoever.
If it is important for us to speak and vote our convictions in matters of internal policy, though we may unfortunately be in disagreement with the President, it is infinitely more important for us to speak and vote our convictions when the question is one of peace or war, certain to involve the lives and fortunes of many of our people and, it may be, the destiny of all of them and of the civilized world as well.
If, unhappily, on such momentous questions the most patient research and conscientious consideration we could give to them leave us in disagreement with the President, I know of no course to take except to oppose, regretfully but not the less firmly, the demands of the Executive. . . .
Mr. President, many of my colleagues on both sides of this floor have from day to day offered for publication in the Record messages and letters received from their constituents I have received some 15,000 letters and telegrams. They have come from forty-four states in the Union. They have been assorted according to whether they speak in criticism or commendation of my course in opposing war.
Assorting the 15,000 letters and telegrams by states in that way, 9 out of 10 are an unqualified endorsement of my course in opposing war with Germany on the issue presented . . . .
The poor, sir, who are the ones called upon to rot in the trenches, have no organized power, have no press to voice their will upon this question of peace or war; but, oh, Mr. President, at some time they will be heard. I hope and I believe they will be heard in an orderly and a peaceful way. I think they may be heard from before long.
I think, sir, if we take this step, when the people today who are staggering under the burden of supporting families at the present prices of the necessaries of life find those prices multiplied, when they are raised 100 percent, or 200 percent, as they will be quickly, aye, sir, when beyond that those who pay taxes come to have their taxes doubled and again doubled to pay the interest on the nontaxable bonds held by [J. P.] Morgan and his combinations, which have been issued to meet this war, there will come an awakening; they will have their day and they will be heard. It will be as certain and as inevitable as the return of the tides, and as resistless, too. . . .
Sir, if we are to enter upon this war in the manner the President demands, let us throw pretense to the winds, let us be honest, let us admit that this is a ruthless war against not only Germany's Army and her Navy but against her civilian population as well, and frankly state that the purpose of Germany's hereditary European enemies has become our purpose. . . .
Just a word of comment more upon one of the points in the President's address. He says that this is a war "for the things which we have always carried nearest to our hearts -- for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own government." In many places throughout the address is this exalted sentiment given expression.
It is a sentiment peculiarly calculated to appeal to American hearts and, when accompanied by acts consistent with it, is certain to receive our support; but in this same connection, and strangely enough, the President says that we have become convinced that the German government as it now exists -- "Prussian autocracy" he calls it -- can never again maintain friendly relations with us.
His expression is that "Prussian autocracy was not and could never be our friend," and repeatedly throughout the address the suggestion is made that if the German people would overturn their government, it would probably be the way to peace. So true is this that the dispatches from London all hailed the message of the President as sounding the death knell of Germany's government.
But the President proposes alliance with Great Britain, which, however liberty-loving its people, is a hereditary monarchy, with a hereditary ruler, with a hereditary House of Lords, with a hereditary landed system, with a limited and restricted suffrage for one class and a multiplied suffrage power for another, and with grinding industrial conditions for all the wage workers.
The President has not suggested that we make our support of Great Britain conditional to her granting home rule to Ireland, or Egypt, or India. We rejoice in the establishment of a democracy in Russia, but it will hardly be contended that if Russia was still an autocratic government, we would not be asked to enter this alliance with her just the same.
Italy and the lesser powers of Europe, Japan in the Orient; in fact, all the countries with whom we are to enter into alliance, except France and newly revolutionized Russia, are still of the old order -- and it will be generally conceded that no one of them has done as much for its people in the solution of municipal problems and in securing social and industrial reforms as Germany. . . .
In the sense that this war is being forced upon our people without their knowing why and without their approval, and that wars are usually forced upon all peoples in the same way, there is some truth in the statement; but I venture to say that the response which the German people have made to the demands of this war shows that it has a degree of popular support which the war upon which we are entering has not and never will have among our people.
The espionage bills, the conscription bills, and other forcible military measures which we understand are being ground out of the war machine in this country is the complete proof that those responsible for this war fear that it has no popular support and that armies sufficient to satisfy the demand of the Entente Allies cannot be recruited by voluntary enlistments. . . .
It is not my purpose to go into detail into the violations of our neutrality by any of the belligerents. While Germany has again and again yielded to our protests, I do not recall a single instance in which a protest we have made to Great Britain has won for us the slightest consideration, except for a short time in the case of cotton.
I will not stop to dwell upon the multitude of minor violations of our neutral rights, such as seizing our mails, violations of the neutral flag, seizing and appropriating our goods without the least warrant or authority in law, and impressing, seizing, and taking possession of our vessels and putting them into her own service. . . .
The only reason why we have not suffered the sacrifice of just as many ships and just as many lives from the violation of our rights by the war zone and the submarine mines of Great Britain as we have through the unlawful acts of Germany in making her war zone in violation of our neutral rights is simply because we have submitted to Great Britain's dictation.
If our ships had been sent into her forbidden high-sea war zone as they have into the proscribed area Germany marked out on the high seas as a war zone, we would have had the same loss of life and property in the one case as in the other; but because we avoided doing that, in the case of England, and acquiesced in her violation of law, we have not only a legal but a moral responsibility for the position in which Germany has been placed by our collusion and cooperation with Great Britain.
By suspending the rule with respect to neutral rights in Great Britain's case, we have been actively aiding her in starving the civil population of Germany. We have helped to drive Germany into a corner, her back to the wall, to fight with what weapons she can lay her hands on to prevent the starving of her women and children, her old men and babes . . . .
The failure to treat the belligerent nations of Europe alike, the failure to reject the unlawful "war zones" of both Germany and Great Britain is wholly accountable for our present dilemma. We should not seek to hide our blunder behind the smoke of battle to inflame the mind of our people by half truths into the frenzy of war in order that they may never appreciate the real cause of it until it is too late. I do not believe that our national honor is served by such a course. The right way is the honorable way.
Source: Congressional Record -- Senate, April 4, 1917, 224–225.
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