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Book review: Free Speech and the Suppression of Dissent during World War I

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Steve Guy reviews Free Speech and the Suppression of Dissent during World War I

US president Woodrow Wilson was re-elected in 1916 on an anti-war ticket. But as early as autumn 1915, he had begun campaigning nationally for an increase in military spending, dubbed the preparedness campaign. This contradicts the widely-accepted version of the US reluctantly dragged into the war.

This in turn triggered the creation, in 1916-1917, of an anti-war movement, involving the trade unions, socialists and liberal progressives. It was a movement that the Wilson government set out to break, using almost every means it could lay hands on.

One of the principal weapons was the Espionage Act (EA), which came into force in June 1917, just two months after the US declared war. Eric T. Chester devotes the first chapter of this book to describing how the EA was based on the British experience of suppressing opposition, not just anti-war protest, but any internal dissent, through the passing of the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA).

Many of its provisions, incorporated wholesale into the American legislation, brought it into conflict with the tenets of the US Constitution, which guarantees the right to freedom of speech and assembly, and freedom of the press. These guarantees were swept aside as individuals and organisations, deemed the ‘Enemies Within’ by the attack dogs of the press, (in this case the New York Times), were targeted.

The first organisation to feel the full weight of repression was the IWW, the Industrial Workers of the World. Its leaders and many of the rank and file were imprisoned without trial, eventually fitted up using the EA.

The point of attack then moved onto the Socialist Party, which had adhered to an internationalist position and whose leader, Eugene Debs, spoke for tens of thousands as he declared the war an imperialist venture. Debs, along with hundreds of SP members, was condemned to a long period of imprisonment.

Chester is extremely critical of the role of the main trade union organisation, the American Federation of Labour, as well as the right wing of the SP. He contends that they capitulated to the arguments in favour of war, leaving the anti-war dissidents to languish in prison until long after the war was over.

He is also not uncritical of the radical academics grouped around the journal The New Republic. But he devotes the latter chapters of the book to the debate between those who framed the repressive legislation, those free speech absolutists, who rejected any encroachment on the guarantees enshrined in the constitution, and those who tried, and continue to try, to navigate their way between the two.

Chester concludes by a plea for the defence of free speech and the right to dissent, and concludes, correctly, that we can’t rely on legislation or the judiciary to uphold these rights.

He goes on, however, to argue that these rights must be extended to “belligerent right wing zealots and the fascist fringe”, a classic tenet of liberal philosophy. It would be interesting to see how he would have concluded the book had it been written in the wake of the storming of the Capitol Building in January this year. 

Free Speech and the Suppression of Dissent during World War I. Eric T. Chester. Monthly Review Press. £14.00

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