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The Espionage and Sedition Acts Previous
Digital History ID 3479


In his war message to Congress, President Wilson had warned that the war would require a redefinition of national loyalty. There were "millions of men and women of German birth and native sympathy who live amongst us," he said. "If there should be disloyalty, it will be dealt with a firm hand of repression."

In June 1917, Congress passed the Espionage Act. The piece of legislation gave postal officials the authority to ban newspapers and magazines from the mails and threatened individuals convicted of obstructing the draft with $10,000 fines and 20 years in jail. Congress passed the Sedition Act of 1918, which made it a federal offense to use "disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language" about the Constitution, the government, the American uniform, or the flag. The government prosecuted over 2,100 people under these acts.

Political dissenters bore the brunt of the repression. Eugene V. Debs, who urged socialists to resist militarism, went to prison for nearly three years. Another Socialist, Kate Richards O'Hare, served a year in prison for stating 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."

In July 1917, labor radicals offered another ready target for attack. In Cochise County, Arizona, armed men, under the direction of a local sheriff, rounded up 1,186 strikers at the Phelps Dodge copper mine. They placed these workers--many of Mexican descent--on railroad cattle cars without food or water and left them in the New Mexico desert 180 miles away. The Los Angeles Times editorialized: "The citizens of Cochise County have written a lesson that the whole of America would do well to copy."

The radical labor organization, the International Workers of the World (IWW), never recovered from government attacks during World War I. In September 1917, the Justice Department staged massive raids on IWW officers, arresting 169 of its veteran leaders. The administration's purpose was, as one attorney put it, "very largely to put the IWW out of business." Many observers thought the judicial system would protect dissenters, but the courts handed down stiff prison sentences to the radical labor organization's leaders.

Radicals were not the only one to suffer harassment. Robert Goldstein, a motion picture producer, had made a movie about the American Revolution called The Spirit of '76, before the United States entered the war. When he released the picture after the declaration of war, he was accused of undermining American morale. A judge told him that his depiction of heartless British redcoats caused Americans to question their British allies. He was sentenced to a 10 year prison term and fined $5,000.



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