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Remembering With Astonishment Woodrow Wilson’s Reign of Terror in Defense of "Freedom"
by Joseph R. Stromberg
Wilson’s New Freedom Replaces the Old Ones
Any standard US history text will at least mention, in passing, the suppression of American antiwar dissent in World War I. The great conservative sociologist, the late Robert Nisbet, wrote in 1988 that:
"The blunt fact is that when [under Wilson] America was introduced to the War State in 1917, it was introduced also to what would later be known as the total, or totalitarian, state."
A bit harsh, what? American historians really hate coming to grips with what happened in America, starting in April 1917. They so fail because a fair reading would entail some responsibility for St. Woodrow, who oversaw the whole sorry show. Instead, his worshippers like to quote his little, operationally meaningless expressions of regret about it. But as Nisbet notes, Wilson "was an ardent prophet of the state, the state indeed as it was known to European scholars and statesmen…. He preached it…. From him supremely comes the politicization, the centralization, and the commitment to bureaucracy of American society during the past seventy-five years."
No, historians don’t dwell on Woodrow’s reign of terror. They imagine that "reactionary" subordinates and local bullies did it all, while Woodrow was busy running the war effort and planning the better world to come. Such a kindly fellow was our Woodrow. Historians, in short, would rather devote whole chapters to "McCarthyism," which inconvenienced a few Stalinists for a time, than deal with a real saga of repression and embarrassingly stupid violence.
The Hysterical Cretins Take Charge
To read the story of American official and popular attitudes toward our allegedly highly valued freedoms during World War I is to conclude that the country was overrun with vicious morons. Some of the morons were judges, legislators, and bureaucrats. Others arose from the masses, so to speak, to demand that the people make political war on themselves, the better to fight those terrible Germans. On any fair reading of the period, there was probably more real freedom of speech in Germany and in the German Reichstag in the same years than in the "home of the free" or the World’s Greatest (and Least) Deliberative Body.
The repression drew on pre-existing conflicts. Cases are so numerous that only a few can be mentioned here. The pre-war numskull state-level sedition laws did service during Wilson’s crusade. Some politicians and businessmen used the crisis to crush their trade union antagonists, in a continuation of pre-war labor struggles. The administration suppressed its critics to the Left, while warring on the whole German-American population. This raises an interesting question: if you have allowed immigrants from a particular society to settle among you for almost a century, is it really great statesmanship to find yourselves a war with their country of origin? Conversely, if you anticipate a future war or "war" with a particular society or state, it is great statesmanship to allow members of that society or state to settle among you, now, as motor voters? Perhaps the morons who run this country can look into it.
The Anglophile Willies Find Us A War
The Anglophile Wilson administration’s decided lack of genuine neutrality toward the European war had produced a series of crises. By late February 1917, the President asked Congress for power to outfit American merchant ships with arms – a perfect way to insure an incident which would lead to war between the US and Germany. Senator Robert M. LaFollette of Wisconsin, Progressive Republican, led a filibuster – along with the few remaining antiwar Senators – against the bill. It was known during the debate that at least one Senator on the pro-war side had a loaded revolver on him. Tempers were strained, and Senator Lane of Oregon stood near LaFollette with a sharpened rat-tail file in his pocket, in case the latter needed defending from the ardent patriots in the world’s greatest deliberative body.
The bill failed, but Wilson asserted a new-found "presidential power" to arm the ships on his own motion. In April, he asked for, and received, a declaration of war. During the rather tense, even hysterical debate, pro-war speakers began handing out accusations of "treason" to their fellow members of the great deliberative body. LaFollette and a few others voted No. On his way out of the chamber, a "patriot" handed LaFollette a coil of rope, underscoring, one supposes, the refined good manners to which warmongers adhere, especially when they have gotten their way.
LaFollette later commented that "the espionage bills, the conscription bills, and other forcible military measures… being ground out by the war machine in this country" demonstrated the war party’s "fear that it has no popular support." Certainly, the administration acted as if it thought so. A sedition bill so insanely broad that it would have embarrassed the Federalist Party was quickly passed. It was now a federal crime entailing draconian penalties to question the war, its conduct, its costs, or anything. A great steel door shut down on the American mind, such as it was.
Defending Freedom via the Abolition Thereof
All free communication came to an end. People were arrested and indicted for casual remarks made in private conversation. It was not the New Left of the 1960s that actually invented the claim that the personal is the political – it was the United States government.
A great wave of repression came down on "the freest people in the world," as Americans liked to call themselves. Government gumshoes, federal, state, and local, delighted in following up idle charges of "disloyalty," "treason," "pro-Germanism," and "slacking." Legislatures outlawed the teaching of the German language and the public performance of music by such dangerous Teutons as Beethoven. Wilson and the administration – in charge of the enlarged federal apparatus of repression – encouraged, aided, and abetted local efforts, including those of self-appointed, hyperthyroid "patriotic" snoops and bullies. Tarring and feathering came back in style for those accused of the "crimes" mentioned above. Here and there, a local Barney Fife, or an Army officer who hadn’t quite made it over to Northern France, would shoot a "traitor" for saying the wrong thing in a public place. The hero would then be tried for it, acquitted, and finally, lionized in the moronic press.
Not fully satisfied with their good works so far, many hotheads and morons in positions of public authority demanded redoubled efforts to ferret out "traitors" and "slackers." They called for military courts to try domestic dissenters. Firing squads, they said, should be kept busy, full time. I am leaving out the names of these authentically American Robespierres to spare the feelings of their descendants, who might perhaps agree that these fellows were vicious idiots.
When not satisfied with forcing supposed "traitors" to kiss the flag or sing the praises of the Archangel Woodrow, mobs of patriotic fellows would occasionally hang someone. Meanwhile, Congress, deliberating again, strengthened the Espionage Act to criminalize whatever microscopic bit of free discussion might accidentally still remain. Congress even considered outlawing all discussion of the origins of the war or how America entered, which would have effectively ended all work by historians. Fortunately, however, many of the historians were otherwise employed – in producing propaganda for the cause. For a good discussion of these matters, see H. C. Peterson and Gilbert C. Fite, Opponents of War, 1917-1918 (University of Wisconsin Press, 1957).
Cultural Faux Pas Hardly Noticed At Home
Busy saving and improving the world, high administration officials, including the President, said next to nothing the whole time, only pausing to chide the patriots when their excesses were bad for business or began to look bad in the eyes of the world. Appearances matter, you know, old chap. Mustn’t embarrass the British. US leaders did not really ask anyone to stop.
If France and Britain had ever been embarrassed about crusading for high values alongside the autocratic Czar of Russia, they must have felt some discomfort with the under-civilized Americans coming to their aid. For civilized people everywhere, including in North America, the combined outburst of state repression and popular mob violence made the United States the laughing stock of the world. Violent morons did indeed appear to be having their day in the "freest land on earth." Conservative historian John Lukacs once wrote that the problem with the United States has been, not barbarism, but savagery. Surveying Woodrow’s home front, one begins to understand.
The judges and courts were utterly useless for spotting American freedoms allegedly "protected" by ten amendments. They were indeed part of the problem. They were about as judicious as Judge Jeffreys or Judge Freissler. The celebrated Justice Holmes was on the wrong side of every case that came before him, his celebrated dissents notwithstanding.
I suppose that the unbounded moronism and cretinhood of the patriotic forces in World War might be written off as one of the necessary costs of state-building. Some, like Albert Jay Nock, Randolph Bourne, and Oswald Garrison Villard – who lived through the period – came to question the state building project itself. H. L. Mencken, a German-American, was – as such – a target of the marching morons, and his observation of the wartime debasement of American life formed the context for his low opinion of American politics and civilization.
The people’s participation in suppressing their own rights, so to speak, calls to mind the radical phase of the French Revolution. There, everyone who was not a republican zealot was thought of as an "enemy" to be guillotined. In the American variation, the Rousseauian form of republicanism, in which the people force particular individuals "to be free," held hands with Americans’ notion of their natural goodness as "natural men" produced by the frontier experience. A decaying Protestantism kept watch over the whole sideshow. The constant attack on evil German Kultur suggests that many of the participants doubted, down deep, that America had any sort of culture at all. Perhaps much of this reflected the absence of genuine natural social authority in the United States, the lack of which drove people – screaming bloody murder – into the arms of state power.
It is the most remarkable thing imaginable: a "war," effectively, against the American people and their rights, waged with the support of the above-mentioned moronic sections of the people, allegedly in service of defeating the German enemies of freedom. What utter rubbish. Thanks, Woodrow.
Everywhere, loyalty oaths were demanded. The flag salute became institutionalized, so long ago that "conservatives" now defend it as a timeless national institution. No one asked Why, in a free society, anyone should be under any obligation to salute anyone or anything? No one asked whether or not hounding, harassing, and brutalizing people was really the best means for winning them over to the lovely government and society based upon freedom.
In 1917-1918, it was largely the Left that resisted, and insisted on discussing the war and its causes. Their failure of analysis – i.e., that "capitalism" as such caused the war – must not blind us to their heroism. The I.W.W. (Wobblies) were especially tough to take down. For their resistance to Woodrow, one can almost forgive them their crazy ideology.
By contrast, the public seems to have accepted World War II with complete resignation. A clear majority had opposed entry into the Second Global Bloodbath. Pearl Harbor ended all discussion – though its origins held a certain interest for some – and people did what they had to do. Perhaps some of them didn’t mind being dragooned into being the now topical "Greatest Generation." My own feeling is that popular resignation in World War II rested partly on the fact that, having seen Woodrow’s minions at work in 1917-1918, would-be critics knew what to expect and chose not to be martyrs.
Perpetual War for Perpetual War
Are there any parallels to the present situation, since Tuesday? There may be, but this is not the time for them. My main interest is in whether or not the geniuses who helped bring about the latest crisis will feel a need to suppress all possible criticism. I suppose we could get used to being silenced. It will be very difficult, however, if they cross the line and demand that we agree with them. If they do that, all bets are off, the Van Creveld thesis about legitimacy comes into play, and we’ll all be regretting any number of past historical turning points and wondering which one of them was most important in bringing about the final unraveling of the American story.
When I first composed this piece, I thought that I had perhaps used the word "moron" too many times. Now comes word that some cretin has managed to murder a Sikh, and another fool has disposed of a Pakistani. Looking for an unarmed, inoffensive Arab to kill, the bozos can't even get that right. Morons.
September 18, 2001
Joseph R. Stromberg [send him mail] is the JoAnn B. Rothbard Historian in Residence at the Ludwig von Mises Institute and a columnist for Antiwar.com.
Copyright © 2001 LewRockwell.com
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