Woodrow Wilson’s “New Freedom”: Police State Totalitarianism

In 1912, Woodrow Wilson ran on a platform called “New Freedom.” Yet ironically, Wilson would govern the country as a hardcore authoritarian. The day after World War I began, Wilson signed legislation establishing the first federal draft to take place in the United States since the Civil War. Even setting the aside the necessity of fighting the Civil War compared to the lack of necessity for World War I, there was a distinct difference between Abraham Lincoln’s decision to institute the draft and Wilson’s. As a young man, Lincoln had joined the Illinois Militia and served as a captain in the Black Hawk War. To be sure, the war was a cruel attempt by the government to steal more Native American land. However, at least Lincoln could plausibly claim that he had taken the same risk he was forcing other men to take. Wilson, by contrast, had never served in the military a day in his life. While, to its credit, Wilson’s draft did attempt to avoid the loopholes favorable to the rich that had plagued Lincoln’s draft, it also failed to address the matter of a 50-year old man with no military background forcing younger men to do that which he had been unable or unwilling to do himself.

It is sometimes believed that prior to the Vietnam War, Americans automatically supported their government when it went to war. This is false. Every war that America has been involved in has triggered a homegrown antiwar movement. World War I was no different. Progressives like Jane Addams, Lillian Wald, and Senator Robert “Fighting Bob” LaFollete (R-WI) opposed U.S. military participation in World War I. Many German Americans opposed the war, as did many Irish Americans, who saw little reason to go to England’s aid. Some prominent libertarians, like Albert Jay Nock and Moorfield Storey, went on record opposing military intervention. The opposition was perhaps the strongest from Socialists, who were often pacifists as well. Socialist ministers like Norman Thomas, A.J. Muste, and John Haynes Holmes publicly opposed the war, as did other Socialists, such as Mary White Ovington. Eugene V. Debs, who had run as the Socialist Party’s presidential nominee in four previous elections, received special attention from the government for his antiwar stance, but he will be covered more momentarily. The National Civil Liberties Bureau, which would later become the American Civil Liberties Union, was founded to oppose World War I and aid conscientious objectors. Wilson feared that he could not mobilize the country for war with the level of opposition he was encountering. In 1917, Wilson signed the Espionage Act, which included a clause banning the spreading of false information that was intended to interfere with the war effort. Unfortunately, but perhaps consistent with the government’s intentions, the act was rather ambiguous.

Wilson feared that the Espionage Act was insufficient to muzzle antiwar sentiment. The following year, he signed the Sedition Act of 1918. One portion of the act stipulated that anyone who, “shall willfully utter, print, write, or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States, or the Constitution of the United States, or the military or naval forces of the United States . . . or shall willfully display the flag of any foreign enemy, or shall willfully . . . urge, incite, or advocate any curtailment of production . . . or advocate, teach, defend, or suggest the doing of any of the acts or things in this section enumerated and whoever shall by word or act support or favor the cause of any country with which the United States is at war or by word or act oppose the cause of the United States therein, shall be punished by a fine of not more than $10,000 or imprisonment for not more than twenty years, or both….” Essentially, any criticism of the war or the government was now a prosecutable offense.

A look at some of the people targeted by the government under these laws shows how close the country had come to totalitarianism. On June 16, 1918, Eugene V. Debs delivered a speech in Canton, Ohio (the Midwest was probably the most antiwar region) blasting capitalism, World War I, and the draft and encouraging young men to refuse to serve in the military. Debs was convicted under the Sedition Act and sentenced to ten years in prison. Ironically, it was it was Wilson’s laissez-faire capitalist, Republican successor, Warren G. Harding, who finally freed Debs. Many readers probably support World War I and the draft, and most readers probably support capitalism. I myself am generally a believer in the free market. Yet it must seem disquieting that a person would be sent to prison for expressing their political beliefs. An issue of the Nation magazine was banned by the U.S. Post Office after Albert Jay Nock wrote an article laying blame for the war on union boss Samuel Gompers. A Hollywood producer named Robert Goldstein was imprisoned due to the fact that his Revolutionary War movie, The Spirit of ’76, depicted the British side very negatively. There is a certain irony in the fact that many modern day progressives admire Wilson while rightly decrying George W. Bush’s civil liberties abuses and foreign policy. Had these progressives been alive during World War I, they would likely have been thrown into jail. To Woodrow Wilson, the idea of freedom of speech only applied to patriotic speech.


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