The Nation's Most Prolific Censor – So FarRoundup
tags: censorship, socialism, Espionage Act, radical history, Sedition Act, Postmaster General, Albert Burleson
Adapted from Adam Hochschild’s American Midnight: The Great War, a Violent Peace, and Democracy’s Forgotten Crisis, was just published by Mariner Books.
During his time in the White House, no target provoked as much anger from Donald Trump as the American press. In 2017, he declared, “The press, honestly, is out of control.” In 2019, he called it “truly the enemy of the people.” His reelection campaign sued the Washington Post and the New York Times. Some 500 of Trump’s tweets attacked individual journalists by name, and at one point he accused the Times of “treason.” When Trump and Vladimir Putin—under whose rule some critical journalists have been assassinated—sat down for a press conference at a Group of 20 summit, Trump pointed to the reporters waiting in front of them and joked, “Get rid of them.”
A century earlier, an American administration did get rid of opposition journalism with a ruthlessness Trump would be fiercely jealous of. It closed down about 75 newspapers and magazines, prevented the distribution of specific issues of many more, and put journalists on trial in federal courts. This entire operation was managed from the landmark Washington building that would become, 100 years later, the Trump International Hotel.
Ironically, this wave of repression took place under a president who, on the surface, appeared to be the polar opposite of Trump. Before entering politics, Woodrow Wilson was known as an intellectual: a longtime college professor and the president of Princeton University. But when in April 1917 the United States declared war on Germany, joining the bloody conflict that had ravaged Europe for nearly three years, both the United States and its president revealed a ferocity that few people had anticipated.
It was not that we had previously been a peaceful nation without tensions. There were plenty of these, which often turned violent: between nativists and immigrants, business and labor, and white and Black Americans. But when the United States joined the First World War, it deepened all of these divisions. And a new fault line emerged, between those who thought the war was a noble and necessary crusade, and those—mainly but not entirely on the political left—who thought it was a catastrophic mistake. Among the war’s opponents were most supporters of the Socialist Party, which had won 6 percent of the popular vote in the 1912 presidential election.
The government feared trouble: demonstrations, industrial sabotage, and attempts to disrupt the newly imposed draft. Wilson was as quick as Trump to brand anyone who disagreed with him as traitors. “Woe be to the man or group of men that seeks to stand in our way in this day of high resolution,” he declared on June 14, 1917. Any such opponents were “agents and dupes” of the German kaiser. The very next day, Congress passed the centerpiece of a string of repressive measures, the Espionage Act. (Amended, it is still in effect today, and was used to indict whistleblower Edward Snowden.)
Despite its name, the new law had almost nothing to do with spies. Both opponents and supporters saw it for what it was: a club to smash progressive forces of all kinds. Sen. Lee Overman of North Carolina, for example, a plump, courtly Democrat who once helped filibuster an anti-lynching bill to death, declared that the Espionage Act was needed to prevent propaganda “urging Negroes to rise up against white people.” The act defined almost any opposition to the war as criminal. The penalties were draconian: “a fine of not more than $10,000 or imprisonment for not more than twenty years, or both.” What could send you to jail for 20 years? The list was so far-reaching that it was a prosecutor’s dream. At risk, for instance, was anyone who “shall willfully make or convey false reports or false statements with intent to interfere with the operation or success of the military or naval forces of the United States.”
Dismaying liberal intellectuals who had previously admired him, Wilson wanted still more. “President Wilson today renewed his efforts to put an enforced newspaper censorship section into the espionage bill,” reported the Washington Evening Star as the Espionage Act was under debate in Congress. Wilson wrote to the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, “The great majority of the newspapers of the country will observe a patriotic reticence about everything whose publication could be of injury, but in every country there are some persons in a position to do mischief.” This clause was voted down, and members of Congress promptly congratulated themselves on having preserved free speech.
However, though it didn’t use the word, the new law did indeed allow censorship. At a time when there was no other way to distribute publications nationally, it gave the postmaster general the authority to declare any newspaper or magazine “unmailable.” That power could not have landed in more dangerous hands.
Former Rep. Albert Sidney Burleson of Texas “has been called the worst postmaster general in American history,” notes historian G.J. Meyer, “but that is unfair; he introduced parcel post and airmail and improved rural service. It is fair to say, however, that he may have been the worst human being ever to serve as postmaster general.”
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