Civil Liberties: The World War I Precedent We Don’t Want to Repeat

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Ms. North received her doctorate from the University of California, Davis, and is writer for the History News Service.

As the Bush administration launches a worldwide war against terrorists, it also is setting up an Office of Homeland Security. Questions are being raised about how that office will protect the nation. In their past wartime experiences with"homeland defense," Americans ended up damaging their democratic principles and hurting innocent citizens.

Perhaps the best-known example occurred during World War II, when the government ordered thousands of Japanese American men, women and children to internment camps, depriving them of their freedom, homes and jobs.

But the 20th century's legal foundation for homeland security was laid during 1917 and 1918 when the United States entered and fought in World War I. Congress passed espionage, sabotage, and sedition Acts to ferret out spies, saboteurs, alien enemies (Germans) and others suspected of disloyalty, including the press and those who opposed the government's policies.

Much as President Bush has asked Congress for more authority to act decisively, during World War I President Wilson took command of telegraph and telephone systems, issued executive orders governing war policies and managed an emergency reserve fund. Wilson and the Congress authorized the Post Office to censor private mail, magazines and movies.

In 1917, Wilson authorized the National Guard to protect dams, bridges, trains, telephone and telegraph lines, seaports, shipyards, factories, mines, oil and gas refineries, chemical plants, crops, food-processing plants and livestock. Patriotic citizens assembled armed patrols to guard their communities.

What is proposed now is a shadow of those extensive measures. Following the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush halted air traffic briefly and announced that the National Guard will provide additional airport security. But federal buildings, national monuments and much of the nation's infrastructure have not been given additional protection.

The basis for America's internal security system was set up in 1917 and 1918 when the Justice Department and the War Department's Military Intelligence Division organized extensive domestic surveillance operations. The Justice Department authorized a privately funded, volunteer citizens association, the American Protective League, to work alongside its busy Bureau of Investigation agents.

League members -- white males too old to fight -- formed an elaborate nationwide spy network. Members relied on reckless, undocumented accusations. Although it remains doubtful that this vast organization uncovered any serious threats, countless loyal citizens were placed under suspicion, denied jobs or detained by authorities.

The War Department's Military Intelligence Division, which also used a volunteer cadre, initiated nationwide surveillance of ordinary citizens in 1917. Agents illegally entered and searched homes and businesses. Innocent Americans were unlawfully detained or arrested and jailed. Pacifist clergy members were jailed. African Americans were targeted unfairly. This domestic counter-espionage program was largely discontinued in the 1970s because of its gross violations of civil liberties.

In the atmosphere of vengeance, economic uncertainty and political opportunism in 1917 and 1918, everyone was suspect. Wilson's administration created a Committee on Public Information, a propaganda agency that spread a pro-American, anti-German message. The government bombarded the public with distorted images of Germans and warned citizens to be on the alert for suspicious persons. As a result, people took the law into their own hands, and vigilantes tarred and feathered Germans and German Americans. Asian Americans were also harassed and immigration was restricted. States passed laws that deprived citizens of free speech, assembly and association rights.

On the local level during World War I, counties organized loyalty committees, and neighbors reported on each other's reading habits and conversations, and whether they flew the American flag. In rural areas, some citizens expressed alarm that their neighbors were not planting the right crops needed to win the war. The University of California required its faculty, staff and students to take a loyalty oath. Schools were forbidden to teach German language and literature and churches were prohibited from singing German hymns.

After making his own"dead or alive" vigilante statement about terrorists, Bush softened his remarks. The administration appears to understand the importance of maintaining good relations with the Arab and Muslim world now that the suicide bombers have been identified as fanatical Muslims. Bush reached out to Arab Americans and condemned acts of violence committed against them. Bush's speech to Congress and the nation, his visit to a Washington mosque and his meetings with Muslim clerics and Arab American leaders stand in marked contrast to the World War I era.

As the United States prepares to protect itself against terrorists, it needs to strike a delicate balance between the real need for more controls and the obligation to safeguard constitutional liberties.

Otherwise, as history has shown, the nation could lose what it sets out to defend.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

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Marty Green - 10/12/2001

I agree with Diane North that the World War I cases of civil liberties infringement raise closer parallels to current issues than does the Japanese internment of World War II. Attacks against Arab Americans and South Asian Americans are similar in many ways to those against German-born immigrants and citizens in 1917 and 1918. For example, Robert Paul Praeger--a German-born bakery worker in southern Illinois--was wrapped in the American flag, dragged through the streets, and hanged in April 1918. The war was also used as an excuse to attack those who were unpopular for other reasons: IWW organizer Frank Little was lynched Butte, Montana. Others suspected of pro-German attitudes were tarred and feathered or forced to kneel and kiss the flag. Abouth 2,000 people suspected of opposing the war--sometimes just for refusing to buy war bonds--were prosecuted.
Two crucial differences: (1)These actions in 1917 and 1918 were usually the work of groups, acting in public, and with broad local support. Most of the violence I have heard of recently has been the work of individuals whose actions were deplored by the majority in their communities. (2) Public leaders either applauded or ignored the attacks in 1917 and 1918. Woodrow Wilson expressed disapproval of the Prager lynching, but only tepidly and long after the event. Public leaders in the current crisis were quick to speak out against ethnic stereotyping and bigotry.
That said, the parallels are still close enough to be worrisome. And the line between honoring the flag and using it as a test of others' "Americanism" is easy to cross. Our history is full of examples.