The Espionage and Sedition Acts of World War I: Using Wartime Loyalty Laws for Revenge and Profit

The Espionage and Sedition Acts of World War I: Using Wartime Loyalty Laws for Revenge and Profit

The Espionage and Sedition Acts of World War I: Using Wartime Loyalty Laws for Revenge and Profit

The Espionage and Sedition Acts of World War I: Using Wartime Loyalty Laws for Revenge and Profit

Synopsis

Donalson focuses on how ordinary citizens used the Espionage and Sedition Acts of World War I for personal benefit and profit. He shows how the acts were used particularly but not exclusively against persons of German ancestry to settle family and neighborhood quarrels, workplace disputes, and political differences. These acts, intended to unify the nation in a time of war, instead undermined the concepts of free speech and presumption of innocence, and started the United States on the path of totalitarianism where any word or action could be interpreted as 'disloyal' and result in federal action. The irony of it all was that, by the end of the war, it was the Bureau of Investigation that kept it from becoming, as Thomas Jefferson once said, a 'reign of witches.'

Excerpt

The target could be a farmer, as most Americans were in 1917, or a teacher or professor or student. They could be a politician, a businessman, or one of the millions of laborers that filled America’s bustling factories, a housekeeper, or coal miner, or an office worker. The intended victim could be an immigrant, a naturalized citizen, or a native-born American. Gender did not matter, nor age, nor social background. It did not matter what region of the country the victim called home, or whether he or she lived in the city or the countryside. The target might be the pastor, or the patrolman walking the beat in their neighborhood. Any of these people could have a friend, a neighbor or coworker, or a simple acquaintance who harbored an unrequited animosity against them, waiting for just the right opportunity to exact personal vengeance. Little did they—or their victims—know that the opportunity would come when the nation went to war in April, 1917. The Espionage and Sedition Acts, passed to unify the nation into one voice for the war effort, inadvertently provided those with a hidden grudge with the means to accomplish their vengeance.

The victim might never have taken this foe seriously, or perhaps thought of them as an occasional adversary or opponent, or simply as the competition. The animosity may have sprung from a simple backyard disagreement or a dispute in the workplace, an argument or altercation which the target won. The confrontation might have been with a subordinate, an employee perhaps, or even a respected colleague. The hostility might have sprung from something seemingly innocuous; a passing comment, perhaps, or personal habits or lifestyle, or friends who did not meet with this person’s approval. The resentment might even be the result of a passing conversation, possibly a political discussion. By 1916 and early 1917 conversations about American involvement in the war in Europe had grown heated and . . .

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