On this day in 1918, Socialist Party leader Eugene V. Debs gave a speech in Canton, Ohio denouncing America's participation in what we now call World War I. For this "crime," Debs would spend nearly three years rotting in prison, convicted of violating Woodrow Wilson's vile Espionage Act, which essentially made it illegal to criticize the government during wartime (Wilson later refused to pardon Debs, leaving that act of basic human decency to the criminally underrated Warren G. Harding). That's the story told in Ernest Freeberg's new Democracy's Prisoner: Eugene V. Debs, the Great War, and the Right to Dissent, which received a big thumb's up from Peter Richardson in yesterday's Los Angeles Times. Here's Richardson on the climate of obedience and cowardice that helped Wilson get his way:
Throughout this time, many civic groups and public officials defended the Espionage Act. One leader of the American Defense Society declared, "Those who are not for us, must be against us." A congressman advised: "People should go ahead and obey the law, keep their mouths shut, and let the government run the war." Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. dismissed criticism of the court's unanimous ruling against Debs as "a lot of jaw about free speech."