World War 1

Blame World War I For Whistleblower Persecution—And So Much More

U.S. involvement in World War I lasted just a year and a half. But government today uses its leavings to threaten Americans' freedom.


Edward Snowden
Laura Poitras / Praxis Films

Earlier this year, CNN's Jake Tapper pointed out that the Obama administration, after bringing charges against Edward Snowden, "has used the Espionage Act more to go after whistleblowers who leaked to journalists not just than any previous administration, but then more than all previous administrations combined." The claim was subsequently endorsed by PolitiFact as "true." That's a shocking use of government power to punish those who would call government officials out for their misbehavior, but hardly an unaccustomed role for for a law passed during World War I and quickly used to muzzle critics of official policy.

In fact, the "war to end all wars" left a legacy of government dominance and intrusive power in its wake that officials still exploit, and from which the country continues to suffer.

In its original form, the Espionage Act was used to prosecute Robert Goldstein for producing a movie about the American Revolution. The U.S. having recently allied itself with Britain against Germany, Goldstein's historically rooted portrayal of British soldiers as the bad guys was considered an attempt to hobble the war effort. He served three years in prison for his cinematic labors.

Eugene Debs
Public Domain

Repeat Socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs (pictured) was charged under the Espionage Act for speaking against conscription and the war. His health broken in prison, he was finally freed by President Warren G. Harding in 1921.

Joseph Franklin Rutherford and other leaders of what became the Jehovah's Witnesses were imprisoned in 1918 for publishing a book that criticized patriotism. Their views were considered dangerous to efforts to satisfy the government's new appetite for patriotic young military recruits.

These days, the amended Espionage Act is no longer used to stifle speakers, writers, and moviemakers (the provisions criminalizing "sedition" were repealed in 1920). Instead, it's used as a weapon, or just a threat, against those who would disseminate inconvenient information to the press and the public.

In addition to Snowden, who was charged for revealing details of the government's vast surveillance efforts to Glenn Greenwald and other journalists, the Espionage Act was used to penalize Thomas Drake, who blew the whistle on wasteful and illegal snooping activities at the National Security Agency. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor in 2011 to avoid lengthy prison time.

John Kiriakou, a former CIA analyst who awkwardly confirmed that the U.S. tortured terrorism suspects before President Obama was ready to concede that "we tortured some folks," was charged under the Espionage Act. He is currently serving 30 months in prison.

This follows in the example set by the 1971 prosecution of Daniel Ellsberg, a former military analyst who was the first whistleblower charged under the 1917 law after leaking the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times.

The Espionage Act is the most visible stain left on the national character by the First World War. But it's not the only one. If civil liberties eroded during the war, economic freedom did, too.

The War Industries Board was established in 1917 to coordinate the government's acquisition of supplies for waging war in Europe. This rapidly turned into, in the words of Wilson administration official Grosvenor Clarkson, "a system of concentration of commerce, industry, and all the powers of government that was without compare among all the other nations, friend or enemy, involved in the World War."

Food Administration

At the same time, Herbert Hoover became "food dictator" (a term he himself used) over the United States Food Administration. The new agency had the power to regulate the distribution and use of food. It rapidly extended that power to control the price that people could charge for meat, produce, and other goods.

A counterpart, the Federal Fuel Administration, exercised similar powers over the distribution of oil and coal, controlling both price and use.

The end result was an unprecedented degree of government control over the economy. That intervention also created a class of bureaucrats accustomed to exercising such dominion—and a constituency among big businesses that benefited from powerful connections, assured markets, and the suppression of competition.

When the Great Depression descended on the country in 1929, now-president Hoover was already accustomed to invoking his wartime experiences as a model for dealing with the country's economy. "An infinite amount of misery could be saved if we have the same spirit of spontaneous cooperation in every community for reconstruction that we had in war."

The New Deal imposed by his successor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, largely built on the wartime policies of which Hoover had been an architect, and the precedents and culture established by the expanded state of the First World War. While the corporatist policies of the 1930s have retreated, the proliferation of boards and bureaucrats wielding vast economic power never entirely went away. Depression-era farm subsidies continue to distort food production and hike prices in the United States, damaging the environment and enriching the well-connected.

America's involvement in World War I lasted just a year and a half. But government today uses its leavings to choke off the free flow of information, goods, and services, and to threaten Americans' freedom in the process. The Espionage Act lingers on, as does the habit of government meddling and intervention in the economic affairs of private businesses and individuals.

Just a few short and bloody months of conflict, and a century later we're still dealing with the damage done to our freedom.


NEXT: Porch Shooter Guilty of Murder, Dem Fundraising Emails = 'The Boy Who Cried Wolf,' Do College Kids Need Protection From All That Scary Speech? : P.M. Links

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  1. How about we blame the people responsible, not a war?

    Woodrow Wilson and his Progressive allies in Congress did this.

    1. Yup. They’re the gift that keeps on giving.

      1. I don’t know that gift is the right word.

        1. Yeah, you can return a gift. A more appropriate analogy might be “inoperable tumor.”

      2. Because the democrats never committed an unconstitutional action that the republicans didn’t raise a fit about until they gained majority, at which time they fell in love with it.

    2. Progressive Democrats are 2 for 2 on getting us involved in the world wars of others. Yay!

      1. Forget Pearl Harbor!

    3. Institutions of democracy did this. This was fundamentally just a populist war of conquest.

    4. Completely off topic, but Amazon has a new program called smile, where you can put .5% of eligible purchases towards your favorite charity. I recommend Reason Foundation, or the Drug Policy Alliance.

  2. Woodrow Wilson was an unmitigated swine whose machinations combined with the inept covert operations of the Germans got us into a war that was none of our goddamned business. He ruthlessly used the power of the State, augmented as much as he could arrange, to suppress all criticism. His primary tool of oppression was Attorney General Mitchell Palmer, a vermin that makes Joe McCarthy look like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.

    And the Progressive Left still gets all dreamy eyed over the sonofabitch.

    1. Just think if we had stayed out of the Great War. The Kaiser would not have abdicated, there would have been no Nazi party, no Second World War, no half-communist Europe for 50 years, no Cold War–hell, the Whites might have defated the Reds and reinstalled the Romonovs.

      1. Not to mention, the largest ethnic group in the USA throughout both world wars may have finally gained a small voice in US government ending the monopoly that Brits had held over the highest offices in the land since day one…

      2. “-hell, the Whites might have defated the Reds ”


      3. The Germans might not have been desperate enough in 1917 to smuggle Lenin back into Russia if the U.S. had stayed out of the war.

      4. And we would all be subjects of the Kaiser?

    2. And because of Wilson, high schools dropped German as the first foreign language taught in favor ooh la la, French and the equally ugly Spanish.

      1. What a threat the Germans were being the largest ethnic group in the USA. That they may actually hold some influence in government…the horror!

      2. …the guy talking about German in admiration is complaining about the “ugliness” of romance languages? Fucking really?

        1. This

        2. Clearly you would rather speak to a beautiful woman than a horse.

          1. Apparently not, since there are no beautiful women on Reason — though I think you’ve discovered the reason I maintain such impeccable English when addressing the likes of Bo and Smack MacDougal.


            1. “no beautiful women on Reason”

              Pictures of the women on Reason are ones I’d love to be linked to. (Like all males, I require visual stimulation in order to think.)

        3. … the guy blathering with his tin-ear hearing about the guy who rightly said that the sound of Romance languages are an affront to anyone with quality hearing.

          All that sissy soft p and s sounds are the sound of easily conquered, always working as dishwashers, people.

          ? This

          1. Latin ended up in every school in Europe because the people who spoke it were ‘easily conquered’. I guess the Romans got their empire by standing around the Home Depot waiting to get hired by rich Anglos.

            Whatever you say.

            1. Your alternative reality both fascinates and amuses.

              Someone should have told you that Latin French isn’t Latin, Italian isn’t Latin, Spanish isn’t Latin and so forth.

              For a time Latin was the language of universities precisely because universities were sponsored by the Roman Catholic churches of the various countries of Europe and Latin was the language of the RCC.

              Seriously, have you ever read anything besides your indoctrination fuel here at

              You might have hit 10 on the clueless scale.

              1. Poor Trouser. Well, in interest of fairness it was awesome you were still willing to invent a scale that let him be a winner, regardless.

              2. Jesus Christ, dude. Not only did I already know that, but your inability to consider exactly *how* Latin became the Western Church’s liturgical language couldn’t possibly be more obtuse. Radioactive amounts of condescension and stupidity wrapped up in one post which wildly misses the point — are you secretly Bo?

                1. Oh wow, so you are entire strategy boils down to lame ad hominem of the “You are retarded but I’m not” kind.

                  Anyone one can claim they know something after someone else schools that one on the subject.

                  Good luck impressing the ladies with that, Rico Sauve.

        4. Did he say German was a pretty language? Maybe I misunderstood. Fucking gawd damned it.

    3. Woodrow Wilson was an unmitigated swine

      His headstone ought to be replaced with a toilet and his coffin retrofitted for use as a septic tank. We’ll charge $5 per deuce with all proceeds going to pay a tiny minuscule fraction of what is owed to the democide victims of 1914-1945

      1. Since he’s buried in Washington National Cathedral, this should be interesting.

      2. I like the way you think.

  3. In its original form, the Espionage Act was used to prosecute Robert Goldstein for producing a movie about the American Revolution. The U.S. having recently allied itself with Britain against Germany, Goldstein’s historically rooted portrayal of British soldiers as the bad guys was considered an attempt to hobble the war effort. He served three years in prison for his cinematic labors.

    How the fuck was this considered kosher under the 1A?

    1. You must remember this was pre-Citizens United.

      1. You do realize that with so many Buttplugs laying around here one, or another, is eventually bound to end up in the wrong hole…

        1. You can use them for earplugs?

    2. “How the fuck was this considered kosher under the 1A?”

      (assuming you’re not sarc-ing here)
      See CSPS above. Wilson truly was an evil, dangerous person with entirely too much (assumed) power under some bogus ‘war’ claims.
      From what I read, there is reason to believe he was a bit ’round the bend, but no one chose to challenge him.

      1. Wilson was no more (and no less) insane that any other Upper Middle Class Progressive Intellectual, then or since. His vices – bigotry, condescension, inability to tolerate opposition, and an unhealthy certainty that the United States should be more like Europe – are the hallmarks of the breed.

    3. How the fuck was this considered kosher under the 1A?

      Because FYTW.

      1. It took til the third reply? I has a disappoint.

    4. You can’t shout fire in a crowded theater, or at least that what Oliver Wendell Holmes ruled when it comes to the First Amendment.

      Even though the cases did not involve, shouting, fires, theaters crowded or not…..ted_States

      So remember protesting against a war is the same as falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater

    5. Because Spooner was right, and everyone knows it even if they won’t admit it.

  4. But there is also some recent research that hints that whistle-blowing is costly even without a would-be dictator like Wilson:
    “Why Whistleblowing Doesn’t Work:
    Loyalty is a Whole Lot Easier
    to Enforce than Honesty”

  5. No way man, who thought of that I wonder.

  6. “””””The end result was an unprecedented degree of government control over the economy.””””

    The government also took over the entire railroad industry in the US, which at the time was the largest employer in the country.

    The excuse for taking over the railroads was that they were not able to transport all the supplies the government wanted. However the fault actually laid with government which gave top priority to all its own shipments and sent the vast majority of it to East Coast port cities where the trains could not be unloaded because there was not enough shipping or warehouses. With the trains stuck in rail yards unable to unload the whole system collapsed.

    Once the government took over the first thing it did was to rescind many of their own top priority shipment orders which then allowed the railroads to return to a more normal practice.

  7. No mention of one of my favorite historical figures, Max Eastman? He was tried and acquitted twice under the Espionage Act for (IIRC) opposing the draft, and The Masses was closed down.

  8. The end result was an unprecedented degree of government control over the economy.

    Yes, one of the biggest problems caused by both World Wars was the notion that the War Economy proved that Central Planning works.

  9. How about the film The Spirit of ’76?

    From Wikipedia
    The film premiered in Chicago in May 1917 ? just one month after the United States entered World War I on the side of Britain. The head of Chicago’s police censorship board, Metallus Lucullus Cicero Funkhouser, confiscated the film at the behest of the Justice department on grounds that it generated hostility toward Britain. Goldstein trimmed the offending scenes and received federal approval to continue the Chicago run; but the film premiered in Los Angeles a few months later with the deleted scenes restored. After an investigation, the government concluded that Goldstein’s action constituted “aiding and abetting the German enemy”, and seized the film once again.

    1. “Metallus Lucullus Cicero Funkhouser”? Sounds like someone from a Tom Lehrer song or a Pynchon novel.

  10. Maybe the lesson of ww1 and who was elected is that we should vote for more people like Debs, who hated war and Wilson’s attempts to get labor and capital to go-along, get along. I say fuck both of those things.

    1. Or to simply vote against anyone who’s a fucking fascist.(all varieties).

  11. In my darker moments I sometimes wonder if it wouldn’t be better if the reward granted every President on retirement was a 15 Minute head start?.

  12. Good message, but the format is awful.

  13. Wilson was an academic used to the Machiavellian ways of university politics. We would never again consider another academic. Oh, wait…

  14. This article is of course historically accurate. However, allow me to add my OPINION, which is: that had the U.S. not entered World War I, the results of this purely European War (until 1917) would have been much the same, even without our meddling. The Russian Revolution would certainly have taken place (with or without the U.S.). You can blame this on Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, who, as you may recall, made it possible (engineered) for Lenin to go back to Russia. In any event, the war ended with the Kaiser and the Czar (Tsar) gone forever, to include Franz Joseph of Austria. That would have happened with or without our involvement.

    The same applies to World War II which was well underway as a European War before the U.S. got involved as a result of Pearl Harbor (and the machinations of Churchill). However, (always a great qualifying word), the Soviets would probably have marched on to France had the U.S. not entered that war, late in the game.

  15. Is it not ironic that the President that historians hold in revulsion is the one who released Eugene Debs from prison, knowing the true threat to liberty was and is hysteria? In general, with exceptions academics with their rigid mindset, humorlessness and vindictive personalities should be kept far away from power.

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