By Craig J. Cantoni
June 25, 2006
As a small “L” libertarian, a former artillery officer and a student of history, I’m not a liberal, a conservative, a fan of George W. Bush (or 99 percent of politicians), or an apologist for wacko extremist Muslims. Nor am I proud of the West’s 100-year history of imperialism, mercantilism, failed nation building and support of despots in the Middle East.
But fairness dictates putting Bush’s record on civil liberties in historical context, especially in the context of one of the worst presidents ever to hold office, Woodrow Wilson. Wilson’s record on civil liberties makes Bush’s record look stellar by comparison. And Wilson makes Abraham Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War seem as innocuous as a parent grounding a teenager without a court hearing.
At Wilson’s urging, Congress passed the Espionage Act when the United States entered World War I, which was “The War to End all Wars.”
The final bill did not include Wilson’s original request to legalize press censorship but did give his postmaster general the power to refuse to deliver periodicals deemed unpatriotic or critical of the White House, including foreign-language publications that were less than jingoist in their support of the war.
Remember that this was an era before mass radio and TV. Therefore, most Americans got their news, information and political commentary in print.
But the Espionage Act wasn’t enough for Wilson. As John M. Barry details in his excellent book, The Great Influenza, Wilson subsequently convinced Congress to pass the Sedition Act, at the urging of his attorney general. To quote from the book:
Attorney General Thomas Gregory called for still more power. Gregory was a progressive largely responsible for Wilson’s nominating Louis Brandeis to the Supreme Court, a liberal and the court’s first Jew. Now, observing that America was “a country governed by public opinion,” Gregory intended to help Wilson rule public opinion and, through opinion, the country. He demanded that the Librarian of Congress report the names of those who had asked for certain books and also explained that the government needed to monitor “the individual casual or impulsive disloyal utterances.” To do the latter, Gregory pushed for a law broad enough to punish statements made “from good motives . . . [if] traitorous motives weren’t provable.”
Under the Sedition Act, someone could be imprisoned for 20 years for writing, speaking or publishing any “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the government of the United States.” The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Act in a decision written by Oliver Wendell Holmes, who has gone down in history as a great jurist.
Enforcement of the law was accomplished by the American Protective League, a volunteer group under the jurisdiction of the Justice Department. Within two years, APL grew to 200,000 members across the country, each carrying a badge inscribed with the words, “Secret Service.”
The APL engaged in egregious civil rights violations. For example, APL members and their vigilante supporters in Arizona rounded up and beat 1,200 members of the International Workers of the World, locking them in boxcars and leaving them in the desert.
Americans of German descent became immediately suspect. Some states even banned the teaching of German, and sauerkraut was renamed “liberty cabbage.”
Wilson was aided and abetted in his attack on civil liberties by the American press, especially by famous journalist Walter Lippman, who shared Wilson’s progressive politics, his elitist view of the world, and his poor opinion of the intelligence of the common man. Lippman, who thought that most citizens had the mentality of children and thus could not comprehend the complexities of current events, urged Wilson to create a publicity (aka propaganda) bureau. Wilson obliged, creating the Committee on Public Information with Executive Order 2594.
The Committee issued tens of thousands of stories and press releases, many of which were published unedited by newspapers.
Just as Franklin Roosevelt would do during the Second World War, Wilson created an alphabet-soup of new federal agencies, including the War Industries Board, the National War Labor Board, the Railway Administration, and the Fuel Administration.
As bad as such actions were, they were not as bad as the aftermath of the War to End all Wars. Not only did five million soldiers die in the First World War, but the war facilitated the spreading of the great influenza pandemic, which killed at least 50 million people around the world. Moreover, the war led to the Russian Bolshevik Revolution, which, in turn, produced the greatest mass murderer in history, Josef Stalin. The war’s draconian peace treaty also led to the horrible genocide of the Third Reich and madman Adolf Hitler.
Then there was Britain’s unilateral Balfour Declaration, which set the stage for a Zionist nation in Palestine, although the majority of British Jews at the time were against such a state. That was followed by Britain (and France) carving up the former Ottoman Empire, creating Iraq, subsequently fleeing Mesopotamia when it couldn’t control its indigenous factions, and sowing the seeds for the Muslim Brotherhood in its heavy-handed control of Egypt.
After the Second World War, with consequences that we are living with today, the United States took over where Britain and France had left off in the Middle East, stepping into the cesspool of tribal hatreds, Arab despotism, the Israel-Palestine conflict, and Muslim resentments and fanaticism.
Wilson not only harmed civil liberties more than any other president, he has left a legacy of bloodshed and foreign entanglements second to none. He makes George W. Bush look like a foreign policy genius and a civil liberty zealot.
An author and columnist, Mr. Cantoni can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.