“I have been accused of having obstructed the war. I admit it. I abhor war. I would oppose the war if I stood alone. I believe in free speech, in war as well as in peace.” So said Eugene Debs on September 12th, 1918 to members of a jury tasked with deciding whether he had, as prosecutors argued, during a speech given a few weeks earlier to a crowd of socialists attempted “to promote insubordination [in the military]” and “propagate obstruction to the [military] draft.”
Debs - a socialist, political activist, trade unionist, one of the founding members of, among many leftist groups, the Socialist Party of America - would be convicted of and handed a lengthy prison sentence for violating the Espionage Act, pushed through Congress the year prior by former President Woodrow Wilson - just after the United States entered into the war in Europe.
Upon signing the Act - which made criminal dissent against the war - into law, Wilson, at once, began to use it to go after opposition to the establishment - communists, socialists, trade unionists - and continued to do so even after the war had ended.
This is just one of the many subjects of American Midnight, journalist and historian Adam Hochschild's recent book, in which he examines a period during which the United States saw a swell of patriotic frenzy and political repression that makes McCarthyism look almost subtle by comparison - 1917-21.
On this episode of “Buried Treasure,” we sit down with Hochschild to look back on this all too often unremembered period that gave birth to the Espionage Act - some of the “darkest years of the republic” in which the government and political establishment weren’t at all opposed to blatantly illiberal approaches to achieving their desired outcomes.