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Emma Goldman | Article

Prelude to the Red Scare: The Espionage and Sedition Acts

Library of Congress

America's first Red Scare, an era of hostility toward perceived "disloyalty" — and relentless government repression of radicals and others — began in April 1919. Organized labor, freed from its wartime pledges not to strike, pressed for higher wages, shorter hours and the right to collective bargaining, touching off a draconian response. But the Red Scare's roots extended deep into the preceding years, almost to the day America entered World War I.

Forced Out of Neutrality
World War I began in Europe in 1914, and from the start, President Woodrow Wilson resisted involvement. After the Zimmermann telegram incident in early 1917, however, in which Germany promised Mexico U.S. territory in return for helping them in the war, America entered the conflict.

Stifling Criticism
"The April 1917 declaration of war," wrote historian Alice Wexler, "touched off an unprecedented campaign to stifle criticism of the government." Congress immediately passed legislation to silence not only anti-war agitators, but also people lumped together in the popular press as "Reds" -- left-wing activists and foreign immigrants.

A Law Against Espionage
On June 15, 1917, lawmakers passed the Espionage Act. The law set punishments for acts of interference in foreign policy and sought to prevent espionage. It authorized stiff fines and prison terms of up to 20 years for anyone who obstructed the military draft or encouraged "disloyalty."

The act was, on the whole, inoffensive -- even to radicals -- and most of it remains on the books today. What infuriated liberals and radicals, however, was the power of censorship it gave to the Postmaster General. The federal official could declare "unmailable" any material which, in his opinion, violated the act.

Zealous Postmaster
Postmaster General Albert Sidney Burleson was zealous in his enforcement of the law. He immediately sent letters to local postmasters, instructing them to send him any potentially illegal material. His instructions resulted in the delayed delivery of almost every significant Socialist or radical periodical, including Emma Goldman's Mother Earth and Max Eastman's The Masses.

Wartime Raids and Mass Arrests
At the same time, the government stepped up its campaign against radicals. The nation was at war in Europe -- and a draft had been reintroduced for the first time since the Civil War. Military recruitment posters -- like James Montgomery Flagg's famous pointing Uncle Sam — were striking a patriotic chord with the American public. On September 5, 1917, federal agents raided Industrial Workers of the World offices nationwide. On September 28, 166 people who were (or had been) active in the I.W.W. were accused of trying to "cause insubordination, disloyalty, and refusal of duty in the military and naval forces" -- in violation of the Espionage Act. One hundred and one defendants were found guilty, and received prison sentences ranging from ten days to twenty years.

More Anti-Radical Sentiment
The Espionage Act was evidently effective in prosecuting the I.W.W. and any others opposing conscription. In 1918, it was used to send labor leader and former presidential candidate Eugene Debs to jail for a decade, because of a speech he delivered. Yet in some quarters, the law was still deemed insufficient to deal with the problem of radicalism, and particularly with the influence of the I.W.W. in the Northwest.

Silencing Radical Voices
On January 16, 1918, the chairman of House Judiciary Committee introduced a bill which became known as the Sedition Act. This more wide-ranging law would establish penalties for speaking against the American government, constitution, flag, or uniform; interfering with wartime production; promoting the cause of America's enemies; inciting refusal of military duty; obstructing military recruitment, and more. It also criminalized advocating or suggesting any of these activities, so that a radical public speaker like Emma Goldman became a target. According to Alice Wexler, the war provided an excuse "for the prosecution of labor activists, dissidents, and radicals -- especially the anarchists, Wobblies, and left-wing socialists -- who had gained considerable strength during the previous decade."

Underlying Political Motivations
The bill was clearly aimed at the I.W.W. Its implications for civil liberties were clear. Georgia Senator Thomas W. Hardwick stated at the time: "I understand that the real, in fact practically the only, object of this section is to get some men called I.W.W.'s who are operating in a few of the Northwestern states, and you Senators from those states have been exceedingly solicitous to have legislation of this kind enacted... I dislike to be confronted by a situation in which in the name of patriotism we are asked to justify the fundamental rights and liberties of 100,000,000 American people in order to meet a situation in a few Northwestern states." Despite some legislators' objections, the bill passed both houses of Congress, and President Wilson signed it into law on May 16.

Free Speech? No Speech.
The Sedition Act did even more than the Espionage Act to restrict what could be sent through the U.S. mails. The Post Office was now able to halt the mailing of materials defending the I.W.W. In fact, the only thing that prevented a complete ban on I.W.W. material was the Department of Justice's complaint that stopping I.W.W. mailings would eliminate evidence and jeopardize the criminal prosecution of I.W.W. defendants.

The Deportation Option
Deportation laws passed in 1917 and subsequent years gave the government even more power to suppress radicalism. According to Wexler, "deportation, formerly used only for those convicted of criminal acts, now came to be seen as a means of expelling all foreign-born radicals from the country."

Purge of Russian Immigrant Workers
Although these laws generally proved ineffective against organizations, on November 7, 1919, the Bureau of Investigation's General Intelligence Division arrested selected targets. Led by a young J. Edgar Hoover, the federal agents collared members of the Union of Russian Workers — a union and mutual aid organization in many ways similar to the I.W.W. These raids, in which about 1,000 members were detained, were a prelude to the "Palmer" raids of January 1920 (named for Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer).

The Most Dangerous Anarchists
Hoover, the bureau's rising star, had taken a personal interest in the deportation cases against Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman. In a memo dated August 23, 1919, Hoover had written, "Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman are, beyond doubt, two of the most dangerous anarchists in this country and if permitted to return to the community will result in undue harm."

Sent Away Forever
On December 21, 1919, Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman, and 247 others (the majority of them members of the Union of Russian Workers), boarded the Buford, a transport ship bound for Soviet Russia. At the time it was expected that many other "Soviet Arks" would follow in the Buford's wake. But the Buford -- undoubtedly to Hoover's profound disappointment -- was the only deportation ship to carry any quantity of radicals from America's shores.

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