By Kevin C. Murphy, Copyright 2013. All Rights Reserved.
Chapter Three: Chaos at Home
Progressives in the Crucible of 1919
III. Enemies in Office,
Friends in Jail
Similarly, Robert La Follette found himself an increasingly lonely and embattled anti-war voice in the Senate. One of six Senators (and 55 Congressmen) who voted against entry, La Follette delivered a memorable three-hour speech in October of 1917 on the vital importance of "Free Speech in Wartime." "American citizens may hold all shades of opinion as to the war," argued, "one citizen may glory in it, another may deplore it, each has the same right to voice his judgment… If the American people are to carry on this great war, if public opinion is to be enlightened and intelligent, there must be free discussion."2
This view was considered somewhat suspect at the time, and especially so after the Associated Press misquoted La Follette as declaring "we had no grievances against Germany." (His actual phrase was: "I don't mean to say that we hadn't suffered grievances; we had.") AP later regretted the error, but the genie was out of the bottle. "[Y]ou might just as well put poison in the food of every American boy that goes to his transport as to permit La Follette to talk as he does," Columbia's Nicholas Murray Butler effused to the American Bankers Association. Another paper called La Follette, "[f]ar more capable…than any I.W.W…The poison of morbid unrest has fed the maggots of disorder and revolt. It is a shame to America, shame to Wisconsin, that the Senate…must harbor a defender of the child-murderers who sank the Lusitania." William Howard Taft wished "some way could be found to punish men like Senator La Follette on the ground that their activities are traitorous." For his part, Theodore Roosevelt referred to La Follette a "Hun at the gates" who "is at this moment loyally and efficiently serving one country - Germany. He is acting in such fashion as to make him one of the most potent enemies of this country and a most sinister enemy of democracy." If he were a Senator, TR fumed, "I would be ashamed to sit in that body until I found out some method of depriving Senator La Follette of his seat in that chamber."3
As Roosevelt's musings suggest, the Senator had more than harsh words to contend with. Wisconsin newspapers like the State Journal turned roundly against him. 421 faculty members at the University of Wisconsin signed a petition castigating his lack of patriotism, and students on that same campus burned him in effigy. And La Follette's colleagues in the Senate began to investigate him for un-American activities. In December 1918, after the war ended, the committee in question finally voted 9-2 to dismiss the charges. That same month, La Follette apologized to his family for the strain his ordeal had put on him and them both. "One of the hardest things about the last two years is the feeling of repression we have to carry around with us," he wrote. "I know it has made me a very different person to live with."4
Time and again, former progressive and socialist allies of Wilson entreatied the president to take a firmer stance against this sort of repression and on behalf of tolerance. Only ten days after the war began, twenty-two prominent peace progressives, including Jane Addams, Paul Kellogg, Norman Thomas, Oswald Garrison Villard, Amos Pinchot, Herbert Croly, and Lillian Wald, wrote to Wilson describing the war fervor that was already taking hold. "We have seen evidence of the breaking down of immemorial rights and privileges," they began.
Halls have been refused for public discussion; meetings have been broken up;-speakers have been arrested and censorship exercised not to prevent the transmission of information to enemy countries, but to prevent the free discussion by American citizens of our own problems and policies. As we go on, the inevitable psychology of war will manifest itself with increasing danger, not only to individuals but to our cherished institutions. It is possible that the moral damage to our democracy in this war may become more serious than the physical or national losses incurred.Suffice to say, Wilson made no such statement. Similarly, Wald -- one of the letter's signatories -- begged the president in a personal message to "find a way for us to pull together. You will not drive your natural allies from you. You will not banish us from the Democratic party which you promised to make the home of all liberal spirits."6
Socialists John Reed, Amos Pinchot, and Max Eastman also prevailed upon the president's sense of justice and the right. In asking him to stop the ban on Socialist newspapers being ruthlessly enforced by Wilson's postmaster general, Albert Sidney Burleson -- a man Edward House deemed "the most belligerent member of the Cabinet" -- they wrote: "Can it be necessary, even in war time, for the majority of a republic to throttle the voice of a sincere minority? As friends of yours, and knowing how dear to you is the Anglo-Saxon tradition of intellectual freedom, we would like to feel that you do not sanction the exercise." Wilson was warm but firm in response: "I can only say that a line must be drawn and that we are trying, it may be clumsily, but genuinely, to draw it without fear or favor or prejudice."7
Wilson did say he'd "go to the bottom of the matter" and wrote Burleson about the situation, telling him "these are very sincere men and I should like to please them." Again, just as in his discussion with Thomas Gregory about the APL, nothing changed. This would become a pattern. Time and again, noted progressives like Herbert Croly and Upton Sinclair would beg the president to rein in Burleson, a man Norman Thomas argued "couldn't tell socialism from rheumatism." Each time, Wilson would try to straddle the line. "I am sure you will agree with me that we must act with the utmost caution and liberality in our censorship," Wilson would chide Burleson as he half-heartedly appealed for socialist papers like The Milwaukee Leader and The Masses. But the man Wilson had deemed "the Cardinal" would either ignore the president or, eventually, threaten to resign. (To which Wilson jovially responded, "Well, go ahead and do your duty.") Only just before the end of the war, when Burleson banned the September 1918 issue of The Nation for being critical of Wilson ally Samuel Gompers, did the president actively overrule his hyper-zealous underling.8
Wilson's decision to "put his enemies in office and his friends in jail," as Amos Pinchot wryly put it, would have serious ramifications for his administration -- perhaps most notably in the election of 1918. Even as the National Security League, operating as arguably the first political action committee of the twentieth century, was spending $100,000 in a direct mail campaign to defeat Democrats they believed were insufficiently patriotic, Wilson's former electoral allies -- the voters who had carried him over the top in 1916 -- were not particularly inclined to vote enthusiastically for the president.9
"At the very moment of [Wilson's] extremest trial," editorialized Oswald Villard in The Nation before the results were known, "our liberal forces are by his own act, scattered, silenced, disorganized, some in prison. If he loses his great fight for humanity, it will be because he was deliberately silent when freedom of speech and the right of conscience were struck down in America." In more guarded terms, The New Republic lamented "the unwholesome condition of American public opinion which results from the suppression during the war of living political discussion," a suppression for which "the administration shared responsibility."10
When the election returns came in -- the loss of both the House and Senate to the Republicans -- the suspicions of the progressive publications were confirmed. "In allowing the mind of the country to stagnate," opined TNR, "he had played into the hands of the incorrigible enemy of his own policy." To Villard and the Nation, Wilson lost because he did "not built up a liberal party and…permitted Burleson and Gregory to scatter and intimidate such liberal forces as have existed."11
The midterm defeats in 1918 should have been a chance for reflection for the Wilson administration. This became especially true when, one week after that poor election performance, the armistice was announced. "Can we now look forward to something like normal conditions of freedom of speech and opinion," asked The Dial. "Will radicals and dissenters now be permitted to have their say, or must we expect more orgies of suppression?" The fate of Wilson's League, and indeed his presidency, would hinge on that question.12
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2. Robert La Follette, "Free Speech in Wartime," October 6, 1917.
3. "Lest we Forget," Wisconsin Loyalty League pamphlet, 1922. Robert La Follette Papers, Box 194: "La Follette's Loyalty Questioned." Alice Honeywell, La Follette and His Legacy (Madison: Robert La Follette School of Public Affairs, 1984/1995), http://www.lafollette.wisc.edu/publications/otherpublications/LaFollette/LaFLegacy.html Thelen, 141.
4. Senator Atlee Pomerene of Ohio still brought a minority report to the Senate. It was defeated 50-21. La Follette was reimbursed $5000 for legal expenses three years later. Honeywell. Thelen, 148, 144.
5. Louis Post, The Public, Vol. 20, Pt. 1, April 27, 1917, 401.
6. Kennedy, 75. Knock, 134.
7. Knock, 135. "Mr. Burleson, Espionagent," The New Republic, May 10, 1919, 42.
8. Kennedy, 77-78. "Your Postmaster-General," Sinclair wrote Wilson, "reveals himself a person of such pitiful and childish ignorance concerning modern movements that it is simply a calamity that [in] this crisis he should be the person to decide what may or may not be uttered by our radical press."
9. Shulman, 320-321. Among the NSL's successful targets were Jeanette Rankin and socialist Meyer London. But defeated Democrats had the last laugh. In the December lame duck session, they initiated investigations into NSL's electoral influence, and found the organization in violation of the Federal Corrupt Practices Act.
10. Kennedy, 89. Knock, 181.
11. Knock, 182.
12. Ibid, 236.
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