The espionage act of 1917 and opposition to the First World War in North America

On June 15, 1917 the US Congress passed the Espionage Act which, while modified over the years, has remained in tact as legislation for a century.  This Act addressed key concerns from that point in time:

  • ‘interference’ in military recruitment
  • interception of materials considered seditious or treasonous by the US Postmaster
  • prohibited the transference of information to a foreign agent that may could hinder the US war effort

Passing the legislation was not at all surprising or unusual; all European countries had similar laws in place; it was the lengthy of time that it took for it to be accepted by the US Congress that was surprising.  Like many US laws regarding international relations, this Act came out of the new needs brought on by the onset First World War, and was introduced by Woodrow Wilson in 1915, nearly two years before US entrance into the war.  The reasons why Congress was slow in passing the Act are varied: the number of immigrants in the US would make it difficult to enforce; US isolationism; Congress’s uncertainty on whether or not it was necessary.

In the end, US entrance in war made the request more reasonable.  Additionally, the February Revolution in Russia and the prominence of socialist groups there, coupled with the growing industrial working class movements in the US increased support for the bill, and therefore it was enacted in June 1917.  As the war continued the Act was buttressed by the Sedition Act of 1918 that made it a federal crime to speak out against the US government, constitution, military and flag.

Even in peacetime, the Espionage Act was largely uncontroversial, but the Sedition Act was fraught with problems.  First and foremost it seemed to contradict the First Amendment of the US Constitution which states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

A second problem arose due to the large immigrant population, many of whom opposed the war, and at the same time still had relatives in Europe, in countries engaged in fighting against the US.  Until World War I, the US had a very vibrant German-speaking community centered in the Midwest that included German-language newspapers, schools and even universities.  All of these were now subject to these Acts, and found their actions seriously limited by these laws.  Suspicions led many of these schools and colleges to close down; while this was portrayed as a demonstration of patriotism and voluntary in nature, it was also community-based self-preservation.   However, others saw these laws as infringing on their rights to free speech, and did not want to serve in a military fighting against family and former neighbors.

The rejection of military service was not unique to the US; in Canada, a crisis erupted in 1917 when a number of Canadians opposed the introduction of conscription.  Many farmers, industrial workers and immigrants not of English descent opposed conscription but the largest source of opposition was Quebec.  Unlike the Anglophone Canadians who identified with the UK, the Quebecois saw no reason to engage in war in Europe.  However, the number of volunteers had diminished and the government felt the need to introduce mandatory military service.  The actual effect of the law was minimal: as the war drew to an end the number of conscripts called up numbered less than 50,000, and less than half of these served overseas. However, it changed the social fabric in Canada in a number of ways.

Back in the United States over 2000 people were arrested, and half of these were convicted, under the terms of these two acts.  A series of court cases challenged the Espionage and Sedition Acts but in 1919 the US Supreme Court ruled that these measures were necessary in times of war to protect US soldiers and government activities.  These laws were intended as emergency wartime measures, but while the Sedition Act was repealed in 1921, the Espionage Act has remained in force, with several amendments and changes that reflect the changing nature of enemy agents and espionage.

Definitions

Conscription: mandatory military service

Espionage: spying or using spies to obtain information about the activities of another country.

Sedition: the act of inciting people to rebel against a government

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