The Wilson Administration and Civil Liberties by Harry N. Scheiber

Harry N. Scheiber’s The Wilson Administration and Civil Liberties is a focused examination of Wilson’s policies and government behaviors during the World War I. Scheiber is an economical, effective writer and makes a case against Wilson over a number of chapters dealing with discrete topics. During the prewar years, Scheiber argues Wilson had become more concerned with potential opponents to military intervention who had revealed themselves during the debates over preparedness, many of whom where “Irish- and German-Americans, Socialists, pacifists, and progressives”. In the election of 1916 Wilson advocated remaining neutral in the war but emphasized “Americanism” and loyalty to country, and thus “contributed to the ferment of intolerance in which superpatriotism [sic] was to flourish during the tense years of war to come.”[1] Scheiber also provides a summary of the security measures that went into effect during the war, including the aforementioned Espionage and Sedition Acts but also including important executive orders and laws such as creation of the Committee on Public Information (a propaganda and censorship agency) and the Trading-with-the-Enemy Act of 1917 (granting additional censorship powers to the Postmaster General). Scheiber argues that all of these laws had “severely punitive” penalties in terms of fines and prison sentences, and the prerogative of enforcement and the potential impact to civil liberties was largely given to the President, the Attorney General, and the Postmaster General.[2] The final chapters of The Wilson Administration and Civil Liberties explores Postmaster General Burleson’s aggressive censorship policies and Wilson’s failure to intervene to stop abuses of civil liberties and the Attorney General’s failure to control the Bureau of Investigation and its own “super patriot” district attorneys who were often overzealous in prosecuting alleged violations of the Espionage Act. Scheiber concludes his book by examining Wilson administration’s handling of post-war events: refusing to relent wartime powers until the Paris treaty process was concluded, refusing to issue pardons or declare a general amnesty for those convicted of wartime opposition, and finally his tolerance of Attorney General Mitchell’s campaign against communists in the Red Scare. Altogether Scheiber issues an indictment of Wilson and his administration for the repression of civil liberties. To make his case, Scheiber uses almost entirely primary sources such as letters and public records, as well as the accounts of individuals present and involved in the events.

[1] Harry N. Scheiber, The Wilson Administration and Civil Liberties, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1960), 2-10.

[2] Scheiber, 11-28.

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