Unsafe for Democracy: World War I and the U.S. Justice Department’s Covert Campaign to Suppress Dissent by William H. Thomas

William H. Thomas’s Unsafe for Democracy: World War I and the U.S. Justice Department’s Covert Campaign to Suppress Dissent provides a history of the Justice Department’s efforts to enforce the security measures enacted in the wake of the war. Utilizing original sources, including personnel files released from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Thomas studies the efforts by the Justice Department and its Bureau of Investigation to stifle individuals with antiwar opinions. The first chapter of Unsafe for Democracy sets the context for the rest of the monograph: the prewar debates, nativist concerns about the behaviors and loyalties of immigrants and so-called “hyphenated Americans,” actual pro-German plots and fifth column activities (all of which contributed to Wilson’s trepidations over antiwar political opposition), and the newfound role of the Justice Department to investigate and prosecute antiwar Americans (illustrated with the story of the investigation, prosecution and eventual imprisonment of Reverend Wilhelm Schumann, an Iowa pastor who expressed pro-German and anti-intervention opinions from his pulpit).[1] The second chapter of Thomas’s book describes how Justice Department investigations took place and is illustrated with the numerous stories from case files. Propaganda efforts encouraged Americans to report suspicious behavior and as a result the Justice Department was flooded with potential cases. Often times investigators provided warnings and reprimands to individuals who had expressed antiwar and anti-American opinions. Other cases warranted further monitoring and investigation after initial interviews with suspects. Undercover agents were often used to obtain evidence against suspects. Overall, Thomas shows that Justice Department tended to treat “ethnicity as an arbiter of loyalty” as well as enhance investigative efforts when dealing with individuals with heterodox beliefs—any political, religious, or philosophical point of view that parted with mainstream America.[2] In addition, Thomas has a chapter on investigations and prosecutions of clergymen who expressed antiwar opinions, including those with pacifistic tenets of faith. This included clergymen from smaller religious orders like Mennonites, Quakers, and Russellites (Jehovah’s Witnesses), but was also extended to Lutherans (due to many being of German descent) and Catholics (due to both German and Irish ethnics in the clergy). Thomas argues assimilationist beliefs influenced Justice Department efforts against these clergymen.[3] As one would expect, Unsafe for Democracy recounts the investigations of leftist groups, particularly members of the IWW and the American Socialist Party, as well as anarchists and atheists.[4] Given the confluence of socialists, antiwar progressives, and German ethnics, the Justice Department had a focused effort to police the state of Wisconsin. Thomas devotes a chapter to Wisconsin and the Justice Department’s “sweeping campaign to silence dissent.” Victor Berger, editor of the socialist newspaper Milwaukee Leader and a leading figure of the Socialist Party (and, at the time, a former Congressmen), and his wife Meta were constantly under investigation, with Berger eventually facing trial and conviction which was ultimately reversed by the Supreme Court (meanwhile, Berger was re-elected to the House of Representatives). The Department of Justice had a broad mandate in Wisconsin, investigating newspapers, clergymen, college students, schoolteachers, and labor unions, and was often prompted by local informants—many of whom likely had ulterior motives in making accusations.[5] Thomas concludes with a chapter on vigilantism which grew as Americans engaged in combat on the Western Front and incurred casualties. Pro-war and pro-American propaganda were at new heights, and American newspapers were sensationalizing stories of German intrigues to sabotage the war effort. Vigilante acts began to grow and attract attention in the press, the worst acts being the lynching of IWW organizer Frank Little in Butte, Montana and the lynching of German immigrant Robert Prager in Collinsville, Illinois. Ironically, the outbreak of extralegal violence led to a political consensus that the government needed more power to silence opponents of the war (so that citizens would not have to take the law in their own hands) culminating in the passage of the Sedition Act which outlawed “any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States, or the Constitution of the United States, or the military or naval forces of the United States, or the flag of the United States.” Nevertheless, the Justice Department largely failed to curb vigilantism, though Thomas offers a number of examples where vigilante crimes were investigated and even prevented.[6]

[1] William H. Thomas, Unsafe for Democracy: World War I and the U.S. Justice Department’s Covert Campaign to Suppress Dissent (Madison, Wis: University of Wisconsin Press, 2008), 9-30.

[2] Thomas, 31-67.

[3] Thomas, 68-88.

[4] Thomas, 89-109.

[5] Thomas, 110-145.

[6] Thomas, 146-171.

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