Suppression of Dissent in World War I: A Reminder of Where Fascism Leads

By Al Carroll

“Editor’s Note: As we look around us at the erosion of freedom in The Land of the Free – NSA spying, compromise of habeus corpus, corporate personhood and its effect on elections, establishment of ‘free speech zones,’ and more – it is worth remembering that war pressures have taken us down this road before. This thoughtful essay reminds us of a long-forgotten chapter of U.S. history.” The essay is adapted from an excerpt from Presidents’ Body Counts: The Twelve Worst and Four Best American Presidents Based on How Many Lived or Died Because of Their Actions available at….

It is the anniversary of the assassination that led to the start of World War I. Some articles will focus on the veterans, or on what some falsely claim was the first time the US was not isolationist. (That was never true. The US freely invaded Latin America many times before this. World War I was just the first time since 1812 the US warred with a white nation.) But I would argue it is far more important to remember another American first, the first time modern propaganda stampeded the US into war and dissent was effectively criminalized.

The war led to a wave of anti-German hysteria that saw German-Americans falsely imprisoned along with Austro-Hungarians, Greeks, Dutch, French, Belgians, Ukrainians, Polish, Serbs, and Italians. Dissidents such as the anarchist union the IWW, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Socialists, and conscientious objectors were also interned. There were over 6,000 falsely imprisoned, and two German-Americans murdered by anti-German bigots. One German-American was killed in an escape attempt, and an unknown number died in an influenza epidemic at Fort Oglethorpe.

Anti-War Activists and Skeptical General Public

President Woodrow Wilson had many accomplices. The Committee on Public Information created an atmosphere of hatred, paranoia and fear. Businesses spied on their employees. Parents spied on their children and children on their parents. Neighbors spied on neighbors. All of these activities were directed, encouraged, and rewarded by the Committee.

Congress passed the Espionage Act. This punished with a sentence of up to twenty years imprisonment should any person “utter, print, write, or publish any disloyal…or abusive language about the form of government of the United States, or the military…or the flag.”

The American Protective League were auxiliary cops, vigilantes given sanction by the federal and local authorities. Numbering 300,000, they reported more than 3 million cases of disloyalty, vaguely defined. They rounded up and imprisoned 6,000 dissidents and ethnic groups considered suspect, holding some in custody for up to two years after the end of the war.

Woodrow Wilson was re-elected on the promise, “He Kept Us Out of War.” There were many Americans opposed to entering the war, especially those remembering the disastrous US-Filipino War.  Many did not want to take part in this world war fought among imperial powers for advantage, driven by propaganda and nationalism, destined to take tens of millions of lives, bring down dynasties, and create the first fascist and communist states.

Misplaced Sympathies

But the US finally entered the war because of sympathy for the Allies, Britain, France, Italy, and Russia. The first three nations were seen as fellow democracies and there were cultural ties, with many people of the same ancestry inside the US. There was much more hostility against the less democratic Central Powers of Germany, and the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires. There were far fewer Ottoman-Americans, for example. Submarine warfare by Germany against neutral shipping also turned some Americans against the Central Powers. Britain borrowing heavily from US banks also led to financial elites pushing for US entry into the war.

At first, there was little public support for the war. Only 73,000 joined the US military in response to Wilson’s call for a million volunteers. While the public was skeptical, both major parties and most businesses and other institutions rallied behind Wilson. Most of the opposition came from socialists, pacifist religious groups, and anarchists. This was the height of the Socialist Party in US history, when up to one out of six Americans voted Socialist.

Propaganda Unleashed

To counter this opposition, Wilson set up one of the earliest and ugliest propaganda campaigns in US history. The Committee on Public Information made some of the first widespread uses of public relations, hired pro war speakers, who gave speeches in 5000 cities across the US, all the way down to small towns, to give the false impression of mass support for the war.  The committee also paid informants to spy on those who were antiwar, neutral, or even insufficiently pro war.

Anti-German hysteria spread and became vicious and violent. Millions of German-Americans suddenly found their loyalty questioned and their very culture denigrated as barbaric. In some states laws were passed barring teaching or even speaking German. Sauerkraut was renamed “victory cabbage” and hamburgers “victory steak.” Anti-German mobs beat and in a few cases lynched German-Americans. Many German-Americans lost their jobs or their businesses. The government often seized German-American property without cause or compensation. Some fearfully changed their German names, anglicizing them to avoid persecution. Where German-Americans had been one of the most strongly bilingual ethnic groups, with Germans as pioneers in the bilingual education field and publishing many German language newspapers, magazines, and books, much of that came to an end. Today only a small fraction of German-Americans speak German, a legacy of the persecution of World War I and after.

The Espionage Act also made it illegal to criticize the war or the US in even the vaguest way. Even Spirit of 76, a film about the American Revolution, was censored for criticizing the British, now US allies. Officially sanctioned vigilantes, the American Protective League proceeded to lock up antiwar protesters, socialists, even Jehovah’s Witnesses as well as conscientious religious objectors. Proving that bigots do not have the best grasp of other cultures, they also imprisoned many people they mistook for Germans and Austro-Hungarians: Greeks, Dutch, French, Belgians, Ukrainians, Polish, Serbs, and Italians. Some prisoners were locked up until two years after war’s end. Socialist Party candidate Eugene Debs went to prison for an antiwar speech. That did not stop him from running for president from prison, the only candidate to ever do so, and still getting over a million votes.

Wilson’s campaign of hysteria and bigotry had deadly consequences. Besides German-Americans murdered, an undetermined number of prisoners were killed by an epidemic inside prison walls. The greatest toll of all, of course, was the 200,000 US deaths during World War I.

Wilson’s Miscalculations

Wilson made the decision to go to war based on manipulation by British intelligence and his own fear of nonwhites. The Zimmerman telegram, an offer from Germany to ally with Mexico in exchange for the return of the southwest to Mexico, was what pushed Wilson to change his mind about war. The telegram was deliberately leaked to the US Ambassador by British intelligence. But Mexico’s President had already turned down the German offer. They were in the middle of an incredibly divisive ten year revolution that killed ten million Mexicans and sent ten million more fleeing as refugees. Mexico’s territory was still split, parts of it run by several different rebel armies. The idea of Mexico invading the US was ludicrous.

Since both sides in World War I were fighting for imperial gain and falsely claiming it was for freedom, most Americans were rightly skeptical and showed greater wisdom than Wilson in trying to stay out. There is more than a little anti-German bigotry in some of the fears of disaster should Germany have won this war. Imperial Germany was not Nazi Germany. Nor was their empire especially worse than the British or French empires, only its emperor much more reckless. Germany had an elected parliament with strong Catholic and socialist parties as well as the right wing, and a partly progressive system with a strong social safety net.

Add to this that more than likely Germany would still lose the war without the US joining the Allies. It would simply lose it more slowly or decisively, perhaps in 1919 instead of 1918. Or it is possible the war simply ends in a stalemate, both sides exhausted. It is still quite possible the same uprising against the Kaiser happens, followed by the Weimar Republic. But without a decisive loss and harsh peace imposed by the Allies, the Nazis do not arise, and Hitler likely remains an obscure failed artist.

Without Wilson’s campaign of bigoted propaganda, German-American culture would not have been crippled. Other intolerant postwar hysterias, the Red Scare, and the rise of the new version of the Ku Klux Klan, would not have happened or at least been less.Φ

Al Carroll is Assistant Professor of History at Northern Virginia Community College and a former Fulbright Scholar. His other books are Medicine Bags and Dog Tags: American Indian Veteran Traditions from Colonial Times to the Second Iraq War and Survivors: Family Histories of Colonialism, Genocide, and War. He is a longtime activist and researcher for More information on him can be found at

Leave a Reply