The Espionage Act

The Espionage Act was passed by Congress in 1917 as a result of the United States entering the First World War. The act prescribed a $10,000 fine and 20 years' imprisonment for anyone interfering with the recruiting of troops or disclosing information concerning national defence. Additional penalties were included for the refusal to perform military service and advocating treason.

The Espionage Act was attacked as being unconstitutional but it resulted in the imprisonment of 450 conscientious objectors. Eugene V. Debs, leader of the Socialist Party of America, and strong opponent of the USA's involvement in the war, was sentenced to a ten-year jail term.

Primary Sources

(1) Max Eastman, Love and Revolution (1964)

In spite of a ruling by the Attorney General that "the constitutional right of free speech, free assembly, and petition exist in wartime as in peacetime," nearly two thousand men and women were jailed for their opinions during the First World War, their sentences running as high as thirty years.

The Espionage Act, signed by Wilson one month after our entrance into the war, although it contained no press censorship clause, and was ostensibly designed to protect the nation against foreign agents, established three new crimes which made it dangerous to criticize the war policy and impossible to voice the faintest objection to conscription.

A subsequent amendment known as the Sedition Act, defined as seditious, and made punishable, all disloyal language and attacks on the government, the army, the navy, or the cause of the United States in the war. Under this act it became a crime to write a "disloyal" letter, or an anti-war article which might reach a training camp, or express anti-war sentiments to an audience which included men of draft age, or where the expression might be heard by ship-builders or munition-makers.

In our June and July numbers (of The Masses) we had two anti-war cartoons by Boardman Robinson: a picture of Uncle Sam in chains and handcuffs, "All ready to fight for liberty," and one of Jesus Christ being dragged in on a rope by an idiotic recruiting officer. George Bellows contributed another Jesus, in stripes now, with ball and chain and a crown of thorns: "The prisoner used language tending to discourage men from enlisting in the United States army: "Thou shalt not kill - Blessed are the peacemakers."