a book review
Eugene V. Debs, the Great War,
and the Right to Dissent
by Ernest Freeberg
a book review by Peter Richardson
www.latimes.com/fe, June 15, 2008
It all sounds so familiar: a foreign war,
an unpopular president, high-minded vows to spread democracy abroad
and a dubious law to restrict liberties at home. Add to that scenario
vast inequalities in wealth, high immigration rates, scant regard
for working families and festering resentment about the ravages
of global capital. The conclusion seems inescapable: the first
decades of the 20th century sound weirdly like the present.
But the differences are also notable.
Before World War I, a radical journal could reach 700,000 American
households, and socialism was what William James might call "a
live hypothesis." The impassioned speeches of labor organizer,
Socialist leader and five-time presidential candidate Eugene V.
Debs were nothing short of evangelical in tone and effect. (He
once called socialism "merely Christianity in action.")
Debs inspired groups large and small, and his remarkable charisma
is what most concerned the powers that were. For the historical
parallel to hold, we must imagine a third-party presidential candidate
today who could receive 1 million votes without leaving his prison
cell -- and a roaring ovation from his fellow inmates when he
According to historian Ernest Freeberg,
it was precisely Debs' virtuosity that forced America to grapple
with the limits of dissent. In 1918, Debs was convicted under
the recently minted Espionage Act for questioning America's entry
into World War I; before that, free speech protections were more
a matter of custom, easily dispensed with during wartime, than
of high legal principle. But his 10-year sentence raised 1st Amendment
issues with unprecedented force. Sixty-three years old and in
poor health, Debs faced the prospect of dying in prison. His drama
played out against a backdrop of revolutionary violence both here
and abroad: While he was serving his sentence, a bomb planted
by anarchists ripped through a busy Wall Street intersection,
killing more than 30 people and injuring 200.
Freeberg shows that in the end it was
Debs' popularity, not a knockdown legal argument, that compelled
politicians, the mainstream media and eventually federal judges
to reconsider the government's power to jail dissidents. The legal
justifications came later, after Debs walked out of an Atlanta
prison and caught a train to meet his unlikely Republican pardoner,
President Warren G. Harding. Ailing, distracted by foreign affairs
and stung by criticism from progressives and conservatives alike
for his policy failures, Democrat Woodrow Wilson had refused to
pardon Debs despite rising public pressure to do so after the
war. When it seemed safe, his successor made the call, shrewdly
connecting it to his pledge to return the nation to normalcy.
Throughout this time, many civic groups
and public officials defended the Espionage Act. One leader of
the American Defense Society declared, "Those who are not
for us, must be against us." A congressman advised: "People
should go ahead and obey the law, keep their mouths shut, and
let the government run the war." Supreme Court Justice Oliver
Wendell Holmes Jr. dismissed criticism of the court's unanimous
rulingagainst Debs as "a lot of jaw about free speech."
But Holmes reconsidered his position and later offered his "clear
and present danger" test to adjudicate such cases. By that
standard, Debs never would have been convicted.
Freeberg's narrative unfolds at a stately
pace. He patiently introduces the main characters and many minor
ones. Debs' main advocate, Lucy Robins, leaves her vegetarian
restaurant in San Francisco to take up the fight. She receives
strong backstage support from Debs' labor rival, the AFL's Samuel
Gompers, and equally strong resistance from her more radical husband.
Upton Sinclair weighs in, overconfident in his ability to reason
with Wilson. We also hear from John Reed, Helen Keller, Clarence
Darrow and U.S. Postmaster General Will Hays, who would later
lay down the law for the Hollywood studios. (His nemesis, Mae
West, appears briefly to lobby Harding for Debs' release.) Wilson's
attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer, launches raids on radical
groups and thereby scotches his political future. But Palmer's
loss is J. Edgar Hoover's gain; the young bureaucrat fills his
files with the names of subversives -- and eventually carries
the imprint of those years into the Nixon era.
The middle section of the book, which
describes the various pressures and counter-pressures brought
to bear on the amnesty question, slows to a crawl. Debs moves
through two prisons and three wardens, whom he invariably impresses
with his integrity and affability. His freedom looms on the horizon
like a mirage as two administrations ponder the politics of his
release. One delegation after another makes its pitch in Washington,
and the decision-makers dispense blandishments until the battle
for popular opinion is all but settled. Freeberg's reader languishes
along with Debs, waiting for some definitive outcome.
When it finally arrives, the relief is
palpable. Some readers may be moved, as I was, by the photograph
of a black-suited Debs standing on the road outside the penitentiary.
With his back to the camera and black hat raised high in his right
hand, Debs acknowledges the ovation of his fellow inmates. For
American radical history, this is Lou Gehrig's farewell at Yankee
Stadium. Debs wasn't the victim of a bad break; he was the luckiest
man on the face of the Earth.
Debs served less than three years, but
he returned to a different world. He had always mediated the tension
between his party's two major factions, the democratic Socialists
and the communists, but the party splintered while he was serving
his sentence. After his release in 1921, he sided with the democrats,
whose numbers were dwindling, partly because many of the party's
causes -- including women's suffrage, food and drug laws, a minimum
wage and a ban on child labor -- had become mainstream issues.
Moreover, Wilson's war had squandered
much of the nation's idealism. As Freeberg notes, "The administration
had lied about the causes and likely consequences of the war,
big business had fattened itself while families sacrificed, and
much of the patriotic fervor that gripped the country in the war
years had only been froth churned by the government's propaganda
machine." Fortunately, this would never happen again.
Soon after his release, Debs had seen
enough of Lenin's methods to deplore them. When he shared his
concern with radical journalist Lincoln Steffens, he received
a Rumsfeld-esque reply that "some things happen that we don't
expect." Debs broke with the Bolsheviks, but despite strenuous
efforts by Lucy Robins, he never healed the breach with Gompers
before dying in 1926. Many of Debs' comrades drifted off into
other pursuits, including mainstream journalism, real estate sales
and the development of solar greenhouses in Vermont. Ironically,
Clyde Miller, an Ohio journalist and the man most responsible
for Debs' conviction, lobbied Harding to pardon him, helped found
an institute for propaganda analysis and was later grilled by
the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
If history is what the present wants to
know about the past, "Democracy's Prisoner" is teeming
with lessons. But above all, it's the story of one extraordinary
man's showdown with the establishment -- and how that confrontation
turned into a complex political struggle whose outcome was up
for grabs. Carefully researched and expertly told, Debs' story
also brings a fascinating era into sharp, vivid focus.
Peter Richardson is the author of "American
Prophet: The Life and Work of Carey McWilliams." His book
on the history and influence of Ramparts magazine will be published