Sowing the Wind to Reap the Whirlwind

[editorial] January l7, 1920


Selections from
The Nation magazine
1865 to 1990

Thunder's Mouth Press, 1990, paper




Oswald Garrison Villard became editor in 1918 and dedicated The Nation to the defense of civil liberties. Villard helped to found the American Civil Liberties Union in 1920.

The unprecedented outburst of terror and terrorism which at the moment is venting itself upon Socialists, Communists, "Reds," and agitators of all sorts in this country grows in volume and intensity from day to day. Every morning now brings news of more raids, more scores or hundreds of men and women arrested, more tons of papers seized, more offices and assembly rooms wrecked, more plans for deportation, more promises of purgings yet to come. Ellis Island is crowded to repletion with the victims of the dragnet; one transport loaded with undesirables is just arriving in Europe, and two or three others, it is rumored, are being prepared. Public meetings are broken up or prevented from being held; a Socialist Congressman-elect is ejected from Jersey City by a captain of police. Every radical thinker or reformer in the United States today who belongs to any organization which the Department of Justice has put under the ban, or who expresses sympathy with the men and women who have been pounced upon, puts his personal liberty in danger if his sympathies be known.

It is well, in times of general unreason and hysteria, to fix the mind on simple, fundamental things. If any of the persons, whether aliens or not, upon whom the Department of Justice has descended have violated the law, they should be indicted, tried, and punished for their offense. The Constitution of the United States defines the crime of treason and the conditions under which alone a charge of treason can be sustained; and the courts, in numerous decisions, have made clear the scope and application of the Constitutional provisions. Sedition and conspiracy are offenses known to the law, provable by rules which the law lays down, and punishable by penalties which the law defines with precision. The attempted or actual destruction of life or property, no matter what public motive the perpetrator may announce, belongs in the category of crimes or misdemeanors for which the laws of the United States and of every State provide sufficient and even drastic penalties. There is no "sacred right of revolution" to which the aggrieved citizen may appeal without at the same time imperiling his personal liberty or even his head; the only justification for revolution which courts or governments can recognize is the complete success of the revolt. No government can be expected to allow its foundations to be undermined by treason or sedition without defending itself, and it will defend itself by preventing attacks in advance as well as by meeting assaults in the open.

The case of the alien is as clear as that of the citizen. Barring treaty stipulations, the alien is a guest. The privileges which he enjoys are of the nature of hospitality, resting upon the comity of nations and an accustomed reciprocity of privilege and opportunity. And with the privileges go obligations-obligations to obey the law of the land, to respect the government and its institutions. If, as often happens, the alien is also enjoying the right of asylum, he is further under moral obligation not to plot against the government from whose jurisdiction he has fled; and he certainly violates grossly the spirit of hospitality if he plots attack upon the government which gives him shelter. What shall be done with him if he offends, or if for any reason his further presence is wt desired, is for the Government to say. He certainly may be arrested and punished like any citizen if he breaks the law; he may as certainly be expelled or deported if the Government is willing to risk an international controversy.

If such commonplaces of American law covered the whole case of any or all of the thousands of men and women who are being swept into the clutches of the Department of Justice, about all that could be done would be to express regret that so many criminally-minded agitators had been living among us, and to hope that the Department would soon make an end of the unsavory job. Unfortunately for our good name as a nation, however, and for our standing with a Great Power with which we must some day make peace and with which we are already anxious to trade, they do not by any means cover the case. Far the larger number of the persons who have been arrested and confined, and over whose heads, if they be aliens, hangs the prospect of deportation to Russia or elsewhere, appear to have been seized merely upon suspicion. The particular charges against them and the evidence upon which the charges are based have not, so far as we have observed, been made public save in vague or sweeping terms quite insufficient as bases for an opinion. Membership in the Socialist or Communist parties is not a crime even for an alien, nor is a member of a political party answerable at law for the acts of the party, or of any member of it except himself. Few of the persons arrested appear to have been given a preliminary hearing in court, or allowed to furnish reasonable bail, or assured of an opportunity to meet their accusers and offer a defense, although hitherto aliens have always been regarded as entitled to these privileges along with citizens. It would even appear that in numerous cases the persons arrested have been denied the privilege of communicating with their friends or their families. The Government, on the other hand, has not hesitated to issue drum and trumpet statements which, whatever their purpose, have unquestionably had the effect of inflaming the public mind against aliens in general and Russians aliens in particular.

What must happen if this sort of thing goes on, every sober-minded citizen knows. Wholesale arrests and deportations such as we are now witnessing will not breed respect for government or crush out socialism or communism; they will only multiply a hundred-fold the number of radicals, and increase many times the volume of discontent. The belief, startlingly confirmed only the other day by no less respectable a body than the Carnegie Foundation, that there is in this country one law for the rich and powerful and another for the poor and weak, will be strengthened; as will the conviction that free speech, free debate, and free publication of opinion, whether for the citizen or the alien, are rights to be enjoyed by such only as say what the Department of Justice and powerful business interests approve. If the rights which the Constitution guarantees to every citizen, and which by general consent have been conceded as privileges to the alien, are to be jeopardized wholesale the country over because some alien agitators have abused them, then assuredly will new and revolutionary doctrines grow apace. We shall not safeguard liberty by repressing it; we shall not raise American prestige abroad by sending overseas the disillusioned and the unassimilated. The only way to end dangerous discontent in the United States is to remove its causes. Unless that is done, those who today are sowing the wind will before long reap the whirlwind.

Selections from The Nation magazine,1865-1990

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