Selling war from 1917 to 2012

The US has become more accepting of capitalism in the past century, even as economic security has declined.

Woodrow Wilson
The Espionage Act, signed into law in 1917, caused hundreds of radical newspapers to shutdown [GALLO/GETTY]

This is the second article in a two-part series. Read Part One here.

New Haven, Connecticut – One day in 1917, US President Woodrow Wilson sat in his office scratching his head. He faced a dilemma. The war in Europe was very good for American business, but he needed to persuade the American public that entering the war was good for democracy.

The problem was that Americans were deeply sceptical of capitalism, far more than today. As John Reed wrote in “Whose War?”, an essay that ran in the socialist magazine The Masses: “The rich has [sic] steadily become richer, and the cost of living higher, and the workers proportionally poorer. These toilers don’t want war… But the speculators, the employers, the plutocracy – they want it… With lies and sophistries, they will whip up our blood until we are savage – and then we’ll fight and die for them.”

Reed wasn’t on the fringe. Six weeks after Congress officially declared war, enlistment totalled over 70,000 recruits. The military needed a million men. Something needed to be done, but initiating a draft alone would only incite rioting in the streets.

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So Wilson launched an enormous propaganda campaign to turn public opinion around. He sent 75,000 speakers into communities around the country to deliver 750,000 speeches in favour of war. For the unmoved, Congress passed the Espionage Act, which criminalised criticising the government during wartime.

Americans often ascribe to economcis effects that are in fact caused by politics. Before the Espionage Act, for instance, there were hundreds of radical newspapers, many of them socialist or communist – or just sympathetic to the plight of workers. After the war, most disappeared. That wasn’t the result of market forces. The US government went to great pains at great expense to persuade Americans to embrace an approved ideology while it silenced dissidents with old-fashioned censorship. The Masses, along with 70 other radical publications, went out of business, because the US Post Office wouldn’t deliver it.

Yet they were the lucky ones.

‘A turnkey totalitarian state’

The Wilson era saw 2,000 prosecutions under the Espionage Act. One was Eugene V Debs, the union organiser. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison for giving a speech, lambasting the draft for World War I. Today, the Obama administration hopes to convict Bradley Manning for allegedly leaking documents to WikiLeaks, including a video of an American helicopter gunning down Iraqi children.

The War on Terror has inspired new laws and new ways to decimate civil liberties. The US Department of Justice recently rationalised the killing of Americans abroad. Attorney General Eric Holder twisted himself into knots trying to separate due process from judicial process. The difference apparently means that it was okay to murder an American working for al-Qaeda in Yemen.

Worse is our spying on everyone, including Americans. The National Security Agency (NSA) is building a huge complex in Utah to house server farms that can handle yottabytes of data (a yottabyte equals one septillion bytes, or one quadrillion gigabytes). According to James Bamford, the NSA wants to eavesdrop without needing court orders. As one source said, we are becoming “a turnkey totalitarian state“.

If the NSA is collecting information on everybody, who does it consider an enemy of the state? “Terrorists” is one answer, but how do you define “terrorist”? Are terrorists also political extremists?

What about someone who believes in the right of the people to revolt against the government if it is not fulfilling the will of the people? The United States’ founding ideals are so radical that it seems exercising them might be considered a threat to American security by those in charge of protecting Americans.

Police violence as standard operating procedure

The US government has spent about $635bn over the past decade militarising local law enforcement. That, as Stephan Salisbury has reported, includes “tanks and drones, robot bomb detectors, grenade launchers, Tasers, and most of all, interlinked video surveillance cameras and information databases”.

In 2003, a federal judge ruled that the New York Police Department could broaden its surveillance programmes in the name of public safety. The AP later revealed that the NYPD had been keeping tabs on Muslims and Islamic groups as far away as Yale University (where I teach). Weeks afterward, it became public that New York City’s police force, the largest in the US, had also been monitoring the activities of Occupy Wall Street protesters.

Today, a militarised police force that authorised spying on Americans is … containing unrest at home while the 1 per cent continues to make a killing.”

Naturally, there have been attempts to characterise protesters as bums, deviants, criminals or whatever. This is no doubt true in some cases, but even if it were true in all cases, these are still Americans invoking the guaranteed privilege of citizenship – and their actions are being met with the full force of the militarised state. The United States seems to be the land of the free as long as you don’t collectively complain about the superstructures of money and power.

But we’re not just talking about the marginalised. The middle class, it’s safe to say, believes in the American dream; its protests were against bailouts for banks and sacrifice for everyone else. And yet these respectable law-abiding citizens met with police violence, too. If violence is standard operating procedure, doesn’t that legitimately call into question the legitimacy of the state?

Liberated markets don’t equal a liberated people

The Espionage Act suppressed dissent so that the one per cent of 1917 could continue making a killing on the war in Europe. Today, a militarised police force that has authorised spying on Americans is doing the same thing: containing unrest at home while the 1 per cent continues to make a killing. And they are making a killing without much regard for the laws that the police enforce.

As Yale’s Bruce Judson noted, it’s nearly certain that Wall Street firms committed felonies in the run-up to the 2008 crisis and afterwards – perjury, obstruction of justice and false claims that allowed them to defraud shareholders, taxpayers and homeowners of billions. And yet federal regulators hesitate to act.

“With each decision not to prosecute, Wall Street executives justifiably conclude that they are immune to the rules,” Judson wrote recently in The National Memo. “As a result, it appears that Wall Street criminal activity is increasing in frequency…”

Such criminality sank the economy and destroyed millions of jobs, and the damage may be deeper than we know. According to the Center for Working-Class Studies, the de facto unemployment rate is around 28 per cent. This figure estimates the percentage of people who have given up looking for work, who are employed only part-time and who have enrolled in Social Security early.

And such criminality impedes freedom, because it undermines security. We don’t hear enough about the relationship between freedom and security. Freedom is typically defined as choice, doing what you want to do, being all that you can be, et cetera. But what is freedom without the security of having a job, good health, property and faith in a promising future? The answer is not much.

The United States’ power elite generally regards capitalism and freedom as synonymous and proportional – liberated markets equal a liberated people. Perhaps that’s true philosophically, but in practice, the opposite has usually been true. The more unfettered capitalism becomes, the more destructive it becomes. It’s that simple. Yet the US government has decided that national security is more important than economic security, and over three decades, these have acted as opposing forces to diminish our core liberties.

This wasn’t an accident. About three decades ago, the government unleashed capitalism from the bonds of the New Deal in the name of freedom. Capitalism slowly and then quickly destroyed lives and stole billions. When protesters rose up in the name of freedom, the government smacked them down. As Howard Zinn wrote in A People’s History of the United States: “The courts and jails had been used to reinforce the idea that certain ideas and certain kinds of resistance could not be tolerated.”

Zinn was talking about social tensions that arose at the close of World War I. After the censorship, incarcerations and political intimidation had come to an end, the establishment was worried. A socialist movement, one more energised than before the war, was mounting an attack – and violence was breaking out.

Today another kind of movement is growing. What the future holds, no one knows. But in 1919, one of President Wilson’s advisers said he worried about this threat to both major parties. He said: “Steadily from day to day, under our very eyes, [there is] a movement that, if it is not checked, is bound to express itself in attack on everything we hold dear. In this era of industrial and social unrest, both parties are in disrepute with the average man.”

John Stoehr is the editor of the New Haven Advocate and a lecturer at Yale.

Follow him on Twitter: @johnastoehr