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Unsafe for Democracy

World War I and the U.S. Justice Department's Covert Campaign to Suppress Dissent

William H. Thomas Jr.

Publication Year: 2008

During World War I it was the task of the U.S. Department of Justice, using the newly passed Espionage Act and its later Sedition Act amendment, to prosecute and convict those who opposed America’s entry into the conflict. In Unsafe for Democracy, historian William H. Thomas Jr. shows that the Justice Department did not stop at this official charge but went much further—paying cautionary visits to suspected dissenters, pressuring them to express support of the war effort, or intimidating them into silence. At times going undercover, investigators tried to elicit the unguarded comments of individuals believed to be a threat to the prevailing social order.
    In this massive yet largely secret campaign, agents cast their net wide, targeting isolationists, pacifists, immigrants, socialists, labor organizers, African Americans, and clergymen. The unemployed, the mentally ill, college students, schoolteachers, even schoolchildren, all might come under scrutiny, often in the context of the most trivial and benign activities of daily life.
    Delving into numerous reports by Justice Department detectives, Thomas documents how, in case after case, they used threats and warnings to frighten war critics and silence dissent. This early government crusade for wartime ideological conformity, Thomas argues, marks one of the more dubious achievements of the Progressive Era—and a development that resonates in the present day.

Best Books for Special Interests, selected by the American Association of School Librarians

“Recommended for all libraries.”—Frederic Krome, Library Journal

“A cautionary tale about what can happen to our freedoms if we take them too lightly.”—Dave Wood, Hudson Star-Observer

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press


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pp. vii


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pp. viii

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pp. ix-x

Many years ago, Ellis Hawley read my proposal for research in Justice Department records from the First World War, and his advice steered me toward this project. Allen Steinberg skillfully helped me convert this initial blueprint into a...

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Author’s Note

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pp. xi

In quoting from Justice Department documents, I have let stand the misspellings and grammatical errors that appeared in the original, but I have corrected minor punctuation and typographical mistakes....

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pp. 3-8

While the public efforts of the U.S. Department of Justice to repress opposition to the First World War have received significant attention from historians, who have generally focused on the prosecutions of dissenters under the wartime sedition statutes, relatively little attention has been paid to the Justice...

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1 Setting the Stage

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pp. 9-30

In 1915, the town of Pomeroy in Calhoun County, Iowa, numbered 935 residents. One of the town’s more prominent leaders was the Reverend Wilhelm Schumann, pastor of the Pomeroy Evangelical Synod church. Schumann gave the benediction at the June 1915 program honoring the graduates of Pomeroy High School, and the following year was elected president...

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2 Methods and Ideology

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pp. 31-67

For more than half a century after the end of the First World War, the bulk of the records of the Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation was closed to researchers. Not until 1976 did the FBI release to the National Archives “The Investigative Case Files of the Bureau of Investigation, 1908–1922,” a collection of hundreds of reels of microfilm, much of which is composed of...

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3 Policing the Clergy

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pp. 68-88

In 1917 and 1918, Justice Department investigators feared that ministers might use their prestige to sow antiwar sentiments among their congregations. Thus, the department investigated countless clergymen suspected of subversion, and its detectives saw nothing wrong with prying into the private affairs of...

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4 Policing the Left

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pp. 89-109

During the First World War, the Justice Department went to war against American radicalism. Before 1917, the chief repressors of left-wing movements had been local governments and the private sector. Local law-enforcement agencies...

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5 Policing Wisconsin

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pp. 110-145

As the nation stood on the brink of war in early April 1917, a referendum took place in Sheboygan, a city in eastern Wisconsin of more than 26,000 where, according to the 1910 census, 17 percent of the residents were German immigrants and where an additional 25 percent had been born in America to...

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6 Vigilantism

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pp. 146-171

The First World War saw an explosion of mob violence and vigilantism aimed at dissenters. The Justice Department found itself in competition with this older tradition of extralegal violence. In an effort to weaken the mob impulse, department officials, both high and low, took a tougher stance against...

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pp. 172-177

Previous studies of the wartime activities of the Department of Justice have depicted prosecutions under the Espionage and Sedition Acts as the chief instrument by which the department sought to stifle dissent. But the focus on prosecutions has had the effect of understating the scope of the department’s activities. Far more commonly, department investigators watched, warned, and reprimanded...

Appendix: Biographical Information of Justice Department Investigators in Wisconsin

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pp. 179-181


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pp. 183-222


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pp. 223-238


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pp. 239-251

E-ISBN-13: 9780299228934
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299228965

Publication Year: 2008