Really Defend America’s Freedom?
By Lawrence S. Wittner
November 17, 2014 "ICH"
U.S. politicians and pundits are fond of saying that
America’s wars have defended America’s freedom. But
the historical record doesn’t bear out this
contention. In fact, over the past century, U.S.
wars have triggered major encroachments upon civil
Shortly after the United States entered World War I,
seven states passed laws abridging freedom of speech
and freedom of the press. In June 1917, they were
joined by Congress, which passed the Espionage Act.
This law granted the federal government the power to
censor publications and ban them from the mail, and
made the obstruction of the draft or of enlistment
in the armed forces punishable by a hefty fine and
up to 20 years’ imprisonment. Thereafter, the U.S.
government censored newspapers and magazines while
conducting prosecutions of the war’s critics,
sending over 1,500 to prison with lengthy sentences.
This included the prominent labor leader and
Socialist Party presidential candidate, Eugene V.
Debs. Meanwhile, teachers were fired from the public
schools and universities, elected state and federal
legislators critical of the war were prevented from
taking office, and religious pacifists who refused
to carry weapons after they were drafted into the
armed forces were forcibly clad in uniform, beaten,
stabbed with bayonets, dragged by ropes around their
necks, tortured, and killed. It was the worst
outbreak of government repression in U.S. history,
and sparked the formation of the American Civil
Although America’s civil liberties record was much
better during World War II, the nation’s
participation in that conflict did lead to serious
infringements upon American freedoms. Probably the
best-known was the federal government’s
incarceration of 110,000 people of Japanese heritage
in internment camps. Two-thirds of them were U.S.
citizens, most of whom had been born (and many of
whose parents had been born) in the United States.
In 1988, recognizing the blatant unconstitutionality
of the wartime internment, Congress passed the Civil
Liberties Act, which apologized for the action and
paid reparations to the survivors and their
families. But the war led to other violations of
rights, as well, including the imprisonment of
roughly 6,000 conscientious objectors and the
confinement of some 12,000 others in Civilian Public
Service camps. Congress also passed the Smith Act,
which made the advocacy of the overthrow of the
government a crime punishable by 20 years’
imprisonment. As this legislation was used to
prosecute and imprison members of groups that merely
talked abstractly of revolution, the U.S. Supreme
Court ultimately narrowed its scope considerably.
The civil liberties situation worsened considerably
with the advent of the Cold War. In Congress, the
House Un-American Activities Committee gathered
files on over a million Americans whose loyalty it
questioned and held contentious hearings designed to
expose alleged subversives. Jumping into the act,
Senator Joseph McCarthy began reckless, demagogic
accusations of Communism and treason, using his
political power and, later, a Senate investigations
subcommittee, to defame and intimidate. The
president, for his part, established the Attorney
General’s List of “subversive” organizations, as
well as a federal Loyalty Program, which dismissed
thousands of U.S. public servants from their jobs.
The compulsory signing of loyalty oaths became
standard practice on the federal, state, and local
level. By 1952, 30 states required some sort of
loyalty oath for teachers. Although this effort to
root out “un-Americans” never resulted in the
discovery of a single spy or saboteur, it did play
havoc with people’s lives and cast a pall of fear
over the nation.
When citizen activism bubbled up in the form of
protest against the Vietnam War, the federal
government responded with a stepped-up program of
repression. J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI director, had
been expanding his agency’s power ever since World
War I, and swung into action with his COINTELPRO
program. Designed to expose, disrupt, and neutralize
the new wave of activism by any means necessary,
COINTELPRO spread false, derogatory information
about dissident leaders and organizations, created
conflicts among their leaders and members, and
resorted to burglary and violence. It targeted
nearly all social change movements, including the
peace movement, the civil rights movement, the
women’s movement, and the environmental movement.
The FBI’s files bulged with information on millions
of Americans it viewed as national enemies or
potential enemies, and it placed many of them under
surveillance, including writers, teachers,
activists, and U.S. senators Convinced that Martin
Luther King, Jr. was a dangerous subversive, Hoover
made numerous efforts to destroy him, including
encouraging him to commit suicide.
Although revelations about the unsavory activities
of U.S. intelligence agencies led to curbs on them
in the 1970s, subsequent wars encouraged a new surge
of police state measures. In 1981, the FBI opened an
investigation of individuals and groups opposing
President Reagan’s military intervention in Central
America. It utilized informers at political
meetings, break-ins at churches, members’ homes, and
organizational offices, and surveillance of hundreds
of peace demonstrations. Among the targeted groups
were the National Council of Churches, the United
Auto Workers, and the Maryknoll Sisters of the Roman
Catholic Church. After the beginning of the Global
War on Terror, the remaining checks on U.S.
intelligence agencies were swept aside. The Patriot
Act provided the government with sweeping power to
spy on individuals, in some cases without any
suspicion of wrongdoing, while the National Security
Agency collected all Americans’ phone and internet
The problem here lies not in some unique flaw of the
United States but, rather, in the fact that warfare
is not conducive to freedom. Amid the heightened
fear and inflamed nationalism that accompany war,
governments and many of their citizens regard
dissent as akin to treason. In these circumstances,
“national security” usually trumps liberty. As the
journalist Randolph Bourne remarked during World War
I: “War is the health of the state.” Americans who
cherish freedom should keep this in mind.
Lawrence Wittner (http://lawrenceswittner.com)
is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany.
His latest book is a satirical novel about
university corporatization and rebellion,
"What’s Going On at UAardvark?" - See more at:
Lawrence S. Wittner (http://lawrenceswittner.com)
is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany. His
latest book is a satirical novel about university
What’s Going On at UAardvark? (Solidarity
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