And, as the book lays out in stark and relentless detail, there was repression. “War means autocracy,” Wilson told his navy secretary, in one of his less inspiring, but more sincere, moments. Civil liberties, as we have come to understand them, could not survive in this frenzied atmosphere, and any right to protest, question, or even simply ignore the distant conflict disappeared. Thousands of Americans all over the country were thrown in jail for speaking out against the war or belonging to groups deemed subversive or un-American: labor unions, foreign cultural organizations, and pacifist groups. Many were tortured, several killed, and hundreds of immigrants were deported. The sweeping Espionage Act of June 1917 empowered Postmaster General Albert Burleson, a plantation-bred Southerner, to censor and restrict any publication he deemed anti-war, while librarians pulled books from shelves and pastors who did not fly the American flag were attacked.
The anti-German, pro-war fervor was only part of the story, however. Hochschild makes clear that the Espionage Act was equally conceived as a “club to smash left-wing forces.” A vast network of spies and private detectives went to work infiltrating workplaces, union halls, and leftist gatherings in the hope of hearing disloyal talk and sowing disagreement. Strikes, work stoppages, and picket-line demonstrations were suddenly seen as evidence of enemy infiltration and suppressed even more violently than before. Prominent leaders and speakers on the left were surveilled, harassed, and frequently imprisoned. Most shockingly, Wilson’s presidential rival, the Socialist Party leader Eugene Debs, was arrested and jailed.