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 liberties.
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 Liberties Union.
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