U.S. Curtails Civil Liberties During World War I

During World War I, the U.S. government took action to curtail civil liberties in an effort to ensure national security.

Summary of Event

On the evening of April 6, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson, in delivering his war message to Congress, said that the United States was to embark on a crusade to “make the world safe for democracy.” Unfortunately for socialists, pacifists, German Americans, and the leadership of the Industrial Workers of the World Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, popularly known as the Wobblies), who opposed this intervention, the president said nothing about protecting democracy at home. U.S. participation in World War I gave rise to an alarming attack on civil liberties as Congress enacted laws to curtail constitutionally guaranteed freedoms of speech and the press. For the first time, the U.S. government embarked on a concerted propaganda Propaganda;World War I[World War 01] campaign to “sell” a war to the American public. As a result, hysteria swept the country. The responsibility for these occurrences rests with Wilson, with journalist George Creel, with Congress, and with thousands of superpatriotic citizens who saw a monumental foreign menace rather than its meager substance. World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];U.S. involvement
Committee on Public Information
Creel Committee
[kw]U.S. Curtails Civil Liberties During World War I (Apr. 13, 1917)
[kw]Civil Liberties During World War I, U.S. Curtails (Apr. 13, 1917)
[kw]Liberties During World War I, U.S. Curtails Civil (Apr. 13, 1917)
[kw]World War I, U.S. Curtails Civil Liberties During (Apr. 13, 1917)
[kw]War I, U.S. Curtails Civil Liberties During World (Apr. 13, 1917)
World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];U.S. involvement
Committee on Public Information
Creel Committee
[g]United States;Apr. 13, 1917: U.S. Curtails Civil Liberties During World War I[04250]
[c]Civil rights and liberties;Apr. 13, 1917: U.S. Curtails Civil Liberties During World War I[04250]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Apr. 13, 1917: U.S. Curtails Civil Liberties During World War I[04250]
[c]World War I;Apr. 13, 1917: U.S. Curtails Civil Liberties During World War I[04250]
Creel, George
Debs, Eugene V.
Haywood, Bill
Wilson, Woodrow
[p]Wilson, Woodrow;World War I[World War 01]

Two problems faced the government. First, Americans had to be mobilized behind a war that did not involve a direct attack on the United States and into which the nation had entered slowly and unwillingly. Second, the government needed to guarantee internal security against enemies, real and imagined. On April 13, 1917, President Wilson established the Committee on Public Information (CPI) under the leadership of Creel, whose name soon became synonymous with the office. The committee was established to convince wavering citizens that the war was a righteous one and to educate them about the government’s war aims. Similar offices of war information had been created in Great Britain, Germany, and France.

Propaganda came of age during World War I. Its purposes were multifaceted: to mobilize hatred of the enemy, to preserve friendship among allies, to maintain the friendship of neutrals (and, if possible, to gain their cooperation), to demoralize the enemy, to promote the economical use of commodities, to stimulate war production, to encourage the purchase of war bonds, and to alert citizens to the danger of spies and saboteurs. During this period, the mobilization of the civilian mind for total war was seen as more important than the preservation of human rights.

George Creel was an excellent choice for chairman of the CPI. A veteran Progressive from Denver and one of Wilson’s earliest supporters, Creel had built a reputation as a crusading journalist. Because of Creel’s reform record, his appointment was cheered by the press, which had feared repressive censorship. Instead, Creel called for voluntary censorship and usually received cooperation.

The CPI relied on securing publication of a torrent of government-sponsored reports and stories. During the course of the war, Creel hired 150,000 artists, writers, lecturers, actors, and scholars to sell the war to the public. Colorful posters urged citizens to join the army or navy, buy Liberty Bonds, knit socks for soldiers, and guard against the ever-present danger of spies and saboteurs. Writers turned out hundreds of “true” stories concerning German atrocities and “accounts” of what the Hun planned to do to the United States. Columbia University professor Charles Hazen Hazen, Charles wrote The Government of Germany, a booklet “exposing” the medievalism of a military-dominated Germany. Teams of speakers toured the country delivering anti-German talks. Anti-German motion pictures were produced, including Pershing’s Crusaders, The Prussian Cur, and The Kaiser, the Beast of Berlin. Americans were encouraged to see the Central Powers as constituting a clear and present danger to civilization.

Although the Creel Committee became synonymous in the public mind with censorship, it had no such power. That authority was vested in the Post Office Department and the Department of Justice. Public confusion was understandable. On June 15, 1917, Congress passed the Espionage Act, Espionage Act (1917) after considerable debate and many amendments. This act gave the government authority to limit the rights of speech and the press. Somehow, the public became convinced that the act conferred enforcement powers on the CPI, a misconception that Creel never attempted to dispel, as the illusion of power gave the committee an effective tool for securing public cooperation.

Title I, section 3, of the Espionage Act made it a crime for an individual to make false reports that would aid the enemy, incite rebellion in the armed forces, or obstruct recruitment or the draft. In practice, the government used this section to stifle criticism. Those prosecuted under the act included socialists Victor Berger and Eugene V. Debs as well as “Big Bill” Haywood, one of the leaders of the Industrial Workers of the World. Socialist and pacifist newspapers were denied use of the mails under Title XII of the act. The editors of the Messenger, a New York African American newspaper, were imprisoned for questioning the war. Ricardo Flores Magon, Flores Magon, Ricardo a Mexican American labor organizer, was sentenced to twenty years in prison for voicing his dissent. In October, 1917, another law was passed that required foreign-language newspapers to submit translations of all war-related material before distribution to local readers.

The Espionage Act was bolstered in May, 1918, by the Sedition Act, Sedition Act (1918) which provided penalties of up to ten thousand dollars and twenty years’ imprisonment for the willful writing, utterance, or publication of material abusing the government, showing contempt for the Constitution, inciting others to resist the government, supporting the enemy, or hindering production of war matériel. Under this law, the government did not need to prove that the language in question had affected anyone or had produced injurious consequences. The postmaster general was empowered to deny use of the mails to anyone who, in his opinion, used them to violate the act. A total of 2,168 people were prosecuted under the Espionage and Sedition Acts.

The limitations placed on dissent by Congress and the Departments of Justice and the Post Office, together with the Creel Committee’s encouragement of sentiments favoring the Allied Powers, might have been expected to produce a climate of loyalty in the United States without help from unofficial sources. However, a number of superpatriotic volunteer organizations also arose, dedicated to spreading propaganda and discovering alleged traitors, saboteurs, and slackers. The most influential of these groups were the National Security League National Security League and the National Protective Association. National Protective Association The Boy Spies of America, the Sedition Slammers, and the Terrible Threateners had more picturesque names but were less powerful. These volunteer groups carried patriotism to excess and often were responsible for violations of human rights, which the government made no real attempt to discourage. As a result, coercion became the order of the day, and the government never regained control of the explosive situation.

The brunt of government and vigilante activity was borne by the country’s largest minority: German Americans. Although German Americans were never interned in camps, their plight during World War I paralleled that of Japanese Americans during World War II: They were suspected as traitors.

Attempts were made to eradicate anything German from American life. Schools and colleges banned the teaching of German as a “language that disseminates the ideals of autocracy, brutality, and hatred.” South Dakota prohibited the use of German on the telephone. Fewer than one hundred of the twelve hundred German-language periodicals that had been publishing in the United States survived to 1920. Thousands of Pennsylvania German parents, seventh- and eighth-generation Americans, forbade their children to learn their dialect. Several cities, including Boston, banned the music of Beethoven, Wagner, and other German composers. Pretzels were removed from saloon lunch counters in Cincinnati. German sausages, sauerkraut, German shepherd dogs, German measles, and pinochle were all given new names, as were many towns with names such as Berlin, Frankfurt, and Bismarck. Many people of German heritage hastened to Americanize their surnames.

The superpatriotic volunteers, encouraged by the CPI’s propaganda, produced a wave of hysteria that resulted in bodily or mental harm to thousands of innocent citizens. IWW organizer Frank Little Little, Frank was tortured and lynched in Montana. In April, 1918, a mob in East St. Louis humiliated and hanged a young German American, Robert Prager. Prager, Robert The ringleaders were eventually acquitted on the grounds that the murder was patriotic. In Los Angeles, where police ignored the harassment of Mexican Americans—who were all regarded as pro-German—three pacifist clergymen were beaten by a mob and then jailed for expressing “thoughts calculated to cause any American citizen then and there present to assault and batter them.”


Once unleashed, antiforeign biases could not be controlled when the war ended. These sentiments eventually backfired on Wilson: His dream of the League of Nations was rejected by the U.S. public, and one of his own books was banned in Nebraska. Somewhere during the fight to make the world safe for democracy, the United States abandoned its most democratic ideals: tolerance and compassion. Perhaps the greatest loss, however, was to the nation’s self-confidence. When new challenges arose, they were met with newer, more repressive laws and public hysteria, exemplified in the Red Scare, the race riots of 1919-1920, and other postwar disturbances.

The high price that the United States paid in the loss of civil liberties during World War I is an example of the way national security policy inevitably affects domestic policy during times of war or other heated international ideological competition. World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];U.S. involvement
Committee on Public Information
Creel Committee

Further Reading

  • Carruthers, Susan L. The Media at War: Communication and Conflict in the Twentieth Century. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000. Assesses the role of the news media before, during, and after wartime. Asserts that mass-media news outlets tend to follow the lead of the states in which they operate, contributing to wartime propaganda more often than they are willing to admit.
  • Johnson, Donald. The Challenge to American Freedoms: World War I and the Rise of the American Civil Liberties Union. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1963. Scholarly examination of the attack on civil liberties during the war and the subsequent establishment of the American Civil Liberties Union to serve as a watchdog organization.
  • Lasswell, Harold. Propaganda Technique in World War I. 1927. Reprint. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1971. The honesty of this general work on World War I propaganda provoked a small furor when it was first published (as Propaganda Technique in the World War).
  • Mock, James, and Cedric Larson. Words That Won the War: The Story of the Committee on Public Information, 1917-1919. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1939. Ably demonstrates the effectiveness of the Creel Committee.
  • Parsons, William. The Pennsylvania Dutch: A Persistent Minority. Boston: Twayne, 1976. General history of Pennsylvania Germans contains an excellent chapter on their wartime situation.
  • Peterson, H. C., and G. C. Fite. Opponents of War, 1917-1918. 1957. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1986. Uses a largely biographical approach to provide a broad summary of opposition to the war.
  • Preston, William, Jr. Aliens and Dissenters: Federal Suppression of Radicals, 1903-1933. 2d ed. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1995. Study of U.S. nativism in the early twentieth century puts the suppression of civil liberties during wartime in perspective.
  • Read, James Morgan. Atrocity Propaganda, 1914-1919. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1941. An excellent summary of the use of atrocity propaganda during World War I.
  • Smith, Jeffery A. War and Press Freedom: The Problem of Prerogative Power. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Examines the history of American press coverage of wars from the time of the ratification of the First Amendment in 1791 through the Gulf War in 1991, focusing on the laws and military regulations that have placed limits on the press. Argues against the suspension of press freedom during armed conflict.
  • Thernstrom, Stephan. A History of the American People Since 1865. 2d ed. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989. Includes an excellent overview of the violation of civil liberties during World War I.

World War I

Espionage and Sedition Acts

Red Scare

American Civil Liberties Union Is Founded