Eugene Debs (left) pictured with Max Eastman (editor of The Masses) and Rose Pastor Stokes in 1918. All three were indicted under the Espionage and Sedition Acts in 1918. Debs’ praise of both in his Canton speech was used as evidence in his trial and appeals.
In Eastman’s trial, his lawyer noted the irony that Eastman had gone to a federal judge to attempt to force the Post Office to mail The Masses: “Do men who are committing a crime go into a Federal Court and face a District Attorney and ask the privilege of continuing it? A strange set of burglars!”
June 16 1918, Canton–The newly-enacted Sedition Act put a chill on free speech in the United States, especially for socialists and other anti-war activists. The prominent Socialist Eugene V. Debs, who had run for President four times (getting 6% of the vote in 1912), recognized this at the opening of a speech to fellow Socialists in Canton, Ohio:
it is extremely dangerous to exercise the constitutional right of free speech in a country fighting to make democracy safe in the world.
I realize that, in speaking to you this afternoon, there are certain limitations placed upon the right of free speech. I must be exceedingly careful, prudent, as to what I say, and even more careful and prudent as to how I say it. I may not be able to say all I think; but I am not going to say anything that I do not think. I would rather a thousand times be a free soul in jail than to be a sycophant and coward in the streets.
The remainder of the speech contains little that would seem seditious, though the praise of the Bolsheviks does jump out to a modern reader. At most, he condemned war in the usual socialist terms:
…[T]he purpose of the Allies is exactly the purpose of the Central Powers, and that is the conquest and spoilation of the weaker nations that has always been the purpose of war….
Wars throughout history have been waged for conquest and plunder….They have always taught and trained you to believe it to be your patriotic duty to go to war and to have yourselves slaughtered at their command. But in all the history of the world you, the people, have never had a voice in declaring war, and strange as it certainly appears, no war by any nation in any age has ever been declared by the people.
And here let me emphasize the fact—and it cannot be repeated too often—that the working class who fight all the battles, the working class who make the supreme sacrifices, the working class who freely shed their blood and furnish the corpses, have never yet had a voice in either declaring war or making peace. It is the ruling class that invariably does both. They alone declare war and they alone make peace.
Yours not to reason why;
Yours but to do and die.
That is their motto and we object on the part of the awakening workers of this nation.
He also praised many other activists who had been arrested for obstructing the draft, though he was careful to avoid noting that they did so. Debs did go out of his way to note his, and his fellow socialists’, fervent opposition to the Kaiser:
Are we opposed to Prussian militarism? Why, we have been fighting it since the day the Socialist movement was born; and we are going to continue to fight it, day and night, until it is wiped from the face of the earth. Between us there is no truce—no compromise.
Nonetheless, Debs’ speech attracted the ire of Wilson and his Justice Department, and was arrested under the Sedition Act for this speech on June 30, claiming that the implicit intent of his speech was to obstruct the draft. He was convicted on these charges in September and sentenced to ten years in prison a week after the armistice. His sentence was upheld by the Supreme Court, though President Harding would commute his sentence in 1921.
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Sources include: Michael Kazin, War Against War.