I’m reading The Great Influenza and finding it morbidly fascinating. Recounting the pandemic that struck the world in 1918 and slaughtered anywhere from 50 to 100 million people, it’s meticulously written, and John M. Barry does an excellent job of providing historical context. Not only does he examine the history of medicine up to that point (a fascinating subject), but he looks at American society as a whole as it mobilized for total war.
This is what has really struck me as fascinating. Caught up as I have been these past few years with the Bush administration’s transgressions against our civil liberties, I had no idea that these affronts were nothing new. In fact, Wilson went much further in his attempts to solidify the American public’s support for the war, making Bush’s wire tapping, suspension of habeas corpus and so forth seem tame in comparison. It’s chilling stuff, especially because today we look back at that period with approval.
To Wilson, this war was a crusade, and he intended to wage total war. Perhaps knowing himself even more than his country, he predicted, “Once lead this people into war, and they’ll forget there was ever such a thing as tolerance. To fight you must be brutal and ruthless, and the spirit of ruthless brutality will enter into the very fibre of our national life, infecting Congress, the courts, the policeman on the beat, the man on the street.”
Disturbing. Wilson went on to inform Congress,
There are citizens of the United States, I blush to admit,… who have poured the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life… Such creatures of passion, disloyalty, and anarchy must be crushed out.”
Does anybody today (other than historians) recall Wilson’s Espionage Act? It’s provisions were so extreme that it went so far as to demand the outright censorship of the press. The Postmaster was given the right to refuse to deliver any periodical he deemed unpatriotic or critical of the administration. The Attorney General demanded that the Librarian of Congress report the names of those who had asked for certain books. Wilson’s new Sedition Act made it punishable by twenty years in jail to “utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the government of the United States.” As Barry notes, one could go to jail for simply cursing the government.
A volunteer group called the American Protective League was created, and its members carried badges identifying them as “Secret Service”. Within a year of its creation, it had over 100,000 members working throughout the States. Their job was to root out and arrest anybody who was not 100% in favor of war.
Thousands of government posts and advertisements urged people to report to the Justice Department anyone “who spreads pessimistic stories, divulges – or seeks – confidential military information, cries for peace, or belittles our effort to win the war.”
The book goes on to list other organizations, laws, and acts that were passed or implemented or created to unify the country behind the ‘total war’ movement. Incredible. In light of these activities, Bush’s Patriot Act pales into insignificance, as horrible as some of its provisions were. History, it seems, is filled with examples of men who deemed it necessary to control the public for the greater good, to suspend civil liberties, to mislead and misdirect public attention. Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus; John Adams passed the first Sedition Act; Wilson turned the United States into a machine that more closely resembled the society of 1984 more than it does our present country.
Bush is but the latest in a long line of men who believed that ruthlessness and control were necessary for the greater good. Was Wilson wrong to act as he did? And if not, by which basis do we judge Bush?