Historians | Educators | Get Involved | Sign Up | ACLU | Credits

World War I

Targeting Anti-War Dissent and German-Americans

The outbreak of war in Europe in 1914 focused the simmering anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States on German immigrants. Germans and other recent immigrants from Eastern Europe and the Balkans became the main targets of suspicion. This fear of "aliens" spilled over to socialists, anarchists, immigrants in general, African-Americans, and labor unions.

President Wilson persuaded Congress to declare war on Germany, but the American public was wary of the financial and military cost. Wilson created the Committee on Public Information (CPI) to generate public support for increased federal spending and sending Americans to fight overseas. Some of CPI's tactics amounted to outright harassment and persecution of dissenters.

Simultaneously, the FBI developed a liaison with the conservative businessmen's organization, the American Protective League (APL), to monitor dissent throughout the United States. Soon after the beginning of World War I, Congress passed the Espionage Act in 1917 and the Sedition Act in 1918 to stifle dissent and anti-war protests from both citizens and non-citizens. Eugene V. Debs, a prominent labor organizer and the Socialist Party presidential candidate, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for delivering an anti-war speech in June 1918.

The FBI's practice of allying with citizen groups that could operate outside official sanction survived the official disbanding of the APL after the war. The tactic resurfaced during World War II, when the FBI allied itself with the American Legion. Between the wars, the FBI continued to investigate so-called subversive elements in the United States. This era, known as the first Red Scare, was highlighted by the Palmer Raids of 1919-20 and the creation of a special congressional committee (Dies Committee) in 1938 to track "subversive" groups. The Dies Committee was reestablished in 1945 as the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was charged with investigating "foreign infiltration" in the United States.

Moments in History

1914: War breaks out in Europe between Austria-Hungary, Serbia, Germany, Russia, France, Belgium, and Great Britain.

1917: United States declares war on Germany on April 6 and enters World War I.

1917-18: President Wilson endorses the Espionage and Sedition acts, making it a crime to "utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the United States' form of government." More than 4,000 people are arrested.

1917: The Committee on Public Information (CPI) is set up to sway Americans toward supporting the U.S. war effort. The CPI is abolished in 1919.

1918: Eugene Debs, the Socialist Party presidential candidate, is convicted of violating the Sedition Act.

1918: World War I ends with the signing of the November 11 armistice.

1938: Congress forms s special House committee to investigate "subversive activities," focusing on labor unions, federal employees, and youth organizations.

1940: Congress passes the Alien Registration Act (or Smith Act), making it illegal to advocate, aid, or teach the desirability of overthrowing government by force.

Historians’ Perspectives

Geoffrey Stone
Geoffrey Stone
Protesting the War. Many people feel that dissent in war ... (1:21)
Adam Green
Adam Green
African-Americans and Communism. There is certainly a great degree of social ferment that is going on ... (1:21)
Ellen Schrecker
Ellen Schrecker
The Palmer Raids. The Palmer raids were clearly in response to the Bolshevik revolution ... (1:06)