'Democracy's Prisoner: Eugene V. Debs, the Great War, and the Right to Dissent' by Ernest Freeberg
Democracy's Prisoner

Eugene V. Debs, the Great War, and the Right to Dissent

Ernest Freeberg

Harvard University Press: 380 pp., $29.95

It all sounds so familiar: a foreign war, an unpopular president, high-minded vows to spread democracy abroad and a dubious law to restrict liberties at home. Add to that scenario vast inequalities in wealth, high immigration rates, scant regard for working families and festering resentment about the ravages of global capital. The conclusion seems inescapable: the first decades of the 20th century sound weirdly like the present.

But the differences are also notable. Before World War I, a radical journal could reach 700,000 American households, and socialism was what William James might call "a live hypothesis." The impassioned speeches of labor organizer, Socialist leader and five-time presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs were nothing short of evangelical in tone and effect. (He once called socialism "merely Christianity in action.") Debs inspired groups large and small, and his remarkable charisma is what most concerned the powers that were. For the historical parallel to hold, we must imagine a third-party presidential candidate today who could receive 1 million votes without leaving his prison cell -- and a roaring ovation from his fellow inmates when he finally did.

According to historian Ernest Freeberg, it was precisely Debs' virtuosity that forced America to grapple with the limits of dissent. In 1918, Debs was convicted under the recently minted Espionage Act for questioning America's entry into World War I; before that, free speech protections were more a matter of custom, easily dispensed with during wartime, than of high legal principle. But his 10-year sentence raised 1st Amendment issues with unprecedented force. Sixty-three years old and in poor health, Debs faced the prospect of dying in prison. His drama played out against a backdrop of revolutionary violence both here and abroad: While he was serving his sentence, a bomb planted by anarchists ripped through a busy Wall Street intersection, killing more than 30 people and injuring 200.

Freeberg shows that in the end it was Debs' popularity, not a knockdown legal argument, that compelled politicians, the mainstream media and eventually federal judges to reconsider the government's power to jail dissidents. The legal justifications came later, after Debs walked out of an Atlanta prison and caught a train to meet his unlikely Republican pardoner, President Warren G. Harding. Ailing, distracted by foreign affairs and stung by criticism from progressives and conservatives alike for his policy failures, Democrat Woodrow Wilson had refused to pardon Debs despite rising public pressure to do so after the war. When it seemed safe, his successor made the call, shrewdly connecting it to his pledge to return the nation to normalcy.

Throughout this time, many civic groups and public officials defended the Espionage Act. One leader of the American Defense Society declared, "Those who are not for us, must be against us." A congressman advised: "People should go ahead and obey the law, keep their mouths shut, and let the government run the war." Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. dismissed criticism of the court's unanimous rulingagainst Debs as "a lot of jaw about free speech." But Holmes reconsidered his position and later offered his "clear and present danger" test to adjudicate such cases. By that standard, Debs never would have been convicted.

Freeberg's narrative unfolds at a stately pace. He patiently introduces the main characters and many minor ones. Debs' main advocate, Lucy Robins, leaves her vegetarian restaurant in San Francisco to take up the fight. She receives strong backstage support from Debs' labor rival, the AFL's Samuel Gompers, and equally strong resistance from her more radical husband. Upton Sinclair weighs in, overconfident in his ability to reason with Wilson. We also hear from John Reed, Helen Keller, Clarence Darrow and U.S. Postmaster General Will Hays, who would later lay down the law for the Hollywood studios. (His nemesis, Mae West, appears briefly to lobby Harding for Debs' release.) Wilson's attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer, launches raids on radical groups and thereby scotches his political future. But Palmer's loss is J. Edgar Hoover's gain; the young bureaucrat fills his files with the names of subversives -- and eventually carries the imprint of those years into the Nixon era.

The middle section of the book, which describes the various pressures and counter-pressures brought to bear on the amnesty question, slows to a crawl. Debs moves through two prisons and three wardens, whom he invariably impresses with his integrity and affability. His freedom looms on the horizon like a mirage as two administrations ponder the politics of his release. One delegation after another makes its pitch in Washington, and the decision-makers dispense blandishments until the battle for popular opinion is all but settled. Freeberg's reader languishes along with Debs, waiting for some definitive outcome.

When it finally arrives, the relief is palpable. Some readers may be moved, as I was, by the photograph of a black-suited Debs standing on the road outside the penitentiary. With his back to the camera and black hat raised high in his right hand, Debs acknowledges the ovation of his fellow inmates. For American radical history, this is Lou Gehrig's farewell at Yankee Stadium. Debs wasn't the victim of a bad break; he was the luckiest man on the face of the Earth.

Debs served less than three years, but he returned to a different world. He had always mediated the tension between his party's two major factions, the democratic Socialists and the communists, but the party splintered while he was serving his sentence. After his release in 1921, he sided with the democrats, whose numbers were dwindling, partly because many of the party's causes -- including women's suffrage, food and drug laws, a minimum wage and a ban on child labor -- had become mainstream issues.

Moreover, Wilson's war had squandered much of the nation's idealism. As Freeberg notes, "The administration had lied about the causes and likely consequences of the war, big business had fattened itself while families sacrificed, and much of the patriotic fervor that gripped the country in the war years had only been froth churned by the government's propaganda machine." Fortunately, this would never happen again.

Soon after his release, Debs had seen enough of Lenin's methods to deplore them. When he shared his concern with radical journalist Lincoln Steffens, he received a Rumsfeld-esque reply that "some things happen that we don't expect." Debs broke with the Bolsheviks, but despite strenuous efforts by Lucy Robins, he never healed the breach with Gompers before dying in 1926. Many of Debs' comrades drifted off into other pursuits, including mainstream journalism, real estate sales and the development of solar greenhouses in Vermont. Ironically, Clyde Miller, an Ohio journalist and the man most responsible for Debs' conviction, lobbied Harding to pardon him, helped found an institute for propaganda analysis and was later grilled by the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

If history is what the present wants to know about the past, "Democracy's Prisoner" is teeming with lessons. But above all, it's the story of one extraordinary man's showdown with the establishment -- and how that confrontation turned into a complex political struggle whose outcome was up for grabs. Carefully researched and expertly told, Debs' story also brings a fascinating era into sharp, vivid focus. *

Peter Richardson is the author of "American Prophet: The Life and Work of Carey McWilliams." His book on the history and influence of Ramparts magazine will be published next year.