David R. Henderson  

Wilson vs. Debs

Russ Roberts and Joe Nocera... When Numeracy Misleads...

Two other things are important to add to Bryan's story about Woodrow Wilson's reprehensible treatment of Eugene V. Debs.

1. Bryan points out that Debs ran for president on the Socialist Party ticket in 1912. His Democratic opponent? Woodrow Wilson, who won. As I pointed out in a speech on the issue a few years ago, an analogy in today's political context would be, had Al Gore had won in 2000, for Al Gore to have thrown Ralph Nader in prison.
2. Debs was sentenced on November 18, 1918. Do you notice anything interesting about that date? It was seven days after the Armistice.

My impression of Wilson from the various articles I've read over the years is that he was one of the most vindictive people ever to be president.

Also interesting is this, from a talk I gave at California State University, Monterey Bay, on the 220th anniversary of the U.S. Constitution:

And what was Debs's crime? He had given a speech in which he challenged Wilson's military draft and challenged the war. In one of its most shameful decisions, Schenck v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court voted 9-0 to uphold the Espionage Act's restrictions on free speech. Indeed it was in the Schenck decision that Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes made his famous statement that, "The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre." Great line, but Holmes never connected it with the case at hand. Schenck was arguing against the military draft on the grounds that it violated the Thirteenth Amendment by imposing involuntary servitude. Holmes never said how that it was like falsely crying fire. It seems to me that there was a fire.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (6 to date)
Various writes:

Wilson was also responsible for segregating Washington D.C. In my opinion, a very bad guy. But newsreels always show him smiling. Perhaps one of the reasons he has been treated relatively kindly by the history books.

John Goodman writes:

David, thanks for this addendum. Maybe if more people become aware of this bit of history, fewer people will be running around calling themselves "progressives."

Douglass Holmes writes:

There's a lot to dislike about Wilson. Not only did he promise to keep us out of the war, but he was a racist, and this whole thing with Eugene Debs was disgusting. On top of that, he encouraged the Europeans to divvy up the continent along ethnic lines, something that was and may still be popular, but is really quite unworkable.

I have never been convinced that the US had a real stake in the European War that was called The Great War, then World War I.

Hyena writes:

Wilson has been due for reassessment since the end of the Cold War reduced the significance of institutions he prototyped.

ettubloge writes:

Wilson wasn't all bad. He ushered in federal growth that led to the New Deal and today's Obamaism. A true progressive, he got us into a war he campaigned against...sounds like our current action in Afghanistan. But it was a war to end all wars. Don't forget the
League of Nations. A president of Princeton and governor of NJ. My hero!

Bill Conerly writes:

Suppression of speech in the Wilson era was a major factor in the Spanish Flu epidemic, described in John M. Barry's The Great Influenza.

We call it the Spanish Flu not because it began in Spain, but because as a neutral country, Spain was one of few countries that allowed news reports about the epidemic. The United States and other nations thought accurate reporting would undermine the war effort. Steps that could have reduce the outbreak were not taken in the name of wartime confidence--we let millions die rather than sound a defeatist tone.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top