1917 April 6

Congress Declares War – Suppression of Civil Liberties Begins


Four days after President Woodrow Wilson asked for a declaration of war on April 2, 1917, Congress declared war on Germany. A massive suppression of civil liberties followed, including prosecution of anti-war leaders under the Espionage Act (passed on June 15, 1917), the banning of anti-war materials from the mails, and vigilante attacks on suspected war opponents by private citizens. See, for example, the prosecution of Socialist Party leader Eugene V. Debs under the Espionage Act (June 16, 1918), the exclusion of the radical magazine The Masses from the mails (July 24, 1917); and the lawless activities of the American Protective League, a private vigilante group that acted with government support (September 3, 1918).

The repression of dissent and other violations of individual rights during the war and Red Scare after the war led to the creation of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on January 19, 1920, the first permanent civil liberties organization in America.

View World War I Posters at the Library of Congress:

Read: Paul L. Murphy, World War I and the Origins of Civil Liberties in the United States (1979)

Learn more about the WW I prosecutions: Stephen Kohn, American Political Prisoners: Prosecutions Under the Espionage and Sedition Acts (1994)

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