1917 April 13

Socialist Party Opposes US Entry into European War; Repression Results


The Socialist Party of America, in an emergency meeting on this day, following the U.S. Declaration of War on April 6, 1917, denounced the war and U.S. participation in it. The statement committed the Socialist Party to “continuous, active, and public opposition to the war, through demonstrations, mass petitions, and all other means within our power.” The war issue caused a deep split within the party, as a “pro-war” minority opposed the resolution. The convention adopted the resolution by a vote of 140–31.

The anti-war resolution brought on fierce repression by the administration of President Woodrow Wilson. The party newspaper was barred from the mails on July 7, 1917, and party leader Eugene V. Debs was arrested for an anti-war speech in Canton, Ohio, on June 16, 1918; he was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Victor Berger from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was elected to Congress in 1918, but was expelled by the House of Representatives on November 10, 1919. Five Socialists from New York City were elected to the New York legislature but were denied their seats (April 1, 1920). The once-strong party, which claimed many elected officials across the country, never recovered from the repression of dissent during and soon after World War I — creating a major turning point in American history and making the issue of freedom of speech a central controversy in national politics and the law.

The Socialist Party statement (excerpts): “We brand the declaration of war by our government as a crime against the people of the United States and against the national of the world… We recommend… Continuous, active, and public opposition to the war, through demonstrations, mass petitions, and all other means within our power.”

Learn more: Paul Murphy, World War I and the Origin of Civil Liberties in the United States (1979)

Learn more about Debs at the Eugene V. Debs Foundation here.

Read: Nick Salvatore, Eugene V. Debs: Socialist and Citizen (1982)

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