1918 December 9

Socialist Victor Berger on Trial for Violating Espionage Act


Victor Berger, a founding member of the Socialist Party of America and editor of the Milwaukee Leader, went on trial on this day for violating the Espionage Act during World War I.

Berger suffered several attacks because of his socialist views and his opposition to the war. He was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1910 and served for one term. During World War I, he vigorously opposed American entry into the war, as did the Socialist Party. His paper, the Milwaukee Leader, was barred from the mails as a result. He was then indicted under the Espionage Act, and as a result the House of Representatives refused to seat him. He was convicted of violating the Espionage Act (enacted on June 15, 1917) in early 1919 and sentenced to prison. On appeal, the conviction was overturned because of prejudice on the part of the judge. When he was reelected in a special election in late 1919, he was denied his seat a second time. He was again reelected in 1922 and, because the passions of the war years had ebbed, he was finally allowed to take his seat. He was reelected in 1924 and 1926.

Berger was not the only prominent Socialist to be attacked during World War I. Famously, party leader Eugene V. Debs was convicted of violating the Espionage Act for an anti-war speech in Canton, Ohio, on June 16, 1918, and sentenced to ten years in prison. (President Harding pardoned him on December 25, 1921.) Meanwhile, five members of the Socialist Party were denied their seats in the New York state legislature on April 1, 1920.

Learn more: Sally M. Miller, Victor Berger & the Promise of Constructive Socialism 1910–20 (1973)

Learn more about the Red Scare:  http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/SaccoV/redscare.html

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