World War 1 and the Loss of Liberty


World War 1: 20,000,000 Dead

The entire map of Europe was redrawn. The once powerful Central Power countries of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire were brought low and their countries were divided. Russia no longer had a Tzar, but a communist dictator named Lenin. Large swaths of land across Europe were destroyed. The Middle East was recreated by Britain and France. In varying degrees, all world events afterwards were shaped by it. Put simply, the world would never be the same.

Although the carnage was far removed from the United States, the war had its effects there as well. After the war, the United States became a louder voice on the international stage, although it did not join the League of Nations. Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points were influential among the Allies and how Europe would be reshaped after the war. The old days of relative isolation were gone.

The war had consequences at home for the US as well. After the declaration of war, the Wilson administration set about increasing its power over the American economy and daily life. The old concepts of constitutionally limited government were thrown out in favor of European-style socio-economic planning. These increases were said to be necessary to fight the war. This is an emergency after all!

These increases in the size and scope of government would come to have disastrous consequences for the American people, many of which we can still feel today. The precedent set by the Federal governments conduct during this First World War would lay the foundation for even larger increases in control in peacetime, World War II, and beyond.

Selective Service Act of 1917

The Selective Service Act, more commonly known as the Draft, was implemented shortly after the United States entered the war. It still exists today, and men are required to register shortly after their 18th birthday. The draft had existed in various forms before, such as in the Civil War in the North, but was not formalized into a permanent part of American society. The powers in the act have not been used since Vietnam, but the government still possesses the ability to conscript a large portion of the American population through the act.

Without the draft, the United States would have had few troops to send to Europe. Robert Higgs states that at the initiation of war, only 179,000 men were on active duty in the entire US Military (Crisis and Leviathan). Enlistment numbers were low at the start of the war as well. By April 24, eighteen days after the start of the war, Higgs states that only 32,000 had signed up. Again, still not enough to make any difference in the trenches and battlefields of Europe.

The draft was not signed out of necessity or because of any shortage of manpower, although it served that purpose. Higgs writes that the draft bill was drawn up by the War Department and General Staff and was forwarded to Congress on April 5. War was declared on April 6, one day after the draft bill was forwarded. Wilson, like Lincoln before him, likely wanted a draft bill to ensure that he would be able to fight the war without a lack of support from the public stopping him.

The institution of the Draft is indefensible on multiple fronts. There is no provision in the Constitution that allows the federal government to institute a draft. One could argue that the Thirteenth amendment actually prohibits a draft! The draft is also indefensible morally. To force someone under the threat of violence to fight against an enemy is morally offensive. True, the government did pay its soldiers, but this pay was low, averaging $30 a month, or $738 in today’s dollars. However, even if the pay was higher, could this ever compensate for the forced risk to life that was enforced upon them by their government? Bluntly put, the draft is military slavery.

Around 2.8 million Americans were drafted into World War 1, almost half of the 4.8 million in total who served. Millions more have been drafted through the Selective Service Act since. Many soldiers who were forced into this war came back with physical and physiological wounds, if they returned at all. Shell Shock, or PTSD, was not well understood at the time, and suicide rates post-war among veterans were much higher than in the general population.

Over 116,000 US soldiers were killed in World War 1. Many of them were drafted, or volunteered under the threat of the draft. For those whose lives were unjustly cut short, there is no adequate compensation.

Price Fixing

Woodrow Wilson and his administration took unprecedented control over the economy during World War 1. One of the most important pieces of legislation in this takeover was the Departmental Reorganization Act, also known as the Overman Act. The act allowed the President to reorganize governmental power for the duration of the war. Government organizations could be created at Wilson’s decree.

The most important of these organizations was the War Industries Board. The job of the board was to organize the purchase of material needed for the war and to supervise the fixing of certain prices throughout the economy. The WIB had a limited impact on the economy, as the United States entered the war relatively late, but it would serve a valuable president for later agencies organized in the New Deal and in the Second World War.

Price fixing was not exclusive to the WIB, however. Congress had also passed the Food and Fuel Control Act, also known as the Lever Act. Any importation or manufacturing of and food or fuel product required a license. Prices for these goods could be set by the president, and he could commandeer any material and food or fuel supplies needed for the military. These controls were used, as the price of Wheat was pegged at $2.20 per bushel in 1917 and 1918. Various prices were also fixed for coal depending on the region.

Price fixing stands as a violation of the right to contract. If two parties enter into a voluntary agreement where one party wishes to sell a good at a particular price, and the other wishes to buy at that price, what justification exists for the government to step in and claim that this agreement is illegitimate because the government doesn’t like the terms of the agreement?

One might argue that price fixing was necessary for the war effort. In actuality, the prices fixed by the government were usually higher than they would have been otherwise. The reasoning being is that the government wanted to try and stimulate industry in those areas. Prices were fixed higher to attract entrepreneurs to do the stimulating.

This helps the government, but also helps big business as well. It is usually the smaller and newer companies that innovate to drive costs and prices down. Larger businesses can often times be set in their ways, and newer competitors can destroy their market share if they are not careful. If prices are fixed, then there is little point to innovate to drive costs down. This helps ensure big business keeps their market share. This arrangement worked to everyone’s arrangement, except the taxpayers stuck with the bill and the small business owners who were forced to keep prices high.

Price fixing and industry control would come back in full force during World War 2. FDR went much farther than Wilson and would control numerous prices in numerous industries all throughout the economy. Without free prices, markets are not free to function. Where markets are not free, the people are not free.

Wilson’s Takeover of the Railroads

Out of all the president set during World War 1, none was more sweeping than the effective nationalization of the railroad industry by Wilson. This was made possible because of the Army Appropriations Act of 1916. Among other provisions, this bill allowed the president to take over and nationalize any industry during wartime if he felt it was necessary to fight the war.

1917 saw numerous labor strikes, especially in the railroad industry. Toward the end of year, railroad workers threatened a nationwide strike. If this were to occur, it would be a death blow to the war economy of the United States. Wilson saw this to be the case, and decided to use the power of the Army Appropriations Act to nationalize the railroads.

To manage the railroads, the United States Railroad Association was created. It would control all operations concerning rail transportation in the US, including both commercial and passenger transportation. The entire industry now operated as a single unit, and there was not any form of competition between different lines. In order to sooth rail workers, wage rates were increased, but fare prices were also increased to help pay the increased wages.

Nationalization is nothing more than government appropriation of private property for its own means. In a word, theft. If any other person or group were to expropriate another’s property for the own means, we would condemn such action, even if the group used the stolen property to pursue noble ends, such as helping the poor. Theft is theft, regardless of the thieves and regardless of who gets the spoils.

If private property can be completely violated because of an emergency, what remains of private property? The government, of course, is itself the judge of any emergency, perceived or otherwise. If at any time your property can be taken from you, private property only exists as function of government not exercising its power. Whatever you have, the state allows you to have.

The United States Railroad Association was stripped of its authority in 1920, after the end of the war. Nevertheless, the damage was done. A precedent had already been set that in times of trouble, the economy could become a puppet of the government, with Washington D.C. pulling the strings. World War 2 would see this very situation come about.

Espionage and Sedition Acts

The Sedition Act served as an expansion of sorts to the Espionage Act of 1917. The Espionage Act criminalized any attempts to disrupt military operations or recruitment. In practice, this meant jailing anyone who spoke out against the draft or American involvement in the war. Those who called for conscientious objection or abolition of the draft risked time in prison.

The Sedition Act added additional charges that could be levied at unwanted resistance to the United States’ war effort. It criminalized any “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” about the United States Government, US flag, or armed forces. It also allowed the Postmaster General to abstain from delivering any mail that met these criteria. These additional provisions were meant to increase the US Governments scope of its censor.

Violations of the Espionage or Sedition Acts were often much less severe then one might be led to believe. Eugene Debs was the leader of the national Socialist party, and was tried under the Espionage Act. His crime was nothing more than giving a speech were he criticized the draft and stated that the audience was “fit for something better than slavery and cannon fodder.” His case traveled up the judicial system all the way to the Supreme Court where his conviction was upheld. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Prosecutions under these acts could border on the edge of insanity. Robert Goldstein was a silent film maker during World War 1 and created a movie about the Revolutionary War. The title was “The Spirit of ‘76”. The film contained some factual events, and some fictional events that were portrayed. He was tried under the Espionage Act. The reason being that the film portrayed Britain, an ally of the United States, in a negative light. Because of this “crime”, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison. I’m sure everyone in 1917 America slept better at night knowing “criminals” like Goldstein were behind bars.

The Sedition Act was repealed in 1920, but the Espionage Act exists to this day. Although it was passed over 100 years ago, it has been used in prosecution in recent memory. Edward Snowden has been charged under the act and would certainly be behind bars if not for his asylum in Russia. Chelsea Manning was tried and convicted under the act, and Julian Assange, if expedited to the United States, will presumably be tried and convicted under the act as well.

The Espionage and Sedition Acts stand as one of the greatest violations of free speech instituted by the United States government. To say that questioning the actions of the government is reprehensible is anathema to the very ideas of basic liberties this country was founded upon. If we applied this standard throughout history, the United States would not even exist! Suppressing the speech of those who spoke out against the injustices of the state is nothing less than the destruction of the First Amendment.

The Espionage Act is revealing of the attitude that Woodrow Wilson and his administration had towards the Constitution and restriction of government powers. During times of peace, all the normal limitations on government apply. However, during an emergency, the status quo is reversed. Government needs to take action! To do this, some rules have to be bent. Wilson put this paradigm into action, and it has been applied in emergency situations ever since.

This line of thinking is completely incorrect. The Founding Fathers certainly knew that there would be wars, environmental catastrophes, and many other troubling times ahead in their newborn republic. If they believed that government needed to act in order to alleviate those situations, those provisions would be in the Constitution. They are not.

The Founding Fathers knew that government action in the name of emergency powers can only come at the price of the liberties and freedoms that so much blood had just been spilled to purchase. To fight World War 1, Wilson took it upon himself to violate the rights of property, free speech, and free press. These losses were not accidents. They were the inevitable outcome of the increased role the Wilson had carved out for the state. Where these powers were increased, liberties of everyone were decreased in proportion.

Into the Future

Emergency powers often stay long after the emergency is concluded. The Espionage Act is still law today even though the United States in not involved in a major war. Another bill passed not discussed above is the Trading With the Enemy Act, which is still law as well. As Milton Friedman once famously said, “There is nothing so permanent as a temporary government program.”

Important president was set for future crisis situations. World War 2 would see even more government control over the private sector. The recent War on Terror relied on precedent set in the Espionage and Sedition Acts. Of course, not every emergency power is return upon the ending of the emergency situation. How necessary is the Espionage Act in today’s day and age?

World War 1 was a watershed moment for the United States in many ways. One could accurately divide the history of the US into two sections. Before and after the First World War. Before the war, the United States, with some exceptions, was a country with a small, limited government and a strong focus on individuality. After the war, this government would become less and less limited with the passage of time. Where the state grows, liberty must shrink.

The “Great War” served as the opening of Pandora’s box on the initiation of government control and power. Once unleashed, it would never quite be closed.

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