by mcfalls
Last updated 6 years ago

Social Studies

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Espionage and Sedition Acts

Eugene Debs

The Espionage Act prohibitted the practice of secretly gathering information with the purpose of placing a government at some strategic or financial advantage. Federal law prohibits espionage when it jeopardizes the national defense or benefits a foreign nation (18 U.S.C.A. 793). The Sedition Act (July 14) banned the publishing of false or malicious writings against the government and the inciting of opposition to any act of Congress or the president.


During the war not a single person was convicted of spying or sabotage under the Espionage Act. However, federal prosecutors used the act to bring over 2,000 cases, mostly under section 3, and at least 1,055 convictions resulted. Representatives of the American political Left were especially targeted. The government prosecuted leaders and members of the American Socialist Party, including its leader and perennial presidential candidate, Eugene V. Debs. They also targeted the leadership of the militant left-wing Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), then the largest industrial union in the United States. Both groups had publicly opposed U.S. entry into the war.

Outspoken leader of the labor movement, Eugene Debs opposed Woodrow Wilson as the Socialist Party candidate in the 1912 Presidential Election. Later, he would continue to rally against President Wilson and his decision to take America into war -- and be jailed for it under the Espionage Act. Debs became a featured speaker for the Socialist Party, and ran for president in 1900 as their nominee. He lost, but continued to be the partys candidate in several subsequent elections. Once the United States entered the war, Debs was arrested for violating the Espionage Act after making what the district attorney of Canton, Ohio called an anti-war speech in 1918. Debs in fact only mentioned the war once, but under this repressive new law, was sentenced to ten years in a federal penitentiary.




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