From America in the Twenties by Geoffrey Perrett:
Following the declaration of war in April 1917, Congress had promptly passed the Espionage Act. Hastily drawn, it was a legal blunderbuss. In 1918, after a year’s pause for reflection, the act was amended and made worse. Virtually anything that could be construed as interfering with the war effort or offering a crumb of comfort to the Germans was a criminal offense. Words, naked, unsupported by action, sufficed for conviction. Anyone so foolhardy as to make an unflattering observation on American military uniforms, for example, risked going to jail.
Mrs. Rose Peter Stokes, a noted feminist and Socialist, wrote in the Kansas City Star, “I am for the people and the government is for the profiteers.” For this dangerous utterance she received a ten-year sentence. Mrs. Kate Richards O’Hare also received a ten-year sentence for advising women not to bear sons, because the government would noe day consider them cannon fodder. Victor Berger, a noted right-wing Socialist, was under indictment when the war ended for his Milwaukee Leader editorials, which suggested that combat drove some men mad, that there were young men who did not want to be drafted, that the Bible sanctioned pacifism, and that the United States had entered the war to protect its investment in Allied loans.
Under indictment, Berger ran for election to Congress from Wisconson’s Fifth District and won. The next month he won a twenty-year prison sentence from Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis. He appealed his conviction. When the Sixty-sixth Congress convened in March 1919, Berger proposed to take his seat. The House proposed to take it away from him.
It was not socialism that the members objected to. Three Socialists had already served in the House. An espionage conviction, no matter how footling the cited offense, was considered tantamount to proof of treason (except in the Fifth District of Wisconsin). A new election was called for December 1919. Berger won again, by a larger margin. And although the war was over, Espionage Act prosecutions ground steadily on.
It was against this background that in 1919-20, thirty-two states passed criminal syndicalism laws. Four states that had abolished the death penalty (Arizona, Missouri, Oregon, and Washington) restored it. The loyalty of schoolteachers was screened by local vigilance committees. Hundreds of teachers appear to have lost their jobs for reading the wrong books, having the wrong friends, holding the wrong opinions, or joining the wrong groups.
A committee of the New York State legislature, chaired by Clayton R. Lusk, an upstate Republican, led the grass roots attack on radicals. His committee raided the unaccredited Soviet embassy, the IWW headquarters in New York City, and the Rand School of Social Research. These raids were illegal from start to finish. That made no difference. In 1920, over governor Smith’s veto, the legislature passed a clutch of statutes known as the Lusk Laws. These imposed a loyalty oath on teachers, made the Socialist party illegal and set up a bureau of investigation. This last measure proved Lusk’s undoing. The hero was a crook. He hired investigators only after they agreed to split their salaries with him. The hero went to jail.
The New York legislature had meanwhile held hearings on five Socialist members, decided that they were “plotting to overthrow our system of government by force,” and expelled them.
State criminal syndicalism statutes were more than empty gestures. In Chicago, 1920 saw the prosecution of a score of defendants in a single trial on charges of Bolshevism. An undercover agent from the Justice Department claimed that there was a special Communist party yell for important occasions that went, “Bolshevik, Bolshevik, Bolshevik, bang!’ He appeared on the stand wrapped in a red banner. He swore that one of the defendants had an American flag covering his toilet floor. All the accused were convicted.
In Connecticut a clothing salesman named Joseph Yenowsky attempted to discourage a persistent bond salesman by making crucial remarks about capitalism and John D. Rockefeller. To Yenowsky’s astonishment, the bond salesman went for a policeman. Connecticut had what amounted to the shortest sedition law ever, and probably the broadest. In its entirety it read: “No person shall in public, or before any assemblance of 10 or more persons, advocate in any language any measure or doctrine, proposal or propaganda intended to affect injuriously the Government of the United States or the State of Connecticut. ” Yenowsky received a six-month jail sentence.
An aroused citizenry was inclined to take matters into its own hands. In Hammond, Indiana, in February, 1919, Frank Petroni, a naturalized citizen, was tried for murdering Frank Petrich, an alien. The defense was that Petrich had said, “To hell with the United States.” The jury, after solemn deliberations that lasted two minutes, set Petroni free.
On May Day that same year Socialist red-flag parades were broken up in a dozen cities by outraged mobs. Three people were killed, more than a hundred injured. In New York the offices of the Socialist Daily Call were ransacked by uninformed servicemen to ecstatic applause from a crowd in the street. In all these riots the people arrested, and later tried, were Socialists. Their attackers were left alone.
It was also in May that a spectator refused to rise for the national anthem at a Victory Loan rally in Washington. As the strains of “The Star Spangled Banner” faded, a uniformed sailor ended his salute, drew a revolver, and fired three shots into the back of the lone seated figure. The man fell over, critically wounded. The stadium crowd broke into ecstatic applause.
This spontaneous identification with wanton violence occurred because many Americans believed the country was under violent attack.