A speech that resonates 100 years later
This month marks the 100th anniversary of Eugene V. Debs’s famous speech against the First World War, delivered on June 16, 1918, in Canton, Ohio. As a result of the speech excoriating imperial conquest and urging resistance to the war, the Socialist Party leader would be arrested and sentenced to 10 years in prison for sedition.
A TALL, gaunt figure emerged from the Stark County Workhouse into the afternoon heat and strode across Mahoning Road into Nimisilla Park. There, 1,200 socialists were picnicking after the conclusion of their state convention in Canton, Ohio. A little after 3 p.m. on Sunday, June 16, 1918, Eugene V. Debs launched into one of the most famous addresses in American history.
Debs’ biographer Ray Ginger has noted that while much of the content was familiar from Debs’ previous speeches, it was memorable for stating things not commonly said in wartime. Beyond that, it contained an especially skillful and powerful interweaving of concerns closest to Debs’ heart: a vigorous defense of democracy and civil liberties, a passionate condemnation of war, and an ardent denunciation of class rule and appeal for socialism — themes that continue to resonate today.
The 62-year old Debs was an icon of the American left when he spoke that day in Canton. In 1893, he had founded the American Railway Union and led it in a successful strike against the Great Northern Railroad. The following year, he organized a national rail strike and boycott against the Pullman Palace Car Company — activities that earned him six months in prison.
Subsequently, he helped found the Socialist Democratic Party, the Socialist Party, and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Most notably, he was the Socialist Party candidate for president for every election from 1900 to 1912, receiving 6 percent of the popular vote in his fourth run.
On the day of his speech, the U.S. had been embroiled in the “Great War” for 15 months. Prior to the U.S. entry in April 1917, and for some time afterwards, antiwar sentiment had been widespread.
One of the most popular slogans of Woodrow Wilson’s successful 1916 re-election campaign had been “He kept us out of war.” And as late as September 1917, the Akron Beacon Journal observed, “The United States has never embarked upon a more unpopular war.” It warned of a “mighty tide of socialism” throughout the Midwest and beyond, and a “landslide” electoral victory for the Socialists in Ohio “unless a decided change takes possession of the popular mind.”
In the following months, there were major and largely successful efforts to bring that change about. One was a continuing propaganda campaign by the federal government, together with newspapers like the Akron Beacon Journal. Another was the intensification of the federal government’s repression of vocal dissidents.
Especially effective in that regard was the Espionage Act, passed in June 1917, which prohibited any statement made with intent to interfere with the success of U.S. armed forces or to promote the success of its enemies. It was amended the following May by the Sedition Act, which further banned “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” about the U.S. government, its flag or its armed forces, or that caused others to view the American government or its institutions with contempt.
By June 1918, the Espionage Act had been employed against many IWW members and socialists, including Charles Baker, Charles Ruthenberg and Alfred Wagenknecht — the three leaders of the Ohio Socialist Party who Debs visited in the Stark County Workhouse before his speech.
DEBS BEGAN his address by explaining he had “just returned from a visit over yonder [to the Stark County Workhouse] where three of our most loyal comrades are paying the penalty for their devotion to the cause of the working class.” The trio had come to realize, he wryly observed, that “it is extremely dangerous to exercise the constitutional right of free speech in a country fighting to make democracy safe in the world.”
He then proceeded to declare his solidarity with a host of other victims of government repression, including Tom Mooney, the labor leader convicted of bombing a Preparedness Day parade in San Francisco; Kate Richards O’Hare, sentenced to a five-year term in prison for an antiwar speech in North Dakota; Max Eastman, who had found himself indicted and his paper The Masses suppressed for opposing the war; and 112 members of the IWW on trial in Chicago for an alleged conspiracy against the government.
In these and other cases, Debs insisted that the accused were no guiltier of crimes or treason than he.
Debs specifically rejected the accusation that socialists supported German militarism. Since the time of Wilhelm Liebknecht, he noted, German socialists had been imprisoned for opposing the Kaiser and the junkers [German nobility]. He further recalled how in 1902, U.S. socialist legislators had walked out on visits by the brother of the Kaiser, while plutocrats and other legislators had welcomed him with open arms.
As for himself, Debs declared that he had “no earthly use for the junkers of Germany and have not one particle more use for the junkers in the United States.”
Nor did Debs have any use for their wars. He condemned wars in general as historically benefitting the dominant economic classes while victimizing the oppressed: “The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and all to lose — especially their lives.”
True to his promise to be “exceedingly careful,” Debs avoided any direct comment on the U.S. involvement in the conflict. However, he addressed the war aims of the Allies, concluding from the secret treaties recently published by the Bolsheviks that “the purpose of the Allies is exactly the purpose of the Central Powers, and that is the conquest and spoliation of the weaker nations that has always been the purpose of war.”
Debs then invited his listeners to envision a transition from this oppressive system of “slavery to freedom and from despotism to democracy, wide as the world” — that is, a transition to socialism. As a glowing inspiration, he held up the Bolsheviks who had “shed more heroic blood than any like number of men and women anywhere on earth,” and who had “laid the foundation of the first real democracy that ever drew the breath of life in this world.”
He argued that the path to a comparable revolution in the U.S. was through the economic organization of the working class in industrial, rather than craft, unions and its political organization in the Socialist Party, independent of “the corrupt Republican Party and the still more corrupt Democratic Party.”
If the American working class followed that course, he confidently predicted, “In due time the hour will strike and this great cause triumphant — the greatest in history — will proclaim the emancipation of the working class and the brotherhood of all mankind...It is as vain to resist it as it would be to arrest the sunrise on the morrow.”
NOT EVERYONE in Nimisilla Park on June 16 was sympathetic to Debs’ message.
While he spoke, federal agents and vigilantes from the Canton chapter of the American Protective League circulated through the crowd, apprehending about 30 draft-age men who could not produce their registration cards. A stenographer hired by the Justice Department scribbled a transcript of the speech.
Meanwhile, hostile reporters, including Clyde Miller from the Cleveland Plain Dealer, took notes. Later that day, Miller phoned his friend Edwin Wertz, the federal prosecutor for the district of Northern Ohio, to describe the speech and ask if he would indict Debs under the Espionage Act. Based on Miller’s report, Wertz immediately responded that he would.
Debs was indicted on June 29, arrested the following day, and brought to trial in Cleveland on September 9. The prosecution’s evidence included the transcript recorded by the government-employed stenographer and the testimony of Clyde Miller and a few other witnesses.
Only Debs spoke on his own behalf. He did not dispute the government’s account of his Canton speech or repudiate his views. He denied only that his intent was to aid the imperial government of Germany. Beyond that, he challenged the constitutionality of the Espionage Act’s restriction of free speech.
On September 12, Debs was found guilty of attempting to incite mutiny, obstruct recruitment and promote the cause of the enemy, and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. The following March, the verdict was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Even though the war had ended, Debs spent the next 33 months incarcerated — first in Moundsville, West Virginia, and then in Atlanta. As a massive campaign demanded his pardon, “Prisoner 9653” ran again for president in 1920, receiving 3.4 percent of the vote.
Finally, on December 23, 1921, President Warren Harding commuted Debs’ 10-year sentence to time served. His health undermined in part by his imprisonment, Debs died in 1926.
ALTHOUGH THIS is the centenary of Debs’ speech, it remains remarkably contemporary.
Historians continue to debate the First World War, but they widely agree that imperial rivalries were a major cause of the outbreak of the war, and that economic interests of wealthy elites played a significant role in U.S. involvement, as emphasized by Debs.
Interestingly, after six months in France observing the conduct of the war and the manufacture of U.S. propaganda, the hostile reporter Clyde Miller similarly concluded, “Debs was right, and I was wrong.”
Even more interestingly, Sen. and future President Warren G. Harding subsequently admitted to Miller: “Debs was right about that war, you know. We should not have been in it.” (Harding confessed that “of course” he had voted for the war because “I couldn’t have voted against the war and still have been re-elected as senator.”)
More to the point, much of the sordid history of U.S. conflicts since the First World War — not to mention the tweeted threat of our current billionaire president to “take the oil” — closely match the pattern described by Debs: “[C]onquest and spoliation of the weaker nations...has always been the purpose of war.”
Although the Sedition Act was repealed in 1921, major portions of the Espionage Act remain in effect. It has been used quite recently against dissidents and whistleblowers, including Daniel Ellsberg, John Kiriakou, Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden and Reality Winner, and it continues to be challenged as unconstitutional and repressive by organizations concerned with civil liberties.
Deb’s remarks on socialism were somewhat more problematic. His conviction of the inevitability and imminence of a worldwide triumph of socialism proved to be deeply mistaken.
Also, although Debs may have been right that the Bolshevik Revolution laid the “foundation” for the world’s first real democracy, it soon became clear that the ground in which that foundation was laid — a backward and isolated revolutionary country surrounded and invaded by hostile powers — was unsupportive of democratic and socialist development. In fact, the structure that ultimately emerged in the Soviet Union was the very opposite of “real democracy.”
Still, these errors in prediction hardly invalidate the inspirational ideal espoused by Debs. At the same time, Debs’ insistence that the path to his ideal for the working class was through a combination of economic organization and political action independent of the parties of capital remains relevant.
Finally, the recent resurgence experienced by the U.S. socialist movement has begun to make even some of Debs’ revolutionary optimism seem appropriate again.