The National Surveillance State, Going Strong Since 1917

June 17, 2013, 2:28 pm

(Guest post! Lon Strauss (full bio at the end) wrote his dissertation on an earlier version of the American surveillance state. He’s here to give us some historical context to the NSA revelations.)

There has been a recent uptick in the news over concern about the United States becoming a surveillance state. The Guardian and the Washington Post published articles about the National Security Agency’s practices that have sparked a renewed debate over surveillance, national security, and civil liberties in America. Journalists have posed questions about whether a democratic surveillance state is possible and the role of US companies willingly handing personal information to a government agency. While there are and should be real concerns regarding national security and civil liberties, it will surprise no one that this discussion is not new. When engaging complex historical debates, it is always appropriate to quickly re-examine its beginnings, where the American surveillance state had its origins: the First World War.

The United States’ entrance into the First World War in April 1917 marked Americans’ first truly organized attempt at keeping watch on its citizens. There were real and justified fears of German agents in America, but just as importantly, some citizens did not trust their neighbors. IwwNot only were a fifth of the American population of German heritage, but there was a large number of radicals too. After all, almost a million voters cast their ballot for socialist Eugene V. Debs in the 1912 Presidential election. Anarchists like Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman were loose. “Big Bill” Haywood was running rampant with his fellow syndicalists in the I.W.W. There were alleged pacifists, such as the International Bible Students Association, who proclaimed to abhor violence until the Armageddon. Additionally, there were perceived slackers, such as Roger Nash Baldwin, who claimed he was assisting the government with classifying conscientious objectors, but was really (according to some authorities) convincing draft age men to avoid their American duty by serving the nation in uniform according to some notion of conscience that was not connected to a legitimately recognized religion.

So, what was to be done? If the debate over neutrality and divided public opinion on the war waging in Europe was any testament to possible frictions in a nation that was as of yet “100% American”, then Congress would need to take action to curb dissent at a time when the country needed to mobilize for an industrialized total war like the world had never witnessed before. Thus, legislators passed the Espionage Act of 1917 (still being applied today).

Eugene V. Debs

This legislation gave authorities the mandate to arrest anyone who “willfully” spoke or wrote in any manner that could be interpreted as disrupting the war effort. Don’t agree with conscription and decide to mail, handout, or openly discuss the issue to foster debate? Odds are you would be investigated and arrested under the Espionage Act (think Eugene V. Debs, The Masses, Victor L. Burger, Joseph Rutherford, Charles Schenck, Jacob Abrams, and many more). Perhaps you support America, but harbor no love for Britain? Or, you make a film about the American Revolution with a provocative scene about the Wyoming Massacre (The Spirit of 1776)? Sorry, Allies are covered under the Espionage Act as well.

Roger Nash Baldwin

Many of the almost 2,000 prosecutions under the Espionage Act during the war would not have been possible without intrusive surveillance tactics. Intelligence agencies had to grow from the ground up. The Bureau of Investigation (BI) was comprised of about three hundred people and the Army’s Military Intelligence Division (MID) was literally non-existent on the eve of American entrance into the war. As they expanded, intelligence agents, including soldiers, attended public and private speeches. Soldiers went undercover, such as one who broke into the National Civil Liberties Bureau’s offices in New York at night to collect information; and then introduced himself to Roger Nash Baldwin the very next day as a freelance journalist for hire. Prosecutors convicted Eugene V. Debs for seditious speech when he offered praise to three socialists recently convicted under the Espionage Act. Postmaster General Albert S. Burleson read mail and revoked publications’ mailable status that was then used by prosecutors as proof that those publishers were seditious in court cases. In America, government agents taking liberties with their authority in the name of national security is by no means unheard of.

Albert S. Burleson

Journalists have expressed concern over businesses handing customers’ information over the NSA. During the First World War, some 20,000 civilian volunteers of the vigilante American Protective League accosted and detained between 300,000 and 500,000 New Yorkers over three days in September 1918. They detained about 60,000 men for possible draft dodging, even though they had no legal authority to do so. This same organization investigated their fellow Americans for most of the major intelligence agencies, barging into peoples’ homes and offices. Oh, and they did not get paid to do so, but believed it was their patriotic duty.

One major distinction, though, is that the “War on Terror” has no foreseeable end, whereas the First World War ended when Germany signed the Treaty of Versailles. The surveillance state, however, did not end with the war. Intelligence gatherers continued wartime methods afterwards. They may have been more rudimentary, but they manually collated tons of data and interpreted language to apply “ex ante prevention.” Government personnel continued their practices, sometimes within a legal gray area, throughout the Cold War. American democracy, with its continual dispute over the role of the federal government and its citizens, has always relied on civilians’ eagerness to spy on each other and ferret out those thought less than 100% American. The First World War institutionalized surveillance in the US, and the NSA is the latest moment in that long growth of the surveillance state.

[Update: an interesting testimonial to being subject to the surveillance state]

*Lon Strauss earned his PhD from the University of Kansas in 2012. He is a section editor for “1914-1918 Online” an international, peer reviewed encyclopedia forthcoming in 2014. He is a contributor to the Oxford Bibliographies in Military History. Lon is also finishing “Breakthrough and Pursuit,” a chapter in A Concise History of the Meuse-Argonne campaign forthcoming from Wiley/Blackwell later this year and “US Military Planning During the Interwar Period,” appearing in The Routledge Handbook of U.S. Diplomatic and Military History forthcoming in June 2013. Besides having reviews published in the Journal of Military History and encyclopedia entries in ABD-CLIO’s America’s Heroes, Lon has presented papers at the annual conferences of the Organization of American Historians and the Society for Military History, as well as the British Commission of Military History’s New Research in Military History Conference in 2012. In 2010, he received the U.S. Army’s Center of Military History dissertation fellowship and an International Studies scholarship from the Harry S. Truman Good Neighbor Foundation, as well as a fellowship to attend the U.S. Military Academy’s Summer Seminar in Military History in 2009, and the Society of Military History’s Russell F. Weigley Graduate Student Travel Grant in 2011. He is currently a lecturer at the University of Kansas and adjuncts at Park University and American Public University.

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