Espionage Act of 1917

Espionage Act of 1917


The Espionage Act, passed in 1917 after the United States entered the World War I, prohibited the disclosure of government and industrial information regarding national defense. The act also criminalized refusal to perform military service if conscripted.

In 1914, war began in Europe. The United States declared neutrality at the beginning of the war, attempting to avoid war in Europe and unrest within its own borders. Forging alliances was difficult not only because the United States' relatively small military at the time, but also because of its large immigrant population. In the three decades preceding World War I, several million people immigrated to America, many from various nations involved in the European conflict. Making alliances with Britain and France promised to upset scores of German and Austrian sympathizers, and vice versa. Though some elements of the population were divided on the opinion of European alliances, the government favored allegiance with Britain and France. While America maintained its neutrality until 1917, it became a major supplier of money, supplies, and munitions to British and French forces. American ships transported contraband weapons across the Atlantic and between European ports. Intelligence agents and merchant ships gathered reports on German vessels and informed the British Navy of fleet activity.

In retaliation for what was viewed as acts of war and signs of allegiance with their enemies, the German government sent saboteurs to destroy American factories, warehouses, and ships that produced or held munitions bound for the western front. Several high-profile terrorist acts, most especially the demolition of Black Tom Pier near Ellis Island, New York, helped to foster a genuine concern, and to some degree an hysteria, about the danger of spies and saboteurs. When America formally joined the Allies' fight against Germany and Austria-Hungary in 1917, the government enacted tough legislation intended to aid the war effort.

The Espionage Act was one of the first pieces of wartime legislation passed. It had overwhelming favor in the government, but was more controversial to the public, especially among political radicals opposed to war, conscription, and interference with civil liberties. The act had provisions for steep penalties, including a $10,000 fine and 20 years imprisonment. While the act was rarely questioned as a means of controlling enemy espionage, its broad application to silence anti-war protesters and left-wing sympathizers drew criticism. Socialist advocate Eugene V. Debs was sentenced to ten years in prison for claiming in a speech that the Espionage Act itself was unconstitutional. Over 450 conscientious objectors were jailed under the provisions of the act for refusing military service.

Congress amended the Espionage Act in 1918 with the passage of the Sedition Act. The act further extended prohibition on the expression of anti-war and unpatriotic sentiments. It imposed several penalties on those convicted of "disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language" against the government, its actions, or its symbols.

While the Espionage Act was intended as wartime legislation, it continued to be invoked following the end of the war. When the Bolshevik Revolution toppled the Russian monarchy in 1917, it sparked a widespread fear of communist revolts in other nations. The period, which lasted from 1919 to 1920, became known in America as the Red Scare. During the Red Scare, the attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer, and his assistant, John Edgar Hoover, set up a special task force to prosecute radicals under the Espionage and Sedition Acts. Nearly 2,000 people were tried and imprisoned, but Palmer's increasing zeal for his cause began to draw criticism in 1920. Palmer claimed that communist agents had infiltrated American organizations and were planning to overthrow the government on May 1, 1920. When his predicted revolution failed to materialize, many turned away from his cause. Palmer and Hoover ordered the deportation of some people convicted during the Red Scare; however, most were simply jailed in the United States. Most of the prisoners sentenced during the Red Scare were freed in 1920.



Kennedy, David M. Over Here: The First World War and American Society. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.


World War I

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