Sunday, January 4, 2009

Reviewed: Freeberg, Democracy's Prisoner, and Capozzola, Uncle Sam Wants You

DEMOCRACY'S PRISONER: Eugene V. Debs, the Great War, and the Right to Dissent, by Ernest Freeberg and UNCLE SAM WANTS YOU: World War I and the Making of the Modern American Citizen by Christopher Capozzola are reviewed by Eric Arnesen in the Boston Globe. These books, Arnesen writes, "revisit the issues of dissent, obligation, and repression in their new books on the World War I era. The stories they tell, in part, are familiar ones: In a nation divided over entry into the Great War, the Wilson administration grossly abridged civil liberties."

Freeberg "explores the arrest, prosecution, and imprisonment of Eugene V. Debs and the subsequent campaign to free him from a federal penitentiary." The author's "contribution lies in his treatment of the movement for Debs's release."

Governmental repression is only one of the subjects of Capozzola's broader but more academic study. Wartime mobilization, he argues, redefined the citizen's relationship to the state. A Selective Service Act touched unprecedented numbers of American men; federal officials scrutinized conscientious objectors and registered German aliens; and agencies issued vast streams of pro-war propaganda. Yet "Americans consistently needed less outright repression than the wartime alarmists claimed," for countless people eagerly volunteered to police themselves and their communities by physically attacking strikers, burning books, and even lynching suspected traitors. During the war, the "actions of repressive state institutions, private organizations, and spontaneous crowds left more than seventy Americans dead and thousands terrorized by tar, flame, or the noose," Capozzola writes. Uncle Sam "invoked a culture of obligation," and many Americans readily complied.
Wartime repression, both books illustrate that it also "generated principled and eloquent opposition." Arneson concludes, "In their timely, readable, and engaging books, Freeberg and Capozzola remind us of the fragility of rights in the context of fear, providing us with cautionary tales about what is lost when unquestioned political obligations trump the preservation of liberty."
Read the rest here.