During the First World War, the U.S. Department of Justice, using the newly passed Espionage Act and its later Sedition Act amendment, prosecuted and won the convictions of many who opposed America’s entry into the conflict. In Unsafe for Democracy, historian William H. Thomas Jr. shows that the Justice Department did not stop at this official charge but went much further, paying cautionary visits to suspected dissenters, pressuring them to express support of the war effort, or intimidating them into silence.
At times going undercover, investigators tried to elicit the unguarded comments of individuals believed to be a threat to the prevailing social order. In this massive yet largely secret campaign, agents cast their net wide, targeting isolationists, pacifists, immigrants, socialists, labor organizers, African Americans, and clergymen. The unemployed, the mentally ill, college students, schoolteachers, even schoolchildren, all might come under scrutiny, often in the context of the most trivial and benign activities of daily life.
Delving into numerous reports by Justice Department detectives, Thomas documents how, in case after case, they used threats and warnings to frighten war critics and silence dissent. This early government crusade for wartime ideological conformity, Thomas argues, marks one of the more dubious achievements of the Progressive Era and a development that resonates in the present day.
I did find this book genuinely interesting, but it's not well-written for a general interest book, and makes for a bad audiobook. It has a number of well-documented case studies, the sort of thing you need for an academic history work, but doesn't do a great job sketching the overall story in the sort of evocative language that would make it relatable.
The topic raises important, deep questions about the role of free speech in a democracy during wartime. It's remarkable to see how quickly the country transformed from a majority favoring neutrality and isolationism, to any expression of disapproval for the war being seen as unamerican and in fact illegal. It's also impressive just how professional and effective the Justice Department was at suppressing unwanted speech without in fact, whatever you might think of the effort, actually becoming a totalitarian-style police state. This truly was a can-do age.
But unless you have a really strong interest in this specific subject, I can't recommend the book to you. It really is that dry.