Christmas Day, 1921, the prison gates opened and Eugene Victor Debs was free at last! Warren Gamaliel Harding, one of America’s most underrated presidents, displayed rare political courage in commuting Debs’s sentence to time served. He was liberated as a persecuted political prisoner from the American gulag that included the federal penitentiary in Atlanta. His “crime” was opposing the draft during The Great War (1914-1918). Debs was a five-time presidential candidate of the Socialist Party and while “campaigning” from prison in 1920, received his largest vote total of 914,191 votes. He garnered 3.41% of the vote which is an impressive number for any third-party candidate much less one imprisoned by corporate, militaristic America. Debs’s denunciation of war, his leadership in the rise of the labour movement during the epic Pullman Strike (1894) and his opposition to unfettered capitalism established him as one of America’s greatest figures in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, the Supreme Court justice that so-called liberal court historians revere, was the grand inquisitor during and after World War I. For a unanimous Supreme Court, Justice Holmes wrote the opinion that Mr. Debs’s anti-draft advocacy was an obstruction of the war effort and was excluded from First Amendment protection. As with the Charles Schenck case, Holmes frequently ignored the constitution and conducted these Supreme Court inquests to suppress brutally any expression of dissent that challenged the war-making authority of the government.
Examples abound of Mr. Debs’s riveting oratory that resulted in his thirty-two month incarceration as a prisoner of conscience during the Wilsonian, “War to make the world safe for democracy”:
I have been accused of obstructing the war. I admit it. Gentlemen, I abhor war. I would oppose war if I stood alone…. I have sympathy with the suffering, struggling people everywhere. It does not make any difference under what flag they were born, or where they live. . . . Wars throughout history have been waged for conquest and plunder. . . And that is war in a nutshell. The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles.
They tell us that we live in a great free republic; that our institutions are democratic; that we are a free and self-governing; people. That is too much, even for a joke…Your honor, years ago I recognized my kinship within all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free. (Quotations from Howard Zinn, The Twentieth Century).
The American Association of University Professors was founded a century ago in 1915 during World War I, but two years before the United States entered the war in April, 1917. If Mr. Debs were a professor, the American Association of University Professors most assuredly would have declared his direct-action, civil disobedience did not merit academic-freedom protection. The A.A.U.P., in only its third year, released in 1918 a Report of Committee on Academic Freedom in Wartime. The report was chilling in its nationalistic deference to the U.S. government’s suppression of antiwar activism and protest. In particular the A.A.U.P. displayed an ethnocentric xenophobia when it proclaimed it “probable” that German or Austro-Hungarian born professors “desire the victory…and by implication the defeat of the United States and its allies.” It ordered them “to refrain from public discussion of the war,” and not to discuss with students or colleagues any “hostile or offensive expressions concerning the United States or its government.” It is a disgrace that the A.A.U.P. would so cravenly assault the academic freedom of academicians on the basis of national origin.
Arthur Oncken Lovejoy, along with John Dewey, were co-founders of the Association. Professor Lovejoy chaired the A.A.U.P. committee that wrote the Academic Freedom in Wartime report. Professor Lovejoy was born in Berlin, Germany in 1873. He was brought as an infant to the United States in 1875 at the age of two. His mother was German and his father was American. Yet the esteemed philosopher and intellectual historian, in a display of glaring hypocrisy, did not include himself as a potential security risk who might challenge the draft and the efficacy of marching off to war.
During World War I, Americans of German descent were hounded and persecuted either by draconian state action such as in Montana or by the national government. One can only speculate whether Professor Lovejoy’s prowar militarism was intended to escape any association with other German-born Americans that could lead to his loss of academic freedom or privileged social standing as an “elite intellectual.” Yet it is arguable that Lovejoy’s Germanic origins and his crusade against German-born academicians fueled the A.A.U.P. war against academic freedom. The A.A.U.P. co-founder joined the National Security League, a boisterous “preparedness group,” determined to get the U.S. into war and attenuate any internationalist opposition to the conflict.
The Nation magazine’s March 7, 1918 issue contained a courageous denunciation of the A.A.U.P. report as an assault on academic freedom. Titled, “The Professors in Battle Array,” it blasted the Association for delineating areas when a university could fire an antiwar professor without an initial government charge of disloyalty or disruption of the war effort. The Nation, a progressive beacon of independent judgment, charged the A.A.U.P. for undermining “the very conception of a university…The university method is freedom to discuss, freedom to differ, freedom to be in a minority.”
Professor Lovejoy responded to the magazine’s criticism in a letter to the editor on April 4, 1918. It is stunning that the A.A.U.P. co-founder attacked The Nation for supporting “complete academic anarchism.” He stated if the American university would allow unfettered speech during The Great War, it would essentially promote the spread of communism and bring to America, “the Lenines (sic) and the Trotskys.” This is almost thirty-five years before McCarthyism! Despite the persecution of professors who challenged the American entrance into an utterly senseless war, which led to 116,000 U.S. combat deaths and over 200,000 wounded, Professor Lovejoy claimed he sought limits to university dismissals related to pacifist extramural utterances.
The A.A.U.P. report episodically cautions against university dismissals during a period of almost Stalinist-type repression under the Espionage and Sedition Acts, even while refusing to challenge governmental repression of speech. Professor Lovejoy defended one professor who was fired during the war. The Report of Committee on Academic Freedom in Wartime defended an unnamed “distinguished man of science” from “an important university” who was fired after twenty-five years of service for “seditious or treasonable acts.” He had written a letter to his Congressperson challenging the draft and advocating that the army restrict its recruitment to an all-volunteer force. The A.A.U.P. described the professor’s removal as “a grave abuse of the power of dismissal.” It demanded a “trial” with academic due process and asserted that procedural safeguards are even more important during war than under “normal conditions.” Apparently professors from elite universities might qualify for academic freedom protection but not German or Austrian-Hungarian born professors or lesser lights who would take to the streets, much less the classroom, and challenge war and imperialism.
The report expresses a preference that the government and not the university sanction extramural utterances opposed to the barbaric slaughter then soaking the trenches from the English Channel down to Switzerland. Of course the A.A.U.P. should denounce, regardless of its source, any persecution of academicians resisting the barbarity and evil of war. No sanctions should be levied against antiwar protest, whether they are imposed by university administrations or the government.
While Sami Al-Arian was subjected to both governmental and university persecution that included imprisonment, the latter is more common. From Finkelstein to Chehade to Salaita, the bar has been lowered to monitor and punish research, teaching and social-media musings that criticize not only the United States but also the conduct of other nations such as the State of Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. Fine: remove the university from viewpoint cleansing, and the result will be far fewer academicians who are hounded, fired, suspended and abused for exercising an irenic denunciation of war and the baby-killing tactics of collateral damage.
Many countries have truth and reconciliation commissions to recognize past wrongs. In many ways, the World War I A.A.U.P. report is a stain on the reputation of the American Association of University Professors that should be publicly acknowledged during its centennial with a reaffirmation of “never again.” The A.A.U.P.s early years reveal strict limits to its purported dedication to academic freedom. Lovejoy, an iconic, revered co-founder, leaves at best a mixed if not poisoned legacy. On the one hand there are the intrepid beginnings of codifying the parameters of academic freedom, and establishing the tenure system. There is also an intolerant, reactionary nationalism that silenced, with few exceptions, university professors who opposed the war.
The Nation challenged the A.A.U.P.s failure to respect academic freedom in time of war. We need to remember the past, thereby constructing a future with a more consistent ethic that rejects imposing a wartime exemption to academic freedom, the pursuit of the truth and the right of professors to demand peace and justice. As Debs walked free, so should professors now and forever.
I am grateful to Dr. John Wilson whose comment on an earlier post and e-mail introduced me to several of the documents cited above.