Debs's Merry Christmas, World War I and the Tarnished Legacy of A.A.U.P. Co-founder Arthur Lovejoy


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.

6 thoughts on “Debs's Merry Christmas, World War I and the Tarnished Legacy of A.A.U.P. Co-founder Arthur Lovejoy

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  2. “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.”

    Throughout the last half of its past one hundred years, the AAUP has in effect staunchly defended the right of elite Ivy university administrations to violate the academic freedom of their faculty. This commenter knows of one Yale assistant professor who appealed to the AAUP for assistance in an academic freedom matter and was informed by National AAUP staff that AAUP was aware of and accepted the fact of the Ivies’ “tenure” track of ten years’ duration without the awarding of tenure. It was considered something that AAUP felt it could not reverse — and therefore, apparently, AAUP leaders did not even bother investigating such allegations lest they be in the uncomfortable position of attacking the elites of the nation and forced to censure them. Even a cursory check the rosters of the formal AAUP censure reveals that the AAUP leadership has spent most of its time attacking “smaller fry” of the academic landscape — with the notable exception, of course, of those major universities where a national AAUP leader resides or held sway (e.g. University of Virginia).

    It is citizen rights, and not academic freedom rights, which appear to be at stake in the above-critiqued AAUP statement, because the discussion in the classroom of matters outside of one’s subject has never received the automatic protection of academic freedom, either in the AAUP principles or in the history of court treatment of such speech. Indeed, the Pickering and Waters v. Churchill cases show the U.S.Supreme Court’s affirmation of the right of the government to control the speech of its employees if disruption of its operations is at stake — even in public universities. The Garcetti decision was merely a successor to those rulings, and the Supreme Court has yet to rule on the constitutionality or lack thereof of limits to academic freedom which might devolve from a strict application of that decision to faculty speech.

    As for the support of the government in time of war, and the implied superior positions of the contemporary AAUP leadership, one would likely search in vain for a formal AAUP statement opposing the Patriot Act, for example, and the asserted right of the U.S. President to hold even American citizens without trial in the case of suspected terrorism. In short, the AAUP leadership appears to still stand by the essence of much of the AAUP statement criticized here.

    What is interesting as well is the lack of historical perspective in the posting concerning the rights of women and the determination of citizenship around the time of World War I. Lovejoy’s mother would have become American by her marriage, and thus the American citizenship of his father would have determined both her and his children’s citizenship. Until 1975, German paternity was mandatory for the passing of citizenship to the issue of married parents. It took a major reform of the citizenship laws in Germany around 2000 to grant access to citizenship to those born in Germany, as generations of “guest workers” from Turkey and other countries were denied German citizenship despite birth on German soil on the basis of lack of relation to a German citizen.

    Indeed, in the late eighties, this commenter was informed that to assume a tenured professorship in Germany required a search of the bloodline history for German citizenship ancestry. Ironically, to speak of Lovejoy’s “German” status is to appear to affirm a blood line determination of nationality which “justified” the Third Reich’s “Lebensborn” program and the persecution of Jews and gypsies in the succeeding World War II.

    In short, painting Lovejoy as a German whose AAUP legacy is “poisoned” while, since 9/11, the AAUP leadership has through the force of “qui tacet consentire” essentially accepted legal tenets of “patriotism” unprecedented in this nation’s history — and while the recent and current AAUP leadership has also taken steps to abridge the governance rights of its own membership within the organization — is problematic at best.

    Both Dewey and Lovejoy are turning in their graves.

    • The commenter stated: “discussion in the classroom of matters outside of one’s subject has never received the automatic protection of academic freedom, either in the AAUP principles.” Yes it has: look at the second interpretive comment–a virtual amendment or revision–of the 1940 Statement. It protects say a professor of Etruscan orthography commenting in class the day after the 9/11 attacks that such an incident is significant. As long as one does not “persistently intrud[e]” unrelated material, one may discourse on matters of chosen interest.

      The commenter stated: “Indeed, the Pickering…cases show the U.S.Supreme Court’s affirmation of the right of the government to control the speech of its employees if disruption of its operations is at stake — even in public universities.”
      Actual Pickering expanded the freedom of teachers, in this case a public school teacher in Will County, Illinois, to criticise the school board in a newspaper letter-to-the-editor. Justice Marshall conferred the right of teachers to express opinions on matters of “public importance.”

      • The blog host has confirmed this commenter’s note that speech in the classroom outside of one’s subject matter is _not automatically_ protected by the AAUP principles or the courts in their interpretations of academic freedom protections.

        Further, the intrusion of non-related material is almost universally limited, and sometimes clearly proscribed, in codified definitions of academic freedom, whether in the AAUP principles or the faculty handbooks and collective bargaining agreements of many if not most colleges and universities. This is, of course, a corollary to the rights and obligations of the faculty as a collective in both the pursuit and the profession of the search for truth in the academic disciplines.

        Further, yes, the Pickering case protected public employee First Amendment rights by ensuring that public school teachers could express their opinions on matters of public concern. But the Waters v. Churchill case refined Pickering by ruling that the public employer could supersede that right of expression if the speech was deemed disruptive of the goals and the operations of the public employer.

        Garcetti went even further and, in a case where the speech of the public employee plaintiff uttered in a courtroom was protected but the very same speech uttered in his work place subjected the employee to discipline. Opinions and evidence of corruption in the presentation of a prosecution are clearly matters of “public concern,” yet the highest court in the land ruled that because a public employer deemed it disruptive to encounter the employee’s internal complaint about corruption, then the public employer’s right to a controlled and orderly workplace trumps the First Amendment speech rights of the employee.

        These are just the facts found in the plain English of the documents and the rulings under discussion — no more and no less. They do not necessarily represent the opinions and priorities of this individual commenter.

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