(HOST) On Veterans Day, President George W. Bush attacked those who have accused him of invading Iraq under false pretenses as deeply irresponsible. As commentator Barrie Dunsmore explains, Presidents trying to stifle dissent in wartime is nothing new.
(DUNSMORE) Perilous Times is a recent book by University of Chicago professor Geoffrey Stone. It is subtitled Free Speech in Wartime – from the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism. In his introduction Stone says, “The United States has a long and unfortunate history of overreacting to the perceived dangers of war-
time. Time and again Americans have allowed fear and fury to get the better of them. Time and again Americans have suppressed dissent, imprisoned and deported dissenters and then later – regretted their actions.”
With the nation armed for war with France, the Federalists enacted the Sedition Act of 1798 with President John Adams’ active encouragement. The law prohibited any person from writing, publishing or uttering anything of a “false, scandalous and mali-
cious” nature against the government of the United States. A congressman by the name of Lyon strongly condemned President Adams and his new law – and for that became the first person indicted under the act. Perhaps it will not surprise you to hear, if you didn’t already know, that Mathew Lyon represented Vermont.
Sixty years later, during the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus, whereby a person being held by government authorities can seek a judicial ruling on the legality of his or her detention. Lincoln’s critics were extraordinarily vitriolic, and this led to some arrests. In one infamous case a mili-
tary tribunal convicted, imprisoned and then exiled the leader of the Copperheads, a national anti-war movement.
During World War I, the Espionage and Sedition Acts allowed President Woodrow Wilson’s administration to prosecute as
many as two thousand opponents of the war, and those convicted routinely got ten to twenty years in prison. Twenty-five years later, Franklin Roosevelt’s administration interned 120,000 people for committing no other crime than being of Japanese descent.
The Cold War, which immediately followed World War II, was marked by abusive government loyalty programs, legislative investigations and criminal prosecutions under both Democratic President Truman and Republican President Eisenhower. The decade long witch-hunt for Communists was, according to Professor Stone, “perhaps the most repressive period in
During the Vietnam War, the FBI had a far-reaching program to “expose, disrupt and otherwise neutralize” dissident political activities. Under Presidents Johnson and Nixon, thousands were prosecuted for involvement in violent anti-war demonstrations and for expressing contempt for the war by burning flags and draft cards.
Which brings us to today – the war on Terror, the Iraq War and the Patriot Act. By the standards of previous wars, the current threats to civil liberties and freedom of speech have been, so far, less egregious. Howard Dean hasn’t been locked up, as he might have been during other wars. But we must always be on guard, especially when Presidents, as George Bush did last Friday, equate dissent with disloyalty – and criticism of their policies to undermining the war effort.
This is Barrie Dunsmore.
Barrie Dunsmore is a veteran diplomatic and foreign correspondent for ABC News, now living in Charlotte.