Christmas Day, 1921, the prison gates opened and Eugene Victor Debs was free at last! Other than Dr King and Henry David Thoreau, the great Debs is perhaps America’s best known political prisoner. He spend a lot more time in prison that did Dr King and Thoreau during the Mexican War. Warren Gamaliel Harding, one of Americaâ€™s most underrated presidents, displayedÂ rareÂ political courage in commuting Debsâ€™s sentence to time served. He was liberated as a persecuted political prisoner from the American gulag that included theÂ federal penitentiary in Atlanta. His â€œcrimeâ€ was opposing the draft during The Great War (1914-1918). Debs was a five-time presidential candidate of the Socialist Party and whileÂ â€œcampaigningâ€ from prison in 1920, received his largest vote total ofÂ 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. Debsâ€™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 Americaâ€™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 grandÂ inquisitor during and after World War I. For a unanimous Supreme Court, Justice Holmes wrote theÂ opinion that Mr. Debsâ€™sÂ anti-draft advocacy was an obstruction of the war effort and was excluded fromÂ First Amendment protection. As withÂ 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-makingÂ authority of the government.
Examples abound of Mr. Debsâ€™s riveting oratory that resulted in his thirty-two month incarcerationÂ as aÂ prisoner of conscience during the Wilsonian, â€œWar to make the world safe for democracyâ€:
I have been accused of obstructing the war. I admit it. Gentlemen, I abhor war. I would oppose war if I stood aloneâ€¦. 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 jokeâ€¦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, butÂ two years before the United States entered the war in April, 1917. IfÂ Mr. Debs wereÂ a professor, the American Association of University Professors most assuredly would have declaredÂ hisÂ direct-action, civil disobedience did not meritÂ academic-freedom protection.Â The A.A.U.P., in only its third year, released in 1918 aÂ Report of Committee on Academic Freedom in Wartime. The report was chilling in its nationalistic deference to the U.S. governmentâ€™s suppression of antiwar activism and protest.Â In particular the A.A.U.P. displayed an ethnocentric xenophobia when it proclaimed it â€œprobableâ€ that German or Austro-Hungarian born professors â€œdesire the victoryâ€¦and by implication the defeat of the United States and its allies.â€ It ordered them â€œto refrain from public discussion of the war,â€ and not to discussÂ with students or colleagues any â€œhostile or offensive expressions concerningÂ the United States or its government.â€ It is a disgraceÂ that theÂ A.A.U.P. would so cravenlyÂ assault theÂ academic freedom of academicians on the basis of national origin.
Arthur Oncken Lovejoy, along withÂ John Dewey, wereÂ co-founders of the Association. Professor Lovejoy chaired the A.A.U.P. committee that wroteÂ the Academic Freedom in Wartime report.Â 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.Â His mother was German and his father was American. Yet the esteemed philosopher and intellectual historian, in a display of glaringÂ hypocrisy, did not includeÂ himself as a potential security risk who mightÂ challenge the draft andÂ the efficacyÂ of marching offÂ 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 speculateÂ whether Professor Lovejoyâ€™s prowar militarism was intendedÂ to escape any association with otherÂ German-born AmericansÂ that could lead to his loss of academic freedom or privileged social standing as an â€œelite intellectual.â€ Yet it is arguable thatÂ Lovejoyâ€™s Germanic originsÂ and his crusade againstÂ German-born academicians fueledÂ the A.A.U.P. war against academic freedom. TheÂ A.A.U.P. co-founder joined the National Security League, a boisterous â€œpreparedness group,â€ determined to get the U.S. into war and attenuate any internationalist opposition to the conflict.
The Nation magazineâ€™s March 7, 1918Â issue contained a courageousÂ denunciation ofÂ the A.A.U.P. report as an assault on academic freedom. Titled, â€œThe Professors in Battle Array,â€ 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 underminingÂ â€œthe very conception of a universityâ€¦The university method is freedom to discuss, freedom to differ, freedom to be in a minority.â€
Professor LovejoyÂ responded to the magazineâ€™s criticism in a letter to the editor on April 4, 1918. It is stunning that the A.A.U.P.Â co-founder attackedÂ TheÂ Nation for supporting â€œcomplete academic anarchism.â€ 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, â€œthe Lenines (sic)Â and the Trotzkys (sic).â€ ThisÂ isÂ almost thirty-five years before McCarthyism! Despite the persecution ofÂ professors who challenged the American entrance into an utterly senseless war, which led to 116,000 U.S.Â combat deaths and over 200,000 wounded, Professor Lovejoy claimed he sought limits to university dismissals related to pacifistÂ extramural utterances.
TheÂ A.A.U.P. report episodicallyÂ cautions againstÂ university dismissals during a period of almost Stalinist-type repression under the Espionage and Sedition Acts, even whileÂ refusing to challenge governmental repression of speech.Â Professor Lovejoy defendedÂ one professor who was fired during the war. TheÂ Report of Committee on Academic Freedom in Wartime defended an unnamed â€œdistinguishedÂ man of scienceâ€ from â€œanÂ important universityâ€ who was fired after twenty-five years of service for â€œseditious or treasonable acts.â€ He had written a letter to his Congressperson challenging the draft and advocating that theÂ army restrictÂ its recruitment to an all-volunteer force. The A.A.U.P. described the professorâ€™sÂ removalÂ as â€œa grave abuse of the power of dismissal.â€ It demanded a â€œtrialâ€ with academic due process and asserted that procedural safeguards are even more important during war than under â€œnormal conditions.â€ Apparently professors from elite universities might qualify forÂ academic freedom protection but not German or Austrian-Hungarian born professors or lesser lightsÂ who would take to the streets, much less the classroom, and challengeÂ war and imperialism.
TheÂ report expressesÂ a preference that the government and not the universityÂ sanction extramural utterances opposed to the barbaric slaughter then soaking the trenchesÂ from the English Channel down to Switzerland.Â Of course the A.A.U.P. should denounce, regardless of its source, any persecution of academicians resisting the barbarity and evil of war. NoÂ sanctions should be leviedÂ against antiwar protest, whether they are imposed byÂ university administrations orÂ the government.
While Sami Al-Arian was subjected to both governmental and university persecution that includedÂ 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 otherÂ nations such as the State of Israel forÂ its treatment of the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. Fine: removeÂ the university fromÂ viewpoint cleansing, and the result will be far fewer academicians whom are hounded, fired, suspended and abused for exercising an irenic denunciation of war and the baby-killing tactics of collateral damage.
Many countriesÂ have truth and reconciliationÂ 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 ProfessorsÂ that should beÂ publicly acknowledgedÂ during its centennial with a reaffirmation of â€œnever again.â€Â The A.A.U.P.s early years reveal strict limitsÂ to its purported dedication to academic freedom. Lovejoy, anÂ iconic, revered co-founder, leaves at best a mixed if not poisoned legacy. On the one hand there areÂ the intrepid beginnings of codifying the parameters ofÂ academic freedom, and establishingÂ the tenure system. There is also an intolerant, reactionaryÂ nationalism that silenced, with few exceptions, university professors who opposed the war.
TheÂ Nation challengedÂ the A.A.U.P.s failure to respect academic freedom in time of war. We need toÂ remember the past, thereby constructingÂ a future with a moreÂ consistent ethic that rejects imposing aÂ wartime exemptionÂ toÂ 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 whoseÂ comment on an earlier post and e-mail introduced me to several of the documents cited above. Opinions are mine, of course, and this post, with some revisions, first appeared in Academe, the A.A.U.P. Blog. Long live socialism, long live freedom for the worker and for the establishment of health care as a right NOT a privilege.