Citizenship and Objection

Advocates of peace argued for the continuation of American neutrality. Objection to the war became identified as dangerous to the nation. Political fear and the controversy of war opposition led to the first Red Scare in the U.S.


The U.S. entry into World War I was met with an outpouring of patriotism and support for the war effort—sentiments George Creel and the Committee on Public Information’s media campaign reinforced over the next two years. Not all Americans, however, favored their country’s involvement. There was opposition to both the war and the government’s policy of conscription. Many believed the war financially benefited arms and munitions manufacturers at the disproportionate cost of ethnic and racial minorities and those of low socioeconomic status. Many recognized the war effort would not “make the world safe for democracy” even among all Americans.

In a reversal of pre-war attitudes, objection to the war was considered dangerous to the nation. The controversy of criticizing the war, combined with the fear of socialism, led to the first Red Scare in the United States. Congress passed the Espionage Act of 1917 to silence those that continued speaking out and promoting “disloyal” behavior. It made it illegal for any person to deliberately “cause or attempt to cause disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal of duty in the military or naval forces of the United States” or to intentionally “obstruct the recruiting or enlistment service of the United States.” Thousands of people were arrested and charged for alleged disloyal or seditious speech. Amid the patriotism, heightened by wartime hysteria, those accused were met with little sympathy from American society.

In 1918, Congress built upon the Espionage Act by passing the Sedition Act, which banned the use of “disloyal, profane, scurrilous or abusive language” about the United States government, flag or military that caused others to view the American government or its institutions negatively. It also allowed the postmaster general to prevent delivering mail that had similar language or beliefs. Both the Espionage Act and the Sedition Act were upheld in the Supreme Court, notably in Debs v. United States and Schenck v. United States, the latter stating that “When a nation is at war many things that might be said in time of peace are such a hindrance to its effort that their utterance will not be endured so long as men fight and that no Court could regard them as protected by any constitutional right.”

Only after World War I ended did government officials and the American public come to believe that those who opposed the war had been treated unfairly and in violation to their constitutional rights. Those sent to prison, like socialist leader Eugene Debs, were released and pardoned. The Supreme Court also amended its wartime decisions, reversing controversial cases where they did not protect American citizens’ constitutional rights.

Topic Resources

SUBJECTS: U.S. History, Government

GRADE LEVELS: 5-8, 9-12


Citizenship and World War I

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Primary Source

Emma Goldman and the Restriction of Civil Liberties, 1919

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Lesson Plan

Rights and Responsibilities and Responsibilities in Wartime

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Conscientious Objectors

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