Espionage Act of 1917: Definition & Summary

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  • 0:01 Background to the…
  • 1:32 Espionage Act of 1917
  • 2:33 Effects of the Espionage Act
  • 4:24 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jason McCollom
As America entered World War I, the Espionage Act of 1917 empowered the government to crush dissent and imprison outspoken pacifists. Learn about this act and test yourself with a quiz.

Background to the Espionage Act

It is unthinkable today that you could be arrested, tried, and imprisoned for criticizing the U.S. government or the president, or for simply speaking out against American foreign policy. But during America's time in World War I, disagreeing with the government's official line could land you in jail for 20 years!

World War I began in 1914, and for almost three years the U.S. stayed out of the conflict. Most Americans believed in the long-standing tradition of keeping out of European affairs. But by early 1917, a combination of German submarine attacks and the Zimmerman Note, a telegram discussing a potential German-Mexican alliance, convinced President Woodrow Wilson to ask Congress for a declaration of war against Germany and the Central Powers.

On April 2, 1917, the president received congressional approval to wage war. But not everyone supported America's entry into the conflict. Six U.S. Senators and fifty U.S. congressmen voted against the war authorization. And there were many thousands in the U.S. who were convinced that American neutrality was the best policy, and that going to war in Europe was the height of folly.

President Wilson recognized the need to get all Americans behind the war effort. He said that once we 'lead this people into war, and they'll forget there ever was such a thing as tolerance,' and that antiwar dissent must be 'crushed out.'

The Espionage Act of 1917

The Espionage Act was designed to crush subversion and silence critics of the war. For those convicted of aiding the enemy, obstructing military recruitment, protesting conscription, or saying or doing anything to impede the war effort, the maximum fine was up to $10,000 and 20 years in a federal prison. Those Americans that were drafted but refused to fight also faced prosecution under the Espionage Act.

The Espionage Act also empowered the U.S. Postmaster General to stop the dissemination and mailing of any publication he deemed treasonous or insufficiently patriotic. Within the first year of the Espionage Act, 45 newspapers had their postal rights rescinded.

In 1918, the Sedition Act, an amendment to the legislation, broadened the scope of the Espionage Act. The Sedition Act made illegal any utterance that was considered disloyal toward the U.S. government, the Constitution, or the military.

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