Copyright

Espionage Act of 1917: Definition & Summary

Espionage Act of 1917: Definition & Summary
Coming up next: Hawaiian Queen Liliuokalani: Quotes & Biography

You're on a roll. Keep up the good work!

Take Quiz Watch Next Lesson
 Replay
Your next lesson will play in 10 seconds
  • 0:01 Background to the…
  • 1:32 Espionage Act of 1917
  • 2:33 Effects of the Espionage Act
  • 4:24 Lesson Summary
Add to Add to Add to

Want to watch this again later?

Log in or sign up to add this lesson to a Custom Course.

Log in or Sign up

Timeline
Autoplay
Autoplay
Speed

Recommended Lessons and Courses for You

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.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Study.com Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use Study.com

Become a Study.com member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about Study.com
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? Study.com has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create An Account
Support