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This Day in Resistance History: Emma Goldman sentenced to two years in prison for aiding draft resisters

July 10, 2012

On July 10, 1917, Emma Goldman was sentenced to two years in federal prison for her involvement in the group, the No-Conscription League.

The No-Conscription League was not a pacifist organization, but they did believe that the US involvement in World War I would be disastrous and had no humanitarian goals whatsoever.

The No-Conscription League was formed in May of 1917, shortly after the Wilson administration announced the US would become militarily involved in WWI. Along with this announcement came the forced recruitment of young men known as the draft. Goldman wrote these words when hearing about the draft:

“In these days when every principle and conception of democracy and individual liberty is being cast overboard under the pretext of democratizing Germany. It behooves every liberty loving man and woman to insist on his or her right of individual choice in the ordering of his life and action.”

Goldman was not alone in her assessment of US involvement in WWI. In fact, most of the country had been opposed to US involvement and Wilson was re-elected on a “peace” platform. However, Wilson and his aides had other plans, but before they could publicly announce US entry into WWI they needed to change public opinion. What came next was a watershed moment in US history.

Wilson created what was known as the Committee on Public Information, also known as the Creel Commission, which took its name from George Creel. Creel was joined by the father of the public relations industry, Edward Bernays. Together, they and other members of the Committee engaged in a highly successful campaign to manipulate public opinion, which part involved the demonization of Germans, as is reflected in this poster.

Undeterred by the US government PR campaign in support of the war, Goldman and other members of the No-Conscription League held public debates, created educational material and also began to aid young men who were facing the draft. It was Goldman’s involvement with draft resistance that got her arrested on June 15, 1917, along with Alexander Berkman.

During the trial Goldman gave an passionate speech:

Gentlemen of the jury, we respect your patriotism. We would not, if we could, have you change its meaning for yourself. But may there not be different kinds of patriotism as there are different kinds of liberty? I for one cannot believe that love of one’s country must needs consist in blindness to its social faults, to deafness to its social discords, of inarticulation to its social wrongs. Neither can I believe that the mere accident of birth in a certain country or the mere scrap of a citizen’s paper constitutes the love of country.

I know many people — I am one of them — who were not born here, nor have they applied for citizenship, and who yet love America with deeper passion and greater intensity than many natives whose patriotism manifests itself by pulling, kicking, and insulting those who do not rise when the national anthem is played. Our patriotism is that of the man who loves a woman with open eyes. He is enchanted by her beauty, yet he sees her faults. So we, too, who know America, love her beauty, her richness, her great possibilities; we love her mountains, her canyons, her forests, her Niagara, and her deserts — above all do we love the people that have produced her wealth, her artists who have created beauty, her great apostles who dream and work for liberty — but with the same passionate emotion we hate her superficiality, her cant, her corruption, her mad, unscrupulous worship at the altar of the Golden Calf.

We say that if America has entered the war to make the world safe for democracy, she must first make democracy safe in America. How else is the world to take America seriously, when democracy at home is daily being outraged, free speech suppressed, peaceable assemblies broken up by overbearing and brutal gangsters in uniform; when free press is curtailed and every independent opinion gagged. Verily, poor as we are in democracy, how can we give of it to the world? We further say that democracy conceived in the military servitude of the masses, in their economic enslavement, and nurtured in their tears and blood, is not democracy at all. It is despotism — the cumulative result of a chain of abuses which, according to that dangerous document, the Declaration of Independence, the people have the right to overthrow.

On July 10, 1917, Goldman and Berkman were sentenced to two years in federal prison for conspiring against the draft. They appealed the court decision, which was eventually upheld. The court also ruled that the US government could deport both of them after their two year prison term, a tactic used against many Anarchists and Wobblies during that period.

There is no formal draft today, but young men and women are faced with what some refer to as an “economic draft,” whereby people join the military because few job opportunities exist and it is a temporary way out of poverty. It is well known that military recruiters target poor and often communities of color, which is why in counter-recruitment circles this practice is referred to as an economic draft.

To truly honor the courage of people like Emma Goldman it is important that we do whatever we can to prevent young men and women from entering the military. Here are some links to various groups doing counter-recruitment work and their resources. Also, check out this short video entitled, Before You Enlist.

One Comment leave one →
  1. eg smith permalink
    July 11, 2012 2:48 pm

    Interesting article.

    However, I think that you present a rather sanitized view of Emma Goldman. Nowhere do you mention that she was an anarchist which is critical to understanding the roots of her opposition to war. Moreover, her imprisonment and deportation was part of a decades long campaign of harassment waged against her by the U.S. government because of her revolutionary politics (the same with Berkman).

    I’d also throw out there that to “truly honor the courage” of Emma Goldman, we might want to do a bit more than just making sure that young people don’t join the military. That’s important but it should be part of a larger revolutionary project aimed at destroying the state and the prison society.

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