Preserving American Freedom

The Evolution of American Liberties in Fifty Documents

American Freedom and the World: External Threats, Internal Dissent

By Emily Rosenberg, University of California, Irvine

Sign of the V 8749.JPG

"Sign of the V" pin. Historical Society of Pennsylvania Collection of World War II Papers (Collection 1479), box 34, folder 15.

The brief documents in this section illustrate the difficulty that twentieth-century Americans have faced in defining freedom. As their nation became a major global power, when did its spreading influence advance, and when did it limit, freedom at home and abroad? Americans disagreed then over the answers to this question, and the debate continues today.

Around the turn of the last century, the United States joined other industrial nations in a race for imperial possessions. During the 1800s, territorial expansion had preoccupied Americans. The Indian Wars and the war with Mexico had turned the United States into a large continental power. America's war against Spain in 1898, however, extended the nation's imperial reach overseas. The United States annexed Hawaii, took the Philippines and Puerto Rico as colonies, and in 1903 signed protectorate treaties with Cuba and Panama. The word "imperialism" generally bears a negative connotation today, but many turn-of-the-century leaders proudly embraced "American imperialism." They insisted that the extension of US rule would spread liberty to places that lacked free institutions. Nonetheless, as Moorfield Storey's 1900 speech suggests, those who equated US colonial rule with the expansion of freedom faced a challenge. A growing anti-imperialist movement argued that imposing militarized rule, which denied self-determination to colonial areas, hardly qualified as extending freedom. Storey, a prominent member of the influential Anti-Imperialist League that formed in opposition to America's imperial policies, proclaimed that "men thus absolutely at the mercy of a foreign power can by no stretch of language be called free, and it is the government of the United States that denies them their freedom." Anti-imperialists argued that empire-building both subjugated unwilling people outside America and endangered freedom at home by promoting militarism and favoring the special interests of those Americans who invested and traded overseas. As the US military tried to subdue Filipino independence fighters after 1900, the resultant war became ever more vengeful, and anti-imperialists' views grew ever more persuasive. Although the Philippines remained a US possession until after World War II, the bloody colonial war there helped discredit the claim that empire and freedom were compatible. American leaders in the future generally avoided colonial grabs of territory and instead focused on developing economic and cultural connections to expand US influence overseas.

The Philippine-American War seemed to have settled the argument over whether overtly imperial wars advanced freedom, but new controversies arose over the role of the United States in the world. A political assassination in 1914 at Sarajevo touched off a series of events that embroiled most of Europe—and then much of the rest of the world—in a "Great War." With Britain, Russia, France, Italy, and Japan arrayed against Germany and Austria-Hungary (the Central Powers), Americans debated whether to enter the conflict. President Woodrow Wilson initially echoed the dominant antiwar political sentiment, even promising during the 1916 presidential campaign to keep America out of the war. In April 1917, only a few months after beginning his second term in office, however, Wilson proclaimed that a German-led victory would so endanger "freedom of the seas" and other liberties that the United States needed to act. Congress declared war against the Central Powers, and the nation belatedly entered what would later be known as World War I.

The wave of mass immigration from Europe, which had accelerated during the 1890s, produced a US population with vastly varying sentiments toward the Great War and toward America's decision to participate in it. The Wilson administration consequently worried about how to "Americanize" the large foreign-born population, thwart antiwar activity, and prevent enemy agents from hiding among non-English-speaking groups. Pressed by the president, Congress authorized the first thoroughgoing, modern propaganda program to swing popular sentiment behind the war. It also enacted tough criminal measures, including the first national sedition act since that of 1798, against action or speech that challenged the war effort. Antiwar activists argued that the Wilson administration's censorship efforts, together with surveillance and jailing of dissenters, showed how readily wars extinguished freedoms in the name of advancing them.

Pressures on immigrant communities to prove their "100% Americanism" by supporting the war can be seen in the "Declaration of Men of Many Races." Here, delegates from the many "races" in America (in this day, the word "race" was often used to denote national origin) echoed the Wilson administration's propaganda themes: Germany stood for tyranny and brutality, the United States for freedom and democracy. Diverse immigrant communities represented at this gathering pledged to bond together in their hatred of the autocratic German government. With the upsurge of wartime nationalism, more and more immigrants filed for American citizenship. Many people, however, remained less than enthusiastic about the war than those who signed this document. Immigrants from Ireland, who supported the effort to free their native land from British imperial rule, understandably scoffed at any claim that an alliance with Britain contributed to freedom. African Americans, many of whom suffered disenfranchisement, Jim Crow segregation, and "lynch law" in the South, insisted that their service in the war "to save the world for democracy" should bring them greater freedoms at home. These two groups, one might note, were either not invited or declined to participate in the signing of this "declaration." The document can prompt fruitful discussion of difficult questions: In time of war, what should be the boundaries of social change? Of dissent? Of governmental power?

The complicated relationship between war and freedom, shown during both the Philippine-American War and World War I, became even thornier as the United States faced three fascist states—Italy, Nazi Germany, imperial Japan—and the communist Soviet Union. Under all these systems, tight governmental control over media, labor systems, and even family life left citizens largely "free" only to serve the state and its military goals. The brutality of Germany's Nazi government and the attack by Japan at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on December 7, 1941, galvanized the American people into a common cause and finally led to full-scale US participation in World War II on the side of the Allies. Although many Americans had opposed involvement in any foreign wars during the 1920s and 1930s, by 1941 a growing number came to see the threat of fascism as too great to ignore. A speech entitled "The Fight for Freedom," echoing themes from the "Declaration of Men of Many Races," proclaims that Americans "came from every country almost in the world . . . because of what America stood for"—"human freedom." After America entered World War II, despite an alliance with the despotic Soviet Union and with European powers that hoped to retain their colonial empires, the war gained broad support as a "fight for freedom."

Most Americans embraced the claim that the victory of the Allies would expand freedom at home and abroad. Government officials justified as a short-term necessity the policy of shipping Japanese Americans living on the West Coast to internment camps despite any evidence of disloyalty. Because it seemed imperative for Americans to pull together to do war work, business leaders and public officials joined together in branding intolerance based on class, race, ethnicity, or gender as unpatriotic. Nazi-style fascism in Germany championed a racialized state, which would eliminate people whom Nazi leaders deemed inferior; the fight against fascism thus helped bolster a more inclusionary, pluralistic view of freedom in America. During and after the war, many Japanese Americans, who had suffered in the camps yet retained their loyalty to America, joined other Asian Americans, African Americans, Mexican Americans, and American Indians to argue for greater access to the rights and opportunities previously accorded mainly to people with white skin. The postwar Civil Rights revolution thus owed a considerable debt to the fight against fascism abroad.

Although cooperating with the Soviet Union helped bring victory in World War II, the wartime alliance fell apart during the late 1940s, and US-Soviet rivalry spiraled into a Cold War that lasted for nearly half a century. Materials circulated by groups such as American Women Against Communism reveal the long-simmering hatred of communism, even during World War II. Such views helped justify the need to launch a Cold War "crusade for freedom" that centered on pursuing anticommunist policies at home and abroad. Both Democratic and Republican administrations of the Cold War era followed the precedents of the World War I era by orchestrating programs of propaganda and surveillance in the name of national security.

Some Americans, however, resisted so closely identifying anticommunism with freedom. Communist movements around the world had long championed labor rights, women's rights, and antidiscrimination policies. The brutal Soviet system was half a world away. Moreover, people and groups at home sometimes used the rhetoric of anticommunism to curb new freedoms for labor unions and women and to maintain racial subordination, particularly in the South. As anticommunist crusading became more and more extreme during the early 1950s, some charged that its abuses were proving to be a significant threat to Americans' freedoms to speak, organize, and even vote.

Freedom, after all, was a complicated thing. The freedom of whites to live in a society marked by racial exclusion conflicted with the freedom of those excluded to lead dignified lives of opportunity. The freedom of businesses to operate without negotiating with labor unions conflicted with the freedom of workers to organize collectively. The fear of communism competed with the fear of anticommunist extremism. Read together, American Women Against Communism's mailer and the first issue of the Pennsylvania Civil Rights Congress's periodical Let Freedom Ring suggest some of the tensions that the Cold War era's emphasis on freedom helped to underscore. In a clash of competing freedoms, which should have priority? Who had the power to define the greatest threats?

Taken as a whole, these documents can help illuminate how, throughout the twentieth century, Americans differed over the concept of freedom while their country engaged in imperial ventures, fought fascism during World War II, and confronted communism during the Cold War. They illustrate the difficulty of agreeing upon external and internal dangers to freedom even as they offer insight into citizen debates over freedom's definition and over policies to protect and expand it.

Emily Rosenberg is Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine. Specializing in the history of United States international relations and in transnational history, she is the editor, most recently, of A World Connecting: 1870-1945, published simultaneously in English and German by Harvard University Press and Beck Publishers.