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Montana's "Inquisition" and Wikileaks


So you are a little girl in grammar school in 1917. Your name is Christine Shupp. You related to a neighbor here in Montana that as a child you were forced every morning after the pledge of allegiance to the flag to kneel down on the floor and kiss the flag. It is because you were German. And say you are a rancher in Rosebud County, Montana in 1918 and you call WWI “a millionaire’s war”. Whamo, you are dragged off by neighbors to jail. You're in a saloon and call war time food regulations "a big joke" and you are sentenced to from 7 to 20 years.

Montana played a huge part in suppressing free speech during WWI. In light of all the noise about Julian Assange, Wikileaks, and Joe Lieberman's "upgrading" The Espionage Act of 1917, it 's probably a good idea to take a look backwards to the Montana Council of Defense. (Yes, President Obama and MSNBC, it's a good idea to look backwards because leaning forwards can more often than not have you falling on your face.)

Historian K. Ross Toole wrote a chapter called "The Inquisition" in his book "Twentieth Century Montana: A State of Extremes" about a very dark time in Montana's history. At the beginning of WW I, Woodrow Wilson formed a National Council of Defense and asked each state and each county in the state to help with war propaganda, helping in recruitment of troops, and getting people to buy Liberty Bonds. The Montana Council of Defense went whole hog into this endeavor and was especially keen on finding "slackers" and "draft dodgers". The Governor of Montana, Sam Stewart called a special session of the legislature in part to make the Montana Council of Defense a legal body with funding by the state. The legislature also passed the Sedition Act and the Criminal Syndicalism Act, which the federal government would use as a model for the federal Sedition Act which was an amendment to the Espionage Act of 1917. This act was probably one of the harshest anti-speech laws ever passed in the United States.

In order to root out "vipers circulating the propaganda of the junkers", as Governor Stewart called them, local Councils of Defense made up of "upstanding" business men were appointed by the conservative Democratic governor. They gave themselves subpoena power and wide berth in issuing orders. Order Number One made it illegal to have parades, processions, or other public demonstrations (except funerals) without permission from the governor. Order Number Two locked up vagrants, prostitutes, and drunks and anybody that didn't work at least five days a week. Order Number Three ordered librarians to remove books like "First German Reader", "German Songs", "A Summer in Germany" and "German Compositions". It also forbade the speaking of German which led to the Mennonites leaving for Canada. The orders had a strong moral Puritan tone to them and from February to October of 1918. the Council passed 14 more orders.

These county councils were determined to discover disloyal thought and along with the Montana Loyalty League and Liberty Committees were very busy during these years pitting neighbor against neighbor and class against class. They would haul in neighbors if they didn't think that they bought enough Liberty Bonds or publish their names and the amount of contributions in the paper. "A bond shirker is an enemy to humanity and liberty, a traitor and a disgrace to his country." The law stated that

"...any person or persons who shall utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, violent, scurrilous, contemptuous, slurring, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States, or the constitution of the United States, or the soldiers or sailors of the United States, or the flag of the United States, or the uniform of the army or navy...or shall utter, print, write or publish any language calculated to incite or inflame resistance to any duly constituted Federal or State authority in connection with the prosecution of the war...shall be guilty of the crime of sedition." (p. 276 "Montana: A History of Two Centuries")

There were heroes in this period. District Attorney Burton K. Wheeler, District Judge George M. Bourquin, and Attorney General Sam Ford tried to stem the tide of war hysteria. In 1917 Judge Bourquin acquitted the rancher Ves Hall who had remarked that the Germans had a right to sink the Lusitania if it was carrying munitions and that the United States had no business being in this "Wall Street millionaire's war." Judge Bourquin couldn't see how a rancher in a little town of 60 people and 60 miles away from the nearest railroad could possibly put military operations in jeopardy by these remarks. This is the case that set off the firestorm and led to the Governor calling the special legislative session. They tried to impeach Bourquin but were unsuccessful, but Judge Crum who was a character witness for Ves Hall was impeached.

District Attorney Wheeler was hauled in front of the Council but unlike the often quivering neighbors, Wheeler was a force of nature and promptly turned to accusing the council of misdeeds. (Note: He is a particular hero to Governor Schweitzer.) The Anaconda Company lawyer blamed him for not prosecuting aliens. Wheeler gave an explanation of treason that we all should remember. Treason cannot be based on rumor, "only on the basis of law":

"There is such a thing as a treasonable utterance in common parlance, but as matter of law there is treason, but there is not any such crime as treasonable utterance."

The Council also hauled in William Dunne, editor of the radical labor Butte newspaper, the Bulletin. Dunne was a harsh critic of the Anaconda Company, the mining company that controlled Montana politics and most newspapers. He "considered the council not only illegal but foolish and motivated by antediluvian politics." He denied any affiliation with the I.W.W., but made no secret of his Marxist views." He was dismissed but later was arrested. Judge Bourquin dismissed the case but the local council finally convicted Dunne and fined him $5000. But the war by that time was over and the hysteria was abating. The Supreme court would later reverse this decision.

The Republican Attorney General, Sam Ford, wrote a letter to the Council reprimanding them for violence against people attempting their right to make public speeches. He wrote:

"It is true that we are at war and that the life of the nation is at stake; and these conditions may so affect the minds of overzealous patriots and persons of hysterical tendencies as to lesson their powers clearly to analyze civil rights...but mob spirit is fraught with serious menace to society and to the most precious liberties of the people of the state."

Eventually 76 men and 3 women would be convicted in Montana in the war years and 41 of them sentenced from 10 t0 20 years in prison. In 2006, Governor Schweitzer pardoned all of them; the culmination of efforts by law students at the U of Montana to seek the pardons.

Time to take serious looks backward and to remember that we are, or at least were, a nation of laws.

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twig's picture
Submitted by twig on

This is all news to me.

And what a great line you have here:

(Yes, President Obama and MSNBC, it's a good idea to look backwards because leaning forwards can more often than not have you falling on your face.)

Isn't "lean forward" the same as "bend over"?

Submitted by MontanaMaven on

I knew about the hanging of the labor organizer Frank Little in Butte because of so much writing on the Anaconda Copper Company and the strikes by workers at the mines during W.W. I, but I didn't know about these creepy local councils.

Right now we have a new group in our town called "The Committee for Community Integrity" dedicated "to shining a flashlight in the dark corners of this community." The first thing that this latest incarnation of the John Birch Society did was shine a light on a group of citizens that reclaimed a piece of land by the river and made a walking trails park out of it. It was all done with donated labor and money. This committee thinks that this "sustainable" park is a front for the U.N.'s Agenda 21. This committee is against all government grants and when the group of do-gooders came to the City Council to apply for a grant for the park, the council dominated by tea party oath keeping integrity members, turned them down. Then one council member told the ladies that this park was a cancer in the community that must be cut out.

History repeating itself.

gmoke's picture
Submitted by gmoke on

And at the same time, their Congresswoman, Jeannette Rankin, voted against WWI (and later voted against WWII).

Of course, Jeffrey Toobin will be happy to remind us that the USA has changed since then and therefore we have nothing to worry about.

Submitted by MontanaMaven on

And Wheeler was ousted from his office. But later Wheeler became a Senator and Rankin was voted back into office in 1940 and voted against the war again.
Three days after Sam Ford sent his letter to The Council they prevented Rankin from speaking in Deer Lodge because of her I.W.W. and Non Partisan League leanings.

Submitted by Randall Kohn on

In Mae Brussel's outline of SABOTAGE! THE SECRET WAR AGAINST AMERICA by Michael Sayers & Albert E. Kahn, it is noted:

At the request of Senator Gerald P. Nye of N. Dakota, on Aug. 1 1941 Sen. Bennett Champ Clark of Missouri introduced Senate Resolution No. 152, which said that movies & radio have been used for propaganda for participation in the war. Therefore, the Committee on Interstate Commerce will investigate any propaganda by the movie industry.

The Committee on Interstate Commerce was headed by Senator Burton K. Wheeler of Montana, leader of the America First Committee congressional bloc.

The America First "investigators" objected to the anti-Nazi films:

The Great Dictator
Confessions of a Spy
Man Hunt
I Married a Nazi

but not the Nazi-produced films, like Victory In The West.

EA Piller's Time Bomb, a 1945 expose of native fascism, is now online. It contains many references to Wheeler, his associates, and his utterances. One of several excerpts:

As Senator from Montana, Burton K. Wheeler is a man of
some influence in America. His quoted views can be said to
carry some weight. During 1941, Wheeler made a nationwide
speaking tour sponsored by the America First Committee, one
of the organizations named in the first two indictments for
alleged sedition as a vehicle used by the defendants to spread
their propaganda.

Gerald W. Johnson, writing in the July 8, 1944 issue oi :
Cottier's magazine, says of Burton K. Wheeler, "He was the
idol of the America First Committee, he was praised extrava-
gantly by every German and Japanese agent in the country, he
was in the group cited by Doctor Paul Josef Goebbels as the
only true Americans, his speeches were not only quoted in the
German press but were circulated extensively by various ex-
tremely active persons who are now in jail/'

Elizabeth Dilling in the March 21, 1941 issue of her Patriotic
Research Bureau Newsletter talks of the "friendly visit I en-
joyed with him (Wheeler) before leaving Washington ... we
saw eye to eye on every topic discussed/*

A very bad man indeed.

Submitted by MontanaMaven on

In the 1920 Governor's race, he was called "Bolshevik Burt". He was La Follette's running mate in the 1924 presidential campaign for the Progressive Party. Something happened to him. Does anybody know what happened? Seemed it started when he started fighting Roosevelt in 1933 becoming more and more conservative.