Government action limited Americans’ freedom of speech during the war, when any criticism of the war or how it was unfolding could be grounds for punishment. Intent on creating popular support for the war, Wilson had little tolerance for dissent, insisting that "disloyal" individuals had sacrificed their right to civil liberties.
Wartime measures like the Espionage Act (1917) and Sedition Act (1918) gave the government wide power to suppress dissent. At a time of active socialist and labor movements, those who questioned the war for any reason quickly came under suspicion and were sometimes arrested. The Post Office refused to deliver publications that were critical of the war or the draft, and required foreign-language newspapers to submit translations for approval, causing many to self-censor or to fail economically.
More than 2,000 dissenters were prosecuted by the Department of Justice for allegedly disloyal speech on the grounds that criticism of the war undercut the draft and public support. Federal judges imposed harsh penalties.
Ordinary Americans also eagerly jumped in to stamp out possible sources of dissent. A series of "loyalty" organizations – such as the American Protective League as well as smaller voluntary groups like the Boy Spies of America, the Sedition Slammers, and the Terrible Threateners - aimed to ferret out disloyalty among neighbors and co-workers, especially those of German or Polish descent.
Socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs was sentenced to 10 years in prison for criticizing the war, and 1,500 people were put on trial for opposing the war or advocating resistance to the draft.
More than 11,000 people were deported in 1918 alone under the Alien Act, which allowed the federal government to deport any non-citizen who was a member of an anarchist organization.
The administration was especially worried about anti-war sentiment among workers, and deluged factories with posters, slogans, and speakers to encourage support for the war. Federal agents raided the offices of the antiwar labor union, International Workers of the World, and arrested 300 union leaders.
Headlines like these in the Bridgeport newspapers raised the fear that immigrant organizations were hotbeds of unpatriotic resistance to the war. Eighty-seven men were arrested in Bridgeport as part of the government’s raids during the Red Scare that followed the end of the war. They were taken from homes and Russian social clubs, and many were eventually deported.
"Radicals Arrested," Bridgeport Times November 16, 1919
Woman suffrage activists also faced prison time when they picketed the White House during the war to press Wilson to support suffrage at home as much as democracy abroad.
Helena Hill Weed in prison, 1917. Library of Congress
Helena Hill Weed of Norwalk served a three-day sentence in 1917 for picketing the White House on July 4th, carrying a banner with Wilson's words, "Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed." Her sister, Elsie Hill, also served time in prison after taking part in a protest in Boston where suffragists burned Wilson’s words about liberty and democracy in front of watching crowds.
Theodore Roosevelt 1918: "To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public."
Official pronouncements from Wilson and others about the dangers of immigrants who did not support the war fueled fears among old-stock Americans that their positions and values were threatened by newcomers.
Fears that immigrants and others who opposed the war would assist enemy governments and interfere with wartime production ran deep in Bridgeport. Nearly 75% of the workforce was made up of immigrants and their children. Afraid of sabotage of the city’s wartime factories, the local militia and Home Guard units patrolled public spaces, military intelligence surveilled the city’s plants, and local police suppressed pacifist demonstrations. Fairfield armed twelve special deputy sheriffs with rifles, shotguns and automatic revolvers to patrol the reservoir dams at Samp Mortar and the Hemlocks. These heavily armed guards were ready to protect the water supply from trouble, which never materialized.
Many immigrants welcomed the opportunities the war created; tens of thousands served in the U.S. military and developed closer ties to their adopted country. A massive Fourth of July parade in 1918 declared the loyalty of different immigrant groups: Russian, Lithuanian, Slovak, Italian, Police, German, Swedish, Hungarian, Rumanian, Greek and Armenian alike. Americanization campaigns undertaken during the war in Connecticut cities and towns tried to bind immigrants more closely to the United States, teaching English and civics and encouraging them to become citizens.
“Thousands Likely to Be Evicted in ‘Restricted Zone,'” Bridgeport Evening Farmer, April 14, 1917
Immigrants who worked in Connecticut factories and lived in its cities became a target for fear and hostility during the war. Immigrants from Germany and Austria-Hungary were prohibited by state law from living in areas close to important factories or harbors, and were required to register with the police, who watched for any signs of disloyalty. A Bridgeport ordinance allowed police to sweep through the city during a strike; over 5,000 such “slackers” were arrested during a summer of strikes in 1918 and turned over to the draft board for induction.
"Start Drive to Rid Country of All Hun Things," Bridgeport Evening Farmer, April 10, 1918
Across the country, these fears also led to large-scale deportations, attacks on foreign-language newspapers and magazines, and hostility towards all things foreign or politically radical (including immigrant organizations, newspapers, and languages). Vigilante attacks against German-Americans increased, including harassment, beatings, and even lynching. Stores owned by German-Americans were attacked, performers were driven off stage, and many with German names changed them. German, the most widely taught foreign language in 1914, virtually disappeared from high school and college curricula. In Connecticut, the governor banned instruction in foreign languages in elementary schools.
“Local Residents of Teuton Birth Loyal to Nation,” Bridgeport Evening Farmer, February 5, 1917