The Wartime Cabinet


The extravagant abuse of prosecutions for sedition had been the most serious example of hysteria in the First World War. The chief element in the crime of sedition, loosely defined, is incitement by action or language against the government. During a war any criticism of the government is too often construed to be incitement, and severely punished. When, therefore, early in 1942 there were several arrests for “seditious” utterances palpably innocuous, I ordered that the men be released and the prosecutions dropped. One man had expressed the opinion, in a letter to a congressman, that “the Administration of Roosevelt would prove to be as unpopular as the Popular Front government of Daladier and Blum, that undermined the morale of France.” Another had told a small group of listeners that the President should be impeached for asking Congress to declare war. A third, a Danish seaman, had started a barroom brawl by proclaiming that Roosevelt was no good and that he himself was for Hitler. Half a dozen isolationists were held in $25,000 bail each. The journalist Jonathan Worth Daniels noted a few other foolish acts that had followed the declaration of war: a man who booed the President’s picture in a Chicago theater got thoroughly pommeled by his neighbors—he explained that he was a Republican who had contracted the habit of booing Roosevelt on all occasions and had not had time to readjust himself to new conditions of national unity. He was fined $200 by a magistrate—on Bill of Rights Day.

I directed that thereafter no United States attorney should institute any prosecution based on sedition without my personal written authority and that information about arrests already made should be at once reported to me. I announced that freedom of speech should be curtailed only when public safety was directly imperiled. The majority of the press supported this restraint.


Unfortunately, the fifth columnists and their dupes on the lunatic fringe, some of them shrewd enough to find a not-unprofitable way of life in organizing movements based on racial prejudices, took heart at what they considered an official pledge on my part to protect them and allow them to say anything they wanted. A pamphlet, distributed at a West Coast rally, boasted: “Remember: the United States says we have a perfect right to talk—and we will! …”

The attacks on our allies—without foundation of fact and pandering to hatreds of every possible class and race—increased after war had been declared. These were no longer the voices of isolationists concerned lest we should be dragged into a war that was not our business, but the cries of defeatists welcoming a program of domestic fascism calculated to demoralize the war effort. The movement grew; it was apparently well organized and centrally directed. Nor was it a matter of a handful of scattered publications—the Christian Science Monitor estimated that there were nearly a hundred of them.

The “line” in all was about the same and was taken directly from or closely related to official German propaganda: America, not Japan, was guilty of starting the war in the Pacific; American aid to Britain was a Jewish plot, and Roosevelt (“Rosenfeld”) was a Jew; American boys were being killed to support a tottering British and French imperialism; the secret manipulations of the new money power and the munitions makers had brought about the war; fighting was useless against the New Order, and we should retire from the war.

The President began to send me brief memoranda to which were attached some of the scurrilous attacks on his leadership, with a notation: What about this? or What are you doing to stop this? I explained to him my view that it was unwise to bring indictments for sedition—although considering the temper of the times it would be easy to obtain true bills and to convict—except where there was evidence that military recruitment was being substantially interfered with, or where the attacks had some connection with propaganda centers in Germany. I reported that we were in the midst of a study of the material—we must have had a ton of it in the Department—and might ask for some indictments if we could tie up these strident voices with the enemy. Roosevelt was not much interested in the theory of sedition or in the constitutional right to criticize the government in wartime. He wanted this antiwar talk stopped.