Harding vs. FDR: Civil Liberties

FBI agents arrived in the dead of night, kicked in the front door, ransacked the house, and dragged away the patriarch for the crime of being born the wrong race in a time of national hysteria. This was not the work of President Harding, or even President Donald Trump; it was President Franklin Roosevelt’s doing.

Within hours of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, federal agents began arresting Japanese-American community leaders, some 1200 in all. According to Richard Reeves, the FBI had “Suspect Enemy Aliens” lists “secretly compiled … with the help of the Census Bureau. Merchants, priests, teachers, newspapermen, and heads of various civic organizations were arrested without charges within forty-eight hours of the attack on Pearl Harbor. More than a thousand of them were from California, Oregon, Washington, and Hawaii. Thirteen of them were women.”

The campaign of terror did not end there. In one of the most atrocious violations of civil liberties in American history, something that is scarcely imaginable today, FDR signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, ordering the detention of more than 120,000 Japanese-Americans in ten concentration camps, some 70 percent of whom were natural born US citizens.

In 1944, the United States Supreme Court, in one of its most infamous decisions, Korematsu v. United States, upheld Roosevelt’s order, calling it a “military necessity” to protect against “the danger of espionage and sabotage.”  

FDR routinely used FBI investigations, surveillance, and illegal wiretaps against his critics inside the government and in the press, and utilized the IRS as a weapon to go after political enemies, such as Huey P. Long. He consistently threatened to cut federal money and patronage to states and localities that failed to do his political bidding. 

“Enemies of the State” fared far better under Warren Harding. Eugene Victor Debs was the nation’s leading socialist. A longtime labor leader, he had been a candidate for president on the Socialist Party ticket in 1900, 1904, 1908, and 1912, each time garnering a few more votes. He had been a guest of the state on numerous occasions. 

An opponent of “Wilson’s War” from the start, on June 16, 1918, Debs spoke at a rally in Canton, Ohio. “Wars throughout history have been waged for conquest and plunder,” Debs declared, and always at the behest of the nation’s rulers. “The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and all to lose—especially their lives.” The master class has “always taught and trained you to believe it to be your patriotic duty to go to war and to have yourselves slaughtered at their command.” But their “patriotic duty never takes them to the firing line or chucks them into the trenches,” he said. 

Debs was later arrested by federal agents and charged with violating the 1917 Espionage Act. After his conviction, he received a ten-year prison sentence.

In 1919, the US Supreme Court, in Schenck v. United States, upheld the constitutionality of the Espionage Act, for, in the words of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, there was a “clear and present danger” to the United States. The same year, in a unanimous vote, the Court upheld Debs’ conviction under the law.

Languishing in an Atlanta prison, Debs ran for president once again in 1920, where he received nearly a million votes. His catchy slogan was “For President Convict No. 9653.” Woodrow Wilson had no problem with Debs’ stay in the penitentiary for exercising his right of “free” speech. Releasing him early was never a consideration. 

But Warren Harding, certainly no friend of Debs, saw the matter differently. He told a friend that he had “heard men in Congress say things worse than the utterances upon which he was convicted and the men in Congress, of course, went scot free.”

In December 1921, President Harding commuted Debs’ sentence, against the advice of his Attorney General, Harry Daugherty, because, he told a friend, it was “the right thing to do.” Twenty-three additional political prisoners were also freed the same day. Harding made only one condition, that Debs visit him in the White House as soon as he could. 

A few days later, Debs was in President Harding’s office. “Well, I have heard so damned much about you, Mr. Debs, that I am now very glad to meet you personally,” Harding said. After the meeting, Debs told reporters that Harding was “a kind gentleman, one whom I believe possesses humane impulses.”

Ryan S. Walters is an independent historian who currently teaches American history at Collin College in North Texas. He is the author of The Jazz Age President: Defending Warren G. Harding by Regnery History. 

Sources and Further Reading

Thomas Fleming, The New Dealers’ War: FDR and the War Within World War II, New York: Basic Books, 2001.

Burton W. Folsom, Jr., and Anita Folsom, FDR Goes to War: How Expanded Executive Power, Spiraling National Debt, and Restricted Civil Liberties Shaped Wartime America, New York: Threshold Editions, 2011.

Richard Reeves, Infamy: The Shocking Story of the Japanese American Internment in World War II, New York: Picador, 2015.


One thought on “Harding vs. FDR: Civil Liberties

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  1. I’d never heard this about Harding previously. Our right to peacefully disagree with our government needs always to be protected at the highest levels. Hats off to President Harding.

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