Seventy-five years ago this week, amidst all the demands of the New Deal moment that he was defining, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued a remarkable proclamation that had particular significance for Wisconsin.
The proclamation had was of practical significance to roughly 1,500 Americans.
But it had a symbolic meaning, not just for those individuals but for a nation that was still struggling to heal the divisions of a war that, while long ended, still strained the fabric of a nation that needed, desperately, to reconcile itself for the economic struggles of the Great Depression.
WHEREAS, in and by the Constitution of the United States of America, it is provided that the President “shall have power to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States, except in cases of impeachment,” and
WHEREAS, various persons have been from time to time convicted in the Courts of the United States of violations of certain statutes enacted during the war between the United States and the Imperial German Government and Imperial Austro-Hungarian Government, to wit:
Section 3 of Title 1 of the Act approved June 15, 1917, entitled “An Act to punish acts of interference with the foreign relations, the neutrality, and the foreign commerce of the United States, to punish espionage, and better to enforce the criminal laws of the United States, and for other purposes” (40 Stat. 217); and said section as amended by the Act approved May 16, 1918 (40 Stat. 553); or of a conspiracy to violate the same;
Conspiracy to violate Section 5 of the Act approved on June 15, 1917, entitled “An Act to authorize the President to increase temporarily the Military Establishment of the United States” (40 Stat. 76); and said Section as amended by the Act approved August 31, 1918 (40 Stat. 955); and
WHEREAS, the emergency contemplated by the aforesaid statutes has long expired;
Now, THEREFORE, Be it known, that I, Franklin D. Roosevelt, President of the United States of America, in consideration of the premises, divers other good and sufficient reasons me thereunto moving, do hereby declare and grant a full pardon to all persons who have heretofore been convicted of a violation of any of the foregoing statutory provisions or of a conspiracy to violate the same, and who have complied with the sentences imposed on them; provided, however, that such pardon shall not be construed to pardon such persons for any offenses other than those designated herein, whether committed prior or subsequently to the offenses herein designated.
FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELTThe White House,December 23, 1933
Roosevelt’s decision to restore full citizenship rights to World War I dissenters – including some who as young men had refused to join the fight on foreign soil between Kings and Kaisers – was much more than a conciliatory act.
Assuming the presidency at a time of great national hurting, with banks collapsing, unemployment surging and the Great Depression seeming to worsen by the day, Roosevelt well the understood the necessity of unity. And he recognized that old divisions over a distant war posed a threat to that unity.
In many parts of the United States, but especially in the upper Midwest, World War I was never a popular war. Progressives, Farmer-Laborites, Non-Partisan Leaguers and Socialists had opposed it. The great leader of the anti-war opposition’s congressional force, Wisconsin Senator Robert M. La Follette, a renegade Republican who would eventually seek the presidency on a platform of populist economics at home and anti-imperialism abroad, had been threatened with official censure. One of La Follette’s allies in the fight, Milwaukee Socialist Victor Berger, was repeatedly denied the seat to which he had been elected in the U.S. House. The great orator of the grassroots opposition to the war, Eugene Victor Debs, was arrested, tried and jailed. From his Georgia prison cell, Debs would seek the presidency on the Socialist line in 1920 and secure a million votes. (The man who beat Debs in that election, Republican Warren Harding, commuted the aging Socialist’s sentence on December 24, 1921, and then invited Debs for a post-Christmas talk at the White House.)
By 1933, La Follette, Berger and Debs were all dead. But the bright young men and women who had sided with them in the struggle against what they believed to have been an unjust and unnecessary war, were still struggling with the stigma of standing in opposition at a point when the federal government chose to repress dissent.
Roosevelt, who had served as assistant secretary of the Navy in the administration of President Woodrow Wilson during World War I, had been a supporter of Wilson’s decision to join the European conflict. But, as president, he wanted to force an alliance of Democrats and those to their left – in those days of a richer and more diverse politics, the Congress included Republicans who proudly described themselves as “radicals,” and Farmer-Laborites, Non-Partisan Leaguers and members of the other regional parties of the left that became essential pieces of the New Deal puzzle that FDR was assembling. Many had cut their political teeth as opponents of the war; some like North Dakota’s Gerald Nye were still pursuing investigations into war-profiteering by munitions merchants.
Roosevelt made it his purpose to try and minimize and erase old differences and divisions, arguing for “the new spirit of dependence one on another; for the closer unity of all parts of our wide land; for the greater friendship between employers and those who toil; for a clearer knowledge by all nations that we seek no conquests and ask only honorable engagements by all peoples to respect the lands and rights of their neighbors; for the brighter day to which we can win through by seeking the help of God in a more unselfish striving for the common bettering of mankind.”
The 32nd president’s Christmas-season pardon of the World War I dissenters is little recalled today. But the action he took 75 years ago did much to expand the New Deal coalition that would see America through the dark days of the Great Depression. It is a lesson that another Democratic president, who inherits his office in hard times and will need to forge broader and bolder coalitions if he hopes to meet the challenges of those times, would do well to study and emulate.