For centuries, men wrote poems of war that glorified the battlefield and idolized the fallen. This sort of wartime poetry can be found in the ancient literature of Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, China, and certainly Greece. The Iliad and the Aeneid take the Trojan War as their starting points. The fighting men in these scenarios were traditionally strong, brave, wily, and above all, loyal to their gods and their countries.

Wilfred Owen – handsome, young, quintessentially English – changed all that. In the trenches of World War I, Owen composed poems that described, realistically, the horrors of war, and the particular horrors of that war. Owen studied at the University of London before enlisting in 1915. On the battlefield a mortar propelled him onto the body of another soldier. A series of other harrowing events followed, and he was sent home to convalesce. During this period he composed some of his best work. In 1918, though, he was sent back to the front. He was killed while attempting to cross a canal in France, just one week before the war came to an end.

Like so many others of his generation, Owen joined the British Expeditionary Force to fight the Kaiser. In the No Man’s Land of the Western Front, however, the cartoonish German stereotypes popularized by the British press in the days preceding the war dissolved. Owen found himself shooting at, and being shot at by, young men who looked a lot like himself. His most famous poem takes place in Hell, where Owen has sought respite from battle, and tells of a surreal meeting with a man he had killed the day before.

Strange Meeting

It seemed that out of the battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which Titanic wars had groined.
Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall;
By his dead smile, I knew we stood in Hell.
With a thousand fears that vision’s face was grained;
Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground,
And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.
“Strange, friend,” I said, “Here is no cause to mourn.”
“None,” said the other, “Save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair,
But mocks the steady running of the hour,
And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something has been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled.
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress,
None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.
Courage was mine, and I had mystery;
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery;
To miss the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.
I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.
Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.
I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark; for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now . . .”

On May 16, 1918 Congress passed the Sedition Act, making it a crime to make false statements about the United States’ participation in World War I; to insult the Constitution, the government, the flag, or the military; to agitate against the production of war supplies; or to advocate, teach or defend any of these acts.  The Act, which Woodrow Wilson championed, was targeted at pacifists and especially socialists, who were despised for many reasons but not least because the Bolsheviks had recently engineered Russia’s withdrawal from the war.  Germany’s disarmament at Versailles silenced it for the next fifteen years, and without its old sometime enemy to check its growth, the U.S.S.R. became a legitimate military power. 

Socialism had already gained some foothold in Britain, and within the United States as in Europe, it found support among the working class.  The days of robber barons and industrial monopolies were not long past.  Eugene V. Debs, an Indiana Democrat, formed one of the country’s earliest labor unions.  While in prison for striking he became a socialist.  The New York Times called Debs “a law-breaker at large, an enemy of the human race” for his advocacy of labor strikes and unionization.  Wilson hated him.

Debs was arguably the most famous American to be prosecuted under the Sedition Act.  Clarence Darrow, in a move that ought to be appreciated by Paul Clement, dropped  his corporate railroad clients to defend him.  But Darrow called no witnesses, and Debs spoke to the jury on his own behalf.  He reportedly said, in part:

Your honor, I have stated in this court that I am opposed to the form of our present government; that I am opposed to the social system in which we live; that I believe in the change of both but by perfectly peaceable and orderly means….
I am thinking this morning of the men in the mills and factories; I am thinking of the women who, for a paltry wage, are compelled to work out their lives; of the little children who, in this system, are robbed of their childhood, and in their early, tender years, are seized in the remorseless grasp of Mammon, and forced into the industrial dungeons, there to feed the machines while they themselves are being starved body and soul….
Your honor, I ask no mercy, I plead for no immunity. I realize that finally the right must prevail. I never more fully comprehended than now the great struggle between the powers of greed on the one hand and upon the other the rising hosts of freedom. I can see the dawn of a better day of humanity. The people are awakening. In due course of time they will come into their own.When the mariner, sailing over tropic seas, looks for relief from his weary watch, he turns his eyes toward the Southern Cross, burning luridly above the tempest-vexed ocean. As the midnight approaches the Southern Cross begins to bend, and the whirling worlds change their places, and with starry finger-points the Almighty marks the passage of Time upon the dial of the universe; and though no bell may beat the glad tidings, the look-out knows that the midnight is passing – that relief and rest are close at hand.

Let the people take heart and hope everywhere, for the cross is bending, midnight is passing, and joy cometh with the morning.

 Debs was sentenced to ten years in prison.  He appealed to the Supreme Court, and Chief Justice Holmes wrote a brief opinion incorporating the Court’s previous holding in Schenck v. United States, in which the Court famously delineated its “clear and present danger” test for First Amendment protection of speech.  (Schenck  also concerned socialist speech, prosecuted on that occasion under the Espionage Act of 1917.)   Hatred of socialism in America went on to become a practical patriotic necessity.  In fact, a “Red Scare” during the nineteen twenties led to the transformation of the Ku Klux Klan from a loose confederation of militias enforcing Jim Crow to a national organization united against Jews, Catholics, blacks, homosexuals and communists.  

 Schenck, the apex of Free Speech limitation, was finally eviscerated in Brandenburg v. Ohio, in which the Court reversed the conviction of a man charged with spreading KKK propaganda.  Today a Google search for “socialism and KKK” makes for interesting, and frightening, reading.