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Unsafe for Democracy
World War I and the U.S. Justice Department’s Covert Campaign to Suppress Dissent
William H. Thomas Jr.

Studies in American Thought and Culture

Paul S. Boyer, Series Editor

“An important and timely book. . . . An invaluable contribution to our understanding of the history of the FBI and of the pernicious legacy of national security policy on the right to dissent.”
—Athan Theoharis, Marquette University, author of The FBI and American Democracy

During World War I it was the task of the U.S. Department of Justice, using the newly passed Espionage Act and its later Sedition Act amendment, to prosecute and convict those who opposed America’s entry into the conflict. In Unsafe for Democracy, historian William H. Thomas Jr. shows that the Justice Department did not stop at this official charge but went much further—paying cautionary visits to suspected dissenters, pressuring them to express support of the war effort, or intimidating them into silence. At times going undercover, investigators tried to elicit the unguarded comments of individuals believed to be a threat to the prevailing social order.

In this massive yet largely secret campaign, agents cast their net wide, targeting isolationists, pacifists, immigrants, socialists, labor organizers, African Americans, and clergymen. The unemployed, the mentally ill, college students, schoolteachers, even schoolchildren, all might come under scrutiny, often in the context of the most trivial and benign activities of daily life.

Delving into numerous reports by Justice Department detectives, Thomas documents how, in case after case, they used threats and warnings to frighten war critics and silence dissent. This early government crusade for wartime ideological conformity, Thomas argues, marks one of the more dubious achievements of the Progressive Era—and a development that resonates in the present day.

“Those now fretting that the Patriot Act has snatched civil liberties away from Americans might read this brief account and come away comforted that things could be worse—much, much worse.”
—Harry Levins, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“Thomas pushes deeper than many predecessors into Justice Department files, beyond the court cases and into the less understood campaign to silence dissent through ‘cautionary visits on suspected opponents of the war.’”
—David Luhrssen, Shepherd Express

“Reveals that actual prosecution was merely the tip of a very large iceberg of political browbeating. . . . Recommended for all libraries.” —Library Journal

William H. Thomas Jr., an independent scholar, received his Ph.D. in history from the University of Iowa. He lives in O’Fallon, Illinois.

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The cover of Thomas's book is black, with a faded photo of a man with his mouth taped shut. An orange sticker announces the Large print edition.

November 2008
LC: 2008011973 D
264 pp.   6 x 9   12 b/w illus.

August 2009

LC: 2008011973 D
470 pp.   7 x 10  13 b/w illus.

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Cloth $34.95 t
ISBN 978-0-299-22890-3
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Large Print Paperback $24.95 t
ISBN 978-0-299-22896-5
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