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Defining Documents in American History: Dissent and Protest

Antiwar Speech

by Jonathan Rees, PhD

Date: 1918

Author: Eugene V. Debs

Genre: Speech

Summary Overview

The American trade union leader, orator, and Socialist Party activist Eugene Debs was a master at making what might look today like radical political ideas seem as American as apple pie. A student of history as well as politics, Debs regularly invoked the memory of the Founding Fathers to make his policy suggestions seem more acceptable. Motivated by an unyielding sense of justice, he often tried to shame authorities to do what he thought was right. Whether addressing audiences at a labor rally or on the campaign trail, Debs invariably came back to a sharp critique of the American political system, touting the virtues of his brand of Socialism. His goal as a politician was not necessarily to win elections but instead to inspire listeners by his own example and to win converts to the Socialist cause. In a country with no Socialist legacy—unlike many European countries where Socialism was established—it is really quite remarkable that Debs had any success at all as a politician. That success was due in no small part to the power of Debs’s oratory and prose. In his 1918 Antiwar Speech, Debs associates military warfare with class warfare.

Defining Moment

American entry into the First World War brought with it unprecedented efforts by the federal government to limit speech and actions it deemed detrimental to the war effort. The Espionage Act of 1917 outlawed interference with military recruitment and military activities or operations. President Woodrow Wilson had asked Congress to pass such a law in 1915 (before the United States was involved in the war). In 1918, Congress passed the Sedition Act, which extended prohibited activities to criticism of of the government or war effort including “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language.” A number of anti-war publications and writers, particularly socialist ones, were targeted under these laws.

Debs began a speaking tour because the Socialist press that he had depended upon to distribute his writings was wiped out by the government censorship enabled by the Espionage and Sedition Acts. Debs knew he was risking his already failing health and his freedom by speaking out. He toured anyway. The words that Debs spoke at Nimisilla Park in Canton, Ohio, before twelve hundred people were little different from the ones he had spoken at earlier stops on his tour. What made this speech different was the presence of a government stenographer and the willingness of the local U.S. attorney, E. S. Wertz, to prosecute Debs (against the advice of Wertz’s superiors) for what he said.

Author Biography

Eugene Victor Debs was a trade union leader, orator, and frequent Socialist Party candidate for the presidency of the United States. He was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, in 1855. While working his way up through the hierarchy of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, an important railroad union, he was elected city clerk in Terre Haute in 1879. He also served one term in the Indiana state legislature in 1885. In 1893 Debs cofounded the American Railway Union (ARU), an industrial union that, unlike most exclusive railroad brotherhoods of the era, admitted railroad workers of all skill levels. As the leader of that organization, Debs led the infamous Pullman strike of 1894.

In 1895 Debs was convicted of interfering with the mail as a result of his refusal to abide by that injunction. Debs’s political views were greatly affected by the Socialist literature he read during his short stay in jail. Indeed, this incarceration would prove to be the pivotal point of his entire life. 4Upon his release Debs announced his conversion to Socialism. He also changed career paths from being a trade union leader to being a political leader. Debs would serve as a Socialist Party presidential candidate five times: 1900, 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920. His best showing occurred in 1912 when he came close to garnering a million votes. That was 6 percent of the total votes cast in that election. In 1918 Debs was convicted of sedition for this Canton, Ohio, anti-war speech. Debs had to run his final campaign for president as a protest candidate from his jail cell. Between elections Debs toured the country giving speeches and writing articles that critiqued the American capitalist system and championed the cause of Socialism. Debs died in 1926 at the age of seventy.

Historical Document

Comrades, friends and fellow-workers, for this very cordial greeting, this very hearty reception, I thank you all with the fullest appreciation of your interest in and your devotion to the cause for which I am to speak to you this afternoon.

To speak for labor; to plead the cause of the men and women and children who toil; to serve the working class, has always been to me a high privilege; a duty of love.…

I realize that, in speaking to you this afternoon, there are certain limitations placed upon the right of free speech. I must be exceedingly careful, prudent, as to what I say, and even more careful and prudent as to how I say it. I may not be able to say all I think; but I am not going to say anything that I do not think. I would rather a thousand times be a free soul in jail than to be a sycophant and coward in the streets.…

If it had not been for the men and women who, in the past, have had the moral courage to go to jail, we would still be in the jungles.…

There is but one thing you have to be concerned about, and that is that you keep foursquare with the principles of the international Socialist movement. It is only when you begin to compromise that trouble begins. So far as I am concerned, it does not matter what others may say, or think, or do, as long as I am sure that I am right with myself and the cause. There are so many who seek refuge in the popular side of a great question. As a Socialist, I have long since learned how to stand alone. For the last month I have been traveling over the Hoosier State; and, let me say to you, that, in all my connection with the Socialist movement, I have never seen such meetings, such enthusiasm, such unity of purpose; never have I seen such a promising outlook as there is today, notwithstanding the statement published repeatedly that our leaders have deserted us. Well, for myself, I never had much faith in leaders. I am willing to be charged with almost anything, rather than to be charged with being a leader. I am suspicious of leaders, and especially of the intellectual variety. Give me the rank and file every day in the week. If you go to the city of Washington, and you examine the pages of the Congressional Directory, you will find that almost all of those corporation lawyers and cowardly politicians, members of Congress, and misrepresentatives of the masses—you will find that almost all of them claim, in glowing terms, that they have risen from the ranks to places of eminence and distinction. I am very glad I cannot make that claim for myself. I would be ashamed to admit that I had risen from the ranks. When I rise it will be with the ranks, and not from the ranks.…

They tell us that we live in a great free republic; that our institutions are democratic; that we are a free and self-governing people. This is too much, even for a joke. But it is not a subject for levity; it is an exceedingly serious matter.…

Wars throughout history have been waged for conquest and plunder. In the Middle Ages when the feudal lords who inhabited the castles whose towers may still be seen along the Rhine concluded to enlarge their domains, to increase their power, their prestige and their wealth they declared war upon one another. But they themselves did not go to war any more than the modern feudal lords, the barons of Wall Street go to war. The feudal barons of the Middle Ages, the economic predecessors of the capitalists of our day, declared all wars. And their miserable serfs fought all the battles. The poor, ignorant serfs had been taught to revere their masters; to believe that when their masters declared war upon one another, it was their patriotic duty to fall upon one another and to cut one another’s throats for the profit and glory of the lords and barons who held them in contempt. And that is war in a nutshell. 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.

They have 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 in all the history of the world you, the people, have never had a voice in declaring war, and strange as it certainly appears, no war by any nation in any age has ever been declared by the people.

And here let me emphasize the fact—and it cannot be repeated too often—that the working class who fight all the battles, the working class who make the supreme sacrifices, the working class who freely shed their blood and furnish the corpses, have never yet had a voice in either declaring war or making peace. It is the ruling class that invariably does both. They alone declare war and they alone make peace.…

If war is right let it be declared by the people. You who have your lives to lose, you certainly above all others have the right to decide the momentous issue of war or peace.…

The heart of the international Socialist never beats a retreat.

They are pressing forward, here, there and everywhere, in all the zones that girdle the globe. Everywhere these awakening workers, these class-conscious proletarians, these hardy sons and daughters of honest toil are proclaiming the glad tidings of the coming emancipation, everywhere their hearts are attuned to the most sacred cause that ever challenged men and women to action in all the history of the world. Everywhere they are moving toward democracy and the dawn; marching toward the sunrise, their faces all aglow with the light of the coming day. These are the Socialists, the most zealous and enthusiastic crusaders the world has ever known. They are making history that will light up the horizon of coming generations, for their mission is the emancipation of the human race. They have been reviled; they have been ridiculed, persecuted, imprisoned and have suffered death, but they have been sufficient to themselves and their cause, and their final triumph is but a question of time.

Do you wish to hasten the day of victory? Join the Socialist Party! Don’t wait for the morrow. Join now! Enroll your name without fear and take your place where you belong. You cannot do your duty by proxy. You have got to do it yourself and do it squarely and then as you look yourself in the face you will have no occasion to blush. You will know what it is to be a real man or woman. You will lose nothing; you will gain everything. Not only will you lose nothing but you will find something of infinite value, and that something will be yourself. And that is your supreme need—to find yourself—to really know yourself and your purpose in life.

You need at this time especially to know that you are fit for something better than slavery and cannon fodder. You need to know that you were not created to work and produce and impoverish yourself to enrich an idle exploiter. You need to know that you have a mind to improve, a soul to develop, and a manhood to sustain.…

To turn your back on the corrupt Republican Party and the still more corrupt Democratic Party—the gold-dust lackeys of the ruling class—counts for still more after you have stepped out of those popular and corrupt capitalist parties to join a minority party that has an ideal, that stands for a principle, and fights for a cause. This will be the most important change you have ever made and the time will come when you will thank me for having made the suggestion.…

There are few men who have the courage to say a word in favor of the I.W.W. I have. Let me say here that I have great respect for the I.W.W. Far greater than I have for their infamous detractors.…It is only necessary to label a man “I.W.W.” to have him lynched as they did Praeger, an absolutely innocent man. He was a Socialist and bore a German name, and that was his crime. A rumor was started that he was disloyal and he was promptly seized and lynched by the cowardly mob of so-called “patriots.”

War makes possible all such crimes and outrages. And war comes in spite of the people. When Wall Street says war the press says war and the pulpit promptly follows with its Amen. In every age the pulpit has been on the side of the rulers and not on the side of the people. That is one reason why the preachers so fiercely denounce the I.W.W.…

Political action and industrial action must supplement and sustain each other. You will never vote the Socialist republic into existence. You will have to lay its foundations in industrial organization. The industrial union is the forerunner of industrial democracy. In the shop where the workers are associated is where industrial democracy has its beginning. Organize according to your industries! Get together in every department of industrial service! United and acting together for the common good your power is invincible.

When you have organized industrially you will soon learn that you can manage as well as operate industry. You will soon realize that you do not need the idle masters and exploiters. They are simply parasites. They do not employ you as you imagine but you employ them to take from you what you produce, and that is how they function in industry. You can certainly dispense with them in that capacity. You do not need them to depend upon for your jobs. You can never be free while you work and live by their sufferance. You must own your own tools and then you will control your own jobs, enjoy the products of your own labor and be free men instead of industrial slaves.

Organize industrially and make your organization complete. Then unite in the Socialist Party. Vote as you strike and strike as you vote.

Your union and your party embrace the working class. The Socialist Party expresses the interests, hopes and aspirations of the toilers of all the world.


bore a German name, and that was his crime: reference to the widespread paranoia of the time regarding Germans and eastern Europeans, seen by many to be terrorists and spies

class-conscious: aware of one’s role in what Debs saw as the historic struggle between the workers and the capitalists

comrades: a term used at the time by a wide spectrum on the far left to indicate brotherhood in the international workers’ movement

industrial democracy: a system of government whereby the workers act as a single union and thereby effectively control the government

proletarians: industrial workers

sycophant: someone who plays up to the rich and powerful

Document Analysis

Much of the speech deals with specific controversies, like the case of the jailed trade unionist Tom Mooney, that do not resonate down to this day, but there are many passages in the text that demonstrate Debs’s ability to inspire. For example, near the beginning of the speech, Debs jokes openly about the possibility of getting arrested. Indeed, he suggests that he would rather be arrested than remain silent about the injustice around him. His willingness to speak under threat of arrest was undoubtedly as important in inspiring his listeners as any particular phrase he spoke that day. Notably, much of the speech is devoted to attacks not just on the government but also on Wall Street. He attacks Wall Street for greed and shortsightedness in the exploitation of its employees. Debs is arguing that the worse conditions get, the better Socialism will do. In fact, Debs suggests that the triumph of Socialism in America is near, an argument that might have seemed strange at a time when Socialists and Socialism had been largely silenced by government repression.

In the speech, Debs repeats his long-standing critique of the two-party system. He calls both the Democratic and Republican parties corrupt, presumably because of their mutual embrace of the war. He recommends organizing along industrial lines, meaning workers from all skill levels, just as the ARU had done. He then suggests that joining the Socialist Party is the political equivalent of industrial organization. If your union embraces the working class, he suggests, your political party should too. While the positions of the Socialist Party were unpopular at the time, Debs argues that a brighter day would come as long as his listeners remained true to themselves.

It is also worth noting that Debs defended the IWW during his speech, despite his differences with the organization. “Let me say here that I have great respect for the I.W.W.,” he told the crowd. “Far greater than I have for their infamous detractors.” This is an excellent illustration of how the Left came together in the face of a common enemy, in this case the Wilson administration. In September 1917, months before Debs spoke, the U.S. Justice Department had simultaneously raided forty-eight IWW meeting halls across the country, arresting 165 leaders. While this did not destroy the organization entirely, it certainly rendered it incapable of effectively opposing the war. The example of the Wobblies could not have been far from Debs’s mind when he spoke in Canton. That Debs spoke there (and elsewhere beforehand) is a testament to his courage. He would arrested and tried for his violation of the sedition act.

As was the case after the Pullman strike, Debs did not deny the charges against him. “I wish to admit the truth of all that has been testified to in this proceeding,” he told the jury that eventually convicted him. “I would not retract a word that I have uttered that I believe to be true to save myself from going to the penitentiary for the rest of my days.” Indeed, Debs refused to mount any defense at all. Although he was convicted, he did not die in prison or even serve his entire ten-year sentence. Combat in World War I ended in 1918, but the United States did not sign a peace treaty to end the war formally until after Warren Harding became president in 1921. With peace officially at hand, Harding pardoned Debs and other political prisoners who had opposed the war, effective that Christmas. Debs was in poor health before he ever went to jail. His time in prison undoubtedly accelerated his decline.

Essential Themes

In his two-hour speech, Debs made no direct reference to World War I, which raged in Europe at the time. Instead, he attacks war in general, most notably in this famous passage: “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.” That quotation is nothing but an eloquent way of associating military warfare with class warfare, a point that has been made many times since. Unfortunately for Debs, the government and much of the public were unwilling to accept any public opposition to a conflict that was, in fact, fairly unpopular compared with other wars throughout American history. Simply pointing out that different social classes are affected differently by war was enough to get Debs arrested.

Bibliography and Additional Reading


Kennedy, David M., Over Here: The First World War and American Society (New York : Oxford University Press, 2004).


Kohn, Stephen M., American Political Prisoners: Prosecutions under the Espionage and Sedition Acts (Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 1994).


Murphy, Paul L., World War I and the Origin of Civil Liberties in the United States (New York: W. W. Norton, 1979).


Stone, Geoffrey R., Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime from the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004).


Thomas, William H., Jr. Unsafe for Democracy: World War I and the U.S. Justice Department’s Covert Campaign to Suppress Dissent. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2008).

Citation Types

MLA 9th
Rees, Jonathan. "Antiwar Speech." Defining Documents in American History: Dissent and Protest, edited by Aaron Gulyas, Salem Press, 2017. Salem Online,
APA 7th
Rees, J. (2017). Antiwar Speech. In A. Gulyas (Ed.), Defining Documents in American History: Dissent and Protest. Salem Press.
CMOS 17th
Rees, Jonathan. "Antiwar Speech." Edited by Aaron Gulyas. Defining Documents in American History: Dissent and Protest. Hackensack: Salem Press, 2017. Accessed May 17, 2024.