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One Hundred Years Ago, Eugene Debs Gave An Anti-War Speech That Landed Him in Prison


One Hundred Years Ago, Eugene Debs Gave An Anti-War Speech That Landed Him in Prison

Peter Dreier

In 1920, Eugene Victor Debs ran for president from a cell in the federal prison in Atlanta for a speech opposing World War 1 that he gave 100 years ago – on June 18, 1918. Despite his imprisonment, Debs received 913,664 votes – 3.4 percent of the total.

In his speech, the Socialist Party leader told a packed crowd at a park in Canton, Ohio: “You need to know that you are good for something more than slavery and cannon fodder.”


“Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”

Words of a noble and inspirational soul.


If someone shot Trump once he starts a war, and used Debs logic, that the people of a nation have never once in history been responsible for starting a war, as a defense, I wonder what his chances would be of being acquitted for shooting the instigator of the conflict, which threatened the lives of many innocent people on both sides of the manufactured conflict and endangered millions more.


Wow, in 1881 Debs saw that the good of the union work had changed and lost some power—and LOL 100 years later 1981, while the unions were strong—it happened again and Ronald Ray- Gun the terrible actor recreated the 1880s!

I think it was Mark Twain that said ----history doesn’t repeat itself------but it does rhyme-----so let’s see---- History’s rhyme = corporate crime-----that works and to quote the Ray Gun–’ Here we go again…" but this time the Ray Gun shoots nerf balls. : )


I would add that everyone who volunteers for the American military, or works for a military contractor, is pro-war, pro-death, and is an enemy of good.
Look what they did to Chelsea Manning for exposing American war crimes!


Throughout U.S. history, it has been a crime to tell the truth.
It happened to Debs, Manning, Snowden, and hundreds of others.


I disagree with a lot of what Debs said and did. That said, bringing the US into WWI was one of the stupidest and worst actions Wilson took.

It wasn’t our war, it started the US on the road to interventionism, it cost too many lives, cost too much, created the conditions for the Communist dictatorship in Russia, and the Nazi dictatorship in Germany.

And for this, the man went to jail. It’s a shame we don’t learn.


I know that on some rightwing websites people get angry when socialism is mentioned in comments I have made about the situation in Venezuela and me laying the blame on capitalists. I admire what Debs stood for and noted that social is the root word and means for all of the people. This article added to my knowledge of Mr. Debs. Thanks.


Sadly, Debs’ ideas and politics are seen as long gone but his principles still remain valid today. He wasn’t just a sincere anti-war activist but someone who understood capitalism only too well and who strived to abolish wage-slavery, not as Sanders does ie tinker with the system to humanise it. Debs realised capitalism has to go in its entirety.
The goal is not to create a socialist society for the working class but to encourage the working class to build socialism for itself. Using the words of Eugene Debs,

‘If you are looking for a Moses to lead you out of this capitalist wilderness, you will stay right where you are. I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I led you in, someone else would lead you out.’

Debs’ The Appeal to Reason sold more than a million copies a week in the years before the First World War. At its peak in 1912, the radical, if still reformist, Socialist Party of the USA organised 118,000 individual members, published no less than 323 different publications with a combined readership of over two million, polled 900,000 votes in that year’s Presidential election, and elected 1,200 officeholders in 340 cities, including 79 mayors in 24 states. Morris Hillquit ran for Mayor of New York on an anti-war platform in August 1918, called for a negotiated peace, and polled 146,000 votes. Victor Berger was elected and re-elected to Congress.

Socialist opposition to the USA’s entry into the war in 1917 brought a torrent of repression. A total of 2,100 people were arrested and indicted for opposing the war, and over 1,000 convicted, with over 100 of them receiving prison terms of 10 years or more. Debs, the 64 year old party leader, was sentenced in 1918 to 10 years in jail, and was not released until 1921, long after the war was over. 17 Conscientious Objectors were sentenced to death, 142 to life in prison, and 345 to prison terms that averaged 16 years.

And for those who always seek to vote for the lesser evil whether it is Sanders or Clinton or as some believed Trump Debs said

> “I’d rather vote for something I want and not get it than vote for something I don’t want, and get it.”



Less than nil… they probably would call such a defense “illegal” . Ya, they’d string someone up for trying. But good idea.


Chelsea Manning volunteered for the American military and is not “pro-war, pro-death” or an “enemy of good.” While misguided, blind patriotism can be a key motivational reason for voluntarily enlisting in the military, the lure of a stable job, free healthcare, a free education and housing (and coincidentally the cornerstones of socialism) appears to many individuals to be the only way to avoid homelessness and/or prison. Let’s focus on the “Master Class” and not allow ourselves to be divided and conquered during our quest to liberate everyone!


The arrest of Debs was a travesty.


It troubles me when people attempt to absolve adults of the motivations and moral wrongs of their choices.
People who volunteer for the American military do so for mercenary reasons, as you point out–to get training, education, health care, travel, and subsidies for education after they leave the military. They also believe in American imperialism and hegemony. Neither of those are moral motivations.
Chelsea Manning volunteered, and was wrong to do so.
But when she saw that the American military is a war crimes organization, she became a whistleblower, and the government tried to kill her for it.
Most volunteers don’t care that the American military is a war crimes organization. They don’t become whistleblowers, or repent of their service.
They continue directly or indirectly aiding the military’s crimes and then leave the military, having collected their blood money, and are told they are heroes.
The Nuremberg trials are what you should study to see why there’s no excuses for volunteering to serve in the Empire’s rotten death machine.


very informative, thank you peter dreier and common dreams! i learned a lot.


Try to find a single Dem today (liberal, ‘progressive’ or otherwise) who dares to give an anti-war speech – or who even knows who Eugene Debs was. And it’s not like they’d be jailed – or even kicked out of their corrupt capitalist party. Just shows how weak and cowardly they are.

But I’m a purist who thinks bombing innocents abroad is as egregious as the death penalty here in my (now) home state of Ohio. By-the-way: the great “progressive” Sherrod Brown was one of the 38 Dems who approved the latest official military budget which guarantees mores killing around the world, more debt and more austerity…cuz you know, there isn’t enough money to go around.


If a Democrat gave this speech today, Nancy Pelosi would demand his immediate resignation from office & Bernie Sanders would demand the AG to file charges of sedition.


“Congress passed the Espionage Act”… treasonous clownfarts passing laws to protect their treason.

They all should be written out of history and given their place of shame on the traitor ledger. Their legacy of shame should be taught for all to know. Just like the nixon, reagan and bush traitor scum that followed.
Their libraries should be symbolically burned down and their legacy buried in the dirt where it belongs.


Wilson was a proven traitor… every single thing he did was a travesty. He should be dug up every year and hung just for good measure.


There was a commemoration event of Debs Canton speech in Canton last Saturday, sponsored by the Democratic Socialists and the International Socialists Organization. Unfortunately it didn’t get much publicity and only attracted about 50 people. It did attract the Green Party candidate for Ohio Governor, Constance Gadell-Newton, who supports and agrees with just about all of the goals that Debs supported 100 years ago. If you like what Debs stood for and live in Ohio, please consider joining the Greens in trying to create a better World in Ohio this fall. Vote Green!


What I want to know is, being a (former) fan of films, why doesn’t someone like Michael Moore, Robert Redford (better), or Oliver Stone (best), make a blockbuster film about the life of someone like this guy, Eugene Debs. If he could make it as compelling as his JFK was, if he could really lure them in and grab them, it could really (I believe) like novels used to do (“Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, Upton Sinclairs “The Jungle”), ignite a fire in society. I mean it could really open up peoples’ minds, I think. But I suppose I am just being too optimistic. Would a film like this be allowed to go forward?? Well, they actually allowed the movie JFK (which I have always been amazed about), so could he get away with it? I remember when I went to see JFK, after it was over, this guy stood up out of his seat and yelled “We’ve got to to something about this!!”. Which is just the kind of thing I think a really good film could do, but on a vast scale.

Who am I kidding, right?