The History of Domestic Surveillance in WWI America

9/11, The PATRIOT Act, Dick Cheney. These are the people, the places, and the events that one normally associates with the beginning of mass surveillance in America, and while to a certain extent you’d be correct, you’d also be missing the mark by about 90 years or so in the longer scope of things.


Photo: Bob Orsillo / Shutterstock

In 1917, two major events descended into the annals of American history that would forever alter the way that the government viewed its own people.

Instead of seeing them as a source of rich, consistent national pride, they looked out on the masses and feared the potential uprising from dozens of groups and organizations which, at the time, were aligned to ideologies which clashed directly with the US’ concept of freedom, liberty, and the pursuit of “peace”.

When the Espionage Act passed in 1917, the Federal government left no proverbial stone unturned, using all communication channels available at their disposal to secretly monitor as many citizens of the United States proper as they could, given the technology of the time.

The Post Office was the first logical place to start looking, with 90 percent of the country relying on snail mail to communicate their innermost thoughts and possible socialist uprisings with one another while telephones crawled to eventual ubiquitous adoption.

Agents would open up suspicious looking packages, envelopes, and newsletters from members of known socialist and pacifist organizations whom the establishment deemed a threat to either national security, or simply those who might be attempting to spread dissent among the masses.

According to military historian Lon Strauss, the government saw no issue with rifling through the private files of ordinary Americans, seeing it as their nationalistic duty to protect their people from anyone who might be out to do them harm.

“Post Master General Albert S. Burleson used the Post Office as a gatekeeper for censorship. They read Americans’ mail and Burleson took the liberty of determining whether literature, publications, and more would be considered mailable. Once, he pulled a copy of a weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly newspaper, newsletter, etc., he could then legally stop mailing them entirely under the regulations concerning such publications.”

An often buried fact about World War I is that unlike the one which followed it a few short decades later, the nation was split on whether or not America had the economic stability or the rhyme and reason to involve themselves in what had been, until that point at least, a decidedly European conflict.


Photo: Brian A. Jackson / Shutterstock

This meant that instead of the near nationalistic fervor, which lead us into WWII, there was a reasonable amount of disbelief amongst the public before we hit the trenches of France the first time around. The federal government feared that without proper monitoring, grassroots movements could potentially gain enough traction to catch the established order off guard and upset the balance of power, one that was slowly becoming entrenched in the storied halls of the Capitol building in Washington DC.

The act of actually gathering data on state citizens wasn’t exactly difficult either, with a high percentage of the general populous in full trust of their rulers and the powers they chose to exert.

Very few people actually feared the government could do anything close to breaching their first amendment freedoms, and methods of communication like mailing letters and talking on the phone were thought to be entirely safe ways of getting information from one side of the country to the other untouched by anyone else except the person on the other end of the line.

Much like the NSA of 13 years ago, America’s entrance into the theater of war along with the passage of the Espionage Act dropped a ton of responsibility-laced bricks on the laps of Military Intelligence Department, a wing of the US Army that had just barely gotten the walls up in their offices before being given the keys to every post office and telephone switchboard from New York to LA in the swipe of a single signature.

“What was most problematic was cutting through the noise of intelligence gathering to locate real threats. Since there wasn’t much time to prepare for American entrance and the intelligence community had to hit the road running while expanding exponentially, they relied on their instincts and political/social/cultural compasses.

Thus, men like Burleson overstepped and broadly interpreted the wartime legislation like the Espionage Act or Trading with Enemy Act and invaded civilians’ privacy.”

After the war was over, the duty of spying on America fell from the hands of military generals and postmasters into the Bureau of Investigation, which would later become the FBI.

The surveillance apparatus evolved under the guise of J. Edgar Hoover, lasting well into the Cold War and beyond looking for anyone who might be living next door while saluting a flag of the Kremlin hidden behind a secret bookcase stashed somewhere in their garage.

Strauss’ tale teaches us something we should have learned a hundred times over by now: “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it”.

Much like the agencies tasked with finding and weeding out any and all pro-German sympathizers during WWI, the NSA found itself in a unique position in the days after those two towers fell in 2001, and decided to hit the ground running in much the same, if not identical fashion.