Victor Luitpold Berger (1860-1929)

How does our nation deal with those who oppose its wars through nonviolent means or by speaking out against militaristic policies? This is a question that surrounded a piece legislation called the Espionage Act. The Espionage Act was used against Edward Snowden recently, and against Daniel Ellsberg in the 1970s. The act was first passed during World War I, and one of the first people convicted under it was a sitting U.S. congressman.
Daniel Buttry

First Socialist congressperson, indicted under the Espionage Act for anti-militaristic views

Profile image of Victor L. Berger

Library of Congress/Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

Victor Luitpold Berger was born to a Jewish family in a part of Austria-Hungary that is now in Romania. According to some family sources, they emigrated to the U.S. in 1878 to avoid conscription into the army. They settled in Connecticut.

Berger quickly moved on to Milwaukee, Wisconsin with its big German population and active labor movement. He and his wife Meta Schlichting joined the socialists, and Berger became an editor of socialist newspapers. Berger’s writing and speeches, including a visit to prisoners jailed for labor activities, resulted in Eugene Debs joining the socialist cause.

Berger was a founding member of the Social Democratic Party of America and its successor organization the Socialist Party of America. Berger called for engagement in electoral politics to bring about the reforms that would shape a more collectivist society. During a bitter battle within Socialist ranks he supported the expulsion of those who advocated sabotage and violence in the quest for freeing the working class.

In 1910 he became the first Socialist elected to the U.S. Congress, serving as a representative from Wisconsin. He campaigned to eliminate the Presidential veto, abolish the Senate, and for the nationalization of major industries including the wireless system.

Berger supported the Socialist Party’s position against World War I. When the U.S. entered the war the Congress passed the Espionage Act prohibiting interference in military operations or recruiting or supporting the Enemy. The question of freedom of speech immediately came to the fore. The Espionage Act continues is still enforced to this day, having been amended over the years. Daniel Ellsburg of the Pentagon Papers fame and NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden were both charged under that act.

Congressman Berger was indicted under the Espionage Act because of his anti-militarist views along with four other Socialists. He won re-election while under the indictment. The trial was presided over by Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who shortly after became the baseball commissioner and presided over the infamous Black Sox World Series scandal. Berger was convicted in 1919, though the war was over by then. As a result he was barred from taking his position in the U.S. House of Representatives though he had been elected to that seat twice. The House declared Berger’s seat vacant, and an election was held to choose his successor.

Berger’s case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which overturned his conviction in 1921 due to improper judicial actions by Judge Landis. No further legal action was taken by the U.S. government. Berger then ran again for his old seat in Congress, and went on to win re-election for three more terms.