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In one of those amazing ironic twists of fate that history loves to throw our way, Woodrow Wilson was re-elected president in 1916 because he, like Debs, opposed America's entry into the Great War.
Yes. You read that correctly. (History is hilarious.)
Wilson labored mightily to keep America out of the fight, but once the U.S. was in it, he went full throttle into channeling all of America's efforts into winning the war. And he was none too keen on dissent.
Wilson would later show this same messianic zeal in pursuing the kind of peace he wanted, fighting fiercely for the Fourteen Points he believed should be part of the Versailles Treaty and almost killing himself campaigning around the country to get the people on his side when the U.S. Senate opposed the treaty. They didn't call him Woodrow "Go Big or Go Home" Wilson for nothing.*
(*Nobody called him that.)
Wilson was someone who acted with great moral certitude and, in 1917, he decided that war was the way to go. Now that that tough decision was over, he was ready to steamroll people who were—in his view—trying to undermine America.
Though Wilson had no big problems with Debs' Socialist critique of the war before America's entry, he argued that:
[…] once the Congress of the United States declared war, silence on his [Debs] part would have been the proper course to pursue. (Source: Berg, A. Scott, Wilson, 2013)
While Americans were fighting and dying, Wilson wrote, "…this man, Debs, stood behind the lines, sniping, attacking, and denouncing them." To those who criticized the harshness of the Espionage Act, Wilson replied that:
[…] a time of war must be regarded as wholly exceptional and that it is legitimate to regard things that would in ordinary circumstances be innocent as very dangerous to the public welfare. (Source: Berg, A. Scott, Wilson, 2013)
Okay, so Wilson did have legitimate arguments for wanting to see Debs in jail. But later, when many people whom Wilson himself admired were asking for Old Gene's release from prison, Wilson remained cold and hard about Debs. "I will never consent to the pardon of this man," he told his Attorney General when he brought forth one of several petitions for Debs' release.
They will say I am cold-blooded and indifferent, but it will make no impression on me. This man was a traitor to his country and he will never be pardoned during my administration. (Source: Berg, A. Scott, Wilson, 2013)
Debs' pardon would have to wait until the presidency of Warren Harding. Ol' Woody was more than happy to see Debs live out his days in the clink.