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Exhibition Echoes of the Great War: American Experiences of World War I

Surveillance and Censorship

Fighting a war in Europe required a clear message and a cooperative public. The federal government established the Committee on Public Information (CPI), which deployed propaganda to convince Americans of World War I's legitimacy and the importance of civic contributions. Congress also passed the Espionage (1917) and Sedition (1918) Acts to enforce loyalty and silence dissent. Postmaster General Albert Burleson used the Espionage Act to ban from the mail those magazines and newspapers he perceived as promoting discord against the government and undermining national unity. Government policies and wartime nationalism encouraged citizens to police one another's loyalty and patriotism. As a result, political dissidents, ethnic minorities, and militant labor organizations and their leaders were subject to increased scrutiny and, on occasion, violence. Ultimately, challenges by citizens to limits on free speech would help create a modern conception of citizenship based on individual rights and civil liberties.