Given that expediency makes the difference between winning and losing, there are good arguments for presidential wartime powers. But, Woodrow Wilson set a precedent, for abusing those powers, that has been emulated ever since. Wilson used his wartime powers to manipulate the public and even more disturbingly, to limit their constitutionally given rights.
Though America’s involvement in the war was more popular than not, Wilson created a propaganda machine in his committee of Public Information. By executive order, this group produced films, posters, publications and gave speeches to convince Americans that it was the patriotic thing to support not just the war effort and the vilifying of those against it, but Wilson’s foreign policy objectives also. That foreign policy – intervention in the name of democracy – would set the tone through the cold war and even to the present.
Though Wilson was given power to broadcast his side of the story, he would not tolerate those who wanted to tell a different side of that story. Through executive order, he clamped down on any dissent of the war, his policies or the government and prevented the democratic discourse concerning the nations actions. Besides putting limits on speech by censoring international communications and allowing for Navy regulation and takeover of powerful radio stations, he sponsored the Espionage and Sedition Act that made any criticism of the government or the war illegal. While censoring international communications is arguably necessary during war, under this act he gave the post office the authority to censor even domestic communications. He also gave the Department of Justice the authority to perform unreasonable searches and seizures in order to implicate those suspected of being socialists. About 1,500 people were arrested and sentenced including, his Socialist rival in the 1912 election, Eugene V. Debs and many members of the specifically targeted Industrial Workers of the World union.
Wilson began the trade of rights for security that we still see today. He used his wartime powers to distribute propaganda that unified people around the perception of a domestic threat. Then, with disregard to individual rights, he took down those suspected of being that threat. In threatening times, people feel safer when their government is taking care of them. They will tend to value security highly while devaluing their rights. But, the disregard for rights and the criminalization of disagreement, makes people afraid to speak. In this way, Wilson shut down the democratic discussion that should happen especially in the times of crisis and change.