Free speech for African Americans during World War I had to be exercised with great caution. The federal government, spurred by a superpatriotic and often alarmed white public, determined to suppress any dissent against the war and require 100% patriotism from the black population. These pressures were applied by America’s modern political intelligence system, which emerged during the war. Its major partners included the Bureau of Investigation (renamed the FBI in 1935); the Military Intelligence Division; and the investigative arms of the Post Office and State departments. Numerous African American individuals and institutions, as well as 'enemy aliens' believed to be undermining black loyalty, became their targets.
Fears that the black population was being subverted by Germans multiplied as the United States entered the war in April 1917. In fact, only a handful of alleged enemy subversives were ever identified, and none were found to have done anything more than tell blacks that they had no good reason to fight, or that Germany would win. Nonetheless, they were punished under wartime legislation which criminalized anti-war advocacy.
Theodore Kornweibel, Jr. reveals that a much greater proportion of blacks was disenchanted with the war than has been previously acknowledged. A considerable number were privately apathetic, while others publically expressed dissatisfaction or opposition to the war.
Kornweibel documents the many forms of suppression used to intimidate African Americans, and contends that these efforts to silence black protest established precedents for further repression of black militancy during the postwar Red Scare.