Although war broke out in Europe in 1914, the United States did not enter until 1917, when President Woodrow Wilson declared war on Germany, which had greatly accelerated its anti-American activities. Along with widespread popular opposition through many sectors of the US population, Wilson had also been committed to official US neutrality. Many people considered the war to be Europe’s problem. While some opponents to the war were pacifists who opposed all war, others raised specific objections to US entry into this particular conflict. Labor organizations promoted the view that war would benefit capital, meaning the owners, while the working class would be called upon to sacrifice its sons, who would be conscripted into the military.
Debs was a very prominent labor organizer who ran for president several times as the Socialist Party’s candidate; he garnered more than six percent of the popular vote in the 1912 election. Before the country entered the war, he had spoken with impunity in favor of neutrality. More than once, he openly denounced the idea of supporting a war created by the “capitalist government,” which enriched the industrialists and the ruling classes of other countries as well. Notably, he stated in a letter to the social critic and writer Upton Sinclair, “I know of no reason why the workers should fight for what the capitalists own or slaughter one another for countries that belong to their masters.”
After Wilson declared war, however, numerous measures were put into place to prevent “sedition.” In a July 1918 speech in Canton, Ohio, Debs repeated his objections. He stated that the working class had not been responsible for, or even consulted, in declaring war. He was soon arrested, convicted, and sentenced to ten years in prison, obtaining release when President Coolidge commuted his sentence in 1921.