The law has become a frequent textbook example of bad legislation - fueled by public fears during the war, and motivated by Wilson and other progressivists who simply saw it as a way to control people, the Espionage Act of 1917, renewed in a slightly different form in 1918, violated freedom of speech.
Most historians and most history books let the law slip from sight after the WWI era. But the law remained on the books, and found occasional uses. One such case was that of Mikhail Gorin, a Soviet spy who was sent to gather classified military information in the United States. In the Washington Post, Walter Pincus writes:
The spy, Mikhail Gorin, a Soviet citizen, came to the United States in 1936 as an employee of Intourist, the Moscow-run tourist agency, whose salary was paid by the Russian government, according to court documents in the early-1940s case. In the indictment and in the decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, Gorin was referred to as "the agent of a foreign nation."
This case was part of a larger trend, in which various Soviet spies, like Alger Hiss, gathered information for the KGB and other Russian intelligence agencies, while journalists like I.F. Stone, also known as Izzy Stone, directed the public's attention away from communists efforts to destabilize the United States government. Such journalists and spies received payment from the Soviet government. Historians Medford Stanton Evans and Herbert Romerstein write:
The first major Communist penetration of the American government occurred in the 1930s. The Communist Party USA had been founded more than a decade before, encouraged by Moscow and financed through such helpful go-betweens as Julius and Armand Hammer. But the party of that era was small, ineffective, and far outside the national mainstream, mostly headed by leaders who were foreign born, with a membership tilted to émigrés, many of whom could not speak English. Its chances of infiltrating federal agencies, or other important institutions, were meager.
Seeing that their efforts were weak, the Soviets improved their spying game. Mikhail Gorin would be part of that upgrade. The Washington Post report continues:
Gorin received reports from Hafis Salich, a Russian-born emigre who had become a U.S. citizen and worked for U.S. Navy intelligence in San Pedro, Calif., as a civilian investigator. In the course of the relationship, Gorin paid Salich $1,700, which came from Soviet government funds.
Meanwhile, the Soviet spying effort was improving in other ways. Moscow saw that it would be necessary to get native-born U.S. citizens into their employ, who would be less conspicuous, and who would more easily gain confidence and security clearances from various agencies in the United States government, as Herbert Romerstein and M. Stanton Evans explain:
All this began changing in the 1930s, chiefly though not entirely as a result of the Great Depression. Thanks to the political/economic crisis of the age, a lot of people would become disillusioned with capitalism and the American system in general and begin casting about for something different. A number of these would be attracted by the pat and seemingly cogent “class struggle” slogans of the Marxists and the claimed successes of the Soviet Union, and decide that Communism was the answer they were seeking. This would in particular be true with certain members of the intellectual classes, and at some prestigious centers of higher learning.
Sensitive and classified military information flowed to Moscow. The Washington Post tells us that
Salich, according to court documents, provided Gorin with the contents of over 50 reports that, among other things, detailed the activities of Japanese military and civil officials and the movements of fishing boats suspected of espionage.
Eventually, caught, Mikhail Gorin would appear before the United States Supreme Court, indicted under the Espionage Act of 1917.
The Supreme Court, in its opinion in the Gorin case, said the reports "gave a detailed picture of the counter-espionage work of the Naval Intelligence" and could assist a foreign government in checking on U.S. "efficiency in ferreting out foreign espionage."
The Soviets realized that they had to work to be ever less noticeable, planting their moles deeper, and finding ways to subvert reputable Americans. A better class of spy would be formed from well-educated, socially connected, U.S. citizens who could be persuaded to betray their nation by selling secrets to the Soviets, as M. Stanton Evans and Herbert Romerstein write:
Meanwhile, the Communist Party USA was undergoing a makeover of its own at the behest of Moscow and American party chief Earl Browder, downplaying its more violent aspects and presenting itself as a peaceful, democratic group of patriotic nature. Given cover by the 1930s proliferation of party-sponsored front groups that seemingly blended Red revolutionary concepts with less threatening leftward causes, the Communists appeared to many unfamiliar with such tactics as simply promoting a more rigorous version of widely held progressive notions.
But even the hapless Mikhail Gorin would have his day. Convicted by a lower court, his conviction was upheld by the Supreme Court. Yet, as the Washington Post tells us, he got away:
After being convicted and losing his appeal in the Supreme Court, Gorin was sent back to the Soviet Union rather than having to serve his six-year sentence in a U.S. jail.
One wonders who made the decision to release Gorin rather than make him serve his sentence; one wonders how and why that decision was made.