The 1917-21 period encompassing US entry into an international “Great War” and capped by the domestic Red Scare surrounding the conflict’s end – bringing heightened repression of political dissidents -- has had a pernicious effect right up to today on progressive and socialist activism, Adam Hochschild concludes in his focused account of the era in American Midnight (Mariner Books/HarperCollins, 2022).
Subtitled “The Great War, a Violent Peace, and Democracy’s Forgotten Crisis,” Hochschild’s study lays out month by month and year by year the Wilson administration’s multipronged attack on left, labor, civil and human rights and free speech access, scapegoating “anti-Americanism” in many political, ethnic and cultural versions of The Other. By Hochschild’s persuasive account, effects of that half-decade’s intense repression continue to undermine any robust US democracy. Fueled by public officials, the era’s divisions left the political landscape barren and sterilized into two-party dominance until the persistent economic inequality of the 1920s led to the depression of the ‘30s and impetus for the New Deal’s improved landscape for dissident organizations. Patterns for future repression were refined, and continue to evolve today.
This five-year episode is tucked, sometimes overlooked, in the long calendar of US repression and resistance that begins with the end of the Civil War and establishment of nominal (male) equality with the end of legal enslavement. It coincides with the US entry into the Great War already under way in Europe and a rapid, unnerving rise of public paranoia about what “American” should mean. In the historical background was the steady drumbeat of social and economic inequality through the Gilded Age and the response of workers with sometimes-violent struggle throughout the 1870s, ‘80s and ‘90s. In harness with overall inequality was the elaboration of the Jim Crow system from South to North.
The Wilson administration federalized and empowered – in the name of national security and with the infamous Espionage Act (1917) and Sedition Act (1918) – regional supremacists’ individual and collective prejudices and fears about an “Other.” The Espionage Act banned speaking against US participation in the Great War; the Sedition Act (an amendment to the Espionage Act) criminalized speaking against the US, or its symbols. The “threat” that brought passage of the two acts was homogenized from ingredients such as Black flight from the sharecropper quasi-slavery in the South, immigrants overrepresented in industries like coal and steel, and left formations like the Socialist Party.
Hochschild’s American Midnight gives this five-year outbreak of fear and savagery the compact, focused and granular account it deserves to reinforce the era’s part in what is the real American exceptionalism – the recurring episodes of public paranoia and reaction, in this instance skillfully fanned by a fascinating and repellent cast of high and low characters whose racist, sexist and nativist sentiments left a permanent and scarring imprint.
But why enter the war, so far away?
Hochschild notes that persistent German advances had by 1917 raised the specter of US allies’ actually losing to Germany. So Wilson and corporate types also grew aware that if France and England lost, their massive debts to US banks would not get paid. Hence, Wilson’s campaign slogan “he kept us out of war” was quickly sidetracked in favor of Wilson’s (prayerful, as always) request to Congress for a declaration of war.
The forces of resistance were, as usual, scattered. The Socialist Party, despite Eugene Debs’ popularity, diminished itself, splitting off two communist parties after the 1917 Bolshevik victory in Russia. That event, in itself, also frightened the powerful money men of Wilson’s government. The Bolsheviks’ peace treaty with Germany freed up whole divisions of their Eastern troops to join the fight in France and Belgium, which put a possible German victory on the table.
The Civil War was just fifty years ended, strong in memories, and many of the powerful actors in the Red Scare were sons of veterans. More recently, the US’s actions following the end of the Spanish-American War included the savage repression of Philippine indigenous resistance by a succession of military governments in the decade before Wilson took office. Fresh from brutal repression overseas, the US military was primed to support an imagined “Americanism” at home.
So, with official help, the “enemies of Americanism” were easily grouped and isolated: Wobblies, socialists, women leading independent lives, union organizers (mostly industrial), Blacks (especially in the North), Catholics, immigrants and anyone with an accent, especially one that could be imagined as German. In echoes of today, a large but shrinking white, male, nominally Christian power structure was ripe to be frightened about change.
Egged on by officials like A. Mitchell Palmer, the attorney general who provided the label for the Palmer Raids of 1920 (and had his eye on a presidential campaign) and his youthful investigative chief J. Edgar Hoover, US citizens were encouraged and empowered to mobilize their fear and hatred for what they perceived as “different” from their majority-white, Protestant selves into often violent action.
Hochschild keeps his focus on the Red Scare associated with US entry into the Great War and its aftermath, and seldom projects that period’s features into the future. The term “McCarthyism” is absent. But for the reader there is no mistaking the symmetries when an officially sanctioned “atmosphere of free-floating paranoia” enabled tribal-majoritarian groups to form and act out/act on their own prejudices, resulting in the rapid erosion of norms of political and social behavior.
By sticking methodically to the five-year period of war fever, burning xenophobia capped by the Red Scare, and attempted mass deportation and “cleansing” of a white-supremacist populace, Hochschild rewards the reader with a close understanding of the important lesson: how easily a complacent but increasingly uneasy majority can be turned against not only an imagined foreign threat but their neighbors and community.
The book introduces us, for instance, to the widespread chapters of the American Protective League and its evolution from promoting war bonds (to both enrich and protect the banks) to actively carrying out vigilante attacks on unions, political organizations and “suspicious” individuals. It provides vivid lessons about how official permission for this behavior can push many beyond the norms and constraints of everyday life they might otherwise observe.
American Midnight includes career through-lines involving many players besides Wilson, who is characterized as idealistic to the point of overlooking the actions of his own administration (though he had a direct hand in re-segregating the civil service, reversing what had been a positive development). On the official side, Postmaster General Albert Burleson as a personal project barred radical periodicals from the mailstream, ignored Wilson’s hints to lighten up, and continued after Wilson left office. Free thought, in the pre-electronic era, flowed through the mails, and Burleson’s refusal to allow socialist publications to flow through the postal service was automatic, going so far as to intercept press between SP offices.
Political censorship of periodical mail, sanctioned by the courts, didn’t end till Warren Harding’s new postal chief, Will Hays, took over in 1921. For far-flung, dispersed US radicals it was the equivalent of closing schools during the Pandemic.
During the Red Scare years, Washington state Congressman Albert Johnson was a constant Congressional agitator on immigrants, even those already legally in the US, as a degraded and dangerous sector of the public. Hochschild, in a rare comparison across eras, calls Johnson “a voice not unlike those who flocked to the Tea Party a century later: the voice of a white, rural or small-town America profoundly unsettled by change, and change that seemed embodied in people who looked or sounded different.”
Through the Red Scare half-decade, Johnson was a major player in whipping up existing public prejudices like his own into anti-immigrant violence. He ushered in the severe restriction of immigration (except from Norther Europe) through the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act, which was referenced in a diary that would become Mein Kampf. (Even during the next World War, the act famously excluded refugees from the Holocaust.) He urged mass deportation of union organizers, socialists and (alleged) anarchists and other perceived enemies of Americanism. He was one of many officials giving the wider public permission to turn its fears and dislikes into active violence.
Also prominent on the “Americanism” front was another presidential aspirant, Gen. Leonard Wood, who had been a particularly brutal military governor of the southern Philippines, oppressing a mostly Islamic population and the Moro rebels. On his return, pinned down with US training commands while his fellow generals were leading US troops in Europe, Wood kept a high profile by declaring martial law and occupying cities like Omaha or Gary, Ind. or West Virginia coal country, where strikes had turned violent.
As Hochschild shows, the Philippine military expedition provided many behind-the-scenes actors as well, like antisocialist Ralph Van Deman and antisemite John B. Trevor, both military intelligence officers who, back in the US, were detailed to keep an eye on US activities and gained favor through their individual enthusiasms. As Hochschild says, “the violence of the Philippine War came back to haunt the United States.”
Also making Zelig-like appearances in this frequently entertaining book is Leo Wendell (AKA “Walsh”), who made a career of infiltrating left-labor formations in Pittsburgh and elsewhere and arranging to be arrested by the Bureau of Investigation (his employers) often enough to keep his radical cred with fellow workers.
The Palmer Raids took place in November of 1919, in a national-crisis atmosphere of cascading postwar strikes, as union leaders pushed for gains and for penalties for war profiteers. Huge numbers of “suspicious” people and organizations were netted, a mass of potential deportees.
Almost humorously, a massively publicized prediction of revolutionary violence pegged to May Day 1920 left Palmer and Hoover high and dry when “nothing happened.” Major newspapers, which till then had published Palmer and Hoover’s every paranoid effusion, felt “taken for a ride” and were early defectors from the Red Scare bandwagon.
As with Trump’s short reign, democratic values held on in unexpected parts of officialdom.
Louis Post, an undersecretary of Labor with a foot in Henry George’s near-socialist camp, found himself in charge of the department as his superiors were absent and suddenly became the official to make the call on thousands of pending deportation cases. Careful and well-documented analysis found about 80 percent of them defective due to bad or no warrants, and he tossed them out, bringing screams from Rep. Johnson and his anti-immigrant allies in Congress. Post was investigated by a House committee in preparation for his impeachment. But he defended himself before the committee with such wit and skill that (after the popped balloon of the May Day 1920 non-insurrection) Congress abandoned its quest. Post had a wide network of support in and out of government, strong PR savvy and knew well where to pull the strings, but Hochschild suggests his skill at covering his tracks is one reason his important role is less widely known.
The trope of labor organizing as foreign and disloyal was already well engrained and easily turned majoritarian unease into violence. The above-mentioned American Protective League, the KKK for the new era of war fever, was created by a PR specialist in cahoots with Army Intelligence and gave men beyond draft age an organization and identity (with badges) that “deputized” them as enforcers of Americanism and would loosen their behavioral norms.
Many nervous majoritarian cultures before and since have extruded the same white-collar mob behavior enabled by officialdom. We are seeing this today —political violence in the US is, Reuters reports, reaching new highs.
In parallel, as frequently happens, is the contradiction of information control and its opposite, unconstrained rumor.
Wilson created the Committee for Public Information less than two weeks after he asked Congress for a declaration of war November 2, and veteran newsman George Creel was tapped to lead it. With Creel’s CPI, the US took the world stage on a wave of chauvinism and propaganda. The level of falsehood from officials, echoed in a compliant Hollywood’s implausible plots about conspiracy, brought a diminished public respect for truth per se, an eerie forecast of the Trump era – one newsman noted wonderingly “the force of an idea lies in its inspirational value. It matters very little whether it is true or false.” Meanwhile racist mob violence repeatedly flared up around the country fueled, in many instances, by rumor.
To counter the top-down promotion of the US as saviors of democracy, resistance came from well-known political figures like Eugene Debs and other Socialist Party members as well as more passively from the proposed cannon fodder themselves. Though not radical, many draft-age men proved reluctant to fight on foreign shores. Hochschild tots up 338,000 men who registered for the draft but failed to show for induction – “in those pre-electronic days, of course, it was easy to drop from sight.” Those who did not, but registered as conscientious objectors, could anticipate miserable treatment at the hands of military authorities. Gen. Wood, who was put to running a midwestern basic training camp instead of the swashbuckling leadership of troops in Europe he felt was his due, also had charge of all the COs at his camp and abused them openly.
Those who didn’t show up for induction couldn’t drop from sight as easily as they would like because the ever-vigilant American Protective League conducted huge sweeps in public gatherings and grabbed those who couldn’t show a draft card.
Touring the country trying to speak out against the war, other socialist leaders along with Debs risked jail for violating the Espionage Act ban on discouraging the war effort. Some, like Debs, were convicted and sentenced to prison. Like many socialists in the US and especially Europe, the celebrated Kate Richards O’Hare found the fact of workers fighting workers “a shattering blow.” After sharing prison life with Emma Goldman (they were fast comrades) she was released and toured the country arguing Debs should be released, but Warren Harding waited until Christmas Day 1921 to do so. Goldman, finally found deportable, was expelled from the country she had come to love despite its politics.
The Socialist Party received special attention from others, including the rabid war hawk Theodore Roosevelt, because their activism was largely channeled into electoral work, which he found particularly dangerous. Five years of sustained repression dealt a “shattering blow” to the fortunes of the party. As Hochschild observes in his final chapter, “the party that had once elected 33 state legislators, 79 mayors and well over 1,000 city council members and other municipal officials [and drawn almost a million votes for a presidential candidate who was in prison] had shrunk to less than 10,000 members nationwide.”
As the war ended Wilson, who by John Maynard Keynes’s account had arrived in Paris with lofty speeches but “no plan at all” for concrete peace, failed to talk Lloyd George and Clemenceau out of demanding savage reparations by Germany. John Maynard Keynes, a British peace delegate, forecast the disaster that took place. Worse still, since no fighting took place in Germany and German propaganda and censorship were so massively imposed, “tens of millions of Germans did not believe their country had actually lost the war” – another disastrous deviation from reality that would lead to Hitler’s rise.
Republican candidate Harding campaigned on “normalcy” in the 1920 election. The public’s urge to be done with the Red Scare era partially illustrated by his 26-point margin of victory, which remains the widest in a presidential race since before the Civil War. His postmaster general, Will Hays, ended Burleson’s freewheeling censorship. Harding, after his death, had an off-the-record comment released by a reporter: “Let’s not kid ourselves. Debs was right. We should never have gone to war.”
It seems likely that without US intervention in WWI the political landscape of Europe would have been significantly different as the 1920s began. But the war not only cost millions of lives (multiplied by the flu epidemic that wartime travel and travail doubtless spread) but, as Hochschild impressively demonstrates, badly damaged democratic possibilities in the US and gave the powerful a test bench for future forms of repression. Woodrow Wilson, “the inspirational idealist abroad,” failed as a peacemaker even as he proved “the nativist autocrat at home.” The Sedition Act was stripped from the Espionage Act soon after the war ended, but the Espionage Act remains, a threat to truthtellers today.