Not the Good Old Days

If you want to understand the rabid craziness of today’s MAGA Republican Party, you can read books like:

But there’s another one I want to call your attention to. It describes events from a century ago that parallel much of what’s happening now. The book is American Midnight: The Great War, a Violent Peace, and Democracy’s Forgotten Crisis by Adam Hochschild. This is from a review for the Times Literary Supplement:

Even now there are American liberals who look back on [President Woodrow] Wilson’s first term in 1913–17 as a golden age, with its trust-busting, tax and banking reform, and eight-hour day for railway workers, making it the last presidency of the Progressive Era. That left little time for international affairs, and when Americans heard the distant thunder of war from Europe in 1914, most of them had no wish to join it….

Barely had he been inaugurated the next spring than he took America into it…. Whatever American entry did to the balance of the war, it had a most drastic effect in and on the US itself. The country was convulsed by a spasm of nativist hysteria and hatred – as Hochschild says, “Never was the raw underside of our nation’s life more revealingly on display than from 1917 to 1921”. For him, the events of these years amount to a crisis in America’s democracy, one that he thinks too few people know about today. 

The first victims were German Americans. Over the previous century six million Germans had emigrated to the US, more than any other nationality apart from the British… Now anyone with a German name was treated as potentially disloyal, and many such names were quickly changed: Koenig became King, the frankfurter became the hot dog….

But changing names didn’t stem the violence. A Methodist minister said that it was “the Christian duty of Americans to decorate convenient lamp posts with German spies and agents of the Kaiser, native or foreign-born”; a Minnesota pastor was tarred and feathered after he had been heard praying in German with a dying woman; and in Collinsville, Illinois, a gang set upon Robert Prager and killed him. The murderers were tried, holding little American flags in court, and were acquitted by the jury in forty-five minutes.

When a war bond was floated, anyone who failed to buy bonds was liable to be denounced or subjected to physical violence…. In Britain conscientious objectors were sometimes harshly treated, but the American story was more savage, with conscientious objectors hanged all day by shackled wrists, with their feet barely touching the floor, and sometimes forced to watch military executions.

War fever intensified the persecution of radicals, socialists and labour unions, or one union in particular. The Industrial Workers of the World or IWW, otherwise the Wobblies, was a unique syndicalist body that mounted a challenge far beyond its numbers of barely 150,000 members. Or so it certainly seemed to business, newspapers and politicians, with headlines predicting a “Reign of Terror” and the irrepressible Theodore Roosevelt calling the Wobblies “unhung traitors”.

In fact, plenty were “hung” or attacked in other ways. After the tarring and feathering of a group of Wobblies in Tulsa, National Guardsmen and corporate detectives killed dozens more. When Frank Little, a Wobblie organizer, was brutally lynched in Montana, Thomas Marshall, Wilson’s vice president, quipped that “A Little hanging goes a long way”.

An Espionage Act and a Sedition Act were passed, giving the state wide powers to curtail free speech, but Albert Sidney Burleson, the postmaster general, hadn’t needed that to suppress socialist journals, of which there were more than 100, daily, weekly and monthly. He simply withdrew their mailing privileges and destroyed their circulations, while William Lamar, the chief legal officer of the Post Office, said, “I know exactly what I am after … pro-Germanism, pacifism, and high-browism”….

A new Bureau of Investigation, forerunner of the FBI, energetically kept watch on political meetings and infiltrated radical groups, its men sometimes acting as agents provocateurs…. Even before American entry into the war, Albert Briggs, a Chicago advertising man, had created, with official encouragement, the American Protective League, a vigilante group “organized along military lines” and appealing to “men beyond military age seeking martial glory”. They were issued with a badge and codenames such as A-372 or B-49 as they went hunting for spies, saboteurs and dissidents.

With American communism as yet unborn, the objects of official and semi-official persecution were democratic socialists or anarchists, notably Eugene Debs and Emma Goldman….The gentle Debs combined democratic socialism with Christianity and pacifism….Now his opposition to the war ensured that Debs would be hounded and imprisoned under the Espionage Act. In the words of one police informer, Goldman was “doing tremendous damage…. If she is allowed to continue here she cannot help but have a great influence”. She was not allowed to, but was likewise imprisoned and finally deported to Russia, where she was lucky to survive….

Since the Espionage and Sedition Acts had been drafted by the justice department under the attorney general, Thomas Gregory, his resignation in early 1919 came as a great relief to progressives, [who] welcomed the appointment of Gregory’s successor, A. Mitchell Palmer, a Quaker who had called the American Protective League “a grave menace”, and recommended clemency for several hundred people imprisoned under the Espionage Act… 

Those hopes were soon dashed. In November 1919 the affable Quaker gave his name to the notorious Palmer Raids, conducted on radical or merely suspect offices and meetings, particularly where recent immigrants were to be found. The offices of the Union of Russian Workers in a dozen cities were raided [and often destroyed], and in Detroit agents interrogated all 1,500 theatregoers watching a Russian-language play….

If Wilson insisted that this would be a virtuous war in contrast to all the evil previous wars in history, he personified a hypocrisy that amounted to almost psychopathic cognitive dissonance. Wilson was preaching self-determination and democratic rights in Europe, but what of his own country?

A Virginian and the first Southerner to be elected president since the Civil War, …. Wilson had done everything he could as president of Princeton to stop Black students entering the college, and his administration actually re-segregated the civil service… [The postmaster general] said it was “intolerable” that Black and white employees should work together….

The Ku Klux Klan had been re-formed in 1915 and there were lynchings across the South year by year, some almost too horrible to describe in detail. Many Black men enlisted in the army, … but Southern politicians were alarmed that they were being taught to use firearms. Senator James Vardaman of Mississippi said that Black veterans should be prevented from returning to the South, as their contacts with French women must have raised their expectations.

When Blacks tried to escape northwards they merely met more racist violence. In July 1917 there was a ferocious race riot in East St Louis, in which as many as 100 Black people may have been killed, while many hundreds more fled. The Amsterdam News in Harlem pointed to the irony that Black soldiers fighting for the rights of Serbs and Poles would return to lynching at home…

By 1920, with the war won, peace made after a fashion, and Wilson lying incapacitated in the White House, the great fear persisted. A panic spread that on May Day there would be a Red rising throughout the country. In many cities the National Guard as well as armed police were out in force, with machinegun posts installed on the streets of Boston. As Hochschild’s next two-word paragraph reads: “Nothing happened”. The threat was entirely imaginary….

If nothing happened that May Day, something worse had happened, as America drew in upon itself. Behind the assaults on radicals lay a deeper resentment or even hatred of immigrants. Tens of millions of immigrants had arrived in the US in the forty years before the First World War: Italians, Poles, Jews and many others. They had been greeted with intense hostility. Albert Johnson, a congressman from Washington state, railed in the House against “wops, bohunks, coolies and Oriental offscourings” (as a further plus ça change, a newspaper he owned derided conservationists “who tremble every time a tree is cut down”).

Nor was he a lone crank. Theodore Roosevelt insisted that “This is a nation, not a polyglot boarding house”, and Wilson himself said that “Men of the sturdier stocks of the north of Europe” had given way to “multitudes of men of the lowest class from the south of Italy and men of the meaner sort out of Hungary and Poland”….

One awful coda to the story is described by Hochschild, the massacre of Black residents in May 1921 in Tulsa, the town where the Wobblies had been persecuted four years earlier. Tulsa had an unusually (if comparatively) prosperous Black community… On the usual spurious rumour that a Black man had threatened a white woman, white mobs rampaged through this quarter for two days, killing, looting and setting scores of buildings on fire. The National Guard intervened only to arrest Blacks, although it’s reckoned that at least 300 were killed. The best explanation the Los Angeles Times could offer was that “Bolshevik propaganda … was the principal cause of the race riot”….

In December 1920, The Times reported that “America is seriously alarmed by the wave of immigration from the poverty-stricken portions of Europe … In Poland alone 311,000 persons have applied for passports to the United States…“The leaders of the Republican Party regard the flood of immigrants as a menace to America and the Americans, and have decided to give it immediate attention in Congress”.

So they did, with harshly restrictive immigration acts passed in 1921 and 1924 designed to maintain the predominance of those sturdier stocks… No one who reads Adam Hochschild’s admirable but sombre book … will feel quite the same about the land of the free or the Statue of Liberty. 

That’s true. You can’t read American Midnight without seeing today’s MAGA movement as the latest outbreak of anti-progess, anti-tolerance, anti-immigrant, anti-Black, anti-labor, anti-reality Americanism.