Adam Hochschild

Amer­ica and the Great War: A Li­brary of Congress Il­lus­trated His­tory by Mar­garet E. Wag­ner The Great War a three-part tele­vi­sion se­ries pro­duced by Stephen Ives and Amanda Pollak War Against War: The Amer­i­can Fight for Peace, 1914–1918 by Michael Kazin Sp

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Adam Hochschild

Amer­ica and the Great War: A Li­brary of Congress

Il­lus­trated His­tory by Mar­garet E. Wag­ner, with an in­tro­duc­tion by David M. Kennedy. Blooms­bury, 371 pp., $45.00

The Great War a three-part tele­vi­sion se­ries pro­duced by Stephen Ives and Amanda Pollak for PBS’s Amer­i­can Ex­pe­ri­ence

War Against War:

The Amer­i­can Fight for Peace, 1914–1918 by Michael Kazin.

Si­mon and Schus­ter, 378 pp., $28.00

Spider Web:

The Birth of Amer­i­can An­ti­com­mu­nism by Nick Fis­cher.

Univer­sity of Illi­nois Press,

345 pp., $95.00; $32.00 (pa­per)

As our newspapers and TV screens over­flow with cho­leric at­tacks by Pres­i­dent Trump on the me­dia, im­mi­grants, and any­one who crit­i­cizes him, it makes us won­der: What would it be like if noth­ing re­strained him from his ob­vi­ous wish to si­lence, de­port, or jail such en­e­mies? For a chill­ing an­swer, we need only roll back the clock one hun­dred years, to the mo­ment when the United States en­tered not just a world war, but a three-year pe­riod of un­par­al­leled cen­sor­ship, mass im­pris­on­ment, and anti-im­mi­grant ter­ror. When Woodrow Wil­son went be­fore Congress on April 2, 1917, and asked it to de­clare war against Ger­many, the coun­try, as it is to­day, was riven by dis­cord. Even though mil­lions of peo­ple from the peren­ni­ally bel­li­cose Theodore Roosevelt on down were ea­ger for war, Pres­i­dent Wil­son was not sure he could count on the loy­alty of some nine mil­lion Ger­man-Amer­i­cans, or of the 4.5 mil­lion Ir­ish-Amer­i­cans who might be re­luc­tant to fight as al­lies of Bri­tain. Also, hun­dreds of of­fi­cials elected to state and lo­cal of­fice be­longed to the So­cial­ist Party, which strongly op­posed Amer­i­can par­tic­i­pa­tion in this or any other war. And tens of thou­sands of Amer­i­cans were “Wob­blies,” mem­bers of the mil­i­tant In­dus­trial Work­ers of the World (IWW), and the only bat­tle they wanted to fight was that of la­bor against cap­i­tal.

The mo­ment the United States en­tered the war in Europe, a sec­ond, less no­ticed war be­gan at home. Staffed by fed­eral agents, lo­cal po­lice, and civil­ian vig­i­lantes, it had three main tar­gets: any­one who might be a Ger­man sym­pa­thizer, left-wing newspapers and magazines, and la­bor ac­tivists. The war against the last two groups would con­tinue for a year and a half af­ter World War I ended.

In a strik­ingly Trumpian fash­ion, Pres­i­dent Wil­son him­self helped sow sus­pi­cion of any­thing Ger­man. He had run for re­elec­tion in 1916 on the slo­gan “he kept us out of war,” but he also knew Amer­i­can pub­lic opin­ion was strongly anti-Ger­man. Even be­fore the dec­la­ra­tion of war, he had darkly warned that “there are cit­i­zens of the United States, I blush to ad­mit, born un­der other flags...who have poured the poi­son of dis­loy­alty into the very ar­ter­ies of our na­tional life . . . . Such crea­tures of pas­sion, dis­loy­alty, and an­ar­chy must be crushed out.”

Once the US en­tered the war im­me­di­ately af­ter Wil­son’s sec­ond term be­gan, the crush­ing swiftly reached a frenzy. The gov­ern­ment started ar­rest­ing and in­tern­ing na­tive-born Ger­mans who were not nat­u­ral­ized US cit­i­zens—but in a highly se­lec­tive way, seiz­ing, for ex­am­ple, all those who were IWW mem­bers. Mil­lions of Amer­i­cans rushed to spurn any­thing Ger­man. Fam­i­lies named Sch­midt quickly be­came Smith. Ger­man-lan­guage text­books were tossed on bon­fires. The Ger­man-born con­duc­tor of the Bos­ton Sym­phony Orches­tra, Karl Muck, was locked up, even though he was a cit­i­zen of Switzer­land; notes he had made on a score of the St. Matthew Pas­sion were sus­pected of be­ing coded mes­sages to Ger­many. Ber­lin, Iowa, changed its name to Lin­coln, and East Ger­man­town, In­di­ana, be­came Per­sh­ing, af­ter the gen­eral lead­ing Amer­i­can sol­diers in their broad­brimmed hats to France. Ham­burger was now “Sal­is­bury steak” and Ger­man measles “Lib­erty measles.” The New York Herald pub­lished the names and ad­dresses of ev­ery Ger­man or Aus­troHun­gar­ian na­tional liv­ing in the city. Cit­i­zens ev­ery­where took the law into their hands. In Collinsville, Illi­nois, a crowd seized a coal miner, Robert Prager, who had the bad luck to be Ger­man-born. They kicked and punched him, stripped off his clothes, wrapped him in an Amer­i­can flag, forced him to sing “The Star-Span­gled Ban­ner,” marched him to a tree on the out­skirts of town, and lynched him. It didn’t mat­ter that he had tried to en­list in the US Navy but been turned down be­cause he had a glass eye. Af­ter a jury de­lib­er­ated for only forty-five min­utes, eleven mem­bers of the mob were ac­quit­ted of all charges while a mil­i­tary band played out­side the court­house. The next bat­tle was an as­sault on the me­dia un­matched in Amer­i­can his­tory be­fore or—so far—since. Its com­man­der was Wil­son’s post­mas­ter gen­eral, Al­bert Sid­ney Burleson, a pompous for­mer pros­e­cu­tor and con­gress­man. On June 16, 1917, he sent sweep­ing in­struc­tions to lo­cal post­mas­ters or­der­ing them to “keep a close watch on un­sealed mat­ters, newspapers, etc.” for any­thing “cal­cu­lated to...cause in­sub­or­di­na­tion, dis­loy­alty, mutiny . . . or oth­er­wise em­bar­rass or ham­per the Gov­ern­ment in con­duct­ing the war.” What did “em­bar­rass” mean? A sub­se­quent Burleson edict gave a broad range of ex­am­ples, from say­ing “that the Gov­ern­ment is con­trolled by Wall Street or mu­ni­tion man­u­fac­tur­ers, or any other spe­cial in­ter­ests” to “at­tack­ing im­prop­erly our al­lies.”

One af­ter an­other, Burleson went af­ter newspapers and magazines, many of them af­fil­i­ated with the So­cial­ist Party, in­clud­ing the pop­u­lar Ap­peal to Rea­son, which had a cir­cu­la­tion of more than half a mil­lion. Vir­tu­ally all Wob­bly lit­er­a­ture was banned from the mail. Burleson’s most fa­mous tar­get was Max East­man’s vig­or­ously an­ti­war The Masses, the lit­er­ary jour­nal that had pub­lished ev­ery­one from John Reed to Sher­wood An­der­son to Edna St. Vin­cent Mil­lay to the young Wal­ter Lipp­mann. While The Masses never ac­tu­ally reached the masses—its cir­cu­la­tion av­er­aged a mere 12,000—it was one of the liveli­est magazines this coun­try has ever pro­duced. Burleson shut it down; one of the items that drew his ire was a car­toon of the Lib­erty Bell crum­bling. “They give you ninety days for quot­ing the Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence,” de­clared East­man, “six months for quot­ing the Bible.”

With so many re­cent im­mi­grants, the United States had dozens of for­eign-lan­guage pa­pers. All were now re­quired to sub­mit to the lo­cal post­mas­ter English trans­la­tions of all ar­ti­cles deal­ing with the gov­ern­ment, the war, or Amer­i­can al­lies be­fore they could be pub­lished—a ru­inous ex­pense that caused many pe­ri­od­i­cals to stop print­ing. An­other Burleson tech­nique was to ban a par­tic­u­lar is­sue of a news­pa­per or mag­a­zine, and then can­cel its sec­ond-class mail­ing per­mit, claim­ing that it was no longer pub­lish­ing reg­u­larly. Be­fore the war was over, sev­en­ty­five dif­fer­ent pub­li­ca­tions would be ei­ther cen­sored or com­pletely banned. Fi­nally, the war gave busi­ness and gov­ern­ment the per­fect ex­cuse to at­tack the la­bor move­ment. The pre­ced­ing eight years had been ones of great la­bor strife, with hun­dreds of thou­sands of work­ers on strike ev­ery year; now, vir­tu­ally ev­ery IWW of­fice was raided. In Seat­tle, author­i­ties turned Wob­bly pris­on­ers over to the lo­cal army com­man­der, then claimed that be­cause they were in mil­i­tary cus­tody, habeas cor­pus did not ap­ply. In Chicago, when 101 Wob­blies were put through a four-month trial, a jury found all of them guilty af­ter a dis­cus­sion so brief it av­er­aged less than thirty sec­onds per de­fen­dant. By the time of the Ar­mistice, there would be nearly 6,300 war­ranted ar­rests of left­ists of all va­ri­eties, but thou­sands more peo­ple, the to­tal un­known, were seized with­out war­rants.

Much re­pres­sion never showed up in sta­tis­tics be­cause it was done by vig­i­lantes. In June 1917, for ex­am­ple, cop­per min­ers in Bis­bee, Ari­zona, or­ga­nized by the IWW, went on strike. A few weeks later, the lo­cal sher­iff formed a posse of more than two thou­sand min­ing com­pany of­fi­cials, hired gun­men, and armed lo­cal busi­ness­men. Wear­ing white arm­bands to iden­tify them­selves and led by a car mounted with a ma­chine gun, they broke down doors and marched nearly twelve hun­dred strik­ers and their sup­port­ers out of town. The men were held for sev­eral hours un­der the hot sun in a base­ball park, then forced at bay­o­net point into a train of two dozen cat­tle and freight cars and hauled, with armed guards atop each car and more armed men es­cort­ing the train in au­to­mo­biles, 180 miles through the desert and across the state line to New Mexico. Af­ter two days with­out food, they were placed in a US Army stock­ade. A few months later, in Tulsa, Ok­la­homa, a mob wear­ing hoods seized seven­teen Wob­blies and whipped, tarred, and feath­ered them.

Even peo­ple from the high­est reaches of so­ci­ety bayed for blood like a lynch mob. Elihu Root, a cor­po­rate lawyer and for­mer sec­re­tary of war, sec­re­tary of state, and sen­a­tor, was the pro­to­type of the so-called wise men of the twen­ti­eth-cen­tury for­eign pol­icy es­tab­lish­ment who moved eas­ily back and forth be­tween Wall Street and Wash­ing­ton. “There are men walk­ing about the streets of this city tonight who ought to be taken out at sun­rise to­mor­row and shot,” he told an au­di­ence at New York’s Union League Club in Au­gust 1917. “There are some newspapers pub­lished in this city ev­ery day the ed­i­tors of which de­serve con­vic­tion and ex­e­cu­tion for trea­son.”

Woodrow Wil­son is re­mem­bered for pro­mot­ing the League of Nations to re­solve con­flicts abroad in an or­derly fash­ion, but at home his Jus­tice Depart­ment en­cour­aged the for­ma­tion of vig­i­lante groups with names like the Knights of Lib­erty and the Sedi­tion Slam­mers. The largest was the

Amer­i­can Pro­tec­tive League (APL), with 250,000 mem­bers by the end of the war, some of them from ex­ist­ing busi­ness or­ga­ni­za­tions, like California’s Mid­way Oil­fields Pro­tec­tive Com­mit­tee, whose mem­ber­ship joined as a group. Its ranks filled with em­ploy­ers who hated unions, na­tivists who hated im­mi­grants, and men too old for the mil­i­tary who still wanted to do bat­tle. APL mem­bers car­ried badges la­beled “Aux­il­iary of the US Depart­ment of Jus­tice,” and the Post Of­fice gave them the frank­ing priv­i­lege of send­ing mail for free.

The gov­ern­ment of­fered a $50 bounty for ev­ery proven draft evader, which brought un­told thou­sands to the hunt, from un­der­paid ru­ral sher­iffs to the big-city un­em­ployed. Through­out the coun­try, the APL car­ried out “slacker raids,” some­times to­gether with uni­formed sol­diers and sailors. One Septem­ber 1918 raid in New York City and its vicin­ity net­ted more than 60,000 men. Only 199 ac­tual draft dodgers were found among them, but many of the re­main­der were held for days while their records were checked. Wil­son ap­prov­ingly told the sec­re­tary of the navy that the raids would “put the fear of God” in draft dodgers. Although brave and out­spo­ken, Amer­i­cans who op­posed the war were only a mi­nor­ity of the pop­u­la­tion. The Wil­son ad­min­is­tra­tion’s harsh treat­ment of them had con­sid­er­able pop­u­lar sup­port. In early 1917 the un­re­stricted Ger­man sub­ma­rine at­tacks on Amer­i­can ships tak­ing cargo to the Al­lies and the no­to­ri­ous Zim­mer­man tele­gram, promis­ing Mexico a slice of the Amer­i­can South­west if it joined the war on Ger­many’s side, fanned out­rage against Ger­many. The tar­get­ing of so many left­ists and la­bor lead­ers who were im­mi­grants, Jewish, or both drew on a pow­er­ful un­der­cur­rent of na­tivism and anti-Semitism. And mil­lions of young men, still ig­no­rant of trench war­fare’s hor­rors, were ea­ger to fight and ready to be hos­tile to any­one who seemed to stand in their way.

By the time the war ended the gov­ern­ment had a new ex­cuse for con­tin­u­ing the crack­down: the Rus­sian Rev­o­lu­tion, which was blamed for any un­rest, such as a wave of large post­war strikes in 1919. These were ruth­lessly sup­pressed. Gary, In­di­ana, was put un­der mar­tial law, and army tanks were called out in Cleve­land. When bombs went off in New York, Wash­ing­ton, and sev­eral other cities, they were al­most cer­tainly all set by a small group of Ital­ian an­ar­chists (in­deed, one man­aged to blow him­self up in the process). But “al­ter­na­tive facts” reigned: the di­rec­tor of the Bureau of In­ves­ti­ga­tion, pre­de­ces­sor of the FBI, claimed the bombers were “con­nected with Rus­sian bol­she­vism.”

The same year an out­burst of protest by black Amer­i­cans pro­vided a pre­text for vi­cious racist vi­o­lence. Nearly four hun­dred thou­sand blacks had served in the mil­i­tary, then come home to a coun­try where they were de­nied good jobs, schooling, and hous­ing. As they com­peted with mil­lions of re­turn­ing white sol­diers for scarce work, race ri­ots broke out, and that sum­mer more than 120 peo­ple were killed. Lynch­ings—a steady, ter­ri­fy­ing fea­ture of black life for many years—reached the high­est point in more than a decade; sev­en­tyeight African-Amer­i­cans were lynched in 1919, more than one per week. But all racial ten­sion was also blamed on the Rus­sians. Wil­son him­self pre­dicted that “the Amer­i­can ne­gro re­turn­ing from abroad would be our great­est medium in con­vey­ing Bol­she­vism to Amer­ica.”

This three-year pe­riod of re­pres­sion reached a peak in late 1919 and early 1920 with the “Palmer Raids,” un­der the di­rec­tion of At­tor­ney Gen­eral A. Mitchell Palmer, helped at ev­ery step by a ris­ing young Jus­tice Depart­ment of­fi­cial named John Edgar Hoover. On a sin­gle day of the raids, for ex­am­ple—Jan­uary 2, 1920—some five thou­sand peo­ple were ar­rested; one scholar calls it “the largest sin­gle-day po­lice roundup in Amer­i­can his­tory.” The raiders were no­to­ri­ously rough, beat­ing peo­ple and throw­ing them down stair­cases. Af­ter one raid, a New York World re­porter found smashed doors, over­turned fur­ni­ture, wrecked type­writ­ers, and blood­stains on the floor. Eight hun­dred peo­ple were seized in Bos­ton, and some of them marched through the city’s streets in chains on their way to a tem­po­rary prison on an is­land in the har­bor. An­other eight hun­dred were held for six days in a win­dow­less cor­ri­dor in a fed­eral build­ing in Detroit, with no bed­ding and the use of just one toi­let and sink. Palmer was star­tlingly open about the fact that his raids were driven by ide­ol­ogy. Af­ter at­tack­ing “the fa­nat­i­cal doc­tri­naires of com­mu­nism in Rus­sia,” he vowed “to keep up an un­flinch­ing, per­sis­tent, ag­gres­sive war­fare against any move­ment, no mat­ter how cloaked or dis­sem­bled, hav­ing for its pur­pose ei­ther the pro­mul­ga­tion of these ideas or the ex­ci­ta­tion of sym­pa­thy for those who spread them.” Cam­paign­ing for the Demo­cratic nom­i­na­tion for pres­i­dent, he hys­ter­i­cally pre­dicted a wide­spread Bol­she­vik up­ris­ing on May Day, 1920, scar­ing author­i­ties in Chicago into putting 360 rad­i­cals into pre­ven­tive detention for the day. When the day passed and ab­so­lutely noth­ing hap­pened, it be­came clear that the United States never had been on the verge of rev­o­lu­tion; mem­ber­ship in the coun­try’s two feud­ing com­mu­nist par­ties was, af­ter all, mi­nus­cule.

Cit­i­zens—in par­tic­u­lar a com­mit­tee of a dozen prom­i­nent lawyers, law pro­fes­sors, and law school deans—were em­bold­ened to speak out against the re­pres­sion, and the worst of it came to an end. But it had ac­com­plished its pur­pose. The IWW was crushed, the So­cial­ist Party re­duced to a shadow of its for­mer self, and unions forced into sharp re­treat; even the de­ter­minedly mod­er­ate work-within-the-sys­tem Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of La­bor would lose more than a mil­lion mem­bers be­tween 1920 and 1923.

Be­cause this sorry pe­riod of our his­tory is too of­ten for­got­ten, it’s good to see it re­called this year by sev­eral writ­ers and film­mak­ers mark­ing the cen­te­nary of Amer­ica’s en­try into World War I. Li­brary of Congress staff mem­ber Mar­garet E. Wag­ner’s Amer­ica and the Great War breaks no new ground but makes clear that the story of this coun­try and that war is not only about the Lusi­ta­nia and dough­boys in France. She cov­ers the war at home as well, both in the text and in photos and art­work drawn from the li­brary’s vast collections. The il­lus­tra­tions, for in­stance, in­clude a vig­i­lante leaflet, dis­si­dents like John Reed and Eu­gene V. Debs (im­pris­oned for more than two years for speak­ing against the war), a lynch mob, and a haunt­ing char­coal draw­ing by the artist Mau­rice Becker, a car­toon­ist for The Masses, show­ing how he and his fel­low con­sci­en­tious ob­jec­tors were treated in mil­i­tary pris­ons: shack­led to cell bars so they would be forced to stand on tip­toe nine hours a day.

Such peo­ple and events are also evoked in The Great War, some six hours of ex­cep­tion­ally well-crafted film from PBS’s Amer­i­can Ex­pe­ri­ence, which por­trays a very dif­fer­ent Amer­ica from the can-do-no-wrong coun­try of tra­di­tional war doc­u­men­taries. Most of the footage is about the fight­ing in Europe and all that led to it, but the film­mak­ers do not stint in look­ing at the ruth­less sti­fling of dis­sent at home. We learn about the di­vi­sion of opin­ion in the coun­try, the harsh treat­ment of re­turn­ing black vet­er­ans by the gov­ern­ment and lynch mobs alike, and vig­i­lantes like the Amer­i­can Pro­tec­tive League, sev­eral of whose wildeyed re­ports on sup­posed spies and sub­ver­sives are shown on­screen. The war “had great costs,” says Nancy K. Bris­tow, one of many his­to­ri­ans in­ter­viewed, near the close of the film. “Not only in loss of life. That war was won, but it was won by way of be­hav­iors, poli­cies, and laws that con­tra­dicted the very val­ues for which the coun­try was fight­ing.”

Sev­eral other his­to­ri­ans talk about the fig­ure who presided over so much of what hap­pened in those years, Woodrow Wil­son. Their col­lec­tive por­trait is of a com­plex man who in the end was blinded by his own sense of right­eous­ness. Any per­son or group who stood in his way was to be swept aside, jailed, or de­ported. He was con­vinced that he knew what was best, and not just for his own coun­try. As Michael Kazin, one of the his­to­ri­ans in­ter­viewed, puts it, “He wanted to be pres­i­dent of the world.” Kazin him­self is the au­thor of a much-needed book for this an­niver­sary sea­son, War Against War, which he be­gins by putting his cards on the ta­ble: “I wish the United States had stayed out of the Great War. Im­pe­rial Ger­many posed no threat to the Amer­i­can home­land . . . and the con­se­quences of its de­feat made the world a more danger­ous place.” He goes on to paint a full and nu­anced pic­ture of the sur­pris­ingly di­verse ar­ray of Amer­i­cans who op­posed the war. Fifty rep­re­sen­ta­tives and six sen­a­tors voted against it; one of the lat­ter, Robert La Fol­lette, then be­gan re­ceiv­ing nooses in his of­fice mail. More re­sis­tance came from So­cial­ists, an­ar­chists, and other rad­i­cals; Emma Gold­man, jailed for two years for or­ga­niz­ing against the draft, was one of 249 for­eign-born trou­ble­mak­ers placed un­der heavy guard on a de­crepit for­mer troop­ship in 1919 and de­ported to Rus­sia. She re­port­edly thumbed her nose at Hoover, who was see­ing off the ship from a tug­boat in New York Har­bor. Re­mark­ably, Kazin points out, the South had the high­est per­cent­age of non­co­op­er­a­tors of any part of the coun­try. (This seems to have had more to do with the ru­ral/ur­ban di­vide than with be­liefs; many young south­ern men had a farm to main­tain or a fam­ily to sup­port and may have sim­ply trusted the lo­cal sher­iff not to turn them in.) Per­haps the big­gest sur­prise in Kazin’s book is the sheer num­ber of re­sisters. If you add to­gether men who failed to regis­ter for the draft, didn’t show up when called, or de­serted af­ter be­ing drafted, the to­tal is well over three mil­lion. “A higher per­cent­age of Amer­i­can men suc­cess­fully re­sisted con­scrip­tion dur­ing World War I than dur­ing the Viet­nam War.” Sev­eral bold men and women, among them Nor­man Thomas, A. Philip Ran­dolph, and Jean­nette Rankin, lived long enough to speak out against both wars.

Once the Rus­sian Rev­o­lu­tion hap­pened, much of the re­pres­sion was car­ried out in the name of an­ti­com­mu­nism. Nick Fis­cher’s his­tory of the an­ti­com­mu­nist frenzy in these years, Spider Web, is un­for­tu­nately writ­ten with lit­tle grace. For in­stance, he re­peat­edly studs a lengthy para­graph with half a dozen or more de­scrip­tive phrases in quo­ta­tion marks, but then forces the reader to turn to the end­notes at the back of the book to find out just who is be­ing quoted. How­ever, his per­spec­tive is re­fresh­ingly orig­i­nal. An­ti­com­mu­nism in this coun­try, he points out, never had much to do with the Soviet Union. For one thing, it had al­ready been sparked by the Paris Com­mune, decades be­fore the Rus­sian Rev­o­lu­tion took place. “To-day there is not in our lan­guage...a more

hate­ful word than Com­mu­nism,” thun­dered a pro­fes­sor at the Union The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary in 1878. For an­other thing, af­ter the Rev­o­lu­tion, an­ti­com­mu­nists knew as lit­tle as Amer­i­can Com­mu­nists about what was ac­tu­ally hap­pen­ing in Rus­sia. The starry-eyed Com­mu­nists were con­vinced it was par­adise. The an­ti­com­mu­nists found they could shock peo­ple if they por­trayed the coun­try as one ruled by “com­mis­sari­ats of free love” where women had been na­tion­al­ized along with pri­vate prop­erty and were passed out to men. Nei­ther group had much in­cen­tive to in­ves­ti­gate what life in that dis­tant coun­try was re­ally like. For a cen­tury or more, Fis­cher con­vinc­ingly doc­u­ments, the real en­emy of Amer­i­can an­ti­com­mu­nism was or­ga­nized la­bor. Em­ploy­ers were the core of the an­ti­com­mu­nist move­ment, but early on be­gan build­ing al­liances. One was with the press (whose own­ers had their own fear of unions): as early as 1874 the New York Tribune was talk­ing of how “Com­mu­nists” had smug­gled into New York jew­els stolen from Paris churches by mem­bers of the Com­mune, to fi­nance the pur­chase of arms. That same year the Times spoke of a “Com­mu­nist reign of ter­ror” wreaked by strik­ing car­pet weavers in Philadel­phia. In 1887, Brad­street’s de­cried as “com­mu­nist” the idea of the eight-hour work­day.

The an­ti­com­mu­nist al­liance was joined by pri­vate de­tec­tive agen­cies, which earned mil­lions by in­fil­trat­ing and sup­press­ing unions. These rose to promi­nence in the late nine­teenth cen­tury, and by the time of the Palmer Raids the three largest agen­cies em­ployed 135,000 men. Mean­while, start­ing in the 1870s, the na­tion’s po­lice forces be­gan us­ing va­grancy ar­rests to clear city streets of po­ten­tial trou­ble­mak­ers (New York made more than a mil­lion in a sin­gle year). Then they de­vel­oped “red squads,” whose of­fi­cers’ jobs and pro­mo­tions de­pended on find­ing com­mu­nist con­spir­a­cies.

An­other ally was the mil­i­tary. “Fully half of the Na­tional Guard’s ac­tiv­ity in the lat­ter nine­teenth cen­tury,” Fis­cher writes, “com­prised strike­break­ing and in­dus­trial polic­ing.” Many of the hand­some red­brick ar­mories in Amer­i­can cities were built dur­ing that pe­riod, some with help from in­dus­try, when the coun­try had no war overseas. Chicago busi­ness­men even pur­chased a grand home for one gen­eral.

By the time the US en­tered World War I, the Bureau of In­ves­ti­ga­tion and the US Army’s Mil­i­tary In­tel­li­gence branch were also part of the mix, mak­ing use—and here Fis­cher draws on the pi­o­neer­ing work of his­to­rian Al­fred McCoy—of sur­veil­lance and in­fil­tra­tion tech­niques de­vel­oped by the army to crush the Philip­pine in­de­pen­dence move­ment. An im­por­tant gath­er­ing place for the most in­flu­en­tial an­ti­com­mu­nists af­ter 1917, in­ci­den­tally, was New York’s Union League Club, where Elihu Root had given his hair-rais­ing speech about ex­e­cut­ing news­pa­per ed­i­tors for trea­son.

Fis­cher car­ries the story far­ther into the twen­ti­eth cen­tury, giv­ing in­trigu­ing por­traits of sev­eral pro­fes­sional an­ti­com­mu­nists. One, for in­stance, John Bond Trevor, came from an em­i­nent fam­ily (Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt at­tended his wed­ding) and got his start as di­rec­tor of the New York City branch of Mil­i­tary In­tel­li­gence in 1919. He moved on the fol­low­ing year to help direct a New York State in­ves­ti­ga­tion of sub­ver­sives, which staged its own sweep­ing raids, and soon be­came ac­tive in the eu­gen­ics move­ment. He was a lead­ing crafter of and lob­by­ist for the Im­mi­gra­tion Act of 1924, which sharply re­stricted ar­rivals from al­most ev­ery­where ex­cept north­west­ern Europe. His life com­bined, in a pat­tern still fa­mil­iar to­day, hos­til­ity to dis­si­dents at home and to im­mi­grants from abroad.

What lessons can we draw from this time when the United States, de­spite its vic­tory in the Euro­pean war, truly lost its soul at home?

A mod­estly en­cour­ag­ing one is that some­times a de­cent per­son with re­spect for law can throw a con­sid­er­able wrench in the works. Some­where be­tween six and ten thou­sand aliens were ar­rested dur­ing the Palmer Raids, and Palmer and Hoover were ea­ger to de­port them. But de­por­ta­tions were con­trolled by the Im­mi­gra­tion Bureau, which was un­der the Depart­ment of La­bor. And there, As­sis­tant Sec­re­tary of La­bor Louis F. Post, a pro­gres­sive for­mer news­pa­per­man with rim­less glasses and a Van Dyke beard, was able to stop most of them.

A hero of this grim era, Post can­celed search war­rants, re­stored habeas cor­pus rights for those de­tained, and dras­ti­cally re­duced or elim­i­nated bail for many. This earned him the ha­tred of Palmer and of Hoover, who as­sem­bled a 350-page file on him. Hoover also un­suc­cess­fully or­ches­trated a cam­paign by the Amer­i­can Le­gion for his dis­missal, and an at­tempt by Congress to im­peach him. All told, Post was able to pre­vent some three thou­sand peo­ple from be­ing de­ported.

A more somber insight of­fered by the events of 1917–1920 is that when pow­er­ful so­cial ten­sions roil the coun­try and hys­te­ria fills the air, rights and val­ues we take for granted can eas­ily be eroded: the free­dom to pub­lish and speak, pro­tec­tion from vig­i­lante jus­tice, even con­fi­dence that elec­tion re­sults will be hon­ored. When, for in­stance, in 1918 and again in a spe­cial elec­tion the next year, Wis­con­sin vot­ers elected a So­cial­ist to Congress, and a fairly mod­er­ate one at that, the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, by a vote of 330 to 6, sim­ply re­fused to seat him. The same thing hap­pened to five mem­bers of the party elected to the New York state leg­is­la­ture.

Fur­ther­more, we can’t com­fort our­selves by say­ing, about these three years of jin­go­ist thug­gery, “if only peo­ple had known.” Peo­ple did know. All of these shame­ful events were widely re­ported in print, some­times pho­tographed, and in a few cases even caught on film. But the press gen­er­ally nod­ded its ap­proval. Af­ter the sher­iff of Bis­bee, Ari­zona, and his posse packed the lo­cal Wob­blies off into the desert, the Los An­ge­les Times wrote that they “have writ­ten a les­son that the whole of Amer­ica would do well to copy.” En­cour­ag­ingly, much of the na­tional press is not do­ing that kind of cheer­lead­ing to­day.

The fi­nal les­son from this dark time is that when a pres­i­dent has no tolerance for op­po­si­tion, the great­est god­send he can have is a war. Then dis­sent be­comes not just “fake news,” but trea­son. We should be wary.

Bos­ton po­lice with seized rad­i­cal lit­er­a­ture, Novem­ber 1919

A New York Globe car­toon by H.T. Web­ster equat­ing the In­dus­trial Work­ers of the World with Kaiser Wil­helm II, 1917

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