books How World War I Crushed the American Left
There are few episodes in national history as blithely misunderstood as America’s participation in World War I. In the history-textbook summary, the country remained above the fray until German submarine attacks forced President Wilson to renege on his 1916 election promise to keep the country out of the war. Despite their belated RSVP, the well-fed, well-bred American soldiers arrived in Europe as liberators, marched cheerfully into the protracted slaughter, and quickly put paid to the Hun. Back they came to more cheering crowds, and then it was the Roaring Twenties.
Adam Hochschild’s new book, American Midnight, explores “what’s missing between those two chapters”—an enraging, gruesome, and depressingly timely story about the fragility of American democracy, as both institution and concept. The most prominent figure in this story is Woodrow Wilson, who enjoyed a benign-to-heroic reputation for most of the twentieth century. In bringing the United States into the war, Wilson created a sunny myth of the nation as uniquely virtuous: peace-loving, despite its violent origins, and selfless, despite the hand-over-fist profits that the war was already bringing to American factories. It was such a powerfully appealing line of thinking that “seldom would any later president depart from such rhetoric.” Most famously, Wilson urged his audience that “the world must be safe for democracy”—without anyone stopping to question whether its noble defenders had any idea what the word meant.
This chilling scene of vigilante violence, which opens Hochschild’s book, was not an isolated incident. The perpetrators that night called themselves the Knights of Liberty, but they were a small part of a massive civilian effort to enforce the draft and punish dissent. A Chicago advertising executive cooked up the idea for a nationwide group, which called itself the American Protective League and offered the “thrill” of combat to men too old to join up. Over the faint objections of law enforcement, and the even fainter qualms of President Wilson, nearly a quarter of a million men joined this group, an official auxiliary to the Department of Justice. Flashing their official-looking badges, they arrested, detained, and roughed up thousands of people suspected of being “slackers” (draft-dodgers), spies, or socialists.
The violence meted out to “slackers” and Wobblies by the APL and a network of similar vigilante groups was often brutal but rarely amounted to murder. Black individuals and communities in this period suffered significantly worse. The American Protective League was not officially an all-white organization, but the record shows only one aspiring Black member, whose application was quietly denied. The patriotic Northern businessmen who joined the APL might have distanced themselves from Southern lynch mobs, but their role as self-appointed “protectors” of American society was rooted in the same racist and xenophobic impulses.
During these years, democratically elected socialist members of the New York State Assembly were expelled, and the House of Representatives refused to seat Wisconsin Congressman Victor Berger when he was reelected in 1918. The initial justification for silencing leftist voices, that they were sowing opposition to the war and the draft, had disappeared. In its place had arrived a generalized threat of revolution, fanned and fueled by every stray remark about ways that American society could be fairer to workers. Although most Americans today are far more familiar with the Cold War–era Red Scare, it did not come out of nowhere. The blueprint for that later crackdown was established during World War I, by many of the same actors, such as J. Edgar Hoover, who would revive it after World War II.
Those fears built to fever pitch in the lead-up to May Day 1920, the traditional European labor holiday, during which the Justice Department drew up plans for, more or less, an all-out civil war. Cities bristled with weaponry and eager vigilantes desperate for some kind of action, or the smallest sign of unrest. With his eye for the absurd, Hochschild records one incident in Boston when panicked reports of a red flag during a parade turned out to be the waving of a Harvard banner.
The story of uprising and repression that American Midnight tells is overwhelmingly a story of men: of industrial workers, politicians, secret agents, soldiers, vigilantes, protesters, and prisoners. Hochschild’s goal, it seems, is to emphasize how far the anti-Red crusade was an expression of what we might now call toxic masculinity, the urge to assert racial and gender dominance by those who felt their authority and virility fading. In his telling, the appeal of the American Protective League, for instance, was its promise of “martial glory” for men who were too old to serve in the Army.
It’s also somewhat reductive. Women had, after all, been openly agitating for their rights since the middle of the nineteenth century. Why did their demands seem so threatening in this moment? One explanation is that in the decade prior to World War I, suffragists became far more vocal and visible, taking to the streets and—especially in New York—explicitly linking their cause to the fights for labor rights, racial justice, and world peace. Suddenly, women were demanding not just the vote but a wholesale reorganization of society, under the banner of a new idea, “feminism,” which was firmly linked to socialism in this era. Accordingly, Hochschild observes, “many of the antiwar dissidents who provoked the most male rage were women.” Emma Goldman—who embodied the worst fears of many men about leftists and feminists—was eventually deported to her native Russia in 1919, under the watchful eye of a rising young functionary in the Bureau of Investigation, J. Edgar Hoover. Hochschild also threads through the book the experiences of Kate Richards O’Hare, a flame-haired Socialist party speaker and activist who was quickly indicted under the Espionage Act and befriended Goldman in prison. But Hochschild gives other important women short shrift. He mentions Crystal Eastman, for instance, only as the sister of Max and his co-editor on the left-wing magazine The Liberator, without noting her role as a major figure in the peace movement. Nor, in a mention of the ACLU further down the same page, does Hochschild identify her as one of the founders of that organization. His previous book was a biography of the extremely famous Socialist turned Communist Rose Pastor Stokes, a friend of Eastman’s, so it is possible he doesn’t want to revisit her story in a different account of the same historical period, but without a fuller picture of the role of women in these years, the argument about the fundamental misogyny of the moment feels less convincing.
Most strikingly, Hochschild does not discuss the way the government treated suffrage leader Alice Paul and members of the National Woman’s Party between 1917 and 1920, an important illustration of how a crackdown on public protest could quickly morph into a wholesale violation of Americans’ constitutional rights. Starting on January 10, 1917, Paul and her allies mounted a months-long vigil at the White House gates, silently and obstinately repudiating Wilson’s claims to be a safeguard of democracy. If women couldn’t vote, how could the U.S. claim to be a democracy itself? Their protests escalated after police started arresting and jailing the women for blocking the sidewalk. According to one NWP member who wrote a detailed account of their campaign, Paul and her allies lobbied to be treated as political prisoners—only for the authorities to refuse, on the grounds that there was no such thing in America.
This shift away from anti-Red panic was helped along, he notes, by the bravery of a few mostly forgotten figures. The Ellis Island supervisor Frederic C. Howe resigned his position rather than see the immigration center turned into a holding cell for deportees. Judge George W. Anderson exposed the Justice Department’s egregious undercover plotting to ensnare noncitizens in anti-Communist raids. During the trial that ended with his freeing 18 accused prisoners, he remarked, “In these times of hysteria, I wonder no witches have been hung.” Most of all, however, Hochschild celebrates the bravery of the acting deputy secretary of labor, former left-wing journalist Louis F. Post, who took over from his boss in March 1920 and immediately halted the mass deportation project so dear to Hoover and his boss, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. Post demanded further investigation or immediate release for thousands of detainees, and in one pivotal case, he shared the story of a clearly blameless immigrant with his friends in the press, inciting public ire at the Department’s overreach.
One of Woodrow Wilson’s last lucid acts in government was to deny a request for the release of the ailing Eugene Debs, who was finally freed in 1921 by Wilson’s successor, the affably corrupt Warren G. Harding. Hochschild’s account of Debs’s arrest, trial, and imprisonment make Debs’s moral authority clear, and it shines all the more vividly in a story that’s otherwise rife with cowardice, hypocrisy, and casual violence. “Men talk about holy wars,” Debs told a hushed crowd at his 1918 trial. “There are none.”