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books How World War I Crushed the American Left

Adam Hochschild’s new book documents a period of thriving radical groups and their devastating suppression.

American Midnight: The Great War, a Violent Peace, and Democracy’s Forgotten Crisis
Adam Hochschild
Mariner Books
ISBN: 9780358455462

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.

When America entered the war as the savior of this vague principle, the country’s industrial might far outweighed its military capabilities. Its army was smaller than Portugal’s, under a high command characterized by one historian as “old, drunk, and stagnant.” The advance guard, led by General Pershing, was greeted with rapture, but it would be almost a year before U.S. troops were on the Western Front in numbers sufficient to make a difference. In the absence of action, there was symbolism: The four sons of Theodore Roosevelt enlisted at once, to the delight of the newspapers and their vocally pro-war father (who was devastated, though not deterred, when the youngest was killed). There was propaganda, courtesy of the new Committee on Public Information; a compliant Hollywood; and the “four-minute men” who traveled the country delivering short, pithy speeches in support of the war anywhere a crowd gathered.
And, as the book lays out in stark and relentless detail, there was repression. “War means autocracy,” Wilson told his navy secretary, in one of his less inspiring, but more sincere, moments. Civil liberties, as we have come to understand them, could not survive in this frenzied atmosphere, and any right to protest, question, or even simply ignore the distant conflict disappeared. Thousands of Americans all over the country were thrown in jail for speaking out against the war or belonging to groups deemed subversive or un-American: labor unions, foreign cultural organizations, and pacifist groups. Many were tortured, several killed, and hundreds of immigrants were deported. The sweeping Espionage Act of June 1917 empowered Postmaster General Albert Burleson, a plantation-bred Southerner, to censor and restrict any publication he deemed anti-war, while librarians pulled books from shelves and pastors who did not fly the American flag were attacked.
According to Hochschild, it was partly belief and partly self-interest—the desire to maintain his party’s tenuous hold on power—that spurred Wilson’s determination to “crush the Socialists.” His narrative helps explain why the left has had such difficulty regaining its political ground in the United States in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, even when economic crises lay bare (again and again) the failures of capitalism. Anti-Red sentiment, from the 1910s on, was a toxic brew of racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and fear, in which rational arguments about the fair distribution of resources were comprehensively drowned.
In the decade before the war, the U.S. was home to a thriving network of radical groups and leaders. Russian-born Emma Goldman, anarchist and birth control advocate, was a wildly popular speaker (in English, Yiddish, or German, as needed) and the publisher of her own magazine. Alice Paul, head of the National Woman’s Party, was determined to hold Wilson to his promise of support. The NAACP, founded in 1909, shone a spotlight on lynching and advocated for African American civil rights. Activism against “preparedness” and war had been on the rise in left-wing circles since 1914, led especially by women like the writer and left-wing activist Crystal Eastman, head of the New York Woman’s Peace Party and executive director of the American Union Against Militarism, out of which the ACLU was later formed.
These were the groups that came under attack during the war. Emma Goldman, who drew thousands to rallies for her No-Conscription League, was arrested the very day that the Espionage Act went into effect, almost as though it had been designed for her.
No political group, however, experienced the sustained assault that eventually broke apart the radical Industrial Workers of the World, formed in 1905. The IWW’s dream of “one big union” threatened bosses who relied on division among their vast, multiethnic workforces to maintain authority. The organization’s legendary orators addressed crowds in simple English, with a force of conviction that needed no translation, and helped workers across the country—from “sawmill hands in Minnesota” to “fruit pickers in California, silk weavers in New Jersey, [and] teamsters in Iowa”—to organize strikes and walkouts. To a degree vastly out of proportion to its actual success in organizing workers, the IWW was the target of vitriol and violence from business leaders and political authorities, which escalated with the trumped-up fear of German infiltration. “The first step in the whipping of Germany is to strangle the IWW’s,” one Oklahoma newspaper editorial frothed in November 1917. That night, 18 Wobblies (as IWW members were nicknamed) were sprung from jail in Tulsa, taken to an isolated area by a group of robed and masked men, then stripped, whipped, tarred and feathered, and forced to flee barefoot while their kidnappers fired rifles over their heads.

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.

The war years saw a surge in racist violence and lynching around the country, sometimes explicitly fueled by white fears over Black men enlisting and fighting in the military, but elsewhere tied to existing economic and social tensions. In East St. Louis, Illinois, in 1917, hundreds of African Americans were killed, and homes and businesses burned, in a rampage of violence that came to be known as a “race riot,” although Hochschild quotes a local Jewish leader labeling it, more accurately, as a “pogrom.” Yet even after the NAACP organized a huge demonstration in Manhattan, and a delegation of prominent Black leaders went to Washington to attempt to meet with Wilson, the president said and did nothing about the incident. After the war, when Black soldiers returned triumphantly from the front, they were met with a national campaign of racist violence, dubbed the “red summer” of 1919. Again the president, preoccupied with postwar political negotiations, “said only a single, reluctant, vague sentence about the bloodshed.” Despite having assembled a truly enormous network of surveillance and detection forces over the past two years, nominally to prevent violence against American civilians, the government made no effort to catch and punish the perpetrators.
The scale and the cost of these years of oppression is hard to calculate. The arrest figures, which likely climb into the tens of thousands, have never been fully counted and cannot, in any case, properly measure the invisible impact of this climate of fear: We can only guess at the true extent of the harassment, lost jobs, self-censorship, fractured relationships, and psychological damage. Yet it was the continuation and escalation of this repression after the end of the fighting that is most shocking. The Sedition Act, passed in the spring of 1918, expanded the Espionage Act to encompass still more acts of vague disloyalty and threat.
The crushing of socialism—and a new bugbear, communism—was total. The treatment of Eugene Debs was a stark illustration of the crackdown. Debs had won 6 percent of the popular vote in 1912, as the Socialists were making gains at the local and state level, threatening both Republicans and Democrats. By 1917, Hochschild notes, there were 23 Socialist mayors in office across the country, leading cities including Toledo, Pasadena, and Milwaukee. Debs opposed the war steadfastly, but he was so widely respected that the government feared directly attacking him. Instead, a disinformation campaign was launched—by whom, historians are still unsure—which implied that he had changed his position. To counter the accusations, the frail 62-year-old leader addressed his party’s state convention in Canton, Ohio, in June 1918. Careful not to advocate resisting the draft, he nevertheless roused his crowd by declaring that “in all the history of the world you, the people, never had a voice in declaring war.” Two weeks later he was arrested. When he ran for president again in 1920, it was from jail.

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.

But why did that dream have such a powerful hold on these men, even to the point of turning their own countrymen into enemies? Hochschild cites the significant change in gender roles and the labor market in the 50 years leading up to World War I—particularly the marked rise in women’s workforce participation, and the concurrent rise in the (still very low) divorce rate. Modern, self-supporting, marriage-eschewing women were “as much of a threat to the traditional order as immigrants, socialists, and Blacks.” The appeal of war, with its rigid reinforcing of the gender binary, is therefore obvious.

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.

Despite the fervent hype of the Justice Department and a complicit press, May Day 1920 was far from a bloodbath: “Nothing happened,” Hochschild writes. In fact, he argues, the nonevent of that day marked a tide turning. As the economy crashed from its wartime high, public anger was directed more and more at war profiteers than at low-level Wobblies and workers scrabbling for a few extra dollars in their paychecks.

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.”

The historian David Brion Davis has written that “the years from 1917 to 1921 are probably unmatched in American history for popular hysteria, xenophobia, and paranoid suspicion.” Reading this story after four years of Trump—a man whose father enthusiastically paraded with the KKK—it’s impossible not to wonder if the hysterical, xenophobic tenor of those years will match or exceed the war years when the historical reckoning is in. Such parallels are often hazy, but this book poses an uncomfortably relevant question—of whether America is capable of safeguarding its own democracy, let alone anyone else’s.

Joanna Scutts is the author of Hotbed: Bohemian Greenwich Village and the Secret Club That Sparked Modern Feminism and The Extra Woman: