“The Great War, A Violent Peace and Democracy’s Forgotten Crisis”
Any person with his or her eyes open knows we are in a perilous time. Donald Trump ignited it in 2016, but he didn’t invent the racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, extreme political partisanship and general intolerance that has consumed much of this country in the last few years. He and his acolytes were just ruthlessly efficient in manipulating that awful energy. We are living in a perilous world.
The United States is in chaos politically. To say the country is wildly divided is a gross understatement. Armed militias. Violent attacks of political figures. Looming threats of violence from right-wing extremist groups. Vicious demonizing poison. How bad can it get? Realistically, maybe worse than it is now. I often wonder, in our modern history was it ever this bad? Well, one-hundred years ago it was. And that is clearly and dramatically documented in a new book by journalist/historian Adam Hochschild.
The just-published book is “American Midnight.” The complete title of the book is “American Midnight: The Great War, A Violent Peace and Democracy’s Forgotten Crisis.” Yeah, the title is a mouthful, but it’s a succinct summary of the remarkable reporting and eloquent writing between the pages of this book. Hochschild, has written several books, including the superb dissection of the fascist movement that drove the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939, “Spain in Our Hearts.” In “American Midnight” he reminds us that the era between 1917 and 1921 is generally glossed over in history books. There’s a veneer of presumed order over our historical reality.
The era associated with the First World War, as it reverberated on the homefront, was rife with intolerance, racism and political violence. You thought the chingasos associated with the Black Lives Matter demonstrations and the right-wing reactions were something.
The simplistic chronology, explains Hochschild, goes something like this: The First World War was started by those evil Germans. The United States stayed out of the war until those dastardly German U-boats starting sinking American boats. Then U.S. soldiers, responding to a draft, went to Europe and helped the good guys defeat the Germans. President Woodrow Wilson welcomes the victorious doughboys home. Then, as Hochschild suggests, you turn the page of the high school history book and there’s a chapter on the exuberant but daring Roaring Twenties. Speakeasies, the Charleston and Prohibition. Close the book.
Here’s how Hochschild explains how his book takes a much deeper and more sophisticated look at that tale: “This book is about what’s missing between those two chapters. It is a story of mass imprisonments, torture, vigilante violence, censorship, killings of Black Americans, and far more that is not marked by commemorative plaques, museum exhibits, or Ken Burns documentaries.” It’s a book that helps us understand that violence and intolerance have long played a role in the American story.
Hochschild begins the tale with an incident involving a meeting of workers in Tulsa, Oklahoma who were members of the Industrial Workers of The World, a quixotic but determined union that invited workers of all persuasions and from all different skills.
Tulsa, Oklahoma – November 5, 1917. A law-abiding group of men gathered in a good-sized meeting room. It was the meeting hall of the local Industrial Workers of the World—the “Wobblies” as they’ve been called. The IWW was a feisty, grassroots union of workers in a variety of jobs, from miners to steelworkers. Many of the members were immigrants. They’d come to the United States from Germany, Italy, Poland and many other countries, including Mexico.
On that night about one-hundred members of the IWW were having a quiet meeting. Suddenly, police burst into the meeting hall, creating chaos and fear among the Wobblies. The armed police officers summarily rounded up the men and dumped them in the local jail. A few days later, they went before a judge. The judge could find nothing to charge them with; they had committed no crime. Yet, given the tenor of the times, he felt compelled to punish these men in some way. They were all charged and convicted of “vagrancy.” Most of them had jobs and were diligently working for union-backed improvements to their working conditions.
On November 9, 1917, Judge T.D. Evans found them all guilty. He fined each of them one-hundred dollars (equivalent of two-thousand 2022 dollars). Author Adam Hochschild quotes the judge as saying at the time of sentencing, “These are no ordinary times.”
We’ll return to the events of that night in just a bit.
Indeed, they were not ordinary times. With painstaking, detailed documentation Hochschild reveals the hysteria that fueled rampant vigilante violence—violence that was committed with the acquiescence, if not the blatant tactical support of “law enforcement” authorities. Not much enforcement was visible in the actions of vigilantes. They were groups with names like The Knights of Liberty and the American Protective League. Oh, and by the way, the racist nativism and anti-Semitism that reached a fever pitch between 1917 and 1921 as the catalyst for the robust resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan.
These are chapters of neglected U.S. history. How many people in this country know about the huge, monstrous Tulsa Massacre of 1921? The white community destroyed the city’s prosperous, vibrant African American community over false claims about a white woman being assaulted by a young Black man. A familiar, devastating story.
This epoch reveals a broad story of how a war supposedly fought to make the world safe for democracy became the excuse for a war against democracy at home.
I can’t help but quote a bit more from Hochschild tight prose: “The toxic currents of racism, nativism, Red-baiting, and contempt for the rule of law have longed flowed through American life. People of my generation have seen them erupt in McCarthyism, in the rocks and insults hurled at Black students entering previously all-white schools, and in the demagoguery of politicians like Richard Nixon, George Wallace and Donald Trump…My hope is that by examining closely an overlooked period in which they engulfed the country, we can understand them more deeply and better defend against them in the future.”
Hochschild calls this era and its activities “the raw underside of our nation’s life.” It was a time of rage against immigrants and talk of tightening up the border with Mexico. It was a time when major candidates seeking presidential nominations, from Republicans and Democrats, campaigned on the promises of mass deportations. At one point Ellis Island was transformed from being a welcoming entrance for immigrants into a temporary prison for immigrants being readied for deportation.
And some people, including the vice president of the United States, suggested going further than deporting immigrants convicted of crimes. Immigrants? Why not permanently expel troublemakers of every sorts? Armed vigilantes patrolled the streets looking for trouble-makers. The military crafted contingency plans to put the entire country under martial law. Most assuredly, these were no ordinary times.
Right-wing TV networks did not exist in 1917, of course, but in that year was born a presidential tool even more powerful, a lavishly financed government propaganda agency that operated in every medium of the day: films, books, posters, newspaper articles, and a corps of 75,000 speakers who gave more than seven-million talks everywhere from movie houses to revival tents. In addition, the federal government also attacked the press, both during and well after the First World War. It banned hundreds of issues of American newspapers and magazines from the mail (a fatal blow in an age before electronic media). Some periodicals were banned permanently from delivery by mail. Those papers included, for example, publications from the NAACP and the ACLU.
The book is a clear-eyed look at the relatively recent history of bitter political violence and cultural intolerance that have helped shape our social landscape.
But it’s also a look at the positive notion of hope – and what can be accomplished on behalf of peace and order when the people wake up and eventually say “ya basta.” It’s possible, even as we are in the depths of this Trump-inspired and maneuvered realm of hate and intolerance.
The parallels between the extremes of the WWI era in the homefront during the time of the war and the actions and tense “discourse” of our own era are striking. For example, right now local city councils and school boards are banning books and twisting guidelines for what students should be exposed to in order to guarantee that “White people won’t be offended.” Hochschild cites just one of hundreds of examples from 1917. Vigilantes, with the approval of police, were hunting for dissidents in education. They didn’t want “treasonous” teachers. In one case in New York City laws were passed to oust teachers who were not American citizens. At the same time Columbia University fired “pacifist professors” for opposing WWI. They were recklessly accused of treason and sedition.
This was a time when the Espionage Act went into effect, followed soon after by the Sedition Act. Those laws opened the door to “legal” persecution of presumed radicals—usually labor union advocates, African Americans, immigrants of all stripes and Jews. It’s almost as if the lynch-hungry Klan became a national militia. The extralegal persecution was being carried out by vigilante mobs throughout the country.
In addition to direct violence—and there was plenty of it—the forces of oppression had other means to frustrate and intimidate what we would call “social activists” today. Censorship in a variety of forms muzzled dissent. There was no Internet or social media then, of course. Information and opinion were conveyed through books and, especially, newspapers and magazines.
The Wilson administration took steps to thwart those publications. It appointed Sidney Burleson postmaster general, “the worst postmaster general in American history,” in the words of historian G.J. Meyer. Burleson, a bit like a Trumpster of an earlier age, was determined to stop the dissemination of what he considered “treasonous” or “un-American” printed material. And he had the power to stop the delivery of mail he considered detrimental to the country. It was like flipping the “off” switch on social media today.
Back to those arrests of Wobblies in November 1917. After they were convicted of vagrancy by the judge, they were herded into police cars. They were told they were being transported to a different jail. As the cars headed into a secluded, wooded area they were surrounded by a mob of self-appointed militia men. They dragged the men from the cars, tore their clothes off, beat them with clubs, then tarred and feathered them. A violent, barbarous scene.
Similar attacks were happening throughout the country.
This was all inflamed by the war. “If you’re not for the war, then you’re not for America” was the rallying cry across the country. If you opposed to the war you were likely regarded as a traitor, or worse. German immigrants were an immediate target, but not the only targets. Rumors and gossip were the stock in trade of communication. There were mass arrests of immigrants, including Mexicans working in the American Southwest. When President Wilson got Congress to declare war on Germany, and thus, come to the aid of desperate allies Britain and France, that opened the door to repressive act after repressive act.
Woven throughout the book is a closed-up view of the trajectory of Woodrow Wilson’s presidency. He is revealed as an inconsistent leader, torn by his own indecision. He kept the country out of war, then plunged it into the European war that was supposed to “end all wars.” A presumed champion of freedom and civil liberties, he presided over the violent actions against supposed enemies of the state. He is, ultimately, a tragic figure who was disabled by a massive stroke while in the White House.
The war, among other things, created a tremendous demand for copper. Copper mines in Arizona were churning for the war effort. The miners, mostly Mexicans, were represented by the Industrial Workers of the World. The working conditions were abysmal—and dangerous. The Wobblies in the copper mining town of Bisbee called a strike. The response was swift and brutal. Phelps, Dodge and other mining companies had the ear of President Wilson. With acquiescence of the Powers that Be in Washington, the mining companies assembled a vigilante posse of some two-thousand armed men. They wore white armbands to identify them keepers of “law and order.” Most of the miners were Mexican.
Lots of Chicanos are connected to the legacy of those struggles in the copper mines of Bisbee, Morenci and Douglas, Arizona. In my case, my father worked in the mines run by the Phelps, Dodge conglomerate. My wife’s grandparents did too.
The strikebreakers swept into Bisbee. They violently rounded up hundreds of strikers, beating many of them in the process. Ultimately, they were put into boxcars and taken 180 miles across the state line into New Mexico. They were turned loose in the desert, separated from their families. Those who sought to return to their homes were threatened with death. And that was representative of the oppressive forces that were at work during that era. Equal protection under the law? Are you kidding? Due process? Get outta here.
Under the Espionage Act and the Sedition Act, it became essentially illegal to criticize the U.S. involvement in the World War. You could be thrown in prison. And many were, including Socialist Party presidential candidate Eugene Debs. And iconic anti-war activist Emma Goldman. Imagine being thrown in jail for publicly criticizing the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. Or, closer to my era, the war in Vietnam. Such was the nature of things during the first years of Wilson’s presidency.
The Wobblies were the most obvious targets of the vigilantes, but they were certainly not the only ones. Any person who criticized the war was a target. Convenient targets of vigilante lynch mobs were African Americans and Jews. Viewed from today’s perspective it seems impossible that such acts could occur in this country. Then, again, maybe it’s not such a stretch to imagine it. This country today is at the precipice of mob rule. Just look at the insurrection of January 6, 2022. The parallels are frighteningly clear.
Hochschild’s “American Midnight” is not histrionic in its elucidation of that WWI era. Far from it. It is a sober, detailed, documented description of what happened and why. There are some evil actors in these pages. They are men driven, in large measure by political ambition. Mitchell Palmer, Wilson’s Attorney General who has his eyes on the White House. A young, hustling bureaucrat named J. Edger Hoover, who saw subversives around every corner. And a cast of similar minions. Mass arrests and deportations of immigrants, authorized by Palmer, became almost routine.
The terror and intolerance that marked that era didn’t end when World War I ended. The roots of such attitudes and behavior were too deep. (Indeed, the foundation of anti-Mexican vitriol led to the abhorrent Repatriation scheme of the Great Depression—a scheme that saw my parents forced back to Mexico for a time.) But eventually after a couple of generations, ending with the close of the Second World War, this country seemed to have shaken off the worst of that sickness. Or at least the most brazen aspects of it. But let’s not kid ourselves. The racist, xenophobic, nativist attitudes that fed that era between 1917 and 1920 are simmering today. Vigilance—the good kind—is called for among all of us.
Copyright 2022 by Luis R. Torres. Luis Torres is a veteran journalist and author of Dona Julia’s Children. Cover of the book American Midnight used under “fair use” proviso of the copyright law. All other images in the public domain.