Review of American Midnight: The Great War, a Violent Peace, and Democracy’s Forgotten Crisis by Adam Hochschild
Hochschild’s account demonstrates the folly of believing that Donald Trump and the era he gave us are departures from normal trends in American history. What is normal in our past is American vulnerability to mythical enemies, demagogues and ignoramuses. These dangerous forces abounded in the years described by Hochschild, from 1917 to 1921.
We remember an event from that time: the First World War. For the European powers involved in this slaughter, the war began in 1914, but an isolationist America remained on the sidelines until April 1917, when President Woodrow Wilson finally declared war on Germany and its allies. . Seventeen months later, after millions of American aggressors had taken up arms in Europe and 117,000 had been killed, the Germans surrendered.
Victory in war came at a high price that we chose to forget. The war justified a brutal period in America that featured “mass imprisonments, torture, vigilante violence, censorship, murders of black Americans… [and] a war against democracy at home,” writes Hochschild. Its powerful 12-page prologue grabs readers by their setbacks and confronts them with an ugly America poles apart from the pink and patriotic versions.
The nation’s delayed entry into the war spurred intrigue and violence in the United States that pitted Americans sympathetic to Germany against those sympathetic to our traditional allies in Britain and France. Wilson initially sought to distance himself from propaganda on both sides, and he campaigned for re-election in 1916 on the ultimately misleading slogan “He Kept Us Out of War”. In 1917, when the Germans began indiscriminate submarine warfare in the Atlantic that sank American ships, Wilson went all out for the war.
Wilson is at the center of Hochschild’s narrative. He is one of the most complex and contradictory characters in American history. Raised in Augusta, Georgia, by a family that supported the Confederacy, Wilson clung his whole life to the ugly racial views of a Southern segregationist. The first and last holder of a doctorate to occupy the White House, he was president of Princeton University before becoming governor of New Jersey in 1911. Governor and then president (elected in 1912), he was a progressive reformer on the questions economic. and an internationalist. But once he led America into war, he became a dedicated jingoist. Hochschild denounces its many shortcomings.
Wilson signed the Espionage Act in 1917 and the Sedition Act in 1918, two laws that authorized restrictions on free speech that were draconian by today’s standards. Once America joined the war effort, Wilson had no apparent qualms about jailing American dissidents, including the Socialist Party candidate who had run against him for president in 1912 and won 6% of votes, Eugene V. Debs. Debs was sentenced to 10 years in prison for giving a speech in 1918 that the Wilson administration interpreted as discouraging participation in the war. Debs’ sentence was commuted by Wilson’s Republican successor, Warren G. Harding, in 1921.
Wilson allowed his postmaster general, Albert S. Burleson, a former Texas congressman, to deny left-leaning and pacifist magazines and newsletters the use of special low U.S. mail rates for printed matter, which forced several widely read publications to close their doors. He banned a publication called the Gaelic American because it favored Irish independence from America’s ally Britain. Burleson’s legal director, William Lamar, explained wartime censorship to Oswald Garrison Villard, editor of the New York Evening Post. “I know exactly what I’m looking for,” Lamar said, “pro-Germanism, pacifism and high-browism.” Burleson also separated the labor from the post office, with Wilson’s explicit approval. Wilson himself earlier resegregated the federal workforce in Washington.
Race, immigration, and labor unrest, especially when promoted by socialists, were the most inflamed national issues of those years. Anti-union sentiment was fierce. The main target of anti-worker hostility was industry Workers of the World (the Wobblies), a union that attempted to organize women workers, blacks and unskilled workers ignored by the American Federation of Labor. The prosperous classes viewed the IWW as a grave threat to the country, a threat further aggravated by the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917. This unexpected event sparked the first Great Red Scare in the United States.
A. Mitchell Palmer, a Quaker from Pennsylvania who had served three terms in the House, became Wilson’s attorney general in 1919. On June 2, 1919, three months after taking office, Palmer was the target of one of eight bombs triggered. almost simultaneously in the cities of the Northeast. He and his family were inside their home on R Street NW in Washington when the bomb collapsed the front facade.
Surviving the bomb left Palmer “deeply transformed”, writes Hochschild, and “signaled the beginning…of a war at home the likes of which the United States had never seen”. The infamous “Palmer Raids” of November 1919 and January 1920 rounded up and imprisoned thousands of leftist, black and union activists. The perpetrators of the eight bombings have never been identified.
Palmer’s raids secured him a place in American history, but another contribution he made to his country was perhaps more consequential. As he rushed to respond to the June 2 attacks, Palmer decided he needed a new “radical division” in the Justice Department. As division chief, he chose a 24-year-old Washington native already working in the department. Thus began the career of J. Edgar Hoover, who would serve eight other administrations in various capacities, eventually as Director of the FBI, his tenure ending upon his death in 1972.
Palmer nominated Hoover on August 1, 1929. Two months later, Wilson suffered a massive and debilitating stroke and never really served as president again. The country was not told the severity of the stroke that had crippled him, one of the great scandals in American history.
Wilson’s condition made it easy for Palmer to pursue the presidential ambitions he had long nurtured. He and Hoover concocted an ambitious plan to round up thousands of new American immigrants and deport them, a ploy obviously intended to appeal to then-burgeoning anti-immigrant sentiments. in America.
Hochschild, who wrote 10 previous books, skillfully juggles several narrative threads. His story includes an unexpected happy ending that might encourage contemporary American readers.
With Wilson permanently sidelined after his stroke, Hoover and Palmer felt free to arrest and deport thousands of immigrants in the most aggressive plan since slavery to suppress residents of the United States. But a legal “roadblock,” to use Hochschild’s term, disrupted their efforts.
By law, deportations of immigrants living in the United States had to be legally approved by the Department of Labor. Acting Labor Secretary Louis F. Post was a liberal civil libertarian and one of the founders of the NAACP. That Post, who served as assistant secretary of labor, found himself wielding the authority of the secretary of labor to approve or block evictions was kind of bad luck. He did not hesitate to seize the opportunity. He prevented Hoover and Palmer from carrying out their plan.
Palmer had heightened fears of a possible revolutionary uprising by socialists and trade unionists on May Day, 1920, but May Day passed quietly, without an American Revolution – and without mass deportations either. Like the elected Republicans who blocked Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, Post rose to the occasion with steadfast dignity and determination. Harding, elected to succeed Wilson in 1920, abandons the ferocious anti-immigrant and anti-socialist crusade. Calm has returned. Soon, as is our custom in this unique country, we turned the page and found ourselves swept away in the Roaring Twenties, dancing the Charleston and drinking illegal gin.
Robert G. Kaiser is a former editor of the Washington Post.
The Great War, a violent peace and the forgotten crisis of democracy
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