Adam Hochschild’s new book, “American Midnight,” offers a vivid account of the country during the years 1917-21, when extremism reached levels rarely rivaled in our history.
Send any friend a story
As a subscriber, you have 10 gift articles to give each month. Anyone can read what you share.
When you purchase an independently reviewed book through our site, we earn an affiliate commission.
AMERICAN MIDNIGHT: The Great War, a Violent Peace, and Democracy’s Forgotten Crisis, by Adam Hochschild
At a time when professional doom-mongering about democracy has become one of the more inflationary sectors of the American economy, it is tonic to be reminded by Adam Hochschild’s masterly new book, “American Midnight,” that there are other contenders than the period beginning in 2016 for the distinction of Darkest Years of the Republic. By some measures — and certainly in many quarters of the American left — the years 1917-21 have a special place in infamy. The United States during that time saw a swell of patriotic frenzy and political repression rarely rivaled in its history. President Woodrow Wilson’s terror campaign against American radicals, dissidents, immigrants and workers makes the McCarthyism of the 1950s look almost subtle by comparison.
As Hochschild vividly details, the Wilson administration and its allies pioneered the police raids, surveillance operations, internment camps, strikebreaking and legal chicanery that would become part of the repertoire of the American state for decades to come. It may be recalled how, when Donald Trump was a presidential candidate in 2016, his followers ignited a media storm when they threatened to lock up his challenger. But only Wilson went the distance: He jailed his charismatic Socialist opponent, the 63-year-old Eugene Debs, for opposing America’s descent into the carnage of the First World War, with the liberal press in lock step. “He is where he belongs,” Hochschild quotes The New York Times declaring of the imprisoned Debs. “He should stay there.”
When Wilson became president in 1913, he was hailed as a progressive visionary. He wanted to transform moth-eaten American institutions into a sleek administrative state. Despite prompt invasions of Mexico and Haiti during Wilson’s first term, the country was hardly prepared for a major war. In 1917, as Hochschild recounts, the U.S. Army was smaller than Portugal’s. An 18th-century legal corset — the U.S. Constitution — constrained the executive branch, requiring two-thirds of the Senate to ratify foreign treaties. The state’s financial coffers were heavily reliant on excise and customs revenues. Despite the booming American economy and a thriving modern culture that would soon sweep the globe, Wilson found that he had taken control of the equivalent of a creaking galleon in an age of submarine warfare. He wanted to make America the decisive player in world politics, and for its influence to match its economic might.
Aided by the news of German war atrocities, the Wilson administration whipped up anti-German hysteria. Wilson produced a great deal of cant about making the world “safe for democracy,” though by “democracy” he had in mind something like an international clinic for political delinquents with America as supervisor. Internal enemies ultimately proved more reliable than high ideals in sustaining the country’s war fever. German-speaking Americans and other immigrant groups made for obvious targets. “I want to say — I cannot say it too often,” Wilson declared in 1919, “any man who carries a hyphen about with him carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of this Republic.” But the grander enemy was American socialists, who publicly opposed entering a war in which they would kill fellow workingmen at the behest of their ruling classes.
Standard histories of the first “Red Scare” tend to tell it as a largely domestic story. Hochschild insists on filling out the international dimension. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 features in “American Midnight” like a flare against the dark sky that captures the imagination of the left wing of the American labor movement. “Lenin and Trotsky were the men of the hour,” Debs declared, as members of the Industrial Workers of the World — known as the Wobblies — organized actions across the country. In 1919, one in five American workers walked off their jobs. In Seattle, in what later became known as the “Soviet of Washington,” a motley group of labor unions succeeded in conducting the first general strike in U.S. history — the only time American workers have taken over a city.
Yet neither the Wobblies nor any of the other American socialist outfits were a pincer party, unlike the Bolsheviks in Russia, who were led by a determined group of brilliant strategists and had a crumbling empire in their sights. Instead, the Wobblies, whose American membership never numbered more than 100,000, were a thinly organized movement fighting against business groups, which financed vast armories, many of which still squat at the center of American cities. These, in turn, were backed by a fledgling surveillance state that did not hesitate to outsource its violence to officially sanctioned vigilante groups. “Force, force to the utmost, force without limit,” Wilson said on Flag Day in 1918, the year his administration began overseeing the banning of small radical magazines like The Masses, and the hounding of any publication not on board with the war.
Hochschild also stresses how the Wilson administration drew on America’s experience in the Philippines, importing torture and counterinsurgency techniques back to the mainland. In “American Midnight,” the years 1917-21 figure unmistakably as a two-front war. While Wilson dispatched the Philippine War veteran Gen. John Pershing to fight Germany in Europe, he permitted the more ruthless Gen. Leonard Wood — who had, among other achievements, overseen a large massacre of Moro and Tausug people in his days as governor of Moro Province — to put down revolts across the American Midwest.
Hochschild’s best-known book, “King Leopold’s Ghost,” initiated a generation of Americans into the horrors of European colonialism and became required reading in the human-rights-saturated 1990s. Something of a specialist in the annals of atrocity, Hochschild spares no detail in “American Midnight.” In 1914, the Colorado National Guard, which had fought in the Philippine War, killed 11 children while defending a Rockefeller coal mine from strikers. For German-speaking Americans, these were years of persecution and fear. There were public burnings of German songbooks, and German-language instruction was widely banned in schools. In a foretaste of the transformation of French fries into “freedom fries” during the Iraq war, frankfurters became “hot dogs,” while sauerkraut less successfully transitioned into “liberty cabbage.”
Paranoia reached an absurdist pitch. “You can’t even collect your thoughts without getting arrested for unlawful assemblage,” the editor of The Masses, Max Eastman, told an audience in 1917. “They give you 90 days for quoting the Declaration of Independence, six months for quoting the Bible, and pretty soon somebody’s going to get a life sentence for quoting Woodrow Wilson in the wrong connection.” When a young Eugene O’Neill went to work one sunny day on the beach in Cape Cod, a vigilant citizen interpreted the flashing glares reflecting off the metal of his typewriter as — what else? — covert signals to German submarines. “He was arrested at gunpoint,” Hochschild writes.
As in “King Leopold’s Ghost,” Hochschild in “American Midnight” stages a morality tale. There is an extensive cast of villains, from Leo Wendell, the intrepid federal agent who managed to pass himself off as one of the most radical Wobblies for years, to A. Mitchell Palmer, who with the help of a young J. Edgar Hoover conducted “raids” on radicals; Nicholas Murray Butler, the war-giddy president of Columbia University; and Ole Hanson, the reactionary mayor of Seattle, whom Hochschild nominates as America’s first “professional anti-Communist.” As a Nebraskan who takes some pride in my local knowledge, I thought I was the only one who knew about the mafia boss Tom Dennison, who toppled the progressive mayor of Omaha by orchestrating a series of attacks on women by white thugs in blackface, but Hochschild includes every twist and turn of the episode.
If the proto-human-rights missionaries such as Roger Casement and Edmund Morel were the heroes of “King Leopold’s Ghost,” Hochschild has a more colorful cast to work with in “American Midnight.” There is Emma Goldman, the Russian-born revolutionary; Marie Equi, the medical doctor and fighter for women’s and workers’ rights; and the fiery orator Kate Richard O’Hare — all of whom the Wilson administration wasted no time imprisoning on charges authorized by the 1917 Espionage Act. W.E.B. Du Bois captures the deep dismay American Blacks felt about a party that had begun to attract more of their votes, but which all but acquiesced in the licensing of lynching by Dixie senators. Hovering throughout Hochschild’s account is Debs himself, the keeper of the tablets of American socialism, who tried to unite the various factions of the nation’s labor movement, but whose temperament and long term in prison made him more of a symbol than a strategist.
Hochschild’s sharp portraits and vignettes make for poignant reading, but at times skirt fuller historical understanding. We hear about newspapers and magazines being shut down, but little about what was being argued in them. Powerful thinkers about the political moment, such as Randolph Bourne, are absent from “American Midnight,” while John Dos Passos features more as a backup bard than a literary chronicler with historical insight. Hochschild attributes much of the failure of American socialists to expand their ranks to the racism and xenophobia that bedeviled the white working class. But there were also significant problems of organization in the American labor movement, which struggled to unite unskilled immigrant workers with workers in established unions. Trotsky had expected America to make as great a contribution to world socialism as it had to capitalism; he was appalled by the lack of party discipline, later damning Debs with faint praise, as a “romantic and a preacher, and not at all a politician or a leader.” The Catholic Church inoculated large segments of immigrant workers from radicalization, while canny capitalists like Henry Ford devised ways to divide workers into a caste system with different gradations of privilege. For all of the success of the strike waves of 1919, almost none of them left any permanent new union organization in place, nor did socialists make much headway in electoral politics.
In the closing portions of this tale, Hochschild shows that, by contrast, a generation of American liberals learned what not to do from Wilson. As his international crusade sputtered into catastrophe, with Wilson signing off on the Versailles Treaty, which laid the kindling for World War II, younger members of his staff were already preparing to become different kinds of liberals. Felix Frankfurter, who, as a young judge advocate general, gallantly tried to counteract some of Wilson’s domestic terror, and Frankfurter’s friend Walter Lippmann, who worked on Wilson’s foreign policy team, were determined to cast off the administration’s excesses. Both envisioned a state that would protect civil rights instead of violating them, and oversee a more efficient and fair economy. In the early 1930s, even as they drifted apart, Lippmann and Frankfurter would help impart a crucial lesson to the Roosevelt administration: If it wanted to snuff out American socialism, it was better to absorb some of its ideals than to banish them.
Thomas Meaney is a fellow at the Max Planck Society in Göttingen, Germany.
AMERICAN MIDNIGHT: The Great War, a Violent Peace, and Democracy’s Forgotten Crisis | By Adam Hochschild | 421 pp. | Mariner Books | $29.99