(President Woodrow Wilson)
The four years that followed America’s entrance into World War I was a grim period in American history that seems painfully relevant today. It was a time of racism, white nationalism, anti-foreign, anti-immigrant feelings, and of course plague.. On top of that American society suffered from a misogynistic view of women, and an appalling level of political partisanship. By 1920 the culmination of World War I and the Versailles Treaty were almost in place. The treaty itself was punitive and over the next decade it would be used by opponents of the Weimar Republic in Germany as a cudgel to destroy any hope in achieving democracy and greatly facilitated the rise of the Nazi Party and Adolf Hitler. Fast forward to the turn of the 20th century, we find Russia beginning to reject the promise of democracy following the collapse of the Cold War leading to the reemergence of Pan Slavism and the rise of Vladimir Putin. The similarities may be divergent, but it is clear that the economic misery in Germany in the 1920s and Russia in the 1990s is more than a coincidence in bringing authoritarianism to power in both countries.
The second decade in the 20th and 21st centuries tend to mirror each other. The fighting in the trenches on the western front during World War I matches the trench warfare that has existed in eastern Ukraine since 2014 and seems to be growing worse each day. The Russian Revolution helped produce the authoritarianism of Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin, in much the same way that the end of communism brought to power, first Boris Yeltsin, and his handpicked successor, Vladimir Putin. The end of World War I brought about the failure of Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations, and recently Donald Trump tried to unravel NATO and while Putin is trying to destroy NATO by invading Ukraine, the former president’s acolytes have continued to try and undermine the Biden administration’s effort to assist the Kyiv government.
(Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer)
In 1917, Lenin bragged that the Soviet Union would lead an ecumenical revolution in the name of Karl Marx. Today, Putin wants to recreate the former Soviet Empire and “Russify” its “near abroad” regions. During the 1920s Russia was an economic pariah, today economic sanctions imposed by the west are seen as one of the main weapons imposed in order to block Putin’s expansionism.
The difference today is that a number of countries which suffered under western colonialism; India, China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia find themselves benefitting from Russian cheap energy and trade as they pursue their own reasons for their supposed neutrality in dealing with the war in Ukraine. There were many errors made in the diplomatic realm in 1919 that we see resurfacing today – one can call it the revenge of former western victims of imperialism.
(General Leonard Wood)
Across the Atlantic we also witness the similarities between the two time periods. Domestically the United states has found itself in the midst of violent anarchist movements on the right. Groups like the Proud Boys and their ilk and the MAGA crowd engage in political violence in much the same way as leftist anarchists did in the post-World War One era. Politically, the lack of bipartisanship today is a daily occurrence where “owning the libs” by the MAGA crowd is more important than passing legislation for the benefit of the American people. In 1919, the leader of the Republican opposition was Senator Henry Cabot Lodge who despised Wilson and resented democratic control of the presidency and congress over the previous eight years. He led the opposition to the ratification of the League of Nations in the Senate and was successful in part because of Wilson’s own political errors and a belief that he was infallible. In the same way NATO was threatened by extinction under the presidency of Donald Trump, another president whose belief in their own judgement was beyond reproach, and the likes of Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy who seems like he will do anything to satisfy the right wing fringe of the Republican caucus and stop American aid to Ukraine. A further similarity between the two periods is that of dealing with disease or pandemics. In 1918-1919 it was influenza which the government downplayed resulting in over 675,000 death which Wilson paid little attention too, and of course COVID-19 the last few years resulting in over 1,000,000 deaths, conspiracy theories, and a president who saw the disease as a plot to hinder his reelection as opposed to properly protecting the American people. Lastly, immigration issues have dominated both periods. The 1920s witnessed an increasing war against labor, communism, and immigration in general as it seemed the “Bolsheviki” were mostly Jews from Eastern Europe, not the good “white stock” of Northern and Western Europe. The period is known as the first Red Scare, but today we have similar issues. The lack of bipartisanship prevents immigration reform and politicians are quick to point to the southern border as a national security threat. Trump’s commentary on immigrants is well known as well as those dealing with “shit hole” nations.
The mindsets of Wilson and Trump are also similar, and that mindset led to numerous errors for the American people. Wilson proved to be a sanctimonious character who believed his way was always correct and if you didn’t support him you were no longer an accepted part of his administration. Trump has a similar mindset, but there is a difference. Wilson held strong beliefs in his Fourteen Points which he hoped would bring an end to all wars. Trump, believes in nothing apart from his use of the presidency for his and his families self-aggrandizement, and perhaps keeping him out of prison and an orangejump suit.
The lack of bipartisanship in Congress was clear concerning the League of Nations, the increasing belief in eugenics and anti-migrant and racist tropes led to violence against minorities be it the Tulsa or Omaha massacres or other events throughout the south. This resulted in the 1924 Johnson Act that created quotas to bar certain groups from the United States. Though women finally got the vote after the war, impediments for them and blacks remained to keep them from exercising their rights of citizenship.
Fast forward to today we have disagreements over aid to Ukraine and the US role in NATO. Further, we have election deniers who still have not given up overturning the 2020 election no matter what the courts have ruled. The crisis at the southern border, the bombing of synagogues, the shootings of young black men and schools, and of course the events of 1/6. These occurrences can be laid at the doorstep of MAGA conspiracy theorists, FOX news and Donald Trump and reflect how little the US has grown as a united nation over the last 100 years. Philosopher George Santayana was correct in 1905 when he stated, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I guess the lesson no longer applies as a large segment of our population has cut history and government courses from educational curriculum on many levels as is highlighted currently by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ attempts to rewrite his states curriculum stressing only the “good parts dealing with whites,” and leaving out anything negative like slavery and genocide of Native-Americans out.
The first two decades of the 20th and 21st centuries are uncanny in their similarities and it makes it important to consult Adam Hochschild’s latest book, AMERICAN MIDNIGHT: THE GREAT WAR, A VIOLENT PEACE AND DEMOCRACIES FORGOTTEN CRISIS to understand the evolution of events surrounding World War I and its culmination, its impact on societal movements throughout the world including the United States, and how many of these issues remain with us today reflecting on the idea that we have not come as far as we think in the last century.
(Presidential candidate and Socialist Eugene V. Debs)
As the case in many of his books like KING LEOPOLD’S GHOST, TO END ALL WARS, SPAIN IN OUR
HEARTS, and BURY THE CHAINS Hochschild exhibits a mastery of the historical material and sources including astute analysis that is important for the reader to digest. He possesses an easy writing style that makes it easier to absorb material that can be very disconcerting. In his current work Hochschild has created a narrative that is more of a socio-political history than a recounting of World War I and the treaty that followed. The book is separated into two distinct parts. First the reader is presented with an America that is in the grip of a patriotic fervor that had never been seen before. Anti-German feeling fostered by submarine warfare raised levels of hostility that remained throughout the war. The result was the loss of civil rights for a large component of American society particularly labor and anyone who questioned the Wilson administration. President Woodrow Wilson was seen as a progressive, but the policies implemented under his watch caused tremendous repression and violations of constitutional protections of free speech. The repression resulted in vigilantism, violence, and an unequal implementation of justice. Legislation and later Supreme Court decisions codified these the Espionage Act, the Sedition Act, or the actions of the Postmaster General and other propaganda organs. Big Business saw this as an opportunity to go after labor unions like the IWW and the Socialist Party. Racists saw this as an opportunity to repress blacks in the south as well as the north as many southern blacks migrated north to escape adverse treatment and hopes for employment. In addition, the government deputized private groups to assist in this repression and violence. A number of personalities dominate this section including President Wilson, radicals like Emma Goldman, Postmaster general Albert Burleson, and many others.
In the second half of the book, Hochschild’s analysis zeroes in on the continuing repression after the war and the rise of the Red Scare. The constant round up of immigrants for deportation, legislation to block immigration, violence against blacks, even those who fought in World war I, the continued imprisonment of people jailed for opposing the war, a domestic war against the new enemy communism which seemed to be spreading in Europe were dominant themes. Throughout President Wilson did not oppose these extreme measures as his focus was on gaining passage of his precious League of Nations which ultimately failed. After suffering a debilitating stroke trying to sell his League, Wilson was effectively a non-executive for the last eight months of his presidency as his wife Edith seemed to have been a co-president. Two of the dominant personalities of the period were Attorney-General A. Mitchell Palmer, and General Leonard Wood. Both sought their respective party nominations for president in 1920 and ran on a platform of anti-immigration and deportation. In Palmer’s case his actions relate to an anarchist bombing of his home in 1919 which changed a progressive into a right wing fanatic employing the likes of the young J. Edgar Hoover.
(Kate Richard O’Hare)
A number of important movements and personalities are explored, many of which lead to current comparisons. The first, Woodrow Wilson who oversaw the war on dissent resulting in violence and jailings. Wilson was a southerner who held strong racist ideas despite his progressive reputation and showed little interest in protecting civil rights after the American entrance into the war. Wilson’s problem throughout was that he believed that bargaining was beneath him and his autocratic tendencies eventually would dominate his approach to politics. Apart from Wilson, the author focuses on personalities who normally do not receive the coverage of a President, Secretary of State or other high officials. The reader is exposed to William J. “Big Bill” Flynn, the former Chief of the Secret Service and New York City Police Detectives who would head up the Bureau of Investigation, the precursor of the FBI, a man who would hire the young J. Edgar Hoover who would copy the Library of Congresses card catalogue system to track what he deemed to be enemies of the people. Women who spoke out against the war and were jailed receive a great deal of coverage. Emma Goldman, Dr. Marie Equi, and Kate Richard O’Hare are front and center. The role of Postmaster General and his weeding out all opposition to the war effort through the mails; the jailing of Eugene Debs; Grace Hammer, a Sherman Detective Agency employee imbedded within the IWW as “an underground cheerleader” for the war to root out dissidents; Leo Wendell, a Justice Department spy, Lt. Colonel Ralph Van Deman, the domestic military intelligence chief, Louis F. Post, the only member of the Labor Department who fought against deportations, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis who had no difficulty with objectivity dealing with dissidents, Congressman Albert Johnson who led the fight for immigration quotas that blocked immigrants from anywhere apart from northern and western Europeans (sounds like Trump!) are just a few whose impact on American history and their actions should serve as a lesson for all to study.
The infamous Palmer Raids, mass arrests by the Justice department on the Union of Russian Workers and other organizations receive extensive coverage. In particular was the radical Division within the Justice Department fostered by J. Edgar Hoover who was put in charge of these raids and implemented the surveillance, arrests, police raids, internment camps, legal chicanery, all strategies employed for decades to come. Hoover saw the resulting deportations as a “feather in his cap.” Wilson is just as culpable as he remarked 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.”
Hochschild also stresses how the Wilson administration drew upon America’s experience in the Philippines, employing torture techniques like water boarding and counter insurgency in the United States to ferret out dissidents. General Leonard Wood was the master of implementing these techniques.
(US Postmaster Albert Burleson)
In summary I turn to Thomas Meany’s review in the October 9, 2022, that appeared in the New York Times; “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.”
(President Woodrow Wilson)