American Midnight — a dark and overlooked period of US history

If you think the political situation in the United States now seems terrible, Adam Hochschild is here to remind you that things were much worse before. american midnighthis new book on the American domestic scene in the years during and just after the First World War, describes a society that more patriotic histories generally obscure.

Ridden with racial and ethnic prejudice, 1910s America was obsessed with suppressing labor activism and political dissent by any means necessary. Hochschild describes vicious lynchings, mass arrests, and systematic prisoner abuse, all justified first by the demands of the Great War and then by fears of communist revolution.

Best known for his 1998 book The Ghost of King Leopold, which introduced many Western readers to the horrors of Belgian rule in what is now the Congo, Hochschild developed a kind of specialty by immersing himself in dark periods of world history. It compels readers to confront abuse and remember those who had the courage to fight against militarism and stand up for the powerless and dispossessed, from Britain’s anti-slavery movement to anti-war activists during the First World War.

Disturbed by “the toxic undercurrents of racism, nativism and contempt for the rule of law” that have bubbled up in contemporary politics, he focused this time on a time when working people, black Americans and freethinkers faced vicious retaliation for daring to question the unjust Status Quo. “By looking closely at another period when they engulfed the country, we can understand them more deeply and defend against them in the future,” he writes.

Hochschild’s villains are the politicians and bureaucrats who advanced their careers by persecuting leftists and exaggerating the threat they posed. Among the worst was Mitchell Palmer, who as attorney general presided over a series of warrantless arrests and show trials that allegedly targeted dangerous communists but resulted in hundreds of illiterate immigrants. Ralph van Deman took home the military tactics used against independence fighters in the Philippines, including espionage and waterboarding, and employed them against labor activists and political dissidents. Albert Johnson spearheaded racist legislation that closed America’s doors to Asians and Eastern Europeans for decades.

More well-known American personalities fare just as badly. Hochschild shines a light on the failures of Woodrow Wilson, who as president spoke haughtily of international freedom while spreading segregation and allowing a draconian crackdown on dissent at home. He vaguely questioned subordinates such as Postmaster General Albert Burleson, who refused to deliver leftist publications but did nothing to contain them.

Although much of the story is relentlessly dark, Hochschild finds heroes who stood against the wave of hatred and violence. The kind and gentle Eugene Debs led union efforts and ran for president five times in the early 1900s as a Socialist Party candidate. In 1920, he collected more than 900,000 votes, a record for an American socialist candidate, while he was in prison for sedition for his opposition to the war. Kate Richards O’Hare, known as ‘Red Kate’, was a mother of four who swept across the country throughout the decade when she was not in prison, attracting thousands of people to hear his calls for a better and fairer society. And Emma Goldman, the anarchist writer who challenged traditional gender roles was finally kicked out of the country.

These striking portraits made me wish Hochschild had spent more time explaining how Americans pulled themselves out of their swamp of violence and repression. It gives readers brief flashes of hope — for example, when Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes changed his mind and issued a resounding dissent defending the right to unpopular political views in Abrams v. The Secretary of Labor in 1920 refused to authorize mass deportations of suspected anarchists.

But the ebb of the anti-immigrant and anti-leftist tide is almost anticlimactic. Attorney General Palmer overstated his hand with predictions of a mass Communist uprising in May 1920 that did not materialize, and public attention shifted elsewhere.

In 1921, Republican President Warren Harding, who is generally considered a political nonentity or worse, felt able to end the violent repression of socialism and let the leaders of the movement go. Many of the rights and protections they sought were enacted into law in the 1930s as part of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. One can only hope that today’s reactionary politics will be followed by a similar progressive wave.

Brooke Masters is the FT’s US Investment and Industry Editor

American Midnight: A Great War, a Violent Peace, and the Forgotten Crisis of Democracy by Adam Hochschild, Mariner Books $29.99, 432 pages

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