American Midnight

The Great War, A Violent Peace, and Democracy's Forgotten Crisis

Adam Hochschild
Mariner Books ($29.99)

by Robert Zaller

Adam Hochschild, the author of the acclaimed study King Leopold’s Ghost (Houghton Mifflin, 1998), has made a career out of unearthing the ghosts of the late nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth.  He might simply have made a single volume of that singularly bloody period, which saw the Western world’s hegemony collapse in two great wars and climaxed in the greatest atrocity in history and the most powerful weapon ever developed—a weapon that would soon prove capable of endangering human life on the planet.  But that story, in its broad outlines, is already familiar; in his work Hochschild has aimed instead to tell it indirectly and episodically—to do what a sequence of novels might do, but using the tools of a historian.

Like a novelist, Hochschild works with protagonists, but the consequential figures of history who lead his narratives are more than storytellers of particular events—to the author, it is the legacy of each that ultimately shapes them.  Leopold II is remembered for Belgium’s brutal colonization of the Congo, an imperial venture that set the pattern for Europe’s exploitation of Africa in the latter nineteenth century, including the precedent for German genocide in today’s Namibia.  His “ghost” is thus not merely what was done by him and in his name, but also what persisted until the collapse of Europe’s African empires fifty years after his death, which haunt the continent to this day.

The same spectral image defines Hochschild’s The Unquiet Ghost: Russians Remember Stalin (Viking, 1994), which presents the Soviet dictator as an object of memory, defining the decades since his death for his nation as perhaps no other world personality has—a ghost now revived ominously in the figure of Vladimir Putin.  But dictators are an easy target, even if, as in The Unquiet Ghost, Hochschild is after a more multidimensional portrait.  In his most recent book, American Midnight, he fixes on the half-forgotten episode of a century ago colloquially known as the Red Scare, which he presents as a nadir of our history that has shaped it ever since. 

The Red Scare began with America’s entry into World War I, just as Russia’s ability to maintain a second front against Imperial Germany was in doubt.  Nominally neutral, the U.S. under President Woodrow Wilson had made extensive loans to the Western Allies, Britain, and France, which were unlikely to be repaid in the event of Allied defeat.  As Hochschild points out, this was a decisive factor in Wilson’s request for a declaration of war in April 1917—although, as he also notes, the enthusiasm for war in Congress mirrored that of the general population, for which war had partly the character of a great adventure and partly that of a natural extension of the position America had assumed as a Pacific imperial power at the turn of the century, as well as the world’s captain of industry. 

At the same time, Hochschild touches on the reluctance of many in the country to abandon George Washington’s long-held counsel to avoid foreign entanglements, and Wilson’s own boast, in his reelection campaign only months before, that he had kept the U.S. out of Europe’s war.  Some of the opposition to war, he notes, was ethnically based in the country’s large German population, and some in the only independent party of the Left, the Socialists. 

From the beginning, Wilson cast the war as a crusade, in his words, to make the world safe for democracy, even while privately admitting that it would mean “autocracy at home”—a marshaling of manpower and resources such as the country had never seen, and consequently a repression of dissent.  Wilson’s sloganeering would be, as Hochschild observes, a capstone for the idea of American exceptionalism that had developed in the nineteenth century and would define it in the twentieth and beyond.  In this, Wilson would shape American ideology profoundly, the personal tragedy of his failure to bring the U.S. into his postwar League of Nations notwithstanding.

To what extent Wilson expressed a hopeful idealism, and to what extent he was the partly cynical captive of his own rhetoric, is a subject that historians will long debate, and by foregrounding it Hochschild not only makes him the protagonist of this story but also places the legacy of our twenty-eighth president in a sharper light. As the war proceeded, Wilson’s rationale for it became broader and more grandiose.  It would be, he claimed, not only for the advancement of democracy but for the ultimate peace of the world.

Hochschild leaves us in no doubt of his conclusions about the cost of the war for American democracy, quoting the distinguished historian David Brion Davis: “The years from 1917 to 1921 are probably unmatched in American history for popular hysteria, xenophobia, and paranoid suspicion.” By June 1917, Congress had passed the Espionage Act, the broadest and most draconian restraint of free speech, activity, and assembly in the history of the country, and still in force today.  The government’s chief targets were home-grown socialists, whose leader, Eugene Debs, received almost a million votes in the presidential election of 1920 while imprisoned under the Espionage Act, while its largest union, the International Workers of the World (IWW), was crushed by mass arrests culminating in the largest civilian criminal trial ever held in the U.S.

The war itself, of course, had many consequential results, which Hochschild details.  The government assumed virtual control of the economy, enriching giant corporations while putting antitrust regulations to sleep.  The military draft upended millions of lives and cost 116,000 of them.  But the chief focus of Hochschild’s story is less about the vast redistribution of national wealth or the cost of battle, and more about what he regards as its ultimate price: the suppression of native dissent.  The Great War would prove not merely a pause in American democracy, but, despite the enfranchisement of women at the end of it, an enduring degradation.  The country would not again know a worker’s movement such as the IWW, or a political party as progressively committed as that led by Debs.  American public discourse, in Hochschild’s view, has been hobbled by this ever since.

Hochschild makes his points through a series of vivid portraits of antiwar radicals silenced or thrust into prison or exile—Alexander Berkman, W.E.B. DuBois, Marie Equi, Emma Goldman, Big Bill Hayward, Kate Richards O’Hare, and John Reed—as well as a lone voice of dissent within the Wilson administration itself, Louis F. Post.  Against these figures, he depicts those who abetted the war in their efforts to curtail the Left and civil liberties in general.  The best-remembered among them would be J. Edgar Hoover, then at the outset of his career but already a powerful force, but together, as Hochschild demonstrates, their work would help to make Wilson’s second administration one of the darkest and most lawless periods in American history.

As for Wilson, his desire to justify the war and his vision of America’s world leadership led him to promote the League of Nations that his fellow countrymen would soon reject.  The result was a paralyzing stroke that left Wilson himself the mere spectator of the last eighteen months of his presidency, and the witness of the vindictive Treaty of Versailles that virtually guaranteed the far greater war that followed it twenty years later.  Beyond that, Hochschild’s account of America’s long-ago “midnight” has much to tell us about the politics we have inherited in our own day.

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