Between the story of the doughboys of World War I and the glittery onset of the Roaring Twenties is a brutal chapter of American history almost always omitted from high-school textbooks and the standard history offerings at the nation’s universities. It is a story of betrayal of the country’s greatest values and of combat against some of its least powerful citizens.
But what happened in that brief era is a story worth telling, and in “American Midnight,” the historian Adam Hochschild, celebrated for his “King Leopold’s Ghost” and other volumes, recounts it with verve and insight. “It is,” he tells us, “the story of how a war supposedly fought to make the world safe for democracy became the excuse for a war against democracy at home.”
This is, to be sure, history with a purpose, not a search for a “usable history” that seeks a past that provides comfort and moral elevation for the present. The purpose here is prevention, so that, in this particularly perilous passage in our national narrative, we might guard against the cliché, and the danger, of history repeating itself, or even rhyming.
Here are the threats, all of them crammed into the years 1917 to 1921: violence, repression, racism, paranoia, intolerance, hatred, rampant propaganda, capricious imprisonments, political polarization, government surveillance, and vigilante activity.
“My hope,” Hochschild writes at the opening, “is that by examining closely an overlooked period in which they engulfed the country, we can understand them more deeply and better defend against them in the future.”
“American Midnight” is one of several fresh looks at a period that had previously received little widespread attention. The darkness didn’t descend only in America. Another notable volume examining this era is Jeffrey Veidlinger’s 2021 “In the Midst of Civilized Europe: Pograms 1918-1921 and the Onset of the Holocaust.”
At home the period was filled with passion and, among dissidents, great purpose. And in examining this forgotten hiccough in the country’s history, we encounter several unforgettable figures who come to life on these pages.
They include Ralph Van Deman, who set up a massive military surveillance unit of more than 1,300 people that spied on American civilians; former Representative Albert Sidney Burleson of Texas, who transformed the benign position of postmaster general into a vast censorship vanguard based on his power to declare certain publications, especially socialist newspapers, “unmailable”; Leo Wendell, on the surface an International Workers of the World agitator but really a federal informant; and Kate Richards O’Hare, known as Red Kate, who, for saying that American women had become “brood sows to raise children to get in to the army and be made into fertilizer,” became the first prominent socialist convicted under the Espionage Act.
There are more. Drifting — marching, really — through these pages also are Marie Equi, a natural rebel who defied the law by distributing birth control devices and practicing abortion, and the Hofer brothers, members of a pacifist Hutterite sect in South Dakota who were dispatched to Alcatraz (and then to Fort Leavenworth) for their refusal to serve in the military. When one of them died, Hochschild tells us, he was placed in a coffin, wearing the very uniform he had spurned.
This book is, above all, a chronicle of dissent in a democracy, setting forth in vivid languages the abuses and extremes that characterized the period during and shortly after the great crusade, and the great curse, of World War I. The record is not good. During a period when the country was led by perhaps the purest (and most hypocritical) idealist since Thomas Jefferson — Patricia O’Toole’s sparkling 2018 biography of Woodrow Wilson was titled “The Moralist” — it trampled its own ideals with a ferocity that had few precedents or successors. Wilson was one of the principal villains of the piece, and of the peace.
Attacks on Black people, Jews, immigrants, socialists, and others outside of power — some conducted by citizens, some by militia, some by the government — continued after the war. They took their greatest form during the so-called Palmer Raids, prosecuted by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, himself the victim of an anarchist bomb attack at his home, and described by the historian Alan Brinkley as “arguably the greatest single violation of civil liberties in American history.” These attacks produced despair but few convictions. “In the end,” Hochschild writes of Palmer, “he proved as blind as many would-be revolutionaries to the fact that most Americans have seldom dreamed of an armed left-wing revolution.”
The surveillance state was deployed in such density that when the anarchist Emma Goldman, newly released from prison, held a fund-raiser, plainclothes spies from three different agencies were in the crowd. Federal agents questioned each of the 1,500 theatergoers in the audience of a Russian-language play in Detroit. Some 39 Jewish bankers meeting in Lynn to discuss forming a cooperative were arrested. The New York state Legislature refused to seat five duly elected assemblymen who were socialists. The US House of Representatives expelled socialist Victor Berger of Wisconsin.
The ugliness was not confined to government. More than 90 Black people, three of them wearing US military uniforms, were hanged by mobs in 1919 alone.
“America’s version of democracy is far from perfect, and every generation or two we learn anew just how fragile it can be,” Hochschild writes in a passage that he very likely would not have included had he written the book as recently as 2015. “Almost all the tensions that roiled the country during and after the First World War still linger today.”
Much of what Hochschild examines in this volume will be news to his readers. It is, ultimately, news we all can use.
AMERICAN MIDNIGHT: The Great War, a Violent Peace, and Democracy’s Forgotten Crisis
By Adam Hochschild
Mariner, 432 pages, $29.99
David M. Shribman, for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief, is a nationally syndicated columnist.