American Midnight: The Great War, a Violent Peace, and Democracy’s Forgotten Crisis by Adam Hochschild

Review by Brian Tanguay

As much as Louis Dejoy was in the media spotlight in the months before the presidential election of 2020, one might assume that no person as controversial ever occupied the Postmaster General’s office. But become acquainted with the reign of Albert Sidney Burleson and you may experience a change of view. Appointed by president Woodrow Wilson in 1913, Burleson, the son of a Confederate officer, segregated the Post Office while also steering a campaign of intense government censorship and a siege on dissent that decimated socialist, labor, Black and foreign-language publications that depended on the US mail for their circulation. Burleson was just one of many government officials who assisted the Wilson administration in a feverish assault on civil liberties.

The years from 1917 to 1921 were politically-charged, a time of social unrest, labor agitation, bloody strikebreaking by the titans of industry, and strident debates about immigration and the  war in Europe. President Woodrow Wilson was a paradox, a visionary when it came to international relations who conceived and forcefully advocated for the League of Nations. Domestically, however, the southern born and bred Wilson did little to  conceal his disregard for the aspirations of Black citizens. During Wilson’s tenure the nation witnessed deadly outbreaks of racial terror, including the “Red Summer” of 1919 when more Black people died at the hands of their white countrymen than had in decades; among the killed were Black veterans who had valiantly served the nation in World War I. 

As the prolific historian Adam Hochschild writes in his superb new book, American Midnight, “America’s version of democracy is far from perfect, and every generation or two we learn just how fragile it can be. Almost all the tensions that roiled the country during and after the First World War still linger today.” These tensions include extreme wealth and social inequality, racial acrimony, bitter politics, violence, nationalism, fear of immigrants, and mistrust of democracy itself. Then, as now, political figures targeted the nation’s schools and clamored for “patriotic” education. New York state enacted laws in 1918 that put teachers at risk of losing their jobs for treasonable or seditious statements. Not to be outdone, New York City required all teachers to sign loyalty oaths and held hearings in which students testified about what their teachers said in class. 

Similarly, contemporary vigilante groups like the Oath Keepers, Proud Boys, and Three Percenters might appear to be a new phenomenon, but their brand of superpatriots isn’t novel. Take the American Protective League, which during World War I had a network of chapters across the nation, nearly all male and all white, whose members scoured public libraries and demanded the removal of books they considered pro-German or left-wing. American Protective League vigilantes joined government raids on labor union offices, in particular those of the IWW (the International Workers of the World, also known as the Wobblies). Another group calling itself the American Legion “demanded the expulsion not only of noncitizens who had evaded wartime military service, but of all men who had done so.” The Legion also railed against the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which confers citizenship on anyone born in the US. Attacks on birthright citizenship were heard frequently during the Trump Administration. 

Another echo from the past is the notion that white people are being deliberately replaced by people of color for purposes of securing political power. Back in 1914, as millions of Blacks fled the Jim Crow south in search of jobs (the US industrial base was ramping up for the war and companies needed workers) and less oppressive circumstances, Democratic politicians accused Republicans of importing Black voters to tip the electoral scales in traditionally Democratic northern cities. The reality was starkly different. Many Blacks found that while employers in the north wanted their labor because it could be had cheaply, and undermined union labor, white people could be just as intolerant and inhospitable as they were down south. Blacks suffered many indignities, from sundowner laws to prohibitions from buying or renting property in white neighborhoods. In addition to being treated as lesser citizens, Blacks were often the targets of white resentment and violence. The domestic chief of military intelligence, Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Van Deman, even called for surveillance of Black people because he believed that German agents were circulating among them to stir unrest and disloyalty. As Hochschild points out, Black people hardly needed outside agitators to make them angry; any time Blacks attempted to defend their rights they were deemed suspect and became ready targets of backlash.  

Hochschild includes fascinating sketches of high-profile people of the era, including the activist, writer and speaker, Emma Goldman, and the leader of the Wobblies, Big Bill Haywood. One key architect of this repressive era was the Attorney General, A. Mitchell Palmer, an ambitious former congressman with presidential aspirations. Assisting Palmer was a young Justice Department lawyer named J. Edgar Hoover. The infamous Palmer raids of November 1919 and January 1920 led to the arrest of nearly 10,000 people, which Hochschild characterizes as the greatest single violation of civil rights in US history. People were seized and detained for their opinions, because of their affiliation with a union, or for being a subscriber of a suspect publication. Hundreds of innocent people were caught up in these nationwide raids.  

Years of repression and fear-mongering were particularly detrimental to the Socialist Party. While socialism never sank deep roots in America, the Socialist Party had a national standard bearer in Eugene V. Debs, who won six percent of the popular vote for president in 1912. Debs was jailed and stripped of his citizenship for criticizing the government’s use of the 1917 Espionage Act to persecute citizens. During its heyday the Socialist Party elected dozens of state legislators, 79 mayors, and more than 1,000 city council members. By the time Debs died in 1926, however, membership had declined to less than 10,000 nationwide. It’s interesting to note that it was a Socialist congressman from Wisconsin, Victor Berger, who introduced a bill for a national old-age pension system in 1911, an idea that came to fruition 24 years later when Social Security was created. 

American Midnight is a deeply researched and brilliantly written book that arrives when many Americans seem skeptical or suspicious of their governing institutions and leaders. It’s unfortunate that most Americans have no awareness of this fraught period, but it’s also why this book is consequential. American Midnight calls us to perceive “the danger signals and the first drumbeats of demagoguery.” This is why history matters. The past may not predict the future, but it is chock full of clues, hints, and warnings.