The Great War, a Violent Peace, and Democracy’s Forgotten Crisis
It can be too easy to forget the dark periods that our republic has survived in the not-sodistant past, said David Shribman in The Boston Globe. In an often overlooked fouryear span commencing with the U.S. entry into World War I, the nation “trampled its own ideals with a ferocity that had few precedents.” With Woodrow Wilson as president—“perhaps the purest (and most hypocritical) idealist since Thomas Jefferson”—the federal government fanned paranoia about internal threats to democracy and turned its full power against some of its least powerful citizens. Historian Adam Hochschild, the award- winning author of King Leopold’s Ghost and Bury the Chains, has now returned to that “brutal” mini-era and brought “verve and insight” to recounting its tumult.
“The psychosis of the era was so extreme it “When we meet our heroes on the page, we want them to have something thoughtful to say— to make good on the admiration their outsize performances have won,” said Michael O’Donnell in The Wall Street Journal. Fortunately, Hollywood legend Paul Newman (1925–2008) was as compelling an observer of his own life as he was captivating on the screen. This posthumous memoir, assembled primarily from 14,000 pages of transcribed conversations that Newman and a screenwriter friend recorded between 1986 and 1991, is “twice the book one could have dared to hope for, a narrative that is astute, introspective, and surprisingly graceful.” The real Newman, apparently, was “hardly the unflappable star that audiences thought they knew,” said Dave Itzkoff in The New York Times. Despite his “astronomical Book of the week almost seems surreal,” said Lewis Beale in The Daily Beast. Conscientious objectors to the war were imprisoned and tortured. Lynchings exploded across the South. White mobs burned down Black neighborhoods. Vigilante groups smashed worker union ization efforts, often with tacit government approval. The American Protective League, a 250,000- member vigilante force, operated as an official auxiliary of the Justice Department, while Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer launched raids on 10,000 alleged subversives, most of them immigrants. Meanwhile, Wilson’s administration used the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918 to surveil, censor, and harass leftist publications and thinkers. Some who spoke out, including Socialist Party presidential candidate Eugene Debs, were jailed. Wilson’s last four years in office may in fact have been “the bleakest period in American history.”
Curiously, “the story of uprising and repression that American Midnight tells is overwhelmingly a story of men,” said Joanna Scutts in The New Republic. “Hochschild’s goal, it seems, is to emphasize how far the anti-Red crusade was an expression of what we now call toxic masculinity, the urge to assert dominance by those who felt their authority and virility fading.” But even as he spotlights figures such as anarchist Emma Goldman and links the surge in authoritarianism to the threat some men perceived in the rise of first-wave feminism, his strategy shortchanges the achievements of women on several leadership fronts. Still, Hochschild has provided fresh perspective on the period when America first talked about making the world safe for democracy. It raises “an uncomfortably relevant question—of whether America is capable of safeguarding its own democracy, let alone anyone else’s.”