American Midnight: The Great War, a Violent Peace, and Democracy's Forgotten Crisis
“war sometimes does strange things even to those ideals a nation purports to cherish the most. American Midnight is a ‘story about how a war supposedly fought to make the world safe for democracy became the excuse for a war against democracy at home.’”
Some say that history does not repeat itself, but that it does rhyme. If that’s the case, then surely the Trump years of 2017 to 2021 are an echo of one century earlier during the four-year gap between America’s entry into World War I and the beginning of the era of the Roaring Twenties. So suggests bestselling author Adam Hochschild in his new work exploring those forgotten years, American Midnight: The Great War, a Violent Peace, and Democracy’s Forgotten Crisis.
During those prior years, Woodrow Wilson occupied the White House and “presided over the greatest assault on American civil liberties in the last century and a half.” According to Hochschild, it appears that the nation hasn’t learned anything from that prior experience. “During Donald Trump’s presidency, the forces that had blighted America of a century earlier would be dramatically visible yet again. . . .”
So what were those malign forces that imprinted themselves on the fabric of American history, destined by a collective national amnesia to rise again to the surface a century later? In no particular order, the culprits, as outlined in American Midnight, include: a foreign war few wanted the U.S. to jump into; the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia that fanned the flames of the first Red Scare; xenophobia thinly disguised as patriotism; anti-immigrant rage; anti-Semitism; labor unrest and the rise of socialism, with accompanying hysteria; racism; an unhealthy regard for the highly suspect “science” of eugenics; rise of “vigilante superpatriots”; distrust of the media; and, ironically in a nation that deifies (at least as a theoretical concept) individual rights as guaranteed in the Constitution, a fear that unpopular ideas freely expressed might somehow gain purchase in the marketplace of ideas.
As Hochschild laments, American Midnight is about “mass imprisonments, torture, vigilante violence, censorship, killings of Black Americans, and far more that is not marked by commemorative plaques, museum exhibits, and Ken Burns documentaries.”
Several factors combined to create an atmosphere ripe for the abuses the author describes, but prominent among them was the entry by the United States into World War I. Although President Wilson personally agonized over the decision to enter the war, the author is skeptical of the motives of others who encouraged that decision—primarily the capitalists who would make fortunes profiting from the war.
For Wilson, though, it truly was a monumental decision that cost him many sleepless nights, because he knew the devastating consequences that would befall tens of thousands of young men and their families in a foreign war. However, the consequences on the home front didn’t seem as concerning to him. Hochschild writes:
“The coming months would be filled with pain and tragedy. The part of it that happened on the battlefields of Europe, Wilson would take to heart. About the suffering that would occur inside the United States he would remain, to all appearances, unmoved.”
Particular victims of the patriotic fervor sparked by the war, which continued even after battlefield fighting ended, were the companion First Amendment rights of free speech and a free press. The two often go hand in hand, with one protecting the right to freely express ideas, no matter how unpopular, while the other protects the right to disseminate those ideas in the press. At least that’s how it was supposed to work.
But war sometimes does strange things even to those ideals a nation purports to cherish the most. American Midnight is a “story about how a war supposedly fought to make the world safe for democracy became the excuse for a war against democracy at home.”
This dark period in the nation’s past introduced a whole new set of characters in the cast of American history, and lifted others, though already known, to a newfound prominence. Those personalities included Eugene Debs, who led the Socialist Party, one of the nation’s biggest boogeymen; Kate Richards O’Hare and Emma Goldman, anti-war advocates; A. Mitchell Palmer, who, after his appointment as attorney general, spearheaded mass arrests and deportations of socialist and labor undesirables in what became known as the “Palmer Raids”; and a young J. Edgar Hoover, who would have a decades-long impact on the country, and not necessarily in a good way.
While the author examines the facts—the “what happened”—of this period, he also explores the root causes—the “why” of what happened. The latter may be even more important than the former. Surely if we know why, and how, these things were allowed to happen, we can not only block history from repeating itself, but we can also disrupt the rhyme.
“To keep these dark forces from overwhelming American society once again will require a lot from us. Knowledge of our history, for one thing, so we can better see the danger signals and first drumbeats of demagoguery. . . . And above all, a vigilant respect for civil rights and constitutional safeguards, to save ourselves from ever slipping back into the darkness again.”
Let’s hope Adam Hochschild is not just a voice crying in the wilderness.