America Has Had It Worse

In his new book, Adam Hochschild remembers a time when a crusade for democracy abroad released a demonic spirit of intolerance and violence at home.

Woodrow Wilson surrounded by WWI emblems
NYPL; Getty; Joanne Imperio / The Atlantic

You could be forgiven for thinking that we live in uniquely horrible times. Four 21st-century horsemen haunt us—a baking planet, the next pandemic, technological singularity, and nuclear war. In the immediate present, Russia has declared war on the West, liberal democracy is weakening around the world, and the United States, at once stagnant and berserk, is suffering possibly irreversible decline, while Americans stare at the return to power of a would-be dictator. In rich countries the terrors are mostly anticipatory, and they coexist with unprecedented comforts. Waiting for the end of the world while ordering dinner on Seamless is its own kind of slow-motion Armageddon.

One value of reading history at a moment like this is to be reminded of the many ways that the past was actually worse—that progress is possible. Adam Hochschild’s American Midnight: The Great War, a Violent Peace, and Democracy’s Forgotten Crisis is a narrative history of the repression that accompanied the United States’ entry into World War I. The similarities to our own time are obvious enough that Hochschild doesn’t have to belabor them: nativism, racial backlash, deterioration of the rule of law, left-right clashes over who counts as an American. President Woodrow Wilson justified his decision to take the country to war in Europe on the highest ideals of freedom, self-determination, and peace. “We have no selfish ends to serve,” he told Congress in his war declaration on April 2, 1917. “We desire no conquest, no dominion.” But almost overnight, the American crusade for democracy abroad released a demonic spirit of intolerance and violence at home.

A president known for his progressive achievements—champion of child-labor laws, antitrust regulation, the eight-hour day, and, belatedly, women’s suffrage—became a wartime dictator. Every major war increases presidential power and threatens civil liberties, but in Wilson’s case there was a strange continuity. He was the kind of political liberal (and man of God) whose sense of the right and wrong was so fervent that it demanded compliance. The Espionage Act criminalized any speech considered to be anti-war, and the Wilson administration used the law against militant workers, Socialists, pacifists, Black people, and immigrants. War opponents lost their basic rights; if they were lucky to escape being (quite literally) tarred and feathered by mobs, many ended up serving long jail terms. The Socialist leader Eugene V. Debs was given a 10-year sentence for saying, in a speech in Canton, Ohio, “They have always taught you that it is your patriotic duty to go to war and to have yourselves slaughtered at their command. But in all the history of the world, you, the people, never had a voice in declaring war.” To the very end, Wilson refused to pardon the revered and ill old man. The main organizations of American radicalism, the Socialist Party and the Industrial Workers of the World, were essentially broken.

After the armistice in Europe, illiberalism at home grew even worse, as if the violent spirit of war needed new feeding grounds. Black soldiers returned with raised expectations that they could more fully participate in American democracy and prosperity. They were met instead with a wave of race riots and Klan lynchings. The success of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia inspired the national paranoia known as the Red Scare: Mass labor actions were put down by police violence, and in the summer of 1919, anarchist bombings led to the arrest and summary deportation of thousands of foreigners and other suspects in what were called Palmer Raids, after Wilson’s attorney general A. Mitchell Palmer, the ambitious politician who ordered them.

By the time the panic subsided, a series of strokes had left Wilson paralyzed in the White House. His cherished League of Nations—meant to herald a new era of international cooperation and peace—was dead on arrival in the Senate. The war to end all wars had made the world safe for demagogues, bankers, and Warren G. Harding. What had it all been for? No one could say, but Americans, especially the disillusioned young, were ready for a party. Numerous historians have analyzed this period, but the best account I know is fictional—John Dos Passos’s 1919, the second novel of his great U.S.A. trilogy, which ends in a prose poem of unsurpassed bitterness about the burial of the unknown soldier:

       And the scraps of dried viscera and skin bundled in khaki
       they took to Chalons-sur-Marne                    
       and laid it out neat in a pine coffin  
       and took it home to God’s Country on a battleship                           
       and buried it in a sarcophagus in the Memorial Amphitheater in the Arlington National Cemetery
       and draped the Old Glory over it
       and the bugler played taps
       and Mr. Harding prayed to God …

       Woodrow Wilson brought a bouquet of poppies.

American Midnight lacks the fresh revelatory power of King Leopold’s Ghost, Hochschild’s best-known book, about the Belgian exploitation of the Congo. But his talent for characterization and storytelling serves him here in portraits of little-known figures: heroes like Kate Richards O’Hare, a Socialist firebrand from Kansas, and Assistant Secretary of Labor Louis F. Post, a rare dissenter in the Wilson administration; villains like Leo Wendell, who went undercover in the ranks of labor, and Albert Sidney Burleson, Wilson’s postmaster general, who censored the press with “virtually unprecedented power.”

Hochschild’s books are concerned with social justice, and he doesn’t paint in moral shades of gray. Wilson was the most complex and enigmatic of presidents—idealistic and harsh, cold and passionate, liberal and bigoted, arrogant and self-doubting. Here he comes across as merely authoritarian. A famous anecdote has Wilson foreseeing the coming nightmare, telling an associate on the eve of his message to Congress: “Once lead this people into war, and they’ll forget there ever was such a thing as tolerance. To fight you must be brutal and ruthless, and the spirit of ruthless brutality will enter into the very fibre of our national life … If there is any alternative, for God’s sake, let’s take it.” Plenty of other evidence suggests that Wilson hesitated before the terrible harm that he knew he was about to inflict on American democracy, his life’s passion. But Hochschild is dismissive of the story. Wilson’s agony doesn’t fit with the autocratic president who stubbornly refused to free Debs.

Wilson, thus flattened, drains the story of its tragic irony and some of its more interesting implications. The repression Hochschild describes so vividly was not just a betrayal of liberal values but, in some ways, the consequence of them. Wilson justified everything, be it the graduated income tax or conscription, in the name of humanity and at a moral altitude where the jailing of trade unionists was barely visible. “Participation in the war put an end to the Progressive movement,” the historian Richard Hofstadter wrote. “And yet the wartime frenzy of idealism and self-sacrifice marked the apotheosis as well as the liquidation of the Progressive spirit … the war was justified before the American public—perhaps had to be justified—in the Progressive rhetoric and on Progressive terms.”

The war killed the very idealism that sent the doughboys over there to defend freedom and peace. The liberal thinkers who pushed for Wilson’s domestic reforms cheered the president’s war message; they realized their terrible mistake only after the victory parades were over. There’s a recurring tendency of American liberalism, for better and for worse, to internationalize its own causes with lofty language and universal values. World War II closed out the New Deal, but also enlarged it as Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms. Vietnam was the project of Cold War liberals who saw the battle against communism in Southeast Asia as almost continuous with the struggle for civil rights at home, but the war ended up destroying the Great Society. “That bitch of a war killed the lady I really loved,” Lyndon Johnson once complained.

A nativist panic runs like a continuous underground stream beneath the calmer, more open stretches of American history, always on the verge of bubbling up. The Red Scare, McCarthyism, and MAGA all seem fed by the same source: the recurring fear among “real Americans” that their homeland is threatened by foreigners, traitors, and alien ideologies. “To keep these dark forces from overwhelming American society once again will require a lot from us,” Hochschild concludes in American Midnight. “Knowledge of our history, for one thing, so we can better see the danger signals and the first drumbeats of demagoguery.”

But it’s also worth realizing what’s changed over time. Certain abuses are unlikely if not impossible today, not because of new laws or better officials but because public opinion wouldn’t tolerate them. The Espionage Act is still on the books, but it’s impossible to imagine a president banning hundreds of newspapers and magazines on grounds of national security. A judge wouldn’t sentence labor activists to long prison terms for speaking out against government policy. Vigilantes and police killed far more Black people in the two days of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre than in all the violence against civil-rights workers during the 1950s and ’60s. Deportations of immigrants still occur with a minimum of due process, but police no longer round up thousands of people in the middle of one night on no basis other than political affiliation or ethnicity to be expelled from the country after rigged hearings. As often as Jim Crow is invoked today—in relation to mass incarceration, voter suppression, or something else—there’s no systematic effort by the entire apparatus of the state to deprive a group of Americans of their most basic rights. The use of the law toward nefarious ends during and after the Great War has never been equaled since. This is progress worth acknowledging without illusions about our own peril.

The authoritarianism that threatens us is of a different kind. Today the political repression is less harsh, but the political rot is more extensive. A major party is engaged in a concerted effort to deny the democratic will of the people. Its officials routinely undermine the public’s faith in the legitimacy of elections. Its followers are awash in a sea of lies that makes them incapable of grasping ordinary reality. Its leader flaunts his autocratic proclivities without even paying lip service to the principles of self-government in which Wilson expressed absolute conviction.

Perhaps we can’t judge yet whether the Big Lie is worse than the Red Scare—whether Donald Trump, who couldn’t jail his opponents, is more dangerous than Woodrow Wilson, who didn’t provoke an insurrection. The crisis of 1917–21 died away rather suddenly, as if a fever had broken. Our affliction feels more like sepsis, with no obvious cure.