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Book Review - "American Midnight" - War an excuse to crush labor voices

Mike Matejka
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Dissenting during wartime is not always a popular stance; attacking, imprisoning and deporting dissenters refutes the American promise of free speech and a free press.  It is also an opportunity to attack unions, labeling them as subversive enemy agents.

World War I, known as the “Great War” before conflict again erupting in 1939, is remembered today with marching soldiers in vintage newsreels and the George M. Cohen song Over There.  What few Americans remember is that civil liberties, free speech and union activists were jailed and suppressed.

In American Midnight Adam Hochschild chillingly tells the ruthless onslaught against any negative word, particularly directed toward immigrants, union activists and the Socialist Party.  Self-appointed Committees of Defense with government-issued badges materialized across the country, attacking supposed subversives.  Federal agents monitored union and political meetings and extensive files were gathered on citizens, led by an aggressive young federal worker, J. Edgar Hoover.

The American Federation of Labor (AFL) supported the war effort while the more radical Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) opposed it, believing the working class was being dispatched to kill fellow workers. Business leaders feared and hated the small but vocal anti-capitalist union and the war legitimatized attacks against it.  IWW union halls were plundered, government agents were sent undercover to formant illegal actions and union activists were imprisoned.  In Chicago Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis rendered 388 guilty verdicts on 97 union members, totally 807 years imprisonment and $2 million in fines.

Railroad workers and Socialist Party presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs was sentenced to a decade in jail for questioning the war. The early 20th century Socialist Party had built a formidable electoral base, promising clean government and basic sanitation.  Milwaukee’s elected Socialist Congressman Victor Berger was refused his U.S. House seat. Before the War, the pro-labor Socialists had elected 33 state legislators, 79 mayors and well over 10,000 city council members.  After the war-time onslaught the organization had fewer than 10,000 members nationwide.

Waterboarding and other tortures were not invented during the Middle Eastern wars.  In conquering the Philippines from 1898-1905 to make it a U.S. colony, Army personnel created the technique.  It was freely used on suspects imprisoned in Army bases during the World War. Religious minorities who refused the draft were shackled on high bars, forced to stand on their toes all day. After bombs exploded outside prominent homes, U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer launched a “Red Scare,” rounding up immigrants and other suspects on often flimsy charges.  The U.S. Postmaster Albert Burleson declared multiple African-American, Socialist, foreign language and labor publications as subversive and refused to mail them.

As the war fever faded and exposes on big business war profiteering spread, many reconsider the supposed fight for democracy that not only wounded and killed U.S. military personnel by the thousands but also shredded basic American rights.  Republican Warren Harding freed Debs on Christmas Day 1921, telling an Ohio reporter, “Debs was right.  We shouldn’t have been in that war.” 

The damage was done and many pro-labor voices were squelched.  Steelworker, shipyard and packinghouse workers strikes were crushed in 1919, the workers tarnished as subversives.  U.S. business embarked on the “American Plan,” which meant no unions.  Working class voices for change were silenced.

Hochschild has written an admirable book that is a page turner.  He weaves the story from presidential politics through government agents and the labor and dissenting voices who bore the onslaught. While President Woodrow Wilson heralded his Fourteen Points across Europe and promised democracy and freedom, American citizens languished in jail cells or in cold cemetery plots for daring to ask questions.  This is a provocative and insightful book and a stark reminder in today’s political climate of democracy’s fragility. 

American Midnight: the Great War, a Violent Peace, and Democracy’s Forgotten Crisis

By Adam Hochschild

Mariner Books, New York