Books: Why Was 1919 So Bad?

While reading journalist Ann Hagedorn’s “Savage Peace,” a wide-ranging, information-rich, sometimes frustrating study of the United States in 1919, you can’t help thinking you’d even prefer to live in 2007. Though she subtitles the book “Hope and Fear in America,” she has to look hard to find the hope. A nonstop transatlantic flight! A ringing minority opinion in a free-speech case! The first dial telephones! One of the Hagedorn’s hopeful figures, Helen Keller—who became famous by appearing in a 1919 movie—was genuinely inspirational, not merely for overcoming both blindness and deafness, but for her progressive politics. Who remembers now that she was a pacifist, a feminist and a cofounder of the ACLU? But Hagedorn oversells another chief exhibit, British physicist Arthur Eddington’s experimental verification of Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, as a “real articulation of international cooperation” that “transcended earthbound troubles”—without mentioning the atomic bomb. Anyway, what does this episode have to do with the book’s subject? The only concrete effect on America that Hagedorn can cite is a wonderful New York Times headline: EINSTEIN THEORY TRIUMPHS; STARS NOT WHERE THEY SEEMED OR WERE CALCULATED TO BE, BUT NOBODY NEED WORRY.

Why 1919, a year which, as Hagedorn notes, has been “tucked away between the ‘Great War’ and the ‘Roaring Twenties',” and remembered mostly for the Paris Peace Conference and the Treaty of Versailles, which brought World War I to a formal end? Though it takes her until page 423 to come out and say it, this was a year that “laid the groundwork for so many aspects of modern America, from the struggles for free speech and black equality to the establishment of a system of domestic intelligence.” True, you could find subgroundwork in any number of previous years, but you could hardly find a year more symptomatic. President Woodrow Wilson, the first chief executive to go overseas while in office (and don’t think he didn’t get grief for it), was in France, campaigning unsuccessfully for a less punitive peace and a more powerful League of Nations. Such black leaders as W. E. B. Du Bois pointed out that the U.S. itself could use some peace and justice: 1919 was a year of race riots (in 26 cities) and lynchings—63 just from January through October, one for speaking out against lynchings. (Even the white mayor of Omaha was cut down from a rope just in time after he intervened in the lynching of a black man.) The cost of living had doubled since 1914, and there was an average of 10 labor strikes per day, including those by the Boston police department and 365,000 steelworkers, many of whom lived without running water or indoor plumbing, and made less than the government’s subsistence-level income for their 69-hour workweek. U.S. Steel’s 1919 surplus was more than $466 million.

You’d think such conditions would amply explain and justify both the strikes and the increasing outspokenness of blacks. But 1919 was also the year of America’s great Red Scare. Such ambitious fearmongers as rising Justice Department lawyer J. Edgar Hoover and Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer (who wanted to be president) saw, or feigned to see, a revolutionary plot by anarchists, Bolsheviks—the Russian Revolution was two years old—and other subversives behind all the agitation. Certainly both the labor and the civil-rights movements included some radicals, even revolutionaries, among a majority of progressives, but as Hagedorn writes, they “would have power only if the vile conditions did not improve.” Even the head of military intelligence’s Negro Subversion division, Maj. Walter H. Loving, a black man considered “one of the best types of white man’s negro,” finally had to tell his bosses what they didn’t want to hear: the problem was injustice, not Bolshevism. “As a whole,” he wrote, “Negroes have resolved never again to submit to the treatment which they received in the past and any attempt to deny them such privileges and rights as they are entitled to, in common with other men, will be promptly resented. The above is a true statement of existing conditions, verified by personal observation and contact with Negroes of all classes.”

But then, as now, hype and hysteria trumped the facts, and unseen enemies were a demagogue’s best friends. The nation went on Orange Alert. A rumored revolution on July 4 was enough to mobilize 18,000 New York City policemen. The NYPD also had a standing auxiliary: civilian spies and vigilantes, members of such groups as the Confederation of Christian Men and Women of America, to whom the police gave both credentials and guns. The largest of these groups, the American Protective League, had as many as 300,000 amateur gumshoes nationwide, ratting out neighbors and performing black-bag jobs—judges couldn’t accept evidence seized illegally by the Feds, but civilian burglaries were OK. It was in 1919 that J. Edgar Hoover became head of the Justice Department’s new domestic intelligence network, established to keep track of every radical in America. He set up a cross-referenced index of people, organizations and publications, and by year’s end he had 150,000 cards; in two more years, it would be 450,000. Of course, as Hagedorn notes, “the facts being indexed were not verified for accuracy.” Except in scale, Hoover’s operation didn’t change much for the next half century.

In this climate, 1919 was a lousy year for the First Amendment. Under the wartime Espionage Act, and its successor, the Sedition Act, one man had been sentenced to 10 years in prison for calling the draft unconstitutional; another got 20 for telling a Liberty Bond salesman the government could “go to hell.” In 1919, the Supreme Court upheld the law, and denied appeals of 10-year sentences given to the Socialist leader Eugene V. Debs (for speaking against “capitalist” wars and military recruitment) and a Kansas City man who’d written that the war had been “a monumental and inexcusable mistake,” contrived to “protect some rich men’s money.” The unanimous opinions were written by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who maintained that such speech constituted “a clear and present danger” and were equivalent to “falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing panic.” But Holmes privately “regretted” having to write these opinions—Hagedorn never makes it clear why he had to—and thought the cases should never have been brought. Later in the year he spoke his mind, writing a dissent in another free-speech case, this time against four Russian radicals who’d thrown leaflets from a Manhattan rooftop, which remains a classic defense of the First Amendment: “We should be eternally vigilant against the attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death ...” Still, the court upheld the convictions 7-2 (only Louis Brandeis sided with Holmes), and the leafleteers were deported, along with celebrity anarchists Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman. J. Edgar Hoover himself showed up at the pier, pointing out Goldman to reporters as “the Red Queen of Anarchy.”

“Savage Peace” is such an absorbing book that you wish it had been better done. In fact, it would be valuable if only for its factoids. Did you know that Mahatma Gandhi, Lawrence of Arabia and Ho Chi Minh all came to the Paris Peace Conference? That Helen Keller was a member of the IWW? That Coca-Cola advertised in the Ku Klux Klan’s newspaper? That Woodrow Wilson appeared on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera with Enrico Caruso? That 1919 also saw the debut of Negro League baseball, Prohibition, F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Ouija board? But Hagedorn’s romance-novel prose detracts from the pleasure of her company. “Somewhere beyond the mist and the misery on that November morning,” the book begins, “six men met in a railroad car to end a war. News of the truce moved through the trenches on the trembling lips of soldiers waiting for the screams of flying shells to cease….” Luckily it takes too much energy to sustain that level of overwriting on every page, but from time to time Hagedorn opens the valve again. Here’s a good candidate for Extended Metaphor of the Year: “But then who would have thought that a year that had begun with the hope of peace coming on the wings of Woodrow Wilson’s heavenly words would end with such an oppressive thud—a crash landing in a fog of hysteria and hate, blocking out that brilliant sun that W.E.B. Du Bois and so many others had beheld during those first wondrous moments after the signing of the Armistice.”

Granted, this book that involved both massive research and massive triage—each of the many subjects she takes on could be, and have been, books of their own. But too often we want more and better explanations of what we’re reading. Hagedorn’s accounts of Einstein’s theory and Addington’s experiment are baffling—not that relativity isn’t baffling, but general readers have long had better guidance than this. And her many pages on Wilson in France never make clear exactly what he did there and just how he was outmaneuvered by the other Allies. Ray Stannard Baker, a journalist who accompanied him and later wrote a three-volume history of Wilson and the conference, anatomized the president’s “five decisive crises,” but Hagedorn never tells us what they were. It would have been a better use of space than the several accounts of Wilson’s transatlantic voyages, with their gala arrivals and departures—and a pointless yarn about how he left a pair of eyeglasses on the ship. Then again, she sometimes explains stuff we already know: “For struggle can also be a sign of progress and the foundation on which change must be built.” Thanks for that.

In fairness to 1919, not everything then was worse than today. Government spying on citizens was still technologically crude, neither Einstein’s theory nor global warming had yet threatened the survival of humanity, Stalin was still a wannabe and Auschwitz just another Polish town. Fewer American troops were dying in an undeclared war—in 1919, it was in the Arctic, against the new Soviet Union. But. While racial segregation persists today, at least the federal government is integrated, and while African-Americans go in fear of traffic stops, and periodic police shootings and mob violence, we don’t have public lynchings with white folks grinning, Abu Ghraib-style, at a dangling or burning black body. Nobody gets 10 years in the can for saying that a war was a mistake, much as some Americans would love to bring that practice back. Women can vote. (The 19th Amendment didn’t pass till 1920.) And despite the influence of the Jerry Falwells and James Dobsons, the Bush administration couldn’t get away with a holiday message like what the Wilson administration put out in 1919: “The world ... should find renewed hope that Christian principles will triumph and become the dominant force in the affairs of all men and all nations.” It’s all enough to make you wonder if we really are crawling up toward the light—though of course it could be a nuclear fireball or a merciless sun. Hagedorn’s account of 1919 might help reconcile you to living in the scary new millennium. For that alone, it’s well worth the 30 bucks.