Adam Hochschild’s sobering new account of civil rights violations during WWI shows the danger of paranoia.
by Adam Hochschild (Mariner Books, 432 pp., $24.99)
In early 1918, the last year of the Great War, a handsome young naval officer named Lothar Witzke was apprehended crossing from Mexico to Arizona. His plan was straight out of the Keystone Cops comic films that appeared around that time: He was going to start an uprising in the United States through the radical Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) labor organization. Witzke made it easy for the authorities to identify him. He carried a crude Russian passport and an easily decoded piece of paper that both announced itself as “Strictly Secret!” and identified him as “a German secret agent.”
Witzke was a shining example of the opposite of what he appeared to confirm, namely, the existence of rampant espionage on American soil. According to daily reports in American newspapers and speeches by Washington officials, German spies were swarming the country, imperiling the war effort and American freedom. At President Woodrow Wilson’s request, the Congress passed legislation to combat these saboteurs. The first of these acts, passed in June 1917, explicitly referenced spying. It was called the Espionage Act.___STEADY_PAYWALL___
But when the war ended, only one German spy had been caught, tried, and convicted—Lothar Witzke. Nine days before the Armistice, a U.S. Army military court sentenced Witzke to death. Wilson later commuted the sentence to life imprisonment. In 1923, Witzke was released and sent home to Germany. The case meant so little that it is rarely mentioned in histories.
Not that Witzke was the only supposed subversive sitting in an American jail. Cells were full of people apprehended under the Espionage Act. They were not Germans—they were American citizens, as Adam Hochschild tells us in his newly published history of civil rights abuses during and immediately after the Great War, American Midnight: The Great War, A Violent Peace, and Democracy’s Forgotten Crisis. In a second wave lasting until 1921, anti-Bolshevik hysteria led to additional Americans being put behind bars.
“More than 450 people were imprisoned for a year or more by the federal government,” Hochschild says of these dark years, “and an estimated greater number by state governments, merely for what they wrote or said.” Simply belonging to the Wooblies—as members of the IWW were called—was enough to put an individual behind bars.
In one of Hochschild’s telling examples, a filmmaker was sentenced to ten years in prison for making a movie in which the mistress of King George wanted to become queen of America and a royal soldier stabbed a Quaker. The crime was that the movie might incite opinion against an ally.
Meanwhile, Eugene Debs, who had won more votes for president in 1912 than any other socialist in history, was put in jail for mildly objecting, “You, the people, never had a voice in declaring war.” If ever the United States has had a political prisoner, Debs was it.
These episodes don’t begin to measure the Wilson administration’s corrosive impact on democratic norms. Law-abiding Americans were monitored for speech that challenged the administration’s policies and coerced into buying Liberty Bonds. German-Americans were tarred and feathered. Many people did not speak out because they were afraid of the consequences. Even if they were not imprisoned, they could still be fined, lose their jobs, or be turned into social pariahs.
The government took maximum advantage of speech-suppression laws passed during these years. Immediately after the United States declared war, Attorney General Thomas Gregory ordered the arrest of sixty “alleged ringleaders in German plots, conspiracies and machinations.” Postmaster General Albert Burleson stretched the law by secretly directing local postmasters to watch the mail for anything that could “embarrass or hamper the Government in conducting the war.” Within a month of the Espionage Act’s passage, fifteen major publications, most of them Socialist in orientation, were barred from the mail. Scores more publications were suppressed in the ensuing months.
Meanwhile, vigilante groups such as the American Protective League (APL) policed “un-American” behavior. The Department of Justice authorized APL members to carry badges embossed with the words “Secret Service.” The head of Military Intelligence, Colonel Ralph Van Deman, asked the APL to serve as his civilian investigative arm.
The war for democracy became a war against democracy. George Creel, the head of the Wilson’s propaganda arm, the Committee on Public Information (CPI), put it this way in 1921: “With the existence of democracy itself at stake, there was no time to think about the details of democracy.”
The power of misleading propaganda lies in the fact that it has some ring of truth to it. Such was the case with World War I-related spy mania. Before the war, the Germans did sabotage munitions plants, although more than a few plots were brazenly stupid—for instance, an idea to recruit German-American associations to blow up Canadian bridges.
As Hochschild insightfully notes, the British diplomats were much more clever at spying than their German counterparts. They insinuated themselves in the corridors of Washington power, where they would make the case for joining the Allied side in the war. Many of the Germans’ clumsy perfidies were fed to the American press by the British. The Germans never figured out how to return the favor.
While German spies on domestic territory became a non-issue once America declared war, the image of German intrigue persisted. This was not simply because officials honestly feared it existed. As happens with confirmation bias, the putative existence of spies was also useful.
The government built on spy paranoia by doing what President Donald Trump would later do. Whereas Trump parried unwelcome information by calling it “fake news” (a term, incidentally, in use in the first the part of the century), Wilson’s administration defined inconvenient opinion as “spy talk.” The CPI distributed a syndicated feature called “The Daily German Lie,” which usefully dashed inaccurate rumors but also squelched legitimate opinion, such as the wisdom of a negotiated peace. Newspapers across the country ran the column. Another CPI feature unabashedly urged Americans to “Get the Facts from Washington!” It was called “The Official Facts,” a headline that newspapers often used for the articles.
Newspaper complicity can be scarcely overstated. At the beginning of United States involvement in the Great War in 1917, the Associated Press president Frank Noyes said his news service previously observed “strict neutrality on all controversial points due to the varied and manifold opinions of its membership. To-day, thank God, this is not only not necessary, but the contrary is true, for no trace of neutrality is coursing in our veins.” It was not uncommon during the era for reporters to put themselves explicitly at the service of the administration, often working behind the scenes to provide supporting narratives.
Historians tend to think of the Vietnam War as the conflict that fueled journalistic cynicism with government. But that process began with the Great War. Frank Cobb, the editor of the pro-Wilson New York World and an ardent promoter of propaganda, exclaimed when the conflict was over: “God forbid that our supreme achievement in the War should be the Prussianizing of ourselves.”
The Wilson administration’s heavy-handed suppression of opinion and the demonization of the Germans backfired when the president went to the Paris peace talks. Wilson’s propaganda had not put the public in a frame of mind conducive to treating the Germans fairly. How could a German be a beast one day and deserving of mercy the next?
While the peace talks went on in Europe, suppression at home carried on. Burleson continued to deny mailing privileges to periodicals he did not like. And a new hidden enemy had come into focus: the Bolsheviks. This was based on the heavily propagandized, flimsy evidence that the Bolsheviks had betrayed their country by taking Russia out of the war at the behest of Germany. Big business enthusiastically supported this talking point because it provided evidence that industrial unrest was illegitimate. In fact, wartime inflation had cut the buying power of workers’ dollars in half since 1913.
The height of this wave of repression was led by Wilson’s new attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer. Palmer added an anti-radical unit to the Bureau of Investigation, under young anti-Red zealot J. Edgar Hoover. “Palmer Raids” conducted without warrants rounded up 4,500 suspected Communist aliens across the country and deported many of them.
The hero here is Louis Post, an official at the Labor Department who had final say on deportations. He blocked many on the grounds that Palmer’s methods flagrantly transgressed American civil liberties. Naturally, Post became the subject of attacks from those members of Congress who saw Red threats everywhere.
Hochschild’s book is not the first to look at the attacks on civil rights during the Great War. But he has marshalled an enormous amount of information and, as a master storyteller, has achieved his stated goal of providing a warning about the ease with which, even in America, we can jettison democratic norms. Other of Hochschild’s previous ten books have also taken on historical instances of human rights abuses. Among these is the notable King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa, the story of King Leopold of Belgium’s conquest of the Congo.
The one shortcoming in American Midnight is the absence of balance. This would not be worth noting in most circumstances—the book, after all, is deliberately a story of abuses, not a full history of American life during the war. Yet, at the present time, when partisan divides run so deep in the country, it is helpful to consider the whole history, especially when drawing conclusions for a contemporary audience.
In some cases, this shortcoming shows up as hyperbole. Hochschild notes that the head of military intelligence, Ralph Van Deman, had only domestic surveillance in mind at the start of the war. To be sure, Deman is Exhibit A of over-the-top domestic spying, but the intelligence operation he built from scratch was concerned with the prosecution of the war abroad, and it included such outstanding individuals as Walter Lippmann, who started out favoring propaganda but later decried it in his classic work, Public Opinion.
Arthur Bullard, one of the great (if forgotten) journalists of his age, is also misrepresented for seeming to care little about truth or falsehood, thanks to an unpublished rumination that Hochschild quotes. As a matter of fact, Bullard stood for honest publicity when he represented the CPI in Russia. None other than George Kennan called him a “genuine idealist” and “the best American mind observing on the spot the course of the Russian Revolution.” One of Bullard’s benign propaganda ideas, not realized during the war but widely practiced today, was university exchange programs.
There are, of course, self-serving villains in Hochschild’s story. Palmer viewed his raids as a ticket to the White House. Many citizen vigilantes took selfish pleasure in wielding power. What is missed in Hochschild’s history, however, is that transgressions were to a considerable extent the result of good people doing bad things. The wartime government was populated by progressives who had devoted themselves to creating a better society. One of their most important tools was publicity, which they used to shed light on social and political ills for sanitation purposes. The problem was that once they held power, the progressives became so dedicated to their war mission they used those publicity tools for purposes of manipulation.
This was made all the easier because First Amendment law was largely inchoate at the time. In a statement few would accept today, a Committee on Public Information handbook asserted, at the start of the war, that freedom of the press in wartime rested “largely with the discretion of Congress.”
Oliver Wendell Holmes, who did more to establish First Amendment guarantees than almost any other Supreme Court justice, put his finger on the thinking that led progressives to go astray. In his famous dissent in Abrams v. United States, a case involving Russian-Jewish anarchists who opposed the war, he wrote, “If you have no doubt of your premises or your powers and want a certain result with all your heart, you naturally express your wishes in law and sweep away all opposition.”
This statement applies as much now as it did then. Hochschild has shown vividly how easy it is for a democracy to slip off the rails. While we are especially vulnerable to this in times of war, it can happen in peace, as is the case with intolerance by both the political Left and Right today: All we need to do is privilege partisan goals over democratic processes. When that happens, civil rights always lose.
John Maxwell Hamilton, a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, is author most recently of the award-winning Manipulating the Masses: Woodrow Wilson and the Birth of American Propaganda.
Image: Step Into Your Place, 1915, artist unknown.
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