Consider this scenario:
The government, fearing terrorism, puts freedom of speech to the test. Families of soldiers fighting overseas clamor for their sons to be sent home. Support for the president wanes as he pursues an unpopular foreign policy. Immigration, the flu and a baseball scandal are making headlines.
Try post-World War I America.
In 1919, America was embroiled in a communist scare, court battles over free speech, a lingering war in arctic Russia, labor strife and racial unrest. Amid the chaos, President Woodrow Wilson pursued his obsession, the League of Nations, leaving leadership to men who used fear of Bolshevism to keep control.
In Savage Peace: Hope and Fear in America 1919, author Ann Hagedorn examines a turbulent year overlooked in its niche between the Great War and the Roaring ’20s. It was a year when hope dissolved into disappointment and fear put a chokehold on social progress.
Hagedorn, a journalist and educator, weaves numerous threads of history together to provide a clear vision of American society at the dawn of the modern age. This is not the dull history of academia: Her writing is concise, colorful and compelling.
The narrative begins Nov. 11, 1918: Armistice Day. With victorious soldiers returning from war with Germany, the country celebrated wildly, expecting peace to bring a better life. Instead, America was to become a world of fear and paranoia.
The government fed that fear. During the war it used citizens in a giant spy network to ferret out German sympathizers. Unable to shut down the spy machine, its post-war focus became Bolsheviks, who were blamed for dissent as men like J. Edgar Hoover snooped their way to power.
The government, with the Espionage Act of 1917, had curtailed free speech during the war. One man got the maximum sentence of 20 years and a $10,000 fine for telling a Liberty Bond salesman the government could “go to hell.”
After the war a peaceful protest could still result in a long prison term or deportation, as it did for Mollie Steimer — “the girl anarchist” — and three other immigrants who protested American aggression in Russia. They lost their case after appealing it to the Supreme Court.
The spy network also trained its eye on black Americans, who had sent 42,000 men to the battlefields of France. Led by an all-black army regiment, the “Harlem Hellfighters,” they were heroes in Europe, but returned home to lynchings. The year 1918 ended with the hanging of two men and two pregnant women on a Mississippi bridge, bringing the year’s lynch count to 64, including 11 soldiers in full uniform. The number would rise in 1919.
Black Americans were highly organized in their quest for change. Publications such as W.E.B. DuBois’ The Crisis and William Monroe Trotter’s The Guardian kept lynchings and other issues in the public eye, and demanded action.
Black leaders planned to bring the issue of worldwide civil rights for black people to the Paris Peace Conference, but their passports were denied.
The State Department feared repercussions for the president’s agenda should the world learn the truth about America’s treatment of its black citizens. President Wilson made a campaign promise to help blacks, then appointed whites to five Cabinet posts and allowed segregation of federal offices. He praised D.W. Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation, which portrayed the Ku Klux Klan as heroes, and refused to take a stand against lynching.
While Wilson fiddled with his treaty in Paris, America burned. Bloody race riots erupted and lynchings increased. A series of bombings was blamed on Bolsheviks, including a letter-bomb scare that was headed off by an alert postal employee.
The government wanted to blame black citizens’ unrest on Bolsheviks and employed a black spy to bolster its case. But the informer disappointed them. The cause of racial unrest, Major Walter Loving reported, was horrible economic and social conditions. Bolshevism, he concluded, was merely a symptom.
Poor living conditions also gave legs to the labor movement. When 60,000 workers launched a general strike in Seattle on Feb. 6, the nation went wild with fear of a Bolshevik revolution.
Violence ensued. In Centralia, members of the International Workers of the World (Wobblies) used gunfire to defend themselves against a raid by the American Legion. Wesley Everest, accused of killing two men, was pulled from jail, castrated, beaten and hanged on a bridge over the Chehalis River.
Steelworkers, who worked 69 hours a week for starvation wages, went on strike Sept. 22. Mired in accusations of Bolshevism and undercut by scabs, the strike failed. In Boston, striking police officers were fired. An October strike by the United Mine Workers failed within a month.
Women pushed their own agenda. Suffragists led by 34-year-old Alice Paul burned copies of President Wilson’s speeches in front of the White House. The women won passage of the 19th Amendment and used their vote in 1920 to help elect Warren Harding.
Occasionally sunshine penetrated the storm of discontent. A solar eclipse enabled scientists to prove the theory of a German-born physicist, Albert Einstein, and the world celebrated the genius of a pacifist from the country that had provoked world war.
Two Americans made the first crossing of the Atlantic by airplane and Helen Keller’s accomplishments were hailed as a triumph of the human spirit. Prohibition was approved, although its relative goodness was a matter of debate.
But bad news persevered. The Spanish flu killed 675,000 Americans between September 1918 and June 1919.
And for 7,000 American soldiers, the war continued. With worn shoes, spoiled food and temperatures at 60 below, U.S. troops dubbed “The Polar Bears” fought Russian Bolsheviks from a base in the White Sea port of Archangel. Armistice Day for them came in the middle of a four-day battle. They were unaware that the Great War had ended.
While most Americans were afraid to criticize a war against Bolsheviks, California Sen. Hiram Johnson stepped up, rallying support for bringing the boys home. Grateful families were reunited with their sons in April. President Wilson returned from Paris to wage a futile campaign for American membership in the League of Nations, including a September trip that took him to Seattle and Tacoma.
The year 1919 was followed by the prosperous Roaring ’20s, the Great Depression and another world war.
A second “red scare” surfaced in the 1950s. The labor movement made strides and America joined the United Nations in 1945, fulfilling Wilson’s dream. But it would take blacks until 1964 — a century after the Emancipation Proclamation — to gain passage of the Civil Rights Act.
In 1919, even the national pastime was tarnished when the Chicago White Sox threw the World Series. But that wound also would heal: Jan. 31, 1919, saw the birth of Jackie Robinson, who 28 years later would drag baseball kicking and screaming into its finest moment.