In February 1919, 25,000 workers in Seattle walked off the job in the country’s first general strike of the 20th century. These strikers were among thousands across the country who faced the armed might and brutality of the federal and state governments and the wealth of employers who employed thousands of thugs to defend their property. Credit: Webster & Stevens

On Sunday, Oct. 9, the cover story in the New York Times Book Review featured UC Berkeley journalism professor Adam Hochschild’s American Midnight. Reviewer Thomas Meaney characterized the book as “masterly” and applauded its reminder that “there are other contenders than the period beginning in 2016 for the distinction of Darkest Years of the Republic.” In fact, it’s clear from even a cursory reading of the book that the years 1917-21 were by far the most extreme example of political repression in American history. It has come to be called the First Red Scare. And it all took place under the leadership of the overrated Democratic President, Woodrow Wilson.

During the Red Scare of the McCarthy years (1947-57), several thousand people lost their jobs, faced organized mob violence, or were forced to leave the country. Most famously, the Hollywood 10 were blacklisted by the film studios. It was a dark time in our history that continues to cast a pall over our memory of that time. But the First Red Scare led by Woodrow Wilson was far, far worse.

Hundreds of thousands of striking American workers faced the clubs, rifles and even machine guns of National Guard troops, police and private detectives. The postal service refused to deliver mail from Socialist and other dissenter publications. Sitting members of Congress and the New York State Assembly were unseated. Thousands of suspected radicals were rounded up and more than 500 of them deported. Leading labor organizers and Socialist orators were imprisoned for years on end for expressing views against the war or the Wilson administration.

During the war itself, these actions were justified by the need to protect the country against foreign spies. But, Hochschild reveals, “of the more than 2,000 cases the government prosecuted under the Espionage Act, only ten would involve people accused of being actual German agents.”

American Midnight: The Great War, A Violent Peace and Democracy’s Forgotten Crisis, Adam Hochschild (2022), 434 pages ★★★★★

As Hochschild observes in a prologue, history textbooks typically include a chapter about the First World War, with the following chapter recalling the Roaring Twenties. “This book is about what’s missing between those two chapters,” he writes. “It is a story of mass imprisonments, torture, vigilante violence, censorship, killings of Black Americans, and far more that is not marked by commemorative plaques, museum exhibits, or Ken Burns documentaries. It is a story of how a war supposedly fought to make the world safe for democracy became the excuse for a war against democracy at home.” And the account that follows in American Midnight abundantly illustrates those broad claims. The First Red Scare was ostensibly directed at “Reds.” But it ranged far more widely, making victims of labor, African-Americans, immigrants, and Progressive politicians.

Continue reading this review on Mal Warwick’s Blog on Books.

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Freelancer Mal Warwick's reviews on his blog, occasionally appear on Berkeleyside. He is an author, entrepreneur, and impact investor who is one of three...