I’ve had this one on the back burner for a few weeks now.
Reading headlines and social media posts, it’s easy to get the impression that things are as bad as they’ve ever been. Or worse. From within our limited experience it can certainly seem like the world is falling apart and that our leaders are all either incompetent or bent on a installing an authoritarian regime or both. As the song says, however, “It ain’t necessarily so.”
I’ve been reading a couple of histories of World War I and a volume that focuses on America’s role, “The World Remade” by G.J. Meyer, had a lot of echoes of our recent political strife.
I had some idea about how far we’ve come on certain issues, but other bits and pieces about our sometimes sordid history I had never heard at all. Some of what I did know was lost in the back of my mind sometime after I clocked out of my high school and college history classes.
For instance, I remembered reading about the early days of unions and how the police and federal government would sometimes coordinate with factory owners to break strikes in a sometimes bloody fashion, but it was lost on me just how violent and widespread those early strikes and demonstrations could be.
For example, the Pullman strike of 1894 crippled rail traffic nationwide for two months at a time when everything moved by rail. Violence erupted in Chicago and the federal government invoked the Sherman Anti-Trust Law of 1890, a law written to combat big business, against the strikers. This is an early example of a law being used in a manner far from how its drafters intended. Federal marshals and the US Army were deployed to Chicago’s south side and engaged in fighting that left dozens dead before the strike was finally broken.
Less talked about (at least in my early US history classes) were the constitutional abuses of Woodrow Wilson. In fact, I don’t recall any of my history teachers discussing how the Wilson Administration arrested hundreds of political prisoners. These were real political prisoners who were arrested for the crime of speaking against the government by the way, not January 6 types who had engaged in political violence rather than speech. To be honest, the first time that I remember hearing this dirty little part of American history was in an “Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader.”
The story begins with Wilson winning a second term in 1916 under the slogan, “He kept us out of war.” In reality, America’s road to war began in Wilson’s first term with policies that blatantly favored the Allies over the Central Powers. An Allied blockade was starving Germany (and arguably illegal under international laws of the time), but the Wilson Administration refused to intervene, even to the point of holding Germany accountable for the lives of Americans who chose to sail on Allied ships sailing in war zones. German desperation pushed them to try unrestricted submarine warfare which put the US and Germany on a collision course. (Contrary to popular belief, however, the Lusitania, a ship carrying war material for the Allies, was sunk in 1915, two years before the US entered the war.)
Wilson’s governance during the war was much worse than anything we see today and worse than all but the biggest tinfoil hatters can imagine. Federal spending cranked up to limitless levels and fueled both shortages and inflation. Average inflation in 1918 was a staggering 17.97 percent (that’s not a typo, check the link).
Even worse were the wartime laws passed to give the government not-even-almost authoritarian power to stifle dissent. The Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918 outlawed activities thought to be disloyal. The Wilson Administration essentially viewed this as a license to crack down on political opponents.
Hundreds of Americans were arrested and imprisoned for nothing more than speaking words that the Wilson Administration found objectionable. These included Americans who opposed the war (or failed to support it enthusiastically enough), pacifists, union members, and Socialists.
The Industrial Workers of the World, better known as the IWW or the “Wobblies,” was almost entirely suppressed by the government with many of its leaders being sentenced to prison terms of up to 20 years. Others weren’t so lucky and were immediately lynched.
Quite a bit of WWI history would be unimaginable today. The Department of Justice created the American Protective League, an organization of private citizens with badges, to inform on the disloyal activities of their friends and neighbors in a “secret police” sort of way reminiscent of East Germany. Law enforcement would round up suspected draft dodgers in “slacker raids” and detain them without probable cause. The Post Office put opposition newspapers out of business by refusing to deliver mail that was deemed critical of the war effort.
Incidentally, one of the most memorable parts of “A World Remade” was Meyer’s description of Albert Sidney Burleson, Wilson’s appointment for Postmaster General:
He has been called the worst postmaster general in American history, but that is unfair; he introduced parcel post and airmail and improved rural service. It is fair to say, however, that he may have been the worst human being [emphasis in the original] ever to serve as postmaster general.
Yes! Now that’s the sort of informative and snarky writing that makes history come alive. I may not remember Albert Sidney Burleson’s name in a year, but I’ll remember that Woodrow Wilson’s postmaster general was a racist doofus.
Even after the war was over, things didn’t go back to normal. In 1919, Attorney General Mitchell Palmer launched a series of “Palmer raids” on suspected communists and socialists. The “Red Scare” is something that I remembered from school, but the context was somewhat missing. Even though there was a real threat from socialists and anarchists (the impetus for the raids was the attempted bombing of Palmer’s residence), it may also be true that some Americans may have been drawn into radicalism by the government’s own heavy-handed repression of political opponents.
The Palmer raids culminated with the arrests of thousands of suspected radicals and immigrants. In December 1919, 249 of them were prosecuted under the Sedition Act and deported with much fanfare to the newly communist Russia on the “Soviet Ark.”
I can’t help but think that a certain portion of today’s right can read about the arrest and deportation of socialists and immigrants and look at it as a model to be followed, but unfortunately (or fortunately) the Sedition Act was repealed in 1920. Surprisingly, however, the Espionage Act remains on the books and has been used to prosecute spies in recent decades. Robert Hanssen, the FBI agent turned traitorous spy for Russia, was prosecuted under the Espionage Act in 2001.
As the saying goes, there is nothing new under the sun, and accordingly, we can even find prototypical “Trump figures” that appear in our WWI history. Wilson, the dictatorial president who abused the Constitution is the most obvious. Also like Trump, Wilson valued loyalty over truth and would oust cabinet members and aides who didn’t fully agree with him, replacing them with yes-men.
William Jennings Bryan is another figure who echoed Trump. Bryan was a populist, but unlike Trump, he was an honest man. In an era without television or the internet, Bryan could fill auditoriums and audiences would listen to him for hours. Bryan was also a politician who frequently spoke in biblical terms, but again unlike Trump, Bryan seemed to understand and mean the references that he used.
Bryan was a former congressman who became Secretary of State when Wilson was first elected. In 1915, he resigned in protest of what he saw as Wilson’s one-sided neutrality and unfair treatment of Germany.
Finally, there is Eugene V. Debs, a socialist and perennial candidate for president. What does a socialist presidential candidate have to do with Donald Trump?
In June 1918, Debs was arrested after a speech in Canton, Ohio in which he urged Americans to resist the wartime draft. Debs was charged with sedition and sentenced to three 10-year sentences under the Sedition Act.
Here’s where it gets interesting. While in prison, Debs ran for president again in 1920. He didn’t win. It’s hard to campaign from a prison cell in the Atlanta federal penitentiary. He did, however, receive a million popular votes, about 3.4 percent of the total.
Debs foreshadows Donald Trump’s own possible incarcerated run for president next year. Unlike Debs, if Trump is imprisoned, it will be for good cause that is based on actions and not words. Debs was locked away for speaking against the Wilson Administration’s draft policy. Trump, if he is locked up, will be imprisoned for breaking federal laws against mishandling classified documents and stealing elections. Like Debs, Trump will lose although he will probably set a record for votes received for an imprisoned candidate.
For the record, Warren G. Harding, Wilson’s successor pardoned Debs on Christmas Day 1921 even though the Supreme Court upheld his conviction. Never let it be said that the Supreme Court doesn’t make mistakes. Other of Wilson’s political prisoners took years to win their freedom and it took even longer to establish legal precedent protecting Americans from government interference in free speech.
Looking back at history, it’s interesting to see how far we’ve come. When we don’t remember history, it is easy to assume that nothing is better or worse than what we experience in our short life spans. In reality, the America of 100 years ago was vastly different from the America of today, and not necessarily in ways that were better or freer.
Partisans have an interest in making things seem worse than they are. Minority party politicians don’t have a very strong case for becoming the majority if they acknowledge that things are going pretty well. It’s also true that crisis sells for the media. “Worst ever” stories generate clicks and views.
In all, I feel pretty good about where we are as a country. We’ve built a strong economy with a robust mix of ethnicities and cultures. Racists are pariahs to the point where they deny that they are racist. And even the worst racists have less power than people like Albert Sidney Burleson who segregated the Post Office and even introduced screens that prevented whites from having to look at black employees.
Aside from learning that it could be worse, we should learn from our history that it can happen here. Indeed, during the Wilson Administration, it very nearly did happen here.
As Ronald Reagan said, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.”
We have to be constantly on our guard to resist people who would erode the strong gains that we have made in our 247 years. Americans are not immune to the lure of power politics or corruption. Partisans on both sides would be more than willing to crack down on the opposition in the same way that Wilson did.
That’s one reason that I am so hard on Donald Trump. It’s true that we have seen shadows of Trump in some past political figures, but, despite the title of this piece, Trump is unique in combining these dangerous attributes into one person. Trump is also unique in being the only American president to ever marshal his supporters to try to keep him in office unlawfully.
And Trump is the only American politician to possess and encourage a cult-like following despite his disrespect for the Constitution and the law. Only Trump’s supporters are likely to riot if he loses the election or follows in Eugene V. Debs’s footsteps to federal prison.
Authoritarianism can happen here. It’s up to voters to stop it. And sometimes that means crossing party lines to vote against a dangerous candidate from your own party or ideology.
BIDEN INVESTIGATION: The House Oversight Committee had an interesting tweet this week that seems to undercut the claims of many of its members.
I doubt that House Republicans will give up their investigation, however, even though the prosecutor assigned to Hunter Biden has been upgraded to a special counsel. Hunter Biden will likely see more trouble, but if Republicans can’t link Hunter’s deals to Joe after five years of digging, I doubt that they will be able to before he leaves office, whether in 2025 or 2029.