The United States' brief entry into World War I unleashed four years of extreme political violence and repression.
Author Adam Hochschild looks back on that still shocking era in "American Midnight, The Great War, a Violent Peace and Democracy's Forgotten Crisis."
Hochschild sees the horrifying events of 1917-21 as a precursor to today's political conflicts. As with today, disinformation, fears of immigration, labor unrest, racial violence and censorship fueled turmoil.
President Woodrow Wilson plays a central Shakespearean role in the book, heralding the U.S. entry into the war in 1917 as spreading global democracy and freedom while condoning his administration's suppression of groups painted as un-American.
Wilson's already tarnished reputation is further diminished by Hochschild's exposure of his racism, political rigidity, self-righteousness and authoritarian policies.
Hochschild credits A. Scott Berg's monumental biography of Wilson for his portrait of the president who accepted Great Britain and France's harsh reparations imposed on Germany. Felled by a serious stroke, Wilson also suffered the severe disappointment of the U.S. Senate rejecting his grand ambitions for a League of Nations.
The United States' late intervention into the war to bolster the depleted French and British armies in their war against Germany triggered the passage of the Espionage Act, which remains in force today, most recently leading to charges against Donald Trump for removing classified White House documents and Jack Teixeira for distributing secret reports over the Internet. Teixeira follows Daniel Ellsberg, Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, Julian Assange and Reality Winner among those charged under the act.
After the U.S. entry into World War I, the Espionage Act and related sedition legislation led to widespread arrests of union members and Socialist Party followers. The overwhelmingly nonviolent radicals were sentenced to prison for giving speeches or writing articles opposing the American involvement in the war.
Imprisoned dissenters deemed unpatriotic included Socialist leader Eugene Debs, who had shown surprising political strength in a presidential campaign, and the spellbinding anarchist leader Emma Goldman.
Like a raging fever, the political paranoia and repression rose in a series of waves. After Wilson brought the nation into the war, political violence targeted German citizens and immigrants, many of whom were forced to change their names and sell their businesses.
The Bolshevik Revolution raised to a boiling point irrational fears of a Communist overthrow of the American government, a paranoia stoked by right-wing politicians. The deadly flu epidemic at the end of the war exacerbated tensions.
As the grand finale of the "red summer" of 1919, a series of raids under Wilson Attorney General A. Wilson Palmer, directed by the young J. Edgar Hoover, resulted in massive arrests and efforts to deport hundreds of Eastern European immigrants, many of them Jewish.
Hochschild in one of the memorable character studies that distinguish the book unveils the heroic action of Assistant Labor Secretary Louis E. Post to prevent many of the deportations.
Sadly, Ellis Island, the symbol of American openness to oppressed people from Europe, was used as the makeshift prison for those facing deportation. The anarchist Goldman, after several years in prison for expressing her ideas, was one of those expelled from the country that she had come to love.
In a memorable scene, Hochschild pictures Goldman encountering the young Hoover on a tugboat taking Goldman to the ship that would transport her to the Soviet Union, which she eventually hated because of its totalitarianism. She later traveled to Canada, but never again returned to the United States.
Hochschild's expansive examination of the era encompasses censorship of books and radical publications by the U.S. Postal Service, vigilante attacks against members of the International Workers of the World, whose members were known as "Wobblies," and increasing attacks against blacks, often veterans of the war.
Despite the right wing crackdowns against unions, violent strikes continued in the last years of Wilson's presidency, especially after he'd suffered the debilitating stroke during a courageous cross-country train trip to build support for his League of Nations. Wilson was incapacitated for the last 17 months of his presidency, during which his wife, Edith, carried out his duties.
Wilson's successor, the often maligned Warren G. Harding, is seen by Hochschild as almost heroic in curtailing the excessive violence, although outbreaks kept flaring up.
Harding freed Debs from prison, although he commuted his sentence rather than giving him a full pardon. Barely mentioned are the scandals of Harding's administration, uncovered after he died of a heart attack before completing his term.
Hochschild touches briefly upon the destruction of Tulsa's black business sector by white residents in 1921, and the growth of the Ku Klux Klan through the 1920s.
"American Midnight" ends with a warning that today's political conflicts could accelerate into a repeat of rhe World War I-era's political violence, if the country's not already at that hour of darkness.