Too many Americans are indifferent to their own history and know too little about it. This ignorance makes the present more baffling than it needs to be. Adam Hochschild has written a fine book about a grim period a century ago that has largely disappeared from national memory but seems painfully relevant to America in the 2020s. “American Midnight: The Great War, a Violent Peace, and Democracy’s Forgotten Crisis” describes vividly a time when racism, white nationalism, and anti-foreign and anti-immigrant sentiment were rampant. Reading it is almost therapeutic. Realizing (thanks to this book) that American democracy survived that dark moment and a decade later began half a century of democratic renewal made this reader more hopeful than he has been in quite a while.

Hochschild’s account demonstrates the folly of believing that Donald Trump and the era he has given us are departures from normal trends in American history. What’s normal in our past is the American vulnerability to mythical enemies, demagogues and ignoramuses. These dangerous forces abounded in the years Hochschild describes, from 1917 to 1921.

We do remember one event of that era: World War I. For the European powers involved in that killing spree, the war began in 1914, but an isolationist America remained aloof until April 1917, when President Woodrow Wilson finally declared war on Germany and its allies. Seventeen months later, after millions of American doughboys had taken up arms in Europe and 117,000 were killed, the Germans surrendered.

Victory in the war came at a high price that we’ve chosen to forget. The war provided justification for a brutal period in America that featured “mass imprisonments, torture, vigilante violence, censorship, killings of Black Americans . . . (and) a war against democracy at home,” Hochschild writes. His powerful 12-page prologue grabs readers by their lapels and confronts them with an ugly America sharply at odds with rosy, patriotic versions.

The nation’s delayed entry to the war stimulated intrigue and violence in the United States that set Americans sympathetic to Germany and those sympathetic to our traditional allies in Britain and France at odds. Wilson at first sought to stand apart from the propagandizing on both sides, and he waged a 1916 reelection campaign on the ultimately misleading slogan “He Kept Us Out of War.” In 1917, when the Germans began indiscriminate submarine warfare in the Atlantic that sank American ships, Wilson went all in for war.

Wilson is at the center of Hochschild’s tale. He is one of the most complex, contradictory figures in American history. Raised in Augusta, Georgia, by a family that supported the Confederacy, Wilson clung to a Southern segregationist’s ugly racial views all his life. The first and last holder of a PhD to occupy the White House, he was the president of Princeton University before becoming governor of New Jersey in 1911. As governor and then as president (elected in 1912), he was a progressive reformer on economic issues and an internationalist. But once he led America into war, he became a dedicated jingoist. Hochschild calls out his many shortcomings.

Wilson signed the Espionage Act in 1917 and the Sedition Act in 1918, two laws that allowed restrictions on freedom of speech that were draconian by today’s standards. Once America joined the war effort, Wilson had no apparent qualms about imprisoning dissident Americans, including the Socialist Party candidate who had run against him for president in 1912 and won 6 percent of the vote, Eugene V. Debs. Debs was sentenced to 10 years in prison for making a speech in 1918 that the Wilson administration interpreted as discouraging participation in the war. Debs’s sentence was commuted by Wilson’s Republican successor, Warren G. Harding, in 1921.

Wilson allowed his postmaster general, Albert S. Burleson, a former Texas congressman, to deny left-wing and pacifist magazines and newsletters use of the U.S. mail’s special low rates for printed matter, which forced several widely read publications out of business. He banned a publication called the Gaelic American because it favored Irish independence from America’s ally Britain. Burleson’s chief legal officer, William Lamar, explained wartime censorship to Oswald Garrison Villard, editor of the New York Evening Post. “I know exactly what I am after,” Lamar said, “pro-Germanism, pacifism and ‘high-browism.’ ” Burleson also resegregated the post office’s workforce, with Wilson’s explicit approval. Wilson himself earlier resegregated the federal workforce in Washington.

Race, immigration and labor unrest, especially when promoted by socialists, were the most inflammatory domestic issues of these years. Anti-union sentiment was ferocious. The primary target of antilabor hostility was the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies), a union that tried to organize female, Black and unskilled workers ignored by the American Federation of Labor. The prosperous classes saw the IWW as a grave threat to the country, one much aggravated by the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917. That unexpected event set off the first great red scare in the United States.

A. Mitchell Palmer, a Quaker from Pennsylvania who had served three terms in the House, became Wilson’s attorney general in 1919. On June 2, 1919, three months after taking up his post, Palmer was the target of one of eight bombs set off almost simultaneously in cities of the Northeast. He and his family were inside their house on R Street NW in Washington when the bomb collapsed the front facade.

Surviving the bomb left Palmer “profoundly transformed,” writes Hochschild, and “marked the beginning . . . of a domestic war the likes of which the United States had never seen.” The infamous “Palmer raids” of November 1919 and January 1920 rounded up and imprisoned thousands of left-wing activists, Blacks and union activists. The perpetrators of the eight bombings were never identified.

Palmer’s raids assured him a place in American history, but another contribution he made to his country may have been more consequential. As he scrambled to respond to the bombings of June 2, Palmer decided he needed a new “Radical Division” in the Justice Department. As chief of the division, he chose a 24-year-old Washington native already working in the department. Thus began the career of J. Edgar Hoover, who would serve eight other administrations in various capacities, ultimately as director of the FBI, his tenure ending when he died in 1972.

Palmer appointed Hoover on Aug. 1, 1919. Two months later, Wilson suffered a massive, debilitating stroke and never really performed the duties of president again. The country wasn’t informed how seriously the stroke had disabled him, one of the great scandals of American history.

Wilson’s condition made it easy for Palmer to pursue the presidential ambitions he had long harbored. He and Hoover concocted an ambitious plan to round up thousands of new American immigrants and deport them, a ploy obviously intended to appeal to the anti-immigrant sentiments then flourishing in America.

Hochschild, who has written 10 previous books, adeptly juggles multiple narrative threads. His tale does include an unexpected happy ending that might encourage contemporary American readers.

With Wilson permanently sidelined after his stroke, Hoover and Palmer felt free to arrest and deport thousands of immigrants in the most aggressive plan since slavery for suppressing residents of the United States. But a legal “roadblock,” to use Hochschild’s word, disrupted their effort.

Under the law, deportations of immigrants living in the United States legally had to be approved by the Labor Department. The acting secretary of labor, Louis F. Post, was a liberal civil libertarian and a founder of the NAACP. That Post, who served as assistant secretary of labor, found himself exercising the authority of the secretary of labor to approve or block deportations was a kind of dumb luck. He did not shy away from the opportunity. He blocked Hoover and Palmer from carrying out their plan.

Palmer had pumped up fears of a possibly revolutionary uprising of socialists and trade unionists on May 1, 1920, but May Day passed quietly, without an American revolution – and without mass deportations, either. Like the Republican officeholders who blocked Donald Trump’s efforts to upend the results of the 2020 presidential election, Post rose to the occasion with firm dignity and determination. Harding, elected to succeed Wilson in 1920, abandoned the fierce anti-immigrant and anti-socialist crusade. Calm was restored. Soon, as is our custom in this unique country, we turned the page and found ourselves swept up in the Roaring Twenties, dancing the Charleston and drinking illegal gin.

Robert G. Kaiser is a former managing editor of The Washington Post.

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