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Savage Peace: Hope and Fear in America, 1919 (2007)
by Ann Hagedorn
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0743243714, Hardcover)Book Description
Written with the sweep of an epic novel and grounded in extensive research into contemporary documents, Savage Peace is a striking portrait of American democracy under stress. It is the surprising story of America in the year 1919.
In the aftermath of an unprecedented worldwide war and a flu pandemic, Americans began the year full of hope, expecting to reap the benefits of peace. But instead, the fear of terrorism filled their days. Bolshevism was the new menace, and the federal government, utilizing a vast network of domestic spies, began to watch anyone deemed suspicious. A young lawyer named J. Edgar Hoover headed a brand-new intelligence division of the Bureau of Investigation (later to become the FBI). Bombs exploded on the doorstep of the attorney general's home in Washington, D.C., and 36 parcels containing bombs were discovered at post offices across the country. Poet and journalist Carl Sandburg, recently returned from abroad with a trunk full of Bolshevik literature, was detained in New York, his trunk seized. A 21-year-old Russian girl living in New York was sentenced to 15 years in prison for protesting U.S. intervention in Arctic Russia, where thousands of American soldiers remained after the Armistice, ostensibly to guard supplies but in reality to join a British force meant to be a warning to the new Bolshevik government.
In 1919, wartime legislation intended to curb criticism of the government was extended and even strengthened. Labor strife was a daily occurrence. And decorated African-American soldiers, returning home to claim the democracy for which they had risked their lives, were badly disappointed. Lynchings continued, race riots would erupt in 26 cities before the year ended, and secret agents from the government's "Negro Subversion" unit routinely shadowed outspoken African-Americans.
Adding a vivid human drama to the greater historical narrative, Savage Peace brings 1919 alive through the people who played a major role in making the year so remarkable. Among them are William Monroe Trotter, who tried to put democracy for African-Americans on the agenda at the Paris peace talks; Supreme Court associate justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who struggled to find a balance between free speech and legitimate government restrictions for reasons of national security, producing a memorable decision for the future of free speech in America; and journalist Ray Stannard Baker, confidant of President Woodrow Wilson, who watched carefully as Wilson's idealism crumbled and wrote the best accounts we have of the president's frustration and disappointment.
Weaving together the stories of a panoramic cast of characters, from Albert Einstein to Helen Keller, Ann Hagedorn brilliantly illuminates America at a pivotal moment. An Exclusive Note to Readers from Ann Hagedorn
But why 1919? First, I consider the year a missing page in our history. We typically associate 1919 with the Paris Peace Conference, Woodrow Wilson and the League of Nations--all important aspects of the year, of course. But there is far more to the year than what happened in Paris. In fact, Savage Peace tells the story of what happened in America while Wilson was in Paris. Remember that 1919 was the aftermath of a world war, a flu pandemic, and the Russian Revolution. It was an uncertain, very intense year that shaped policies and attitudes for nearly a century in America. In many respects it was the year that made modern America. Consider that the foundation of our domestic intelligence system was firmly established in 1919; that our "cold" relationship with the Soviet Union emerged from events such as U.S. intervention in north Russia that year and the government’s raid on the Soviet Bureau in Manhattan; and that our response to the 1919 race riots (in 26 cities) was to use segregation as the solution instead of identifying it as the problem. One of the things that drew me to the year was that it offers us all an opportunity to observe democracy under extreme duress. This was a time when Americans were caught between the promise of democracy–-Wilson told us we were fighting the war to make the world safe for democracy--and the penalties for exercising democratic rights at home in the aftermath of the war. After the Armistice, certain wartime measures and laws were kept in place in the name of protecting the nation from the new threat of Bolshevism. This allowed the nation to stay immersed in the mentality of war, the culture of fear, and a state of perpetual crisis, which in turn justified an attack on Democratic rights and raised the issue of the delicate balance between national security and the safety of the constitution.
During World War I, a massive domestic intelligence system was put in place to protect Americans on their own soil, to outsmart German spies, and to identify German sympathizers. It was indeed the largest corps of homeland spies ever assembled in any nation during wartime and it included at least 300,000 volunteer spies in organizations such as the American Protective League, the National Security League, the Liberty League, the Home Defense League, the Sedition Slammers, and the Boy Spies of America. There were wartime laws too, such as the Espionage Act of 1917, which made it a crime to obstruct the war and to criticize the war, and among other things, gave the postmaster general the right to censor "seditious" magazines and newspapers. The Sedition Act in 1918 (an amended version of the Espionage Act) went further and said it was a crime to "willfully utter, print, write or publish" any expression of disloyalty toward or criticism of the U.S. government, its Constitution, its flag, or its military uniforms.
In 1919, these laws and the domestic intelligence network were still in tact. Now the task was to identify those who favored leniency for Germany in the ensuing peace negotiations and, as the Justice Dept. told the Washington Post on Armistice Day, to keep a "vigilant watch over anarchists, plotters and aliens." Soon dissent in America was bundled into one package labeled Bolshevism. Hiram Johnson, the Republican senator from California who was loudly speaking out against U.S. intervention in north Russia–-a military adventure unauthorized and in fact unknown by most Congressmen and one that evolved into a civil war in which we were fighting with the White Army against the Reds--said in one of his speeches to the U.S. Senate, "It is a dangerous and delicate thing to speak of Russia and to even inquire concerning our activities there. During the war it became fashionable to call all who disagreed with any governmental policy pro-German. Now the fashion has changed: and any man who will not accept the wrongful edict of entrenched power is by that token a Bolsheviki."
In Savage Peace I show that one of the people who best understood just how hard it would be to free the nation and the Constitution from the emergency restrictions put in place during the war was Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., then an associate justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. In March of 1919 he issued an opinion saying effectively that the right of free speech could be taken away if the speech or circular contained wording that presented a "clear and present danger" of causing unlawful acts. His critics argued that expression could not be censored on the basis of the possibility that it might incite such acts as the acts could be punished when and if they occurred.
That summer and autumn Holmes reconsidered the limitations and the protections of free speech in America. And in November, he modified his view in a dissenting opinion that expanded the definition of protected speech in America. In that opinion he wrote: "When men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas–-that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market... We should be eternally vigilant against the attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death, unless they so imminently threaten immediate interference with the lawful and pressing purpose of the law that an immediate check is required to save the country."
Fortunately, Holmes' words outlived the hysteria of the year in which he wrote them. So did Democracy.
There is so very much more I could say about the importance of 1919, especially about what we can learn from that year. Savage Peace is as the Chicago Tribune wrote in its great review of the book "a potent reminder of the fragility of civil liberties and the power of conspiratorial fantasies propagated by true believers and opportunists alike during times of war and uncertainty."
Looking at the year 1919 indeed reminds us to listen to the voices in America's past who well understood that Democracy has the capability of correcting its errors only as long as its citizens can exercise their rights. I'd like to end this note to my readers with the words of one of the individuals portrayed in Savage Peace, New York attorney Harry Weinberger, who often represented people charged with violating the Espionage Act: "Democracy lives on the exercise and functioning of democracy. As a child learns and grows by doing, a people learn democracy by acting in democratic ways. I know from the history of other countries that even the best democratic constitutions did not prevent dictatorships unless the people were trained in democracy and held themselves eternally vigilant and ready to oppose all infringements on liberty."
Thanks for reading and enjoy the book!
(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:19:28 -0400)
Explains how key events from the year 1919 are comparable to those of today's world, documenting how such problems as terrorism, governmental repression of civil liberties, and domestic surveillance were hotly debated period issues.
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