By Kevin C. Murphy, Copyright 2013. All Rights Reserved.
Chapter Three: Chaos at Home
Progressives in the Crucible of 1919
XI. The Forces of Order
Some took the calumny in stride: Pacifist Jessie Wallace Hughan told interlocutors she was "glad to appear on any list that begins with Jane Addams' name," while Robert Benchley regaled readers of The Nation with a satirical tale of a Mr. Horace Peters, a perfectly normal God-fearing American who awoke to find his name on the list, right below Emma Goldman's. ("[H]e went out to look up some of his friends, to explain that there had been a terrible mistake somewhere. But he was coolly received. No one could afford to be seen talking with him after what had happened. His partner merely said 'Bad business, Horace. Bad business!'") Writing a decade later, Jane Addams was philosophical about her experience. "The United States was in a curious state of mind during those first years after the war," she wrote. "Perhaps, because nothing save love stirs the imagination like hatred, there was a necessity for some object upon which the hatred stirred up during the war could vent itself. What so near at hand as the pacifists whom the newspapers had systematically identified with the enemy."2
But others were not so composed about this attempt at public shaming. "I am not and never have been" a pacifist, fumed Charles Beard to the committee (He had, in fact, resigned from Columbia to protest the dismissal of two pacifist professors.) New York lawyer Gilbert Roe, deemed an enemy of the state for his work with the Civil Liberties Bureau, argued he and the other named names were being punished not for pacifism but for calling out how "the homes of citizens had been unlawfully invaded and their persons and property seized without warrant or pretext" during the war - especially by self-appointed patriots like Archibald Stevenson. And Secretary of War Newton Baker, embarrassed and irate by the actions of one of his subordinates - Stevenson worked for the Military Intelligence Division (MID) in New York - told the press that the Overman Who's Who included "names of people of great distinction, exalted purity of purpose, and lifelong devotion to the highest interest of America and of mankind." He immediately initiated attempts to rein in the MID and end the federal sanction of civilian espionage outfits like the American Protective League.3
Unfortunately for Baker's best efforts, the fortnight after the publication of the Who's Who saw not only the beginning of the general strike in Seattle, but a breathlessly reported meeting in Washington DC where one speaker, Congregationalist minister Albert Rhys Williams, had argued that "America sooner or later is going to accept the Soviet Government, and when America discards some of the ideas current in the papers it will find it not so difficult to swallow." All of a sudden the Overman Committee had a new raison d'etre: Bolshevism.4
That same week, Senator Frank Walsh of Montana introduced a resolution in the Senate to expand the purview of the Overman Committee to include "efforts being made to propagate in this country the principles of any party exercising or claiming to exercise any authority in Russia," as well as "any effort to incite the overthrow of the Government…by force, or by the destruction of life and property, or the general cessation of industry." It passed unanimously.5
For some, this additional inquiry was just usual good progressive government at work: Enlightening public opinion as to the true views and character of Bolshevism, argued Thomas Weeks of Massachusetts, would discourage Americans from embracing it. Other progressives who should have known better were just distracted. Senator William Borah already supported Robert La Follette's bill to repeal the Espionage Act, because, he argued, "there never was a more vicious or insidious doctrine announced for the consideration of a free people than the doctrine that our constitution or any part of it is suspended during a time of war." (It would ultimately fail 39-25, with 31 of 33 Democrats voting against repeal.) But here, he seemed to sense little danger in a simple informational inquiry. While arguing that the rally in Washington which had set the press aflame had only been a defense of the Soviet Union, not a call for forcible overthrow of the United States, Borah nonetheless conceded that "if the propaganda which seems to have been fathered at that meeting be the beginning of a movement in this country, we may well consider how we are to meet such a serious situation."6
Still, he argued, "I am opposed to Bolshevism whether it is in tatters and rags or whether it is clothed in broadcloth":
It is wholly immaterial to me from what source the attack comes upon the American Republic. These men may be hammering and battering away with a pick-axe and dynamite at one pillar of the republic, while other men are hammering and battering away at other pillars of the republic. The Soviet Government has its enthusiasts throughout the land…They held a meeting at the Poli Theatre. The League to Enforce Peace will began its campaign in Boston on the sixth day of February, and if they succeed, they will land us precisely where the Bolshevists would land us, and that is under the control of internationalism. They would tear down the fundamental principles of this republic just as successfully in the end and just as efficiently as the men who met in the Poli Theatre.7And so, as Borah and the majority of the Senate turned its attention back to the League of Nations, the Overman Committee began its inquiry into Bolshevism. In an open letter to the Committee, Amos Pinchot -- one of the Who's Who targets -- suggested to the Senators they would find far more "social dynamite in the statistics of child mortality in our slums and steel towns, in jails full of men convicted for their opinions, or in the gouging of the public by profiteering trusts and monopolies…than in the total propaganda of all the revolutionary minded persons in the country." The Committee of five demurred, opting instead for a month of hearings depicting the Bolshevik regime in Russia as, in the words of the final report published in June, "a reign of terror unparalleled in the history of modern civilization, in many of its aspects rivaling even the inhuman savagery of the Turk and the terrors of the French Revolution."8
The Bolshevik regime in Russia, the Overman Committee averred, was a threat to free speech, freedom of the press, and the family. Its "apparent purpose" was "to make the Russian Citizen, and especially the women and children, the wards and dependents of that Government… [I]t has destroyed the moral obligation of the father to provide, care for, and adequately protect the child of his blood and the mother of that child against the misfortunes of widowhood and orphanhood." Its establishment in the United States would mean "the application of force and violence, the shedding of blood and the destruction of life and property," as well as the disfranchisement of millions, confiscation of lands and printing presses, rampant atheism, "complete control of all banking institutions and their assets," and, in, "one of the most appalling and far-reaching consequences," the liquidation of life insurance companies.9
For all that, however, the Overman Committee admitted that "only a portion of the so-called radical revolutionary groups and organizations accept in its entirety the doctrine of the Bolsheviki." However these groups were using Bolshevism as a "rallying cry" by which to topple American government, then to "muster sufficient strength to maintain a supremacy in the new social order and invoke the policies of its particular creed." And so it befell the Senate, in order to combat this potential menace, to pass even more stringent anti-sedition laws to facilitate the incarceration of troublemakers and the deportation of foreign nationals. The Committee appended drafts of potential legislation to its report.10
Despite its attempt to pass an Espionage Act-Plus, the Overman Committee's main contribution in 1919 was to keep the newspapers in Red ink and the anti-Bolshevik hysteria brimming over in the first half of the year. In New York State, however - and again with the help of Archibald Stevenson - the Lusk Committee, a state-level inquiry into creeping Bolshevism, would go a step farther, and actually kick down doors and make arrests. Headed by freshman Senator Clayton Lusk, this Committee was formed on March 26, following a several-month investigation by Archibald Stevenson under the auspices of the Union League Club, "to investigate the scope, tendencies, and ramifications of…seditious activities and report the result of its investigations to the Legislature." To cover all their bases, Lusk argued the current Bolshevik radicalism was likely "started here and elsewhere by paid agents of the Junker class in Germany as part of their programme of industrial and military world conquest."11
Now with an official imprimatur, police and DOJ officials, at the recommendation of the Committee, raided the Russian Soviet Bureau in downtown New York City. There, "the Committee found nothing," scoffed Walter Lippmann. "[O]nly an absolute booby would have expected to find anything. Russians are pretty good conspirators, for all of them went to school under the Tsar. Now if you are conducting a conspiracy you do not carry it on from an office building after you have advertised the address in all the newspapers and invited everybody to come and call and do business. That would not be the ideal headquarters for a secret conspiracy…A schoolboy with no more detective skill than can be acquired from reading detective novels could have told Mr. Lusk and Mr. Stevenson that."12
Undiscomfited, Lusk-directed authorities moved again nine days later. They went after the local Socialist and IWW offices as well as the Rand School, a left-wing college offering classes in Socialism (and whose president, Algernon Lee, had called Stevenson "the greatest maker of Bolsheviki in America".) The reason for these seizures, Representative Lusk argued, was "Names! - Names of all parlor Bolsheviki, IWW, and Socialists." But they found little of interest in any of these raids, and thus had to spin fanciful yarns of Bolshevik conspiracies to the press instead.13
While the Lusk Committee followed the form of Senator Overman's federal committee, states all around their country also followed their suggestions, passing ever more stringent anti-sedition laws. Criminal anarchy laws, originally passed in some states as a response to the 1901 assassination of William McKinley by Leon Czolgosz, were now ruthlessly enforced in New York (against radical leaders like Communist Benjamin Gitlow) and in the West (against the IWW). Thirty-two states (24 in 1919, 8 in 1920) enacted laws banning the public display of Red flags. Thirty-five states, as well as then-territories Alaska and Hawaii, would have peacetime anti-sedition laws or new "criminal syndicalist" laws - defined as advocating "crime, sabotage…violence, or unlawful methods of terrorism as a means of accomplishing industrial or political reform" - on the books by 1921.14
After New York State passed some particularly virulent anti-radical legislation in April 1920, calling for a banning of the Socialist party and a loyalty oath in the teaching professions, Governor Al Smith vetoed them as a threat of "the fundamental right of the people to enjoy full liberty in the domain of idea and speech." In The Survey, Edward Devine applauded Smith's actions. "You have killed all these vicious bills" and more, he wrote in an open letter to the Governor. "You have punctured an absurdity. You have restored a sense of proportion. You have spoken truth and soberness at a time when untruth and insanity are still abroad. You have stripped the mantle of patriotism from the charlatan; you have made the patrioteer appear the ridiculous creature that he is." Thanks to the Governor's actions, Devine argued, "the New Yorker who travels when shamed by the names of Lusk and Sweet and Stevenson will be able to point to your vetoes and hold up his head." Similarly, TNR thought Smith's vetoes won him "the gratitude of everyone save the professional hunters of heresy." Now, "those citizens of the state who cherish democratic principle must work now to attempt the defeat of every legislator who took a hand in the coup d'etat." In the end, quite the opposite happened. Smith was ousted from Albany that November in the anti-Wilson wave, and his Republican successor, Nathan Miller, signed all of the offending legislation into law.15
Just as government efforts to suppress sedition had been buttressed by volunteers during the Great War, so too did patriotic organizations old and new flock to the standard of enforcing conformity in the Red Scare. The National Security League and American Defense Society kept up their wartime efforts against the new enemy. "[W]hen you hear a man tryin' to discredit Uncle Sam, that's Bolshevism," remarked one NSL pamphlet among many decrying "Parlor Bolshevists" and the "Enemy within Our Gates." For their part, the ADS urged good Americans to boycott publications like TNR, The Nation, and The Dial and declared quintessentially progressive innovations like the referendum, recall, and initiative (as well as the Sixteenth Amendment creating an income tax) to be tools of Bolshevism. Joining these two organizations in defending the homeland was the National Civic Federation, whose official organ published super-patriotic screeds by its editor, Ralph Easley, with names like "My Days Under the Bolshevist Reign of Terror."16
The most notable of the new patriotic organizations to emerge in 1919 was the American Legion, officially established by veterans of World War I in March "to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States of America; to maintain law and order; [and] to foster and perpetuate a one hundred per cent Americanism." In fact, the Legion was something of a public-private partnership. Its origins lay in Paris, where Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., after consultation with General Pershing's staff and 19 other AEF officers, first discussed the potential for a veterans organization "to preserve the memories and incidents of our association in the great war…to consecrate and sanctify our comradeship." More than that, it was thought the American Legion could work to counteract the influence of Bolshevistic ideas on the millions of returning -- and now idle -- troops.17
To patriotism and the patriotic endeavor of ferreting out subversive ideas, the Legion would dedicate itself for the first decade of its existence. Perhaps the best example of how thin the line could be between these two goals occurred on Armistice Day, 1919, in Centralia, Washington. There, an Armistice Day parade of American Legion members became a march on the local IWW office - who were forewarned such an attack might occur and had established covering fire. Shots rang out, and by the end of the fracas, four Legion members had been killed. In retaliation, veterans tracked down Wobbly -- and veteran -- Wesley Everest, beat and allegedly castrated him, then hung him three times. (The first two times, the rope had not been long enough. The third time, they had to step on his fingers as the broken man held on to the side of the bridge.) Everest had begged to be shot during his torture, and so after his death, the Legionnaires complied: They used his corpse for target practice, and then returned it to the local jail. According to the local coroner, Everest was a suicide. "He jumped off with a rope around his neck and then shot himself full of holes."18
The Centralia Massacre, as it became known, was only atypical in the ferocity of violence done to Everest's body (and even then, African Americans might well disagree.) Similar mob actions against suspected radicals occurred all across the country, especially on May Day 1919. That ostensible pro-labor holiday saw 400 servicemen bear down on the headquarters of the Socialist newspaper The Call in New York City and smash everything in sight. The crowd also attacked the Russian People's House, and forced those they found there to sing the national anthem. In Detroit and Chicago, police would break up May Day parades, and in Boston - only a few short months before they would be considered the Enemy themselves - policemen turned a peaceful parade of 1500 marchers into a full-fledged fracas. (One officer was fatally stabbed in the melee; afterwards, the crowd looted the local Socialist headquarters.) Cleveland saw the worst of it that day - After yet another riot of veterans, patriots, and police against suspected Bolsheviks, one was killed, over fifty were injured, and over 100 Socialists had been arrested.19
In Cleveland and after all of the May Day cases above, arrests and convictions were overwhelmingly, if not solely made of suspected socialists and Bolshevik ne'er-do-wells. But, even if pro-patriotic troublemakers were sometimes incarcerated as well, that did not necessarily augur justice. In Indiana, a jury deliberating over the murder of Frank Petrich, an Austrian immigrant who had yelled "To Hell with the United States!" over the course of an argument, took all of two minutes to decide the gunman, Frank Petroni, was innocent. His defense had been "not guilty by reason of patriotism."20
Can the men and women of Hammond, Indiana be faulted? Even God, it seemed, despised the unpatriotic, for joining the government and patriotic organizations in this crusade against Bolshevism were America's leading evangelicals. "If I had my way with these ornery, wild-eyed Socialists and I.W.W's," stated Billy Sunday, the most popular preacher of his day, "I would stand them up before a firing squad and save space on our ships." Another minister told General Leonard Wood he wanted to see Bolshevists deported "in ships of stone with sails of lead, with the wrath of God for a breeze and with hell for their first port."21
Progressives were for the most part disgusted with the waves of hysteria coursing through the public mind. "Just how the public is to protect itself against this thing," Robert La Follette remarked in April 1919, "I am not able to see at present." "Our generation has evolved many new words as occasion demanded them; for scientific discoveries words like electrons, for new inventions words like radio, and dozens more for new groceries and automobile parts," wrote Jane Addams of this moment. "We evidently need new words for this new panic which then seized the public mind. To apply the word patriotism to it is certainly a misuse of the word which has long connoted courage and candid loyalty to the highest achievement of which one's country is capable."22
The Nation argued similarly. "It seems nowadays that when an American legislator has nothing on his hands worth doing - which happens pretty regularly…he bestirs himself toward the seditious alien with the alacrity of the hart toward the waterbrooks." Walter Lippmann also concurred in sardonic fashion. "It offends most patriots when a chorus girl appears in red and white tights and a star-spangled corsage and vociferates about the land of liberty," he argued in November 1919. "It as just vulgar and offensive for men to dress up luridly when they are urging their views of public policy." The chief problem facing America was that the same people who "saw a spy in every nurse girl and sedition in every brogue" during the war were now "daily in the presence of imaginary soviets, dictatorships, confiscation decrees, and above all extraordinary tribunals." "Life today is grim and difficult enough without complicating it further by behaving as if it were half melodrama, half nightmare," he concluded. "If everything that is suggested in America is to be viewed in the light of what Lenin thinks and does or is supposed to think and do, we shall never recover our self-possession."23
It probably did not help matters that the Attorney General of the United States had lost his own self-possession, one dark summer night on R Street.
Return to the Table of Contents.
2. Scott Bennett, Radical Pacifism: The War Resisters League and Gandhian Non-Violence in America, 1915-1963 (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1963), 14. Robert Benchley, "The Making of a Red," The Nation, March 15, 1919. Addams, Second Twenty Years at Hull House, 151.
3. Hagedorn, 57-59.
4. Hagedorn, 59. Murray, Red Scare, 94-95.
5. "Senate Orders Reds Here Investigated," New York Times, February 5, 1919.
6. Borah to H. Austin Simmons, January 21, 1920. WJB, Box 82: 1919-20 Espionage. Thelen, 149.
7. Ibid. William E. Borah, "Americanism," February 4, 1919, WJB Box 779: Speeches 1919-22.
8. Noggle, Into the Twenties, 183. "Senators Tell What Bolshevism Means," New York Times, June 15, 1919.
10. Ibid. "Drastic Red Bill Ready for Senate," New York Times, June 12, 1919.
11. Murray, Red Scare, 97. Leuchtenburg, Perils of Prosperity, 76.
12. Walter Lippmann, "Unrest," The New Republic, Nov. 12, 1919, Vol. XX, No. 258, p. 315-322
13. Murray, Red Scare, 98-102. Hagedorn, 232.
14. Murray, Red Scare, 231-234.
15. Edward Devine, "To Governor Smith," The Survey, May 19, 1920. "The Week," The New Republic, June 2, 1920 (Vol. XXIII, No. 287), 2. Murray, Red Scare, 238. Governor Smith asked one of his friends, Joseph Proskauer, to send some "highbrow college stuff" for his veto message, so Proskauer sent Smith quotes from Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexis de Tocqueville for inclusion. Only the first two made the actual veto message. As Smith aide Belle Moskowitz relayed the Governor's message back to Proskauer (minus an obscenity), "Tell Joe I'm supposed to know Benjamin Franklin. I'm supposed to know Thomas Jefferson. But if I had ever used that quotation from that French --------, everyone would know that Al Smith never wrote that message." Christopher Finan, Al Smith: The Happy Warrior (New York: Hill and Wang, 2001), 145.
16. Murray, Red Scare, 86-87.
17. Murray, Red Scare, 88. Kennedy, Over Here, 217-218. Barry, Rising Tide, 137.
18. Zinn, The Twentieth Century, 102.Barry, Rising Tide, 139. Murray, Red Scare, 184-186.
19. Ackerman, 21. Barry, Rising Tide, 137-139. Phillip S. Foner, May Day: A Short History of the International Workers' Holiday (Canada: International Publishers, 1986), 87-89.
20. Leuchtenburg, Perils of Prosperity, 66. Barry, Rising Tide, 139. Pietrusza, 149.
21. Leuchtenburg, Perils of Prosperity, 66.
22. Thelen, 149. Addams, Second TwentyYears, 184.
23. "First Aid to Patriotism," The Nation, July 26, 1919, 101. Walter Lippmann, "Unrest," The New Republic, Nov. 12, 1919, Vol. XX, No. 258, p. 315-322.
If you found this dissertation useful or entertaining, please consider contributing to the tip fund.
Alas, history isn't the wildly remunerative discipline it used to be.