Uphill All the Way: The Fortunes of Progressivism, 1919-1929
By Kevin C. Murphy, Copyright 2013. All Rights Reserved.

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Chapter Three: Chaos at Home

Progressives in the Crucible of 1919

VII. Battle in Seattle

I. Terror Comes to R St.
II. The Storm Before the Storm
III. Enemies in Office, Friends in Jail
IV. Mobilizing the Nation
V. The Wheels Come Off
VI. On a Pale Horse
VII. Battle in Seattle
VIII. The Great Strike Wave
IX. Steel and Coal
X. The Red Summer
XI. The Forces of Order
XII. Mr. Palmer's War
XIII. The Fever Breaks
XIV. The Best Laid Plans

The next shock to the system, and the first of many similar to come in 1919, began two weeks later in the Pacific Northwest. On January 21st, 35,000 shipyard workers in Seattle went out on strike against the Emergency Fleet Corporation, demanding higher wages. That evening, their cause was taken up by the Seattle Central Labor Council, which represented all the labor unions in the city. After some deliberation, the Council, which was more a bastion of staid AFL unionism than a haven for Wobblies - voted to conduct a city-wide general strike, to start 10am, Thursday, February 6th.1

The day before Strike Day, the Union Record - the Council's newspaper - told its readers what to expect. "On Thursday at 10 A.M.," it declared in bold, "[t]here will be many cheering, and there will be some who fear. Both these emotions will be useful, but not too much of either:
We are undertaking the most tremendous move ever made by LABOR in this country, a move which will lead - NO ONE KNOWS WHERE! We do not need hysteria. We need the iron march of labor.

LABOR WILL FEED THE PEOPLE. Twelve great kitchens have been offered, and from them food will be distributed by the provision trades at low cost to all.

LABOR WILL CARE FOR THE BABIES AND THE SICK. The milk-wagon drivers and the laundry drivers are arranging plans for supplying milk to babies, invalids, and hospitals, and taking care of the cleaning of linen for hospitals.

LABOR WILL PRESERVE ORDER. The strike committee is arranging for guards, and it is expected that the stopping of the cars will keep people at home…

The closing down of Seattle's industries as a MERE SHUTDOWN will not affect…eastern gentlemen much. They could let the whole northwest go to pieces as far as money alone is concerned.

BUT, the closing down of the capitalistically controlled industries of Seattle, while the WORKERS ORGANIZE to feed the people, to care for the babies and the sick, to preserve order - THIS will move them, for the looks too much like the taking over of POWER by the workers…And that is why we say that we are starting on a road that leads - NO ONE KNOWS WHERE!2
The next morning, 100,000 Seattle workers - 60,000 union members and 40,000 sympathetic workers - were off the job. And for five days that shook the media and ground normal life in Seattle to a halt, the Council was true to their word. Labor fed the people - 30,000 meals were delivered to strikers at the cost of a quarter each (35 cents for non-workers). Labor cared for the babies and the sick - Milk stations were set up all around town, and laundries continued service for hospital laundry only. And labor preserved order - Firefighters and garbage trucks stayed on the job, and there were no strike-related arrests, "not even a fist-fight."3

But, for many news outlets, success was provocation enough, as more than one journalist sounded the tocsin of revolution. The Seattle Star screamed "STOP BEFORE IT'S TOO LATE" to its readers before the strike began, reminding them "This is America - not Russia." On the morning of, readers of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer were greeted with a front-page cartoon of a Red banner flying above the American flag. The caption: "Not in a Thousand Years." Not for the last time that year, the national press was no less hysterical -- "It is only a middling step from Petrograd to Seattle," cried the Chicago Tribune. "The beast comes into the open," prophesied the Cleveland Plain Dealer. To the Washington Post, this was the "stepping stone to a bolshevized America." With an eye to the bad press, national unions, many of whom never cottoned to the notion of general strikes anyway, began leaning on their Seattle locals to end the strike and withdraw to safer ground. 4

With a career politician's sense of the zeitgeist, Seattle Mayor Ole Hanson decided to put himself at the forefront of this burgeoning backlash. A State Senator for ten years, Hanson had been elected to his position the previous March and, while an avowed foe of the Wobblies, he had been known as both a solid progressive and friend to labor. He had followed Roosevelt out of the Republicans in 1912, pulled the lever for Wilson in 1916, and even named three of his eight children Theodore Roosevelt Hanson, William Taft Hanson, and Bob LaFollette Hanson. But this moment was a prime political opportunity, and those do not come often.5

And so, even as the general strike began in earnest, Mayor Hanson quite literally draped he and his car with the American flag, and made sure he was seen directing the federal troops he had requested all over the city. "The time has come," he declared, "for the people in Seattle to show their Americanism." When the strikers opted to cancel their action after five days - more due to AFL pressure from the head office than any of Hanson's ministrations - the mayor exulted: "The rebellion is quelled, the test came and was met by Seattle unflinchingly." Newspapers local and national rallied around the conquering hero. Hanson - a man blessed with "courage and that essential, unyielding Americanism," not to mention "a backbone that would serve as a girder in a railroad bridge" - was, said the New York Times, "living proof that Americanism, that respect for law, was not dead."6

Milking his moment for all it was worth, Hanson soon resigned the mayorship of Seattle to travel around the country and decry the Red Menace -- a task for which he was well-compensated. Later that year, he published a book entitled Americanism vs. Bolshevism, which he dedicated to "to all Americans who love their country, revere its ideals, understand and support its institutions, and are willing to give their all in order that 'our Government shall not perish from the earth.'" In that tome - mainly a screed against his old enemies, the IWW - Hanson described the Seattle general strike as "an attempted revolution":7
That there was no violence does not alter the fact…The intent, openly and covertly announced, was for the overthrow of the industrial system; here, first, then everywhere…True, there were no flashing guns, no bombs, no killings. Revolution, I repeat, doesn't need violence. The general strike, as practiced in Seattle, is of itself the weapon of revolution, all the more dangerous because quiet. To succeed, it must suspend everything; stop the entire life stream of a community…That is to say, it puts the government out of operation. And that is all there is to revolt - no matter how achieved."8
Even if "the overthrow of the industrial system" is not an unfair description of why, in their own words, the Council had called the strike into being, the notion that non-violent civil disobedience was a sign of the rankest Bolshevism merited some unpacking. Nonetheless, the end of the Seattle strike saw authorities strike back hard, and mainly against the usual suspects: Socialist party headquarters were raided, and thirty-nine Wobblies were arrested for being "ringleaders of anarchy" - despite never having much to do with the planning of the strike.9

In their coverage of the Seattle strike, The New Republic rightfully saw less of the specter of bolshevism at work than the consequences of wartime policy, a reaction to the high cost of living, and what one of its writers, Walter Lippmann, had earlier deemed "drift." "The war period gave the workers a taste of economic comfort," they argued. "It gave them a new sense of power; it convinced them that the resources of the country are adequate when intelligently administered to provide every man with a job at more than a bare subsistence wage." And so the Seattle Strike "was not as the papers alleged, a Bolshevist uprising, but a mass protest on the part of all the organized trades of the city against a threatened interference with their rising standard of living."10

The worst part of it, TNR continued, was that all of this was readily foreseeable. "Months before the end of the war," they continued, Wilson and Congress were forewarned "of the dangers that must attend planless military and industrial demobilization:
They knew that the rate of production in the country's basic industries, such as steel, copper and lumber had been keyed up to an abnormal pitch and that any sudden interruption of war contracts would upset the market, depress prices and throw great numbers of men out of work; they knew that the evils of unemployment among the men who had been gathered into the war industries would be greatly aggravated by the planless release of the millions in the army; they knew that the end of the war would give rise to problems requiring as careful preparation and as devoted patriotism for their solution as the problems of military mobilization…But all these suggestions were classified under the head of reconstruction, and reconstruction was taboo. To discuss post-war conditions while the war was on would dampen the military spirit and jeopardize victory. 11
As a result, America "had been thrown back into the chaos of laissez faire... unemployment is rapidly increasing, industrial unrest is growing steadily more acute, strikes are multiplying," and it was all being lain "at the door of a mysterious and vaguely pervasive Bolshevist propaganda. In these troubled times, melodrama is very poor ballast for the ship of state." Rather than try to foist the Seattle strike on "alleged evils in Russia," they concluded, Congress should "take its responsibilities for the welfare of American industry and American labor seriously." From the corridors of the Senate, an exasperated George Norris concurred. "Wrongs, profiteering, and inefficiency are overlooked," he said, because "when criticism is made, the critic is condemned as being a bolshevist."12

Continue to Chapter 3, Pt. 8: The Great Strike Wave.

Return to the Table of Contents.

1. Representatives from Japanese unions in the city were invited to attend the Council meetings, but were not given a vote. Zinn, The Twentieth Century (New York: Perennial, 2003), 99. Murray, Red Scare, 58-59.
2. "The Seattle General Strike," History Committee of the General Strike Committee (Seattle, Seattle Union Record Publishing Co. 1919), 4-6. Available at the Seattle General Strike Project, http://depts.washington.edu/labhist/strike/
3. Ibid, 57. Zinn, Twentieth Century, 99-100. Murray, Red Scare, 61.
4. Murray, Red Scare, 64-65. Barry, Rising Tide, 139.
5. Murray, Red Scare, 63.
6. Ibid. Trevor Williams, "Ole Hanson's Fifteen Minutes," Seattle General Strike Project, http://depts.washington.edu/labhist/strike/williams.shtml
7. Hanson made $38,000 in seven months. His salary as Mayor was $7500 a year. Murray, Red Scare, 66. At the very least, Hanson remained cosmopolitan in his Americanism, noting that he didn't care "from what human breed they sprang, regardless of their length of residence, despite any difference in religious creed or political faith, only requiring that they place our country, the United States First, Now, and Forever! Ole Hanson, Americanism v. Bolshevism (New York: Doubleday & Page, 1919).
8. Ibid. Zinn, Twentieth Century, 102.
9. Ibid, 101.
10. "The Labor Situation," The New Republic, February 22nd, 1919, 105-106.
11. Ibid.
12. Ibid. Lowitt, 131.

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