In 1916, German saboteurs destroyed Black Tom Island in New York Harbor.
Bettmann/CorbisIn 1916, German saboteurs destroyed Black Tom Island in New York Harbor.

Today’s state-oriented liberalism, we are often told, was the inevitable extension of the pre–World War I tradition of progressivism. The progressives, led by President Woodrow Wilson, placed their faith in reason and the better nature of the American people. Expanded government would serve as an engine of popular goodwill to soften the harsh rigors of industrial capitalism. Describing the condition of his fellow intellectuals prior to World War I, Lewis Mumford exclaimed that “there was scarcely one who did not assume that mankind either was permanently good or might sooner or later reach such a state of universal beatitude.” After the unfortunate Republican interregnum of the 1920s, so the story goes, this progressivism, faced with the Great Depression, matured into the full-blown liberalism of the New Deal.

But a central strand of modern liberalism was born of a sense of betrayal, of a rejection of progressivism, of a shift in sensibility so profound that it still resonates today. More precisely, the cultural tone of modern liberalism was, in significant measure, set by a political love affair gone wrong between Wilson and a liberal Left unable to grapple with the realities of Prussian power. Initially embraced by many leftists as a thaumaturgical leader of near-messianic promise, Wilson came to be seen—in the wake of a cataclysmic war, a failed peace, repression at home, revolution abroad, and a country wracked by a “Red Scare”—as a Judas. His numinous rhetoric, it was concluded, was mere mummery.

One strand of progressives grew contemptuous not only of Wilson but of American society. For the once-ardent progressive Frederick Howe, formerly Wilson’s Commissioner of Immigration, the prewar promise of a benign state built on reasoned reform had turned to ashes. “I hated,” he wrote, “the new state that had arisen” from the war. “I hated its brutalities, its ignorance, its unpatriotic patriotism, that made profit from our sacrifices and used it to suppress criticism of its acts. . . . I wanted to protest against the destruction of my government, my democracy, my America.”

Making a decisive break with Wilson and their optimism about America, the disenchanted progressives renamed themselves “liberals.” The progressives had been inspired by a faith in democratic reforms as a salve for the wounds of both industrial civilization and power politics; the new liberals saw the American democratic ethos as a danger to freedom both at home and abroad.

Wilson, a devout Presbyterian and former college professor, was the first and probably the only president to have studied socialism systematically. In 1887, as a young man, he responded to the growth of vast industrial monopolies that threatened individual freedom by arguing that “in fundamental theory socialism and democracy are almost if not quite one and the same. They both rest at bottom upon the absolute right of the community to determine its own destiny and that of its members. Men as communities are supreme over men as individuals.” In the 1912 presidential race, he said that “when you do socialism justice, it is hardly different from the heart of Christianity itself.” Four years later, he brushed aside intense opposition to appoint two pro-labor-union justices to the Supreme Court and backed railroad workers in their fight for an eight-hour day. The president imposed a surtax on the wealthy and won the support of such prominent socialists as Upton Sinclair and Helen Keller.

For many on the left, Wilson’s 1916 campaign slogan, “He kept us out of war,” opened the way for the emergence of a more vibrant American culture. The war in Europe seemed far away, and progressives were for the moment imbued with an impregnable optimism. The administration’s critique of European power politics and talk of the need for international law gave pacifist Jane Addams “unlimited faith in the president.” When Meyer London, the antiwar socialist congressman from New York’s Lower East Side, and Socialist Party leader Morris Hilquit visited the White House to talk about the prospects for peace in Europe, they came away concluding that Wilson’s “sympathies are entirely with us.” Similarly, as Thomas Knock recounts in his book To End All Wars, after visiting the White House, the leaders of the American Union Against Militarism felt that “the President had taken us into his bosom.” Wilson, they noted, “always referred to the Union Against Militarism as though he were a member of it” and talked about the need to create “a family of nations.”

The courtship between Wilson and the leftists was nurtured by the hard fought 1916 presidential election. Wilson faced a Republican Party that had recovered from a 1912 split between Teddy Roosevelt’s breakaway Bull Moose progressives and anti-reform regulars to coalesce around Supreme Court Justice Charles Evan Hughes. As war raged in Europe, the incumbent narrowly won by bringing sizable numbers of Bull Moosers (who admired Germany’s proto-welfare state) and Eugene Debs’s Socialists into his “peace camp.”

Even after the U.S. entered the war in April 1917, pushed by Germany’s declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare and the public revelation of the Kaiser’s plans for an alliance with Mexico to reconquer the Southwest, Wilson maintained his strong ties with the largely antiwar Left. The very speech in which he asked for a congressional declaration of war also welcomed the Russian revolution that had overthrown the czar and put the socialist Alexander Kerensky (temporarily) in power. Wilson effusively, if inaccurately, described the revolution as the fulfillment of the Russian people’s long struggle for democracy, and Secretary of State Robert Lansing declared that it “had removed the one objection to affirming that the European War was a war between Democracy and Absolutism.” Some progressives even backed America’s entry. The progressive animus toward corrupt and overmighty party bosses and autocratic monarchists was “readily transferred to an overbearing Kaiser and a hegemonic war machine,” notes historian Morton Keller.

Wilson insisted on referring to the United States not as an ally of England and France but as an “associated power,” and he made a point of keeping U.S. forces strictly under American command, rankling the British and French, whom he regarded as imperialists. Eight months later, shortly after Lenin had taken power in Russia, Wilson expressed ambivalence about Bolshevism: “My heart is with them, but my mind has a contempt for them.” Yet Wilson’s “Fourteen Points, his message of good luck to the ‘republic of labor unions’ in Russia . . . his warning to the Allied powers that their treatment of Bolshevik Russia would be the ‘acid test’ of their ‘good will . . . intelligence and unselfish sympathy’: these moves were immensely impressive to us,” explained magazine editor Max Eastman, speaking for many leftists and progressives. Indeed, when Russian War Commissar Leon Trotsky coined the now famous concept of the “fellow traveler,” he was referring to Wilson. Trotsky sensed that the American president shared the Bolsheviks’ hatred of European imperialism, and he thought that Soviet Russia and a reformed America would travel on parallel tracks into a brighter future.

While Wilson increasingly spoke of international comity, relations between ethnic groups within the United States were breaking down. The Kaiser’s aggression in Eastern Europe prompted pitched battles between Germans and Slavs in the streets of Chicago. At the same time, nearly half a million Germans in America returned home to fight for the fatherland. Charles John Hexamer, president of the National German-American Alliance, financed in part by the German government, insisted that Germans needed to maintain their separate identity and not “descend to the level of an inferior culture.” Germans even began attacking that inferior culture. The most important instance of German domestic sabotage was the spectacular explosion on Black Tom Island in the summer of 1916, which shook a sizable swath of New York City and New Jersey. The man-made peninsula in New York Harbor was a key storage and shipping point for munitions sold to the British and French. The bombing sank the peninsula into the sea, killed seven, and damaged the Statue of Liberty. Wilson denounced Germany’s supporters in America: “Such creatures of passion, disloyalty, and anarchy must be crushed out.”

The government responded with repression, as journalist Ann Hagedorn chronicles in Savage Peace: Hope and Fear in America. Under the Sedition Act of 1918, people were sentenced to 10 years in prison for saying that they preferred the Kaiser to Wilson; others were jailed for mocking salesmen of Liberty Bonds, which supported the war effort. Most famously, socialist leader Debs was jailed for criticizing conscription.

Wilson placed George Creel, a journalist, socialist, and strong supporter of child labor laws and women’s suffrage, in charge of ensuring home-front morale through the Committee for Public Information. But the Committee, which Creel described as “the world’s greatest adventure in advertising,” wildly overshot its mark, encouraging the banning of everything German, from Beethoven to sauerkraut to teaching the German language. The Justice Department and the attorney general, Thomas Gregory, encouraged local vigilantism against Germans, giving the American Protective League, a quarter-of-a-million-strong nativist organization, semi-official status to spy on those suspected of disloyalty. The League went out of its way to break up labor strikes as well, while branding its critics Reds.

Responding to the League’s excesses, Wilson declared that he’d “rather the blamed place should be blown up than persecute innocent people.” But in the next breath he said, “Woe be to the man or group of men that seeks to stand in our way.” Despite his misgivings, Wilson deferred to Gregory’s judgment and refrained from taking action against extremists. Only after the armistice ended the war in November 1918 did Wilson, heeding the advice of incoming attorney general A. Mitchell Palmer, move to end government cooperation with the League. But by now, the disparity between Wilson’s call for extending liberty abroad and the suppression of liberty at home had become a running sore for disenchanted progressives.

The armistice largely ended the fighting in Europe, but it opened a new chapter in hostilities at home: the Red Scare. Back in March, the Bolsheviks’ effectively unconditional surrender to the Germans at Brest-Litovsk had created a cat’s cradle of anticommunist fear intertwined with hostility to the Huns. Germany got control of the Baltic states, Poland, Belarus, and the Ukraine, with their attendant coal and oil resources—freeing the Kaiser’s army to focus on the Western front, to deadly effect. Lenin’s return to Russia in April 1917 by way of a sealed railroad car supplied by Berlin was now seen as proof, and not only by conspiratorialists, that the Bolshevik leader was a German agent.

Progressives and leftists, counseled by Raymond Robbins, who had worked for Wilson in 1912 and served as an unofficial ambassador to the Bolsheviks, adopted a counter-conspiracy ethos that persists even today. Smitten by Bolshevism, Robbins wrote to Lenin that “it has been my eager desire . . . to be of some use in interpreting this new democracy to the people of America.” Robbins also mistakenly blamed the U.S. for forcing Lenin to agree to Germany’s harsh terms at Brest-Litovsk. Over the next several years, explains historian Peter Filene, Robbins’s efforts helped shape the views of many American progressives. They became enraged when Wilson gave in to pressure from France and England, both suffering enormous casualties on the western front, and provided half-hearted American military support to a campaign that tried to force the Bolsheviks back into the war. Filene points out that for progressives, the “betrayal” of which most Americans accused the Bolsheviks was actually an American perfidy.

Here too, Wilson, juggling principle and practicality, proved strikingly inconstant. In the words of German scholar George Schild, “the Wilson who agreed to the Allied intervention [against the Soviets] in the summer of 1918” and the Wilson who just one year later in Paris helped save the Soviet Union by insisting that the Germans relinquish their conquests on the eastern front “almost seem like two different people.” Faced with the Soviet challenge and bearing the new ideology of universal democracy, Wilson floated the idea that the Bolsheviks should be invited to the peace conference. (Churchill blocked the suggestion.) Wilson the progressive argued that “war won’t defeat Bolshevism, food will.” Capitalism, Wilson argued, had to reform itself to stave off Bolshevik barbarism.

Wilson’s efforts to reconstruct Europe would largely fail, not only because the U.S. refused to join the League of Nations, but because the task at hand was undoable; what the war had sundered could not be put back together. Many former Wilson supporters were angry and disillusioned with the meager fruits of a war that had failed to make the world safe for democracy. But those feelings were shared widely across the political spectrum. Those who were soon to call themselves liberals were particularly provoked by wartime conscription, the repression of civil liberties, and the wildly overwrought fears of Bolshevism at home.

Already in 1918, when the war was still raging, labor unions, emboldened by a surge in membership and squeezed by an inflation-triggered decline in living standards, had engaged in a wave of strikes, some of them repressed by the American Protective League, local police forces, and agents of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. Walkouts led by the Industrial Workers of the World, known for work sabotage, seemed particularly ominous. IWW members, known as Wobblies, sometimes described themselves as Lenin’s advance guard. At the end of the year, in the wake of the armistice, New York mayor John Hylan banned the socialist red flag at public gatherings, and shortly thereafter a socialist rally at Madison Square Garden was broken up by 500 soldiers and sailors. The bad blood endured. On the first anniversary of the war’s end, American Legionnaires and Wobblies clashed in Centralia, Washington. Six Wobblies were killed.

Every strike, confrontation, and racial incident was taken, on both left and right, as a manifestation of Bolshevism. Every challenge to the existing social order, no matter how justified, wound up attributed to the red menace. African-Americans’ so-called “uppityness”—insufficient deference to whites—was blamed on homegrown Bolshevism and met with lynchings and a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan. White attacks on blacks set off black riots in Chicago and Washington that federal troops were called in to suppress.

The Red Scare intensified in June 1919, when Attorney General Palmer was nearly killed by a terrorist bomb planted in his Georgetown home. Bombs went off in seven other cities the same night. The bombers were probably from the Galleanisti group of Italian anarchists, which included the as-yet unknown Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, notes Beverley Gage in The Day Wall Street Exploded. But the Russian Bolsheviki were seen as responsible, reigniting the intense, hysterical nationalism of the war years. Palmer, who subsequently claimed to have a list of 60,000 subversives, engaged in a series of warrantless raids aimed at capturing the mostly immigrant red radicals, some of whom were jailed or shipped back to Russia. With no reproach from Wilson, Palmer trampled on civil liberties and harassed the innocent as well as the likely guilty. Then came the famed Wall Street bombing of September 1920, which claimed the lives of 38 New Yorkers and injured 400; like the Palmer attack, it was probably perpetrated by the Galleanisti anarchists, but the Bolsheviks again took the blame.

An aggressive nationalism and an accelerated Americanization became political twins. Both demanded something that, with the partial exception of the Civil War North, had never before existed in America—a coherent, irrefragable governmental power. In Europe, war had become bound up with revolution; in the U.S., the war, together with the Bolshevik challenge, called up the seemingly un-American concept of a General Will—a 100 percent Americanism that brooked no opposition. Progressives’ disenchantment with America intensified.

Even Prohibition contributed to progressives’ growing sense of estrangement from the country. Before the war, progressives had broadly supported Prohibition as a means to protect working-class families from the economic depredations of drink. But after the war, the emerging liberals were disturbed by what they saw as cultural continuation of wartime repression. “Like most sensible people,” shouted liberal Harold Stearns, “I regard prohibition as an outrage and a direct invitation to revolution.”

The silver lining of the wartime-spawned repression was that it laid the groundwork for the modern interpretation of the First Amendment that would eventually extend free-speech rights to individuals harassed not only by the federal government but by states and localities as well. The strongest section of Hagedorn’s Savage Peace deals with the key case in advancing this new understanding. Jacob Abrams, a Russian Jewish immigrant who worked as a bookbinder, had printed anarchist leaflets in English and Yiddish and dropped them from buildings on New York’s Lower East Side. The pamphlets bitterly denounced Wilson’s cooperating with England and France in trying to force Russia’s government back into the war against Germany. Zealous prosecutors saw the leaflets as violations of the Espionage Act, which made it a crime to undermine American wartime policy. Abrams, sentenced to 20 years in jail, would eventually be deported.

In 1919, the Supreme Court upheld Abrams’s conviction. But in his dissent, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, while agreeing that “speech that produces or is intended to produce a clear and imminent danger” can be prosecuted, maintained that he saw no such danger in Abrams’s leaflets, which he described as “silly” writings by an “unknown man.” Holmes’s underlying reasoning would prove extraordinarily influential. Like John Stuart Mill, Holmes found that a maximum of free speech was essential for a successful society. America, he argued, had an interest in discovering truth available only through “the marketplace of ideas,” where competing viewpoints are compelled to make their best case.

Palmer had hoped to ride the Red Scare into the White House. But within a year the amiable, if ineffectual, Warren G. Harding of Ohio was ensconced in Washington, along with his card-playing cronies. The crusade that had ended abroad was brought to a close at home. Harding released Debs from prison and returned America to what he dubbed “normalcy.”

For intellectuals and writers who had anticipated utopia in 1916, however, the postwar years brought anger and intensified alienation. The war, said writer Floyd Dell, had produced a generation of young minds “trained in disillusion.” They felt betrayed by Wilson, who had not only suppressed civil liberties but had tried to force Russia back into the war and made compromises with European imperialism at Versailles. They disdained a society that had supported both the Red Scare and Prohibition. In the words of an influential young liberal, “we crushed German militarism only to find that we ourselves had adopted many of its worst features.”

Literary critic Malcolm Cowley spoke for many intellectuals in the wake of the war: “We believed that we had fought for an empty cause, that the Germans were no worse than the Allies, no better, that the world consisted of fools and scoundrels.” Critic Harold Stearns, in his seminal 1919 book Liberalism in America, asserted bitterly that “in Soviet countries there is no fact of freedom of the press and no pretense that there is. In America today there is in fact no freedom of the press and we only make the matter worse by pretending that there is.” The state, said the soured progressive Frederick Howe, “seemed to want to hurt people; it showed no concern for innocence. . . . It was not my America, it was something else.”

What followed was not so much protest as simmering scorn. In 1919, the Germanophile H. L. Mencken, writing in The New Republic, called sarcastically for honoring the civilian heroes who had suppressed Beethoven by bedizening them with bronze badges and golden crosses. Mencken ridiculed the mass of Americans who had backed “Wilson’s War,” branding them a “timorous, sniveling, poltroonish, ignominious mob”; a great admirer of Kaiser Wilhelm, he denigrated American democracy as “the worship of jackals by jackasses.” Taking its cues from Mencken, the liberalism that emerged from 1919 was contemptuous of American culture and politics. For liberals, the war years had shown that American society and democracy were themselves agents of repression. These sentiments deepened during the 1920s and have been an ongoing current in liberalism ever since.

The new liberal ethos was not without its virtues. In picking their fights with Prohibition and their former hero Wilson, liberals encouraged the sense of tolerance and appreciation of differences that would, over time, mature into what came to be called pluralism. “The root of liberalism,” wrote Stearns, “is hatred of compulsion, for liberalism has the respect for the individual and his conscience and reason which the employment of coercion necessarily destroys.” Though not always observed by liberals themselves, the call for an urbane temper would come to mark liberalism at its best.

The underside of this new sensibility was an inverted moralism and a quasi-aristocratic hauteur that has dogged political liberalism down to the present day. “Something oppressed” the liberals, wrote Cowley in 1934; “some force was preventing them from doing their best work.” At the time, that “something” was “the stupidity of the crowd, it was hurry and haste, it was Mass Production, Babbittry, Our Business Civilization; or perhaps it was the Machine.” As this current carried into the 1950s, what oppressed the liberals became affluence, suburbia, two-car garages, and backyard barbecues.

Most recently, the liberal plaint has been taken up by the aging but affluent “68ers,” who supported Barack Obama’s presidential campaign because they saw themselves as victims of American society. If they had lived to see it, their progenitors of 1919 would have smiled in recognition.


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