February 23, 2007
Postwar Eras and their CrisesBy J.R. Dunn
Postwar eras tend to be overlooked. It's as if they're intermissions between the interesting parts of the historical continuum. The curtain comes down, and rapt in all the excitement of what went on before, we can scarcely be bothered to pay attention to the dull domestic scenes that follow.
But in fact, postwar eras would very much repay closer attention. For the past century, the years following major American wars have featured serious social and political crises usually focused on national security issues. The result has been anything but dull.
We can begin with World War I. The year 1919 sets the pattern for all the postwar panics to come. Though not quite as well known as the "witch hunt" of the late 40s and early 50s, the red summer of 1919 was if anything worse.
The uproar was triggered by the Galleanists, an anarcho-syndicalist group led by Luigi Galleani, an Italian immigrant very much in the same mold as today's malignant imams. The Galleanist's specialty was bomb attacks. On June 2, 1919, the Galleanists set off bombs in 8 major U.S. cities, including an attack on the Washington home of U.S. attorney general A. Mitchell Palmer.
The bomber, Carlo Valdinoci, blew himself up on the steps of Palmer's home while setting the bomb (Two neighborhood boys found a shoe-shod foot and saved it in their icebox as a delightful surprise for mom the next morning.) Palmer was fortunate to survive. Franklin D. Roosevelt lived just down the street, and legend has him watching the proceedings wearing his bathrobe. (Strangely, I've never seen it pointed out that this incident is almost identical to the bombing scene in The Secret Agent, Joseph Conrad's great anti-anarchist novel.)
The attack was a serious error. Palmer, a Quaker, had previously been skeptical of accusations against radicals. But this attack (he'd already been targeted with a mail bomb a month previously) convinced him that a conspiracy existed, possibly aimed at bringing down the government. Armed with orders from President Wilson and acting under the terms of the Sedition and Espionage Acts he moved against the radicals on the largest possible scale.
Supplied with names from the subscription list of Emma Goldman's anarchist publication Mother Earth, J.Edgar Hoover of the infant Bureau of Investigation quickly rounded up 10,000 radicals including Galleani, Goldman, her companion Alexander Berkman, and many foreign-born "Wobblies", members of the left-wing Industrial Workers of the World. All were held without trial for a considerable period, and at last 250 of them, including Goldman, were deported to the USSR.
The panic was by no means limited to Washington, D.C. On November 11, 1919 (the first Armistice Day) at Centralia, Washington, the American Legion attacked an IWW hall, triggering a firefight that left 4 men dead. One of the Wobbly gunmen, Wesley Everett, was later snatched from jail and lynched. In Los Angeles, always an epicenter of violent weirdness, the Legion somehow managed to conflate the general political unrest with the premiere of the German expressionist classic The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari and set off a riot that threatened to shut the city down.
Ironically, the roundup left most of the Galleanists still running around loose In 1920, two of them, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, were arrested for an April 15 robbery in South Braintree, Massachusetts in which two men were killed. That case was to live far longer than any other episode of the red scare.
On September 16, 1920, a bomb went off on Wall Street, killing 38 and wounding over four hundred. According to the late historian of anarchism Paul Avrich, it was set by Galleanist Mario Buda as revenge both for the deportations and the arrest of Sacco and Vanzetti.
(One interesting sidelight involved the young Carl Sandburg. Like many at the time, Sandburg had an interest in Bolshevism and actually visited the USSR. While there, a Russian acquaintance asked if he'd be so kind to take back a very heavy trunk to the U.S. on behalf of a friend. On being opened by customs, the trunk was discovered to contain vast quantities of Bolshevik propaganda leaflets along with no small amount of gold. Considering the atmosphere, Sandburg was lucky to be dealing with an understanding customs agent, who believed his story and sent him home with the admonition to avoid further dealings with Bolshies. This, by the way is the reason why Sandburg had a federal jacket, a fact often brought up as an example of government paranoia.)
Fast forward to the end of WW II. In September 1945, Igor Gouzenko, a code clerk at the USSR's Ottawa embassy, defected with a large stash of documentation. After a hair-raising day trying to get some official to listen to him, Gouzenko and his family were taken in by the RCMP. His documents revealed that both the Canadian and U.S. governments were thoroughly penetrated by Soviet espionage rings. Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King immediately forward the information to Washington, where Harry Truman took action, removing Alger Hiss from the State Department and initiating a number of investigations along with a loyalty program for government workers.
But Truman tried to do it quietly, to limit damage to the Democrats, which worked about as well as it ever does. Congressional hearings, the exposure of Hiss, and the Rosenberg case guaranteed that the damage cut even wider than it would have been if Truman had been open about the problem.
Eventually, a full five years after Gouzenko's appearance, Joe McCarthy rose to warn the nation that communists were dangerous. Ensuing events guaranteed that the panic lasted through the Korean War into1954, when McCarthy was censured, creating the odd situation of one postwar panic blending into another.
Vietnam seems to be the exception that proves the rule, until we consider one event that fits all the relevant criteria: serious national security implications, public hysteria, a lynch-mob atmosphere. The fact that Watergate involved the highest levels of government rather than easily-pilloried radicals simply underlines the shift the country went through in the middle years of the Cold War.
So we have a pattern. In modern postwar periods beginning in the 20th century (and perhaps even earlier, if some of the events surrounding the Reconstruction are considered), an existing threat is discovered, often blown out of proportion (at times with some justification, sometimes to an incredible extent, as in the case of Nixon's dark legions), creating an atmosphere of mass paranoia leading to actions that hinder as much as they help. The episode usually causes considerable social damage before sanity returns.
I'm not at all sure of what the explanation is for all this. During wartime, vast energies, usually latent within a nation, are released and put to work. Then suddenly the war's over. The U.S., unlike most combatants, is usually undamaged - barely touched in WW II, completely untouched in WW I and Vietnam, and no extra effort is required for purposes of national recovery.
So where does all that energy, now without a target, go? It gets thrown at the first plausible victim. Galleani's anarchists focused attention on foreign radicals in 1919. Gouzenko's action focused it on domestic communists. The Democrats and the media focused it on the Nixon administration.
I'm not completely satisfied with this theory, and I'm willing to hear something more convincing. But I'd be surprised if the truth wasn't very close to being along these lines.
The main shortcoming of these episodes is that they're so uncontrolled. Certainly the radicals - the Galleanists in particular - had earned themselves a good trouncing, as had the communists after WW II. But a little discretion would have yielded better results. A more controlled response that focused on the Galleanists, rather than the IWW and everybody else who spoke with an accent, might well have prevented the deaths on Wall Street and in South Braintree. A more honest approach on the part of Harry Truman, one that included the public and allayed its fears, might have curtailed the ugly sequel in which the "witch hunt" victims became the heroes, thus creating the initial conditions for Richard Nixon's downfall.
The point is that we are even now, one way or another, coming to the end of a major conflict. The Democrats are working themselves up to a fine pitch of hysteria, and, it seems, taking a substantial segment of the public along for the ride. (Though not, perhaps, quite as many as they would like.) All the requirements for a mammoth postwar panic appear to be in place. And who will the targets be?
Well, who do you think?
It may be a comfort to note that the party most associated with kicking off such panics usually pays for it in short order. The Democrats spent a decade in limbo after Wilson's downfall. The same befell the Republicans in 1948, when the Democrats took over the House for the ensuing half century. And of course the brief Democratic heyday of the mid-70s was shortly followed by the election of Ronald Reagan.
But there are other matters at issue. Iraq is only a single front in a global, long-term war. What will be the effect on the greater War on Terror? Such a panic will inevitably distract attention, lower morale, and give encouragement to our enemies - who, despite the behavior of the Democrats and the media, remain far from defeated. Recall that the Galleanists did more damage after the roundup than before. A panic would provide a good large window for another domestic attack.
Apealing to the Democrats' higher natures is probably a waste of time, as the recent rhetoric of Murtha and Schumer makes clear. In the event, the Republicans may well be too whipped to marshal an adequate response, but at the very least they should set aside collegiality and make an effort to undermine the Dems at any cost. But that isn't likely, leaving us all to prepare for a wilder ride that any of us might wish for.
J.R. Dunn is a frequent contributor to American Thinker