In recent times, not just U.S. Army troops but National Guardsmen have been dispatched in significant numbers to the U.S.-Mexico border. They are supposedly there to stop what our president likes to call an "invasion" of undocumented immigrants -- especially "caravans" of Guatemalans, Salvadorans, and Hondurans from lands initially unsettled by American-backed wars and other machinations as well as, in more recent years, crime, violence, the drug trade, and climate change. In mid-July, for instance, 1,000 troops from the Texas National Guard were dispatched to join approximately 2,000 guardsmen already stationed there, fulfilling the president's desire for, as he likes to tweet, "STRONG Border Security." Once upon a time, however, the National Guard had other tasks when it came to threats (real or imagined) to this country. In his monumental work, Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, historian Eric Foner writes,
"In the aftermath of 1877, cities retrained and expanded their police forces, while the militia and National Guard were professionalized and equipped with more modern weapons. In the next quarter-century, the Guard would be used in industrial disputes over 100 times. Meanwhile the federal government constructed armories not in the South to protect black citizens, but in the major cities of the North, to ensure that troops would be on hand in subsequent labor difficulties."
Recently, historian and TomDispatch regular Adam Hochschild, whose latest book is Lessons from a Dark Time and Other Essays, has been exploring just a few years in the early twentieth century when another American president was fixated on exploiting not fears and phantasms from abroad but fears and phantasms about the then-developing labor movement at home. It's a grim tale of all-out repression, which echoes strangely and deeply in the Trump era. Tom
A Political 100-Year Flood
Trump's Venom Against the Media, Immigrants, "Traitors," and More Is Nothing New
By Adam Hochschild
Along rivers prone to overflowing, people sometimes talk of preparing for a 100-year flood -- a dangerous surge of muddy, debris-filled water so overwhelming it appears only once a century.
In our political world, we are now seeing a 100-year flood of toxic debris. The sludge washing ashore includes President Trump's continuing cries of "fake news!" and "traitors"; his rage at immigrants and refugees; his touting of an "invasion" at the southern border; and his recent round of attacks on "the squad," four young congresswomen of color who, he raged, should "go back" to the "totally broken and crime infested places from which they came." (Three of them, of course, were born in the United States.) When he talked about the fourth, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, a legal immigrant from Somalia, the inflamed crowd at his July 17th reelection rally in North Carolina began spontaneously chanting, "Send her back! Send her back! Send her back!"- Advertisement -
Donald Trump, of course, has a long history of disliking people of color, going back to the days when he and his father tried to keep them out of their New York real estate dynasty's apartment buildings. Presidents, however, usually find it politic to keep such feelings under wraps. Nonetheless, Trump's particular brand of xenophobia, racism, and media hatred isn't completely unprecedented. The last time we had a similar outpouring from Washington was almost exactly 100 years ago and it, too, involved a flood of angry rhetoric and a fear of immigrants -- and it included repression on an enormous scale.
Fear of Immigrants, 1917 Version
The 100-year flood I'm thinking of lasted for three violent years during the presidency of Woodrow Wilson -- from early 1917 to early 1920. Except for lynchings in the Jim Crow South, it would prove to be the harshest burst of political repression and fear-mongering in either twentieth- or twenty-first-century America. It began suddenly when the U.S. entered the First World War in support of England and France and against the Germany of Kaiser Wilhelm II.
Schools, colleges, and universities abruptly stopped teaching the "Kaiser's tongue" -- a move loudly backed by the ever-strident former president Theodore Roosevelt. Iowa forbade the use of German over the telephone or in public. In Shawnee, Oklahoma, a crowd burned German books to mark the Fourth of July. German music being out, marriages took place without Mendelssohn's "Wedding March." Berlin, Iowa, changed its name to Lincoln. Chicago's Bismarck Hotel became the Hotel Randolf. Families named Schmidt became Smith and Griescheimer, Gresham. The hamburger became "the liberty sandwich." German shepherds were redubbed Alsatian shepherds.
My grandfather was a Jewish immigrant from Germany and spoke German with his children. Now, however, they were terrified to do so on the street. In his twenties at the time, my father desperately tried to get into the Army, for a uniform was obvious protection from mob violence -- and violence there was. In Collinsville, Illinois, for example, a crowd seized Robert Prager, a coal miner, and lynched him because he had been German-born. (He had tried to enlist in the Navy, but was turned down because of his glass eye.) In Washington, when a man failed to stand up as "The Star-Spangled Banner" was played, a sailor right behind him shot him dead.
Congress rushed the draconian Espionage Act to a vote two months after the country entered the war. It outlawed anything that would "cause insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal of duty in the military." There was, however, not the slightest danger of mutiny among American troops sent to the Western Front in France. Many were so eager to fight that their commanders found gung-ho rear-area soldiers "deserting to the front." Nor was there much danger of espionage. In those years, only 10 people would be charged under the Act with being German agents.- Advertisement -
The president who oversaw this particular 100-Year Flood was no Donald Trump, not in his manner anyway. Rabid invective was hardly Woodrow Wilson's style. He carefully kept his image as an above-the-fray idealist by outsourcing inflammatory rhetoric to others, such as his special emissary to Russia, Elihu Root.
A corporate lawyer and former secretary of war, secretary of state, and senator from New York, Root would prove the prototype of the "wise men" who moved between Wall Street and Washington to form the twentieth-century foreign policy establishment. "Pro-German traitors" were threatening the war effort, Root declared to an audience at New York's Union League Club in August 1917. "There are men walking about the streets of this city tonight who ought to be taken out at sunrise tomorrow and shot for treason... There are some newspapers published in this city every day the editors of which deserve conviction and execution for treason."
Fake news indeed! The actual bullying of those newspapers Wilson left to Postmaster General Albert Sidney Burleson, of Texas. The Espionage Act gave the Post Office great powers over the press. Newspapers were censored, editors jailed, and publications shut down, most famously Max Eastman's The Masses, the Greenwich Village radical monthly that was one of the liveliest magazines this country has ever seen. Some 75 newspapers and periodicals either had specific issues banned or were forced to close entirely.