Donald Trump has had the urge to crush many things, including the last election. So I must admit I found it eerily amusing that, when the FBI entered his estate at Mar-a-Lago recently, they did so under a warrant authorized by the Espionage Act of 1917. History certainly has a strange way of returning in our world and also of crushing alternatives. Whatever Trump did, that act has a sorry track record in both its own time and ours when it has been used, including by his administration, to silence the leakers of government information. And because my latest book, American Midnight: The Great War, A Violent Peace, and America’s Forgotten Crisis, is about the crushing of alternatives a century ago in this country, in the midst of all this, I couldn’t help thinking about a part of our history that The Donald would undoubtedly have been the first to crush, if he had the chance.
But let me start with a personal event closer to the present. While visiting Denmark recently, I developed an infection in my hand and wanted to see a doctor. The hotel in the provincial city where I was staying directed me to a local hospital. I was quickly shown into a consulting room, where a nurse questioned me and told me to wait. Only a few minutes passed before a physician entered the room, examined me, and said in excellent English, yes, indeed, I did need an antibiotic. He promptly swiveled in his chair, opened a cabinet behind him, took out a bottle of pills, handed it to me, and told me to take two a day for 10 days. When I thanked him and asked where I should go to pay for the consultation and the medicine, he responded simply, “We have no facilities for that.”
No facilities for that.
It’s a phrase that comes back to me every time I’m reminded how, in the world’s richest nation, we still don’t have full national health insurance. And that’s far from the only thing we’re missing. In a multitude of ways, we’re known for having a far weaker social safety net than many other wealthy countries and behind that lies a history in which the Espionage Act played a crucial role.
A Danish friend who visited with me recently was appalled to find hundreds of homeless people living in tent encampments in Berkeley and Oakland, California. And mind you, this is a progressive, prosperous state. The poor are even more likely to fall through the cracks (or chasms) in many other states.
Visitors from abroad are similarly astonished to discover that American families regularly pay astronomical college tuitions out of their own pockets. And it’s not only well-off European countries that do better in providing for their citizenry. The average Costa Rican, with one-sixth the annual per capita income of his or her North American counterpart, will live two years longer, thanks largely to that country’s comprehensive national health care system.
Why hasn’t our country done better, compared to so many others? There are certainly many reasons, not least among them the relentless, decades-long propaganda barrage from the American right, painting every proposed strengthening of public health and welfare — from unemployment insurance to Social Security to Medicare to Obamacare — as an ominous step down the road to socialism.
This is nonsense, of course, since the classic definition of socialism is public ownership of the means of production, an agenda item not on any imaginable American political horizon. In another sense, though, the charge is historically accurate because, both here and abroad, significant advances in health and welfare have often been spearheaded by socialist parties.
The globe’s first national healthcare system, in Imperial Germany, was, for example, muscled through the Reichstag by Chancellor Otto von Bismarck in 1883 precisely to outflank the German socialists, who had long been advocating similar measures. Nor was it surprising that Britain’s National Health Service was installed by the Labour Party when it took power after the Second World War.
And in the United States, early in the last century, some of President Theodore Roosevelt’s modest moves to regulate business and break up trusts were, in fact, designed to steal a march on this country’s socialists, whom he feared, as he wrote to a friend, were “far more ominous than any populist or similar movement in times past.”
Back then — however surprising it may seem today — the American Socialist Party was indeed part of our political reality and, in 1904, it had come out in favor of compulsory national health insurance. A dozen years after that, New York Socialist Congressman Meyer London introduced a bill strikingly similar to the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act of more than a century later. In 1911, another socialist congressman, Victor Berger of Wisconsin, proposed a national old-age pension, a goal that wouldn’t be realized for another quarter of a century with the passage of the Social Security Act of 1935.
Socialism was never as strong a movement in the United States as in so many other countries. Still, once it was at least a force to be reckoned with. Socialists became mayors of cities as disparate as Milwaukee, Pasadena, Schenectady, and Toledo. Party members held more than 175 state and local offices in Oklahoma alone. People commonly point to 1912 as the party’s high-water mark. That year, its candidate for president, Eugene V. Debs, won 6% of the popular vote, even running ahead of the Republican candidate in several states.
Still, the true peak of American socialism’s popularity came a few years later. The charismatic Debs decided not to run again in 1916, mistakenly accepting President Woodrow Wilson’s implied promise to keep the United States out of the First World War — something most Socialists cared about passionately. In April 1917, Wilson infuriated them by bringing the country into what had been, until then, primarily a European conflict, while cracking down fiercely on dissidents who opposed his decision. That fall, however, the Socialists made impressive gains in municipal elections, winning more than 20% of the vote in 14 of the country’s larger cities — more than 30% in several of them — and 10 seats in the New York State Assembly.
During that campaign, Wilson was particularly dismayed by the party’s popularity in New York City, where Socialist lawyer Morris Hillquit was running for mayor. The president asked his conservative Texan attorney general, Thomas Gregory, what could be done about Hillquit’s “outrageous utterances” against the war. Gregory responded that he feared prosecuting Hillquit “would enable him to pose as a martyr and would be likely to increase his voting strength. I am having my representatives in New York City watch the situation rather carefully, and if a point is reached where he can be proceeded against it will give me a great deal of pleasure.” Hillquit lost, but did get 22% of the vote.
Jubilant Socialists knew that if they did equally well in the 1918 midterm elections, their national vote total could for the first time rise into the millions. For Wilson, whose Democrats controlled the House of Representatives by the narrowest of margins, the possibility of Socialists gaining the balance of power there was horrifying. And so, already at war in Europe, his administration in effect declared war on the Socialists at home as well, using as its primary tool Wilson’s sweeping criminalization of dissent, the new 1917 Espionage Act. The toll would be devastating.
The government’s axe falls
Already the party’s most popular woman, the fiery Kansas-born orator Kate Richards O’Hare — known as Red Kate for her politics and her mass of red hair — had been sentenced to five years under the Espionage Act for speaking out against the war. Still free on appeal, O’Hare, who knew the hardships of farm life firsthand and had run for both the House and the Senate, continued to draw audiences in the thousands when she spoke in the prairie states. Before long, however, her appeal was denied and she was sent to the Jefferson City, Missouri, penitentiary, where she found herself in the adjoining cell to anarchist firebrand Emma Goldman. The two would become lifelong friends.
In 1918, the government went after Debs. The pretext was a speech he had given from a park bandstand in Canton, Ohio, following a state convention of his beleaguered party. “They have always taught you that it is your patriotic duty to go to war and to have yourselves slaughtered at their command,” he told the crowd. “But in all the history of the world you, the people, never had a voice in declaring war.”
That was more than enough. Two weeks later, he was indicted and swiftly brought before a federal judge who just happened to be the former law firm partner of President Wilson’s secretary of war. At that trial, Debs spoke words that would long be quoted:
“Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest of the earth. I said then, I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”
Spectators gasped as the judge pronounced sentence on the four-time presidential candidate: a fine of $10,000 and 10 years in prison. In the 1920 election, he would still be in the federal penitentiary in Atlanta when he received more than 900,000 votes for president.
The government didn’t merely prosecute luminaries like O’Hare and Debs however. It also went after rank-and-file party members, not to mention the former Socialist candidates for governor in Minnesota, New Jersey, and South Dakota, as well as state Socialist Party secretaries from at least four states and a former Socialist candidate for Congress from Oklahoma. Almost all of them would be sentenced under the Espionage Act for opposing the war or the draft.
Not faintly content with this, the Wilson administration would attack the Socialists on many other fronts as well. There were then more than 100 socialist dailies, weeklies, and monthlies and the Espionage Act gave Wilson’s postmaster general, segregationist Albert Burleson of Texas, the power to deem such publications “unmailable.” Before long, Burleson would bar from the mail virtually the entire socialist press, which, in the prewar years, had a combined circulation of two million. A few dailies, which did not need the Post Office to reach their readers, survived, but for most of them such a banning was a death blow.
The government crippled the socialist movement in many less formal ways as well. For instance, Burleson’s post office simply stopped delivering letters to and from the party’s Chicago headquarters and some of its state and local offices. The staff of a socialist paper in Milwaukee typically noticed that they were failing to receive business correspondence. Even their mail subscriptions to the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune were no longer arriving. Soon advertising income began to dry up. In the midst of this, Oscar Ameringer, a writer for the paper, called on a longtime supporter, a baker who had suddenly stopped buying ads. According to Ameringer, the man “slumped down in a chair, covered his eyes and, with tears streaming through his fingers, sobbed, ‘My God, I can’t help it…They told me if I didn’t take my advertising out they would refuse me… flour, sugar and coal.’”
Also taking their cues from the administration in that wartime assault were local politicians and vigilantes who attacked socialist speakers or denied them meeting halls. After progressives and labor union members staged an antiwar march on the Boston Common, for example, vigilantes raided the nearby Socialist Party office, smashed its doors and windows, and threw furniture, papers, and the suitcase of a traveling activist out the shattered windows onto a bonfire.
In January 1918, the mayor of Mitchell, South Dakota, ordered the party’s state convention broken up and all delegates expelled from town. One party leader was seized “on the streets by five unknown men and hustled into an automobile in which he was driven five miles from town,” a local newspaper reported. “There he was set out upon the prairie and… told to proceed afoot to his home in Parkston [an 18-mile walk] and warned not to return.”
The big “what if?” question
The Socialists were far from alone in suffering the wave of repression that swept the country in Wilson’s second term. Other targets included the labor movement, the country’s two small rival Communist parties, and thousands of radicals who had never become American citizens and were targeted for deportation. But among all the victims, no organization was more influential than the Socialist Party. And it never recovered.
When Debs took to the road again after finally being released from prison in 1921, he was often, at the last minute, denied venues he had booked. In Cleveland, the City Club canceled its invitation; in Los Angeles, the only place he could speak was at the city zoo. Still, he had an easier time than the socialist writer Upton Sinclair who, when he began giving a speech in San Pedro, California, in 1923, was arrested while reading the First Amendment aloud.
By the time Debs died in 1926, the party that had once elected 33 state legislators, 79 mayors, and well over 1,000 city council members and other municipal officials had closed most of its offices and was left with less than 10,000 members nationwide. Kate Richards O’Hare wrote to her friend Emma Goldman, who had been deported from the United States in 1919, that she felt herself a “sort of political orphan now with no place to lay my head.”
Despite their minority status, the Socialists had been a significant force in American politics before patriotic war hysteria brought on an era of repression. Until then, Republican and Democratic legislators had voted for early-twentieth-century reform measures like child labor laws and the income tax in part to stave off demands from the Socialist Party for bigger changes.
If that party had remained intact instead of being so ruthlessly crushed, what more might they have voted for? This remains one of the biggest “what ifs” in American history. If the Socialist Party hadn’t been so hobbled, might it at least have pushed the mainstream ones into creating the sort of stronger social safety net and national health insurance systems that people today take for granted in countries like Canada or Denmark? Without the Espionage Act, might Donald Trump have been left to rot at Mar-a-Lago in a world in which so much might have been different?
The last time you tried to pay a medical bill, might you, in fact, have been told, “We have no facilities for that”?
Copyright 2022 Adam Hochschild
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