Season 3: U.S. History

US History Ep. 12: World War I or, “Woodrow Wilson’s War”

Act 1: Wilson and the War

We can’t really understand WWI in America without talking about Woodrow Wilson. And we can’t understand Woodrow Wilson without talking about Tommy Wilson, because that was actually his name. His dropped his first name “Thomas” when he decided that his middle name Woodrow was more distinguished. But personally, I would have loved being able to talk about the Progressive Presidents: Teddy, Taft, and Tommy, and I’m disappointed that he robbed me of that. 

Wilson was born in 1856 in the Confederate States of America. What?? The Civil War seems like it happened on a different planet than WWI and yet, Wilson’s dad was a chaplain in the Confederate army. This makes Wilson the first Southern-born president elected since the Civil War. 

He was dyslexic, unable to read until he was 10. But he went on to become our most educated president – the only one ever with a PhD. He got his doctorate in Government and History, which – I’ll be honest – makes me predisposed to love him. He ended up as the president of Princeton and he literally studied and wrote books on American government. He was a progressive in that he believed society should be improved based on expertise and reform – he compared the American and British systems, believing our government could be improved by adopting the multi-party model where politicians had to build coalition. 

The Wilson Administration

He was able to test out this theory when he became president in 1912, promising to conduct himself more as a prime minister than a president. He was one of the first to draw up a clear legislative agenda before taking office; he was the first president to appear before Congress in person, presenting his proposals to them directly; and he built coalitions inside his own party to get stuff done. 

In a lot of ways, he was incredibly successful. He reformed tariffs and taxes and settled a complicated economic debate by establishing the Federal Reserve System to have some control over the national economy. He built on Teddy and Taft’s regulation of corporations by establishing the Federal Trade Commission. He established thte first government loans tot farmers, prohibited child labor (although the Supreme Court struck that down – I guess it violated five-year-olds’ “right to work?”); and he mandated an 8-hour workday for railway workers, all of which were enormous wins for Progressives. 

But Wilson really struggled with forerign relations. Which is unfortunate, because it’s kind of the thing you’re remembered for when your president during a World War. Bummer. He was super confused with what to do about Mexico while they were fighting and sorting out their own post-revolutionary government. First he said he would stay out of it; then he tried to overthrow the military government and was surprised when Mexicans were like, “Um no?” Then his army spent some time unsuccessfully chasing after Pancho Villa who had been raiding across the border. Long-story short: it was a hot mess.

The Great War

But everything came to a head in August of 1914. Europe plunged into war because a Serb shot an Austrian – if you want more detail, I did a whole episode about it in Season 1. To add to the chaos, Wilson’s wife Ellen died just one week after war was declared.

Wilson, in general, was an anti-Imperialist and against involving the US in foreign wars. Sure, he might meddle in some Latin American countries but that doesn’t really count. And for the most part, the country agreed. There were full-out pacifists, led especially by suffragettes like Carrie Chapman Catt and Jane Addams. And there were those who wanted to stay out of it but argued that we should at least “prepare” for war, hopefully to prevent anyone from attacking us and dragging us into war. 

But some wanted to enter the conflict right away. And one American who desperately wanted to fight in Europe was… (I’ll give you one guess)… TEDDY. ROOSEVELT! Let’s gooooooo! The former president was vocal in his criticism of Wilson’s neutrality and when the US finally did declare war, he requested permission to head up a division to go fight in France. But the Secretary of War was like, “Teddy, you’re almost 60. And you’re a former president. You can’t go fight in the trenches.” Sorry, Teddy. But all four of his sons went to fight. His youngest, Quentin, was killed in Germany and became an American martyr for the war effort. 

US Neutrality

Anyway, back to Wilson. When the war was beginning, it wasn’t clear which side we might support. There was a strong pro-British contingent in the military and in Wilson’s cabinet but there were also a lot of German-Americans who hoped we might support the Central Powers. In the end, we supported Britain, mostly because our economies were closely tied but also because the British cut the transatlantic telegraph cables so tthey could control all news of the war to Americans. Sneaky. By the time the US finally entered the war, we had already loaned the Allies (mostly Britain and France) $2 billion. 

So why did the US enter the war? Well, basically the Germans just wouldn’t leave us alone. First, in 1915, a German submarine or U-boat sank a British passenger ship called the Lusitania. 1,100 passengers (mostly civilians) died, including 128 Americans on board. Now, to be fair, the Germans had warned Americans about not getting on any ships belonging to the Allies. They were like, “Hey. We’re trying to sink British and French ships. So if you don’t want to risk it, don’t get on those ships.” And then Americans got on those ships anyway and were like, “Hey! I can’t believe you sunk that ship!” But still. 

Wilson sent official warnings to Germany and they responded by promising to stop sinking merchant ships without warning. One year later, Wilson was reelected on the slogan, “He kept us out of war.” Don’t get too cocky, Wilson; let’s not put up a “Mission Accomplished” banner just yet. The war isn’t over. 

Three years into war, Wilson saw his role as a global peace broker. He’s literally studied governments and world history for decades, this is his chance to use his expertise to teach Europe how to stop burning the world down every time some guy assassinates someone other guy! It would be as if I became president and had the chance to reorganize the global system based on all the podcast episodes I’ve written! It would be an amazing opportunity and super embarrassing if it doesn’t work. ::Foreshadowing::

Wilson launched what he called a “peace offensive” in Europe. He sent diplomats to the countries fighting on either side and asked them accept an American mediation to end the war. He called for “peace without victory” and claimed that he could establish a new system that would prevent future wars! Whoa. Those are some big swings, Woodrow.

At the same time, though, he was building up America’s military strength. At this point he was realizing that the best way to ensure a seat at the table during peace talks was to contribute to the war effort. And Germany wanted to prevent the US from entering the war at all costs.

Cut to: in January of 1917, British spies intercepted a communication from Germany. A German diplomat named Zimmerman had sent a secret telegram to Mexico – it was called the Zimmerman Telegram – asking Mexico to invade the United States. What the hell, Zimmerman?! We’re trying to broker peace and you repay us by threatening Texas?! Basically, the Germans were offering Mexico support if they engaged the US in a war that would keep us out of Europe. Americans were not down with that.

Not to mention that over the next few months, Germans resumed unrestricted submarine warfare and sank six American ships. Basically, the Germans were hoping to weaken the United States before they could give much military support to the Allies. But the irony of course is that by trying to prevent US entry in the European theater, they basically pushed us into joining the war. So on April 2, 1917, the US declared war on Germany to, according to Wilson, make the world “safe for democracy.”

The US at War

Somewhat surprisingly, Wilson wasn’t a terrible war president. This is mostly because of his Progressive-Era approach of recognizing what the doesn’t know and delegating decisions to experts. General John J. Pershing oversaw the American Expeditionary Force and financiers and bureaucrats oversaw economic mobilization on the home front, including a young Herbert Hoover. Oh Hoover. The future is not going to be kind to you.

The US instituted its first draft through the Selective Service Act. This is critical because when the US declared war, its army was made up of 127,000 soldiers who were basically civil police officers more than professional soldiers. By the end of the war, the armed forces numbered five million men and women. Over 2 million of those soldiers fought in France before the end of the war. Dang. 

American troops didn’t see a ton of action in Europe but the action they saw was intense and critical to ending the war. American soldiers walked into the trenches filled with troops who were muddy, bloody, and exhausted. By 1917, half ot eh French army had mutinied and were refusing to attacks the Germans. Between France and Britain, they had lost 5 million men already. The Allies had spent years in a brutal war of attrition and in walk fresh-faced American troops with an annoying amount of energy. They were nicknamed “Doughboys” because they were “fresh, out of the oven.”

These Doughboys were critical because the same year that the US entered the war, the Russians left. They had a little communist revolution to deal with. So millions of German soldiers were now freed up ono the Eastern Front and marching toward France. The only thing that saved the Western Front was the infusion of 2 million American soldiers in 1917. 

In March of 1918, American troops fought alongside French troops (including colonial troops like Moroccans) to defend the city of Paris. Later that year, the US enacted the largest military offensive in its history in the Argonne Forest. Over 1.2 million American troops broke through the German line, finally breaking the stalemate in the trenches. During the offensive, on just one day – September 26th – the US fired more shells in a few hours than had been fired in the entire American Civil War. This battle tipped the scales and the Germans soon agreed to an armistice on November 11, 1918 (now our Veterans Day!)

But while millions of Americans were fighting in France, life at home was changing drastically… 

Act 2: WWI on the Home Front

So, WWI doesn’t have near the same impact on the Home Front as World War Two will, but it definitely set a lot of wheels in motion for women and minorities.

Women in WWI

With men going off to war, jobs opened up. 1 million women joined the workforce for the first time and 8 million women switched to better industrial jobs. When the war ended, most women returned home or to their previous jobs but it began to plant the seed that women were capable of holding jobs traditionally reserved for men. Imagine that. 

Women also were involved directly in the war effort. Although female physicians were outright denied jobs as doctors in the Armed Forces, thousands of women became nurses in Europe, working for organizations like the Salvation Army and the Red Cross, in addition to the US Army and Navy Nurse Corps. US Army nurses were actually the first Americans to arrive in Europe, ahead of the US military. Women also served as ambulance drivers, mechanics, and truck drivers delivering medical supplies and sometimes driving through artillery fire ot retrieve wounded soldiers. 

(Side note: I know she’s not American but one of these drivers in WWI was Marie Curie. She invented a mobile X-ray unit and equipped trucks with them, nicknamed “Little Curries.” By the end of the war she had trained 150 women to be X-ray operators on the battlefront, which also contributed to her radiation exposure that ultimately led to her death.)

Women served in communication roles, working telephone switchboards relaying messages to the front. Although they were somewhat patronizingly nicknamed “Hello Girls,” they received physical training and observed strict military protocol working near the front line. 

The only branch of the military where women officially enlisted was the Navy, thanks to some vague wording in the Naval Act of 1916. 12,000 women enlisted as “Yeomen,” mostly serving stateside in administrative roles left by men. Throughout the Navy they had the same responsibilities as male counterparts and they were paid the same amount! What?! Get it, ladies!

Now, I should mention that most of these women I’m talking about twere white women. The American experience is vastly different throughout the 20th century for women of color. But, as white women took traditional male jobs, black women were able to shift from domestic employment as housekeepers or nannies to more traditional office or factory work.

African Americans on the Home Front

In general, African Americans were experiencing one of the largest migrations in American history. Between 1914 and 1920, 500,000 black southerners moved North in what became known as the Great Migration. Henry Ford actually sent recruiters down to the South to bring agricultural workers to join his factories. Many black people jumped at the chance to get the hell out of the Jim Crow South and they ended up in industrial cities like Chicago, New York, Cleveland, and Detroit to capitalize on new job openings. Over 100,000 Mexicans were encouraged to move into the Southwest to work on farms during the war. 

Now, we should be wondering – why didn’t more American companies capitalize on cheap industrial labor from minorities before now? Well, there’s two answers. The simple answer is that they didn’t really need to bring black people into the factories much until most of the white men went off to war. But the more complicated answer is that the war in Europe also basically cut off all immigration from the continent. So, cheap labor that had been coming from more racially “preferable” groups like the Irish, for example, now went away and factory owners were desperate. That sucks. I really wish the answer was just that people like Henry Ford read Du Bois’s books and had an epiphany about racial equality but… of course that’s not what happened.

So World War I was important for establishing urban cultural centers and economic power for black Americans. But it also helped spark a broader discussion about rights. I mean, Woodrow Wilson was traipsing around Europe yelling about “Making the world safe for democracy.” Meanwhile, women and minorities were back at home like, “Aw that’s cute.” I mentioned it last episode but suffragettes used that rhetoric to push for the right to vote – like, why are more concerned with the German Kaiser and the lack of democracy over there? African Americans began making a similar argument. 

Black Troops in WWI

The black press, especially, went after Wilson’s ideas pretty hard. The Baltimore Afro-American wrote, “Let us have a real democracy for the United States and then we can advise a house cleaning over on the other side of the water.” This was exacerbated by the fact that black men were drafted into the military for the first time and over one million men responded, with 370,000 eventually being inducted into the military. So black men were eligible to fight and die, supposedly for democracy, overseas, but then they had to return home to a nation that didn’t recognize them as full citizens. 

Not to mention that most of the black service members were not assigned to combat positions, those were deemed too important and honorable for non-white troops. Most black soldiers worked as manual laborers or cooks, serving the white soldiers. However, the military did create two black combat divisions. The 93rd Division was made up of volunteer black national guardsmen. Not knowing quite what to do with them, and most likely not trusting their combat abilities, the US “loaned” this division to the French army for the duration of the war. They performed incredibly well, one of the infantry regiments from New York became known as the famous “Harlem Hellfighters.” They served for 191 days and gave up no ground to the Germans. The 93rd Division was the first to reach the Rhine River in Germany after the armistice and two of the Harlem Hellfighters became the first American soldiers ever awarded the French War Cross. The Harlem division was also known around the Western Front for their jazz band that introduced black music to wartorn Europe, especially Paris.

Unfortunately, the other division of black soldiers – the 92nd – had a far different experience under white American leadership. White army officers spread lies to French civilians that black troops were rapists. Let me clarify: American officers were denigrating their own soldiers because even in war, I guess there’s time to be racist. Many white officers saw the black men as a threat and discharged them or court-martialed them on made up charges. But still, black men joined the military. For one, despite suffering from segregation and mistreatment, the military provided black men some basic services they wouldn’t receive as civilians, like basic education and healthcare. But more broadly, most African Americans understood that to be treated fully and equally meant accepting the responsibilities and challenges that came with American citizenship. For many, it was important to show the white majority that they were ready to be productive and beneficial countrymen, if they would just be allowed. 

Eybl, Plakatmuseum Wien/Wikimedia Commons

The Government Takes Control

So World War I was providing new opportunities for previously oppressed groups, especially women and African Americans. But another new aspect of the Home Front was the introduction of massive government oversight, really for the first time in American history. To be clear, the government is typically expected to take more control over the country during times of war. Lincoln suspended Habeas Corpus and straight-up threw southern sympathizers in jail with no trial because he believed it would help the war effort. But what Wilson’s administration did during World War I was essentially a reorganization of the national economy to serve the war, under the guidance of the federal government. 

He created a ridiculous number of wartime agencies to direct the economy and coordinate with companies, unions, and consumers. This process was definitely shaped by the Progressive Movement – the idea being that when radical change was necessary (like shifting the entire economy to support a world war), the government should step in, put “experts” or officials in charge, and make the changes itself. For example, the War Industries Board coordinated all companies producing war materials, giving them guidelines on what they could produce, allocating raw materials, and sometimes setting prices. Herbert Hoover ran the Food Administration, which monitored food production and consumption, making sure civilians weren’t taking critical resources away from our troops overseas. The Fuel Administration managed coal and oil. They’re why we have daylight savings time – so that we could utilize more natural light and reduce our electricity usage. 

By the end of the war, the US spent $32 billion. This was partly funded by raising income taxes and taxing corporations, but over $20 billion came from the sale of war bonds. Government propaganda was a critical part of the war effort in all the nations at war – encouraging citizens to buy bonds, conserve resources, and join the military. (The famous Uncle Sam “I Want You” poster was first produced during World War I.) 

Restricting Speech

But government propaganda wasn’t just Uncle Sam posters. They established an entire Committee on Public Information dedicated to “selling” the war to the public. They hired ad agencies, artists, songwriters, and entertainers to produce content to get Americans behind the war and the government. Nicknamed “Four-Minute Men,” over 75,000 public speakers were sent around the country to speak at movie theaters and public places, encouraging audiences to buy war bonds and report draft dodgers to the authorities.

Fears over individuals and groups who might disrupt the war effort were real. Recent immigrants – especially from hotbeds of socialism in Eastern Europe, labor union leaders, and straight-up members of the Socialist Party were often targeted as potential threats. Partly to co-opt some of their power, the government created the National War Labor Board dealt directly with worker demands to prevent strikes from disrupting the war effort. The government pressured industries to improve wages, introduce an 8-hour workday, and allow unions the right to organize. All of this was in exchange for labor promising not to disrupt production. In just one year, union membership increased by 1 million people. And on the surface this is progress for labor unions, but it’s progress that is highly controlled and managed by the government, which isn’t quite the revolution Karl Marx had called for. 

Fear over “anti-American activity” got dark. The Espionage Act of 1917 made it illegal to aid the enemy or interfere with the war effort. Fine. This kind of makes sense, until you realize that “interfering with the war effort” is a really vague category that could just mean, questioning whether we should be fighting the war. And the Sedition Act of 1918 went even further. This law made it illegal to speak against the war publicly. This meant that basically anyone who criticized the government during wartime could be prosecuted. Over 2,000 citizens were convicted under these two laws, mostly recent immigrants, labor union leaders, and other groups deemed “less American.” The fear was heightened by the fact that the Bolsheviks had just overthrown the Russian government, making leftist ideas a more real threat than ever before. 

These new laws were challenged by groups who argued they violated their 1st Amendment right to speech. But in 1919 the Supreme Court supported the government in Schenck v. United States, ruling that the government can restrict speech if it constitutes a “clear and present danger.” The defendants in question were two leaders of the Socialist Party who were sending out literature arguing that a draft was a form of “involuntary servitude” violating the 13th Amendment ending slavery. 

Eugene Debs

And now for a quick Ode to Eugene Debs…

Oh, Eugene. You fought mistreatment in the railway industry with the same fervor you fought fires as a railway fireman. After leading successful strikes, you ended up in prison where you discovered Karl Marx. Side note: I know very little about prison reform but I do know that every historical figure who becomes more radical does it in prison. I’m just saying: you put a guy in jail with nothing to do but read and write and he’s going to come out swinging. It’s like letting women go to college – what did you think was going to happen? Dummies. 

Anyway, Oh Eugene. You ran for President five times as the candidate from the Socialist Party of America. In 1920, you received almost a million votes while you were in prison for violating the Espionage Act. Say what you will about Eugene, but he never gave up. You lost your citizenship, and five elections, but not a place in my heart and this podcast. 

So in many ways, World War I was “two steps forward, one step back” for many different groups at home. Women got the right to vote, but women of color were typically excluded from this progress thanks to Jim Crow. Women entered the workforce, only to be (mostly) pushed out when men returned from war. African Americans gained some respect as they fought in the war, but often as “exceptional” cases that did nothing to change peoples’ views of most people of color. And workers got many of the rights they had been pushing for, but only thanks to the federal government, meaning they could be pretty easily taken away. 

And on that note…

Act 3: The War’s Impact

The impact of World War I was enormous – if you haven’t already, make sure to check out my Season 1 episode all about it. But for the United States, World War I was a similar turning point. For one, it established that the U.S. could be a powerful military force if it needed to be. And it definitely established the U.S. as an economic powerhouse, fueling and funding the war effort from across the Atlantic. But as we’ll see, for the most part, the U.S. retreats back into its isolationist shell once the war is over. 

The US at the Paris Peace Conference

Woodrow Wilson, self-proclaimed global peacemaker, was a major force in the peace negotiations in Paris in 1919. It was there that he presented the world with his Fourteen Points – a list of fourteen rules for the world to prevent any future global conflicts. For the most part they were ignored – things like “freedom of the seas” and “disarmament” were adorable to imperial superpowers like Great Britain and France. One idea that caught the attention of oppressed people around the world, and at home, was Wilson’s principle of self-determination. Basically, the borders of countries should be decided by the people within those borders. Like I’ve already mentioned, this idea was meant to be applied to white people – Balkan nations like Serbia getting to determine its own future, that kind of thing. But colonized people around the world also perked up – Gandhi was listening, Ho Chi Minh was listening, Kwame Nkrumah was listening – and women and minorities in the U.S. were listening. W.E.B. Du Bois organized a Pan-African Congress held simultaneously in Paris to pressure the Allies to consider the status of people of color as they built the post-war world. 

But it’s the last of the Fourteen Points that was the most dramatic – and most embarrassing for Woodrow. He proposed a League of Nations, with representatives from major countries to help preserve peace and protect each other’s independence. Wilson spent months convincing Europe to join his new club (except Germany… and Russia – they were communists now…) And they all joined! Woohoo! Except…

You see, the president doesn’t actually have the power to declare war or make peace… that’s Congress’s job. Damned checks and balances. Wilson took the treaties established in Paris back to Congress… a Congress that was now controlled by Republicans. A Congress that was controlled by Republicans who weren’t a fan of Wilson. You see, Wilson had never been super keen to reach across the aisle and work with the other side. He didn’t bring any Republican representatives with him to peace negotiations abroad. And many at home weren’t super excited about joining a permanent alliance with European nations after being dragged into a world war they didn’t want to fight in the first place. And Wilson refused to give in on diplomacy – he literally wrote books on diplomacy and he saw it as beneath him to give in to career politicians who he didn’t think were as smart as he was.

A group of moderate Republicans, led by Henry Cabot Lodge, were open to signing the treaty with some amendments but Wilson refused to cave. Congress refused to pass the treaty twice, forcing Wilson to take his argument to the public. He went on a public speaking tour, giving 39 speeches in three weeks across 8,000 miles trying to convince the public to urge their senators to ratify the treaty. It didn’t work. In fact, it went so poorly that it basically killed Wilson. Soon after the tour he suffered a stroke, still refusing to compromise from his sickbed. After a second stroke, he was paralyzed on the left side of his body, although his mind was still sharp. At this point, his wife Edith stepped up and basically ran his office on his behalf. Those close to him knew how ill he was but they said nothing as Edith covered up his condition to the public. She controlled who could speak to him and often wrote letters and directives with his signature. So, we’ve kind of already had our first female president…

After Wilson left office a few months later, Congress ratified separate treaties with the Central Powers and the League of Nations was formed without the U.S., significantly weakened. 

The Postwar Economy

The postwar economy didn’t fare much better. You see, putting in place all of those wartime controls and restrictions is fine… but then when you remove all of that oversight in one fell swoop, the economy takes some time to adjust. For example, when restrictions on what you could buy went away, people rushed to buy up goods that had been rationed. And businesses raised their prices that they had been forced to keep low. Yadda yadda yadda… this led to rapid inflation. Y’all know how I am with economics let’s just move on.

Also, a bunch of factories had shifted all of their production to wartime materials, knowing they had a guaranteed customer in the US government. Now orders for war materials declined and they had to lay off workers. Strikes swept the nation as the urban economy struggled. In 1919 alone, there were over 3,600 strikes involving 4 million workers. 

The “Red Summer” of 1919

Not to mention all of those returning soldiers who came home to find women and black men in their jobs. African Americans had moved up north for jobs and, hopefully, better treatment but when soldiers returned home they blamed their economic problems on these “new arrivals.” Jobs were scarce, housing options were often limited, and black soldiers were returning home empowered to push more forcefully for equality. In the summer of 1919, race riots broke out across the nation, starting in Longview, Texas. Armed white people attacked black parts of town, burning homes and businesses, and killing one black man. It was only stopped after the National Guard and Texas Rangers took control of the city. No arrests were made and the black men involved in some of the retaliatory actions were taken to Austin for their own personal safety. 

Throughout the so-called “Red Summer” of 1919, race riots erupted across 25 different cities but the worst violence was in Chicago. Violence broke out after a young black man accidentally swam into an area of Lake Michigan that was “whites only.” He was stoned and drowned but police refused to make any arrests. Violence spread across the city for 13 days, resulting in the deaths of 15 white people and 23 black people, hundreds injured and over 1,000 black families made homeless. 

The economic problems were just as bad in rural areas. The need for crops was so high during the war that many farmers bought up more land and took out loans to buy new farm equipment. Now, with inflation and a much smaller market, farmers were struggling to make ends meet and owed more and more money to banks. At the same time, black sharecroppers across the South were pushing for their own rights. In Elaine, Arkansas, black sharecroppers tried to organize into a union, inspired by the Progressives in the cities. White mobs massacred hundreds of black people in retaliation for this perceived attack on their socioeconomic well-being. In 1919 alone there were 83 lynchings across the South, and 11 of those victims were black soldiers returning from war.

African Americans Respond

This obviously led to disillusionment amongst African Americans who felt like their contributions during the war had been for nothing. But many African Americans saw an opportunity. The nation had just spent years discussing rights, self-determination, and nationalism. Women were gaining the right to vote and the extreme violence and mistreatment of African Americans, especially war veterans, provided an easy way to highlight the oppression black people had been experiencing for centuries. After the war, the young NAACP saw a surge in membership and in 1919, during the “Red Summer,” they began a new campaign against lynching.

Side note: Congress just passed the federal lynching legislation that the NAACP has been fighting for for over a century. To be clear, lynching was always a crime because it’s murder – but the prosecution and punishment of perpetrators was left up to the states. So, essentially no one was ever punished for lynching a black person. The legislation that black activists have been wanting for over a hundred years – that just passed Congress a week ago – makes lynching a federal hate crime, meaning that the federal government is the one to take control of the case, not the states. 

This racial violence should also be understood in the context of our First Red Scare. The end of the 19th century saw the rise in “New Immigrants,” from places like eastern and southern Europe, plus a successful communist revolution in Russia, and now riots, strikes and labor unrest across the country. 

The Palmer Raids

During the “Red Summer,” as race riots erupted across the country, a series of homemade bombs were being shipped to prominent Americans. In just one month, 30 packages with bombs inside were sent to business owners and politicians by a group that called themselves the Galleanists – supporters of an Italian anarchist. At the same time, prominent socialist leader (and presidential candidate) was being put in jail for violating the Espionage Act. Later in the summer, 8 bombs exploded within minutes of each other across 8 cities, one of which damaged the home of the US Attorney General Mitchell Palmer. And he was like, “Oh hell no.”

Palmer established a special division within his Justice Department that could root out enemies from within… it would eventually be known as the FBI. This new division conducted a series of raids on union offices, especially unions representing foreign-born Americans, deporting 249 immigrants across 12 cities in one month. They continued to raid various radical organizations, eventually arresting over 6,000 people. They entered homes without search warrants, jailed suspects indefinitely with no contact with an attorney, you know, Bill of Rights kind of stuff. Most of the 600 immigrants who were eventually deported never had a court hearing. 

The effect of the so-called Palmer Raids was that he became a national American hero, despite the fact that there was never any real evidence of a larger revolutionary conspiracy. Over 30 states passed their own sedition laws making it illegal to join any group that advocated revolution. (Bye bye Communist Party.) And there were increasing calls to severely limit immigration (spoiler alert: in a few episodes I’m going to explain how these immigration restrictions are going to inadvertently lead to Pearl Harbor… ::foreshadowing::) 

By the time the election of 1920 rolled around people were straight-up exhausted. The Democrats ran a progressive ticket under James M. Cox and a relative newcomer as his VP named Franklin Roosevelt. But they were beat in a landslide by Republican Warren G. Harding, who captured the exhaustion and general “over it” attitude of white voters by calling for a “Return to Normalcy.” The Progressive Era ended as many white Americans wanted to put their racial, labor, and economic troubles behind them. They just wanted a calm, quiet, definitely-not-roaring next decade.

Oh man. I have some bad news for them…