Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Garden of History: What We Can Learn From the Political Panic of 1920

          If you wanted to build a wall a hundred years ago, it would have had to be on the Atlantic.  
            I'll be speaking on my novel "Suosso's Lane" at Duxbury Library on Sunday, Jan. 29, 2 p.m., my first opportunity following the inauguration of a new administration to address the potential lessons for our own time from the notorious Sacco and Vanzetti case, in which two Italian immigrants were convicted of murder in 1920 after a biased trial offering absurdly thin evidence of their guilt. Comparisons between where we are today and the state of American society and politics a hundred years ago give me a thematic subtitle for Sunday's talk: "Sacco and Vanzetti, Democratic Stress Tests, and Dangerous Times."
            I believe there are lessons for our own time from a consideration of the social, political an economic conditions that form the background for the Sacco-Vanzetti, in which (from the evidence we do have) it appears that prosecutors invented a theory for who committed a payroll robbery and killed two officials that fit nicely into contemporary hysterical fantasies about the dangers posed to the nation by -- in 1920 -- foreign anarchists. And then picked out two "perpetrators" who fit the bill and went about inventing case against them that relied on current-day prejudices to win a conviction from a jury already persuaded that foreign radicals were capable of any horrendous crime you could imagine.
            Where did these dangerous foreigners come from? The other side of the Atlantic. Largely from southern and eastern Europe. More from Italy than anywhere else.
            Comparisons between that time and our own seem especially worth examining now that we are a week into a new administration that plans to build a border wall, reduce legal immigration and otherwise turn its back on traditional American democratic and egalitarian values, much like the period in which Sacco and Vanzetti were executed because of their beliefs and their ethnicity.      
            A time of "us" and "them."
            One of those times, Sacco and Vanzetti's time, was called the "Red Scare."
            Every historical source that discusses Sacco-Vanzetti mentions the "Red Scare" as the essential piece of background to understand the famous case. In his book "Sacco and Vanzetti: the Anarchist Background," historian Paul Avrich writes, "The trial, occurring in the wake of the Red Scare took place in an atmosphere of intense hostility towards the defendants."
            My one-sentence definition is the Red Scare was period of social unrest and hard times set ablaze by anarchist bombings that led in turn to a massive, extra-legal crackdown on 'radical' immigrants and deportations in 1919-20.
            Some historians cast a wider net. Defining the Red Scare as a fear of communism, one source notes that the estimated of 150,000 anarchists or communists in USA in 1920 represents merely 0.1% of the country's overall population. Yet, this source points out, many Americans were easily spooked by fear of revolutionary ideas because of the successful communist takeover of Russia in 1917 and the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901 by a homegrown anarchist, Leon Czolgosz.
            Others emphasize major economic dislocations following the end of World War I, especially high unemployment and a rash of major strikes. Leo Robert Klein of City University of New York dates the Red Scare from the Armistice in November of 1918 to the collapse of hyper-inflation in mid-1920. During this period the "social and economic stresses" on American society, arriving almost concurrently, include "a deadly flu epidemic, a strike wave of unparalleled proportions, harsh suppression in some cases of those strikes, race riots, hyper-inflation, mass round-ups and deportations of foreign born citizens, expulsion of duly-elected officials from various offices in government, an incapacitated president, espionage laws, sedition laws and, of course, the advent of Prohibition and women's suffrage."
            These sudden blows and social dislocations led an exaggerated fear of threats posed to American stability and institutions from left-wing radicals.
            A more detailed analysis of the Red Scare offered by Paul Burnett on the website of the University of Missouri at Kansas City  also discusses the Red Scare as the essential background for the Sacco-Vanzetti case.

 Burnett points to major strikes taking place at the end of World War I that rattled the economic status quo and the economic elite. These strikes led to alarmist political fears spread by government officials and sensationally publicized by what we now call the media. Some facts about events that none of us learned in our high school American history classes: At the end of World War I 9 million workers in war industries and 4 million soldiers faced unemployment in a suddenly declining job market. Freed from wartime restrictions two powerful left-wing movements rocked this boat: the IWW (International Workers of the World, or Wobblies) led a general strike in Seattle that brought out 60,000 workers. And Socialist Part candidate Eugene Debs received almost 1 million votes for President. 
              Other strikes followed, including the famous Boston police strike and a national steel workers strike carried out by 365,000 workers. Negative publicity and scare tactics led to a right-wing reaction that "demonized" all strikes as crimes against society, Burnett writes. Strikers were called "reds," regardless of what their political views might be. As the fear of strikes leading to a Communist revolution spread throughout the country, hysteria took hold and "red hunting" became the national obsession. Colleges were deemed to be hotbeds of Bolshevism, and professors were labeled as radicals. If the last part sounds familiar, it's because the McCarthyism of the post-WW II era recycled the same obsessions.
            The Red Scare brought widespread attacks on civil liberties. The General Intelligence Division of Bureau of Investigation (soon to become the FBI) with J. Edgar Hoover as its head was created to uncover Bolshevik conspiracies, and to find and incarcerate or deport conspirators. The myth of internal subversion is essential to the FBI; it's the root mission. It must find some, or invent some -- ask MLK -- to stay in business. Eventually, the new anti-radical agency compiled over 200,000 cards in a card-filing system that detailed radical organizations, individuals, and case histories across the country. Does this sound familiar in the era of the NSA?
These early efforts resulted in the imprisonment or deportation of thousands of "supposed radicals and leftists," Burnett states. "These arrests were often made at the expense of civil liberties as arrests were often made without warrants and for spurious reasons."
            On January 2, 1920 alone over 4,000 alleged radicals were arrested in thirty-three cities (800 in Boston). Legislatures also reflected the national sentiment against radicals.... As the anti-Red hysteria spread, the New York State Legislature expelled five duly elected Socialist assemblymen from its ranks. According to Burnett,
the national mood returned to "normal" in 1920, as courts and other investigators detailed the Justice Department's violations of civil liberties in its treatment of supposed radicals, especially foreign nationals. But by then the Red Scare, and demonization of foreign-born critics of the American status quo had left its mark on the nation's psyche. 
            When the state of Massachusetts offered Sacco and Vanzetti, the Italian anarchists, as the killers in the Braintree payroll robbery, native-born jurors were convinced they were already dealing with criminals.  
             The legacy of the Red Scare is the belief that criticizing the actions of your country, its policies, its political leaders, or its historical assumption of moral superiority is inherently disloyal, possibly dangerous, and -- in anxious times -- positively criminal. 
The enduring gifts of the Red Scare include the creation of an agency to harass people of with unpopular beliefs (the FBI), a systematic attack on first amendment freedoms. The American Legion, created back in 1919 to break strikes. The notion of "Americanism": that those criticize the nation's wars, capitalist economy or other policies should be suspected of disloyalty. 
We saw that during the Vietnam era. It muted criticism of the Iraq War.   

            And like the era that produced it, the Sacco-Vanzetti case appears to shine a light on the darker side of American society's historical treatment of immigrants of 'unfamiliar' ethnicity. Periodically -- especially in those periods when a 'new' group of foreign nationals arrives in large numbers -- the so-called 'nation of immigrants' has exhibited a desire to close doors and build walls. Forgetful of their own non-native origins, many Americans are quick to close the borders on the next group of newcomers, whose language or manners, or religion, or skin tone, or potential for economic competition, or imagined demand for public services, is said to threaten the well-being of those already comfortably settled in the United States. In the first two decades of the twentieth century, it was the turn of Italians to be the most numerous and visible of these presumed-to-be-problematic newcomers. 
            The lessons of the Sacco-Vanzetti case may still be staring us in the face, especially at a time when many countries in both the new and the old worlds are experiencing crises over the arrival of large numbers of 'others' within settled, comfortable, more ethnically homogeneous borders.