Adam Hochschild on World War I history “American Midnight”

On the shelf

American Midnight: The Great War, a Violent Peace, and the Forgotten Crisis of Democracy

By Adam Hochschild
Mariner: 432 pages, $30

If you purchase books linked from our site, The Times may receive a commission from, whose fees support independent bookstores.

When historians speak of the “powder keg” of World War I, they usually focus on the unstable Balkan states that sparked the war. But for Adam Hochschild, it was right here in the US whose entry into the great war sparked a conflagration that severely damaged American democracy. What drove the historian to examine this dark era in his latest book, American Midnight? Consider that he came up with it exactly 100 years later, in President Donald Trump’s first year.

“Never was this bare underside of our nation’s life more revealingly shown than from 1917 to 1921,” writes Hochschild in American Midnight. Woodrow Wilson, the President usually treated by historians as a proselytizer for world peace, actually ran a government that encouraged widespread censorship of both speech and the press; jailed political opponents; failed to protect black citizens, particularly war veterans; and deported immigrants who are seen as agitators.

It’s a chilling tale, laid out with compelling storytelling and meticulous detail, as seen in Hochschild’s earlier works such as King Leopold’s Ghost, his monumental work on the horrific occupation of the Congo by Belgium, and Spain in Our Hearts on American wars Volunteers did in the Spanish Civil War.

“American Midnight” closely follows several key players, including Wilson and his Attorney General, as well as activist Emma Goldman and even an FBI informant who ran a local section of the International Workers of the World (aka the “Wobblies”).

The book cover of "American midnight"

(Mariner Books / HarperCollins Publishing)

Hochschild recently spoke to The Times via Zoom from his home office near UC Berkeley, where he teaches journalism. Cluttered bookshelves and stacks of research notes overflow behind his desk – proof that at 79, after a career that has included winning a Times Book Award and a Dayton Literary Peace Prize, he has no wish to retire . He is also a co-founder of Mother Jones.

Trump was fondly remembered by Hochschild as he embarked on “American Midnight.” “I’ve always been fascinated by that time,” said Hochschild. “And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that if Donald Trump had ever bothered to read American history, this would have been the time he dreamed of. The espionage law would have allowed him not only to denounce his political opponents, but to put them in prison. It would have allowed him to censor the media, which he always rails against. There are so many echoes of the times that we are living through now and that we have lived through and may live through again during the Trump presidency, God help us.”

The similarities between eras go deeper than a single government. Anti-immigrant greed, rejection of “fake news”, the white backlash against black advances, attempts to restrict civil liberties, wild conspiracy theories, and sharp political divisions are just some of the parallels.

Another reason is the rollback of liberalization that felt permanent. The decade before 1915 saw a “wonderful flowering of the avant-garde in art, music and literature,” said Hochschild. “People were convinced that the world was changing for the better.” Socialist presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs won 6% of the vote in 1912. All that changed with the war that broke out in August 1914.

“Forces swirled beneath the surface of American life, and they can surface very quickly in times of repression,” Hochschild said. Wilson gave the impression of being a “very dignified, solemn, former college president,” someone who had written a dozen books. But the decision to enter World War I resulted in “the greatest suppression of civil liberties in the country since the end of slavery.”

On a boat deck, black soldiers wave and smile.

The Harlem Hellfighters return to New York after suffering 40% casualties in World War I. Black veterans were targeted in Woodrow Wilson’s America.

(Mariner Books / HarperCollins Publishing)

A crackdown on labor “portrayed the striking worker as someone who was obstructing the war effort and who should therefore be jailed,” he added. Shaken by the Russian Revolution and fearing it would spread across the ocean, politicians passed laws criminalizing resistance to the war. The Postmaster-General was authorized to shut down newspapers believed to be threatening the war effort.

After the war, paranoia flourished. A series of white riots (including the 1921 Tulsa massacre) targeted black communities. Black men in uniform were publicly beaten and lynched by white gangs. When a bomb exploded in Washington, DC in 1919, Atty. General A. Mitchell Palmer ordered the arrest of individuals known to be members of certain political groups. Thousands have been imprisoned and hundreds of immigrants deported.

Wilson, the professed peacemaker, signed off on these domestic policies. I asked Hochschild if Wilson embraced authoritarianism or was too distracted by the war to pay attention.

“He has openly championed things like press censorship,” the author replied. “But he didn’t seem to have paid attention to what it actually meant in practice.” After protests from Wilson’s journalist friends, “the President sent a message to the Postmaster-General … and the Postmaster, who was serving as Chief Censor, replied that they violate the Espionage Act. Wilson would retire.”

While historians have written about the period known as the Great Red Scare, it hasn’t garnered as much attention as Sen. Joe McCarthy’s blacklisting of the 1950s, though the repression it unleashed was more brutal. Hochschild’s parents, whom he describes as “liberal but not radical,” had friends who fell victim to McCarthyism. “One of my first political memories is of my parents being angry at the TV when they saw this [House Un-American Activities Committee] hearings.”

A close-up portrait of author Adam Hochschild

Adam Hochschild was inspired to write American Midnight during the first year of the Trump administration.

(Barbi Schilf)

Hochschild soon developed his own political beliefs. He went to college to be a novelist but turned to journalism after becoming involved in civil rights struggles in the US and South Africa in the 1960s. He spent the summer of 1962 “working for an anti-apartheid newspaper in South Africa, which was an absolutely life-changing experience”. He and his now wife, the well-known sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild, went to Mississippi in 1964.

Our era of protests and war has often been compared to the 1960s; Hochschild disagrees. “I remember the ’60s as a time of hope,” he said. The election of Ronald Reagan ushered in a cut, he adds, that was exacerbated in later decades by the inequalities of manipulation and the electoral college. These trends — and the radical turn by the Supreme Court — worries him the most.

Does all this make Hochschild pessimistic? Not at all. “Compared to a hundred years ago, there is a much more established awareness of the importance of civil liberties, freedom of expression, [as well as] the freedom to organize unions.” He also said he believes the press is more robust, despite obvious exceptions.

“There are a lot of things about this country that are worth celebrating — and parts of American culture,” he said. Some of this benefited him when he lived in other countries. He doesn’t even think nationalism is bad. “I think there’s a positive side to nationalism, where you can be proud of the culture you live in, that you’re building, that doesn’t involve denigrating other cultures.”

Not to mention his passion for sounding the alarm about dark American undercurrents; what’s keeping retirement in check is Hochschild’s idealism. “I don’t feel like my ideals have fundamentally changed,” he said. “I wish for a world in which the good things in life are distributed much more fairly than today. And I’m attracted [writing] about times and places in history where other people had similar ideals.”

Which means Hochschild has enough work to cover multiple lives.

Berry writes for a number of publications and tweets @BerryFLW. Adam Hochschild on World War I history “American Midnight”

Sarah Ridley is an automatic aggregator of the all world’s media. In each content, the hyperlink to the primary source is specified. All trademarks belong to their rightful owners, all materials to their authors. If you are the owner of the content and do not want us to publish your materials, please contact us by email – The content will be deleted within 24 hours.

Related Articles

Back to top button