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American Midnight

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The United States is in great turmoil. A new espionage act has been enacted and no one is safe. The government is infiltrating organizations that do not support the president's policies. People are arrested for simply expressing their opinions. Senators and congressmen are angry about the influx of "foreign aliens." Many foreigners are simply swept up and sent to wait at dirty, crowded buildings to await deportation. Republicans and Democrats are at each others throats.
This may all sound very familiar, but I'm talking about conditions in the U.S. from 1913 through the early 1920's.
Woodrow Wilson is President and barely dealing with all the problems. His major concern is getting the U.S. involved in the war in Europe (World War I). The Republicans are the more liberal party, and the Democrats are the "right wingers." Aside from the switch of party lines, it's something that sounds like articles from today's newspapers.
Adam Hochschild has written a powerful history of those days. The anti-communists, anti-foreigners, anti-socialists, etc. were turning the country into a very scary undemocratic country. This intensely researched book informs and raises deep concerns. It truly and clearly personifies the quote sometimes attributed to George Santayana, "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Hochschild's book is a must read.

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An incredibly well-researched and immersive portrait of an often-forgotten period in American history, American Midnight takes you into waters that should be very familiar to modern readers: racism, extreme nationalism, mob violence, police brutality, worker suppression, and so much more. Although the book can often be disturbing and hard to read at points, especially when it describes gruesome lynchings and domestic acts of terror, it's not merely a send-up of America's racist past. Hochschild states that his aim is to study past threats to democracy and civil liberties so that we can better identify early signs and defend against them in the future.

At the start of the book, the author goes over what he thinks is the typical sequence of events around the early 1900s in American history classes: the Gilded Age and rise of big industry, the Progressive Era and (largely successful) labor reforms, trouble in Europe causing America to bravely enter the war and fight for democracy, America helps the "good guys" in Europe win, and then we head straight into a period of economic prosperity in the Roaring 20s. This resonated with me as a reader, because it's exactly how I learned about this time period.

But Hochschild's book focuses on the nuances that get lost in this easy rah-rah portrayal, such as: how entry into the war was never a given, but America supplied arms and metal to Western European countries for long before it formally decided to fight; the Espionage Act and wartime suppression of free speech; the mob violence that was enacted on anyone who expressed antiwar sentiment, had a German last name, declined to buy war bonds, or anything else that smacked of swimming against the tide; and of course, the disgusting and ever-present violence against Black Americans, including those brave enough to fight in a still-segregated Army without having full rights back home. I love the way that Hochschild writes - he has a way of depicting characters from history like they are protagonists (or antagonists as appropriate) in the book. I learned so many new things about people I was already familiar with, like Woodrow Wilson, and learned about some new favorite historical figures, like the lesbian antiwar activist and abortion provider Marie Equi.

I can easily say that I learned so much about my country through reading this book, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in US history. Thank you to Mariner Books for the ARC via Netgalley.

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"History," observed a sage, "may not repeat itself, but it does rhyme." Adam Hochschild covers a period of American history which is setting off clanging bells; 1917-1921. In high school we learned about "The Red Scare" after WWI, but they never taught us how terrible it was. Hochschild pulls no punches to inform his readers about it.

"American Midnight" is well-researched and well-written, as one would expect from a scholar of Hochschild's stature. It is a cliche to say that a work of non-fiction reads like a novel, but cliches contain a truth, and so it is in this case. There is so much sorrow and wickedness involved that it does not make for easy reading, but it is a salutary lesson for those of us living in the twenty-first century. Strongly recommended.

Thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for the ARC.

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By the time of the U.S, entry into World War I the imbalance in wealth and power had grown to the point it was causing unrest. This is a detailed account of how those in power used fear-mongering and force in an effort to destroy the labor movement, to stop immigration and quash any move by Blacks toward greater equality. The government was willing to use the National Guard, the Post Office, informers, vigilante groups and more to "support democracy". When the war ended suppression continued with the Red Scare, aided by disinformation and conspiracy theories Hochschild
illustrates both the larger political and economic narratives as well as many examples of gut wrenching actions against individuals in the name of protecting the United States.

The book is very well written, with well drawn characterizations. It was hard to read because of the subject matter, but is very important. Condoleezza Rice says that democracy is hard. It's important to know that the country has veered away from democratic ideals more than once and during the period covered in this book the future must have looked frightening to both sides. Sound familiar?

Thanks to Mariner Books and NetGalley for an advance copy.

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Adam Hochschild’s American Midnight is a compelling read about an overlooked chapter in American history, that is, how US involvement in World War I became an excuse for a government-led war against democracy at home. As the author notes in the Introduction, most high school history texts detail the United States’ enthusiastic embrace of the European war after a period of neutrality, the US role in Allied Powers’ victory, the subsequent ticker tape parades, and the arrival of the jazz age. However, little or no mention is made of how two wartime acts passed by Congress—the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918—were used to suppress wartime dissent, imprison union organizers, shut down leftist newspapers, justify attacks on African American communities, dismantle the American Socialist party, and persecute immigrants. These topics have remained largely confined to academic histories of the era. With this well-researched and easy-to-read popular history, Hochschild seeks both to rectify this oversight and to provide a cautionary tale about the fragility of democracy. To this end, the author highlights parallels between past and present, that is, how rage against immigrants and refugees, racism, and the American predilection for blaming our economic, social, and political woes on sinister conspiracies continues to garner large numbers of adherents within the populace.

It is as a cautionary tale that this book touches a nerve. With a very light touch, the author points to continuities between now and then. For example, he notes in the Conclusion: “Just as veterans of the Philippine War appeared in the violence that surged after 1917, so veterans of later Asian counterguerrilla wars, in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, have helped fill the ranks of new camouflaged-clad armed militia groups. Although the author makes no mention of the January 6th insurrection or the storming of Michigan’s capitol by militia groups, including the Boogaloo Boys and the Michigan Liberty militia, these events, at least for this reader, immediately came to mind. A more direct parallel is drawn when the author highlights how many former members of the American Protective League—a nationwide volunteer citizens’ organization that in league with the US government conducted unlawful searches and even tarred and feathered members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) union for protesting the war—became leading members of the postwar Ku Klux Klan. In the framework of this discussion, the author notes that when 1000 hooded Klansmen marched through the streets of New York City on Memorial Day 1927, one of the Klansmen arrested was Donald Trump’s father, Fred Trump. The racist, xenophobic, and conspiratorial views of the father found expression in the son’s presidential campaign and presidency. Any report that spoke critically of his presidency was labeled “fake news” and blame for the country’s political and economic woes was placed on immigrants.

However, let us be clear; this cautionary tale is not a partisan one. The author emphasizes that both major political parties have been guilty of making “dog-whistle appeals” aimed at the populace’s darker side. Moreover, both parties have had a hand in creating the environment in which conspiracy-driven, anti-democratic solutions thrive. Each has promoted policies that widened gap between the haves and the have-nots, so that tens of millions of Americans’ economic circumstances have deteriorated—making conditions ripe for looking for scapegoats to blame. Moreover, members of both parties have been guilty of prioritizing political expediency over promoting civil rights and Constitutional safeguards.

This eye-opening popular history may be hard for many to read, as it debunks the national myth of American freedom. However, this is no nihilistic narrative of the country’s past sins. Instead, the author hopes that by examining “the toxic currents of racism, nativism, Red-baiting, and contempt for the rule of law [that] have long flowed through American life,” we can “better defend against them in the future.”

I would like to thank NetGalley, the author, and the publisher for an advance copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review.

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This is an excellent, well-researched and documented survey of the ways Woodrow Wilson and his appointees used political power to silence, kill, and injure American citizens and residents who opposed American intervention in the First World War. Wilson and his allies used brutal tactics to suppress First Amendment rights across the country, engaging in strike-breaking, infiltrating unions, wire-tapping civilian lines, and more. I think everyone needs to read this, especially as efforts to suppress free speech continue.

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It's hard to review a book which has so many positive attributes but has one major and fatal flaw. The review becomes even harder when the author is Adam Hochschild who wrote one of the best books I have ever read, King Leopold's Ghost.

The positives of American Midnight are considerable. Hochschild has chosen a very interesting time in American history and has put the focus on an often ignored part of World War I, the home-front. Specifically, he focuses on the unions and war opponents. As you would expect from an exceptional author, the history is sound, the prose is easy to read, and extremely interesting people are highlighted. There is a lot to like about this book and its story.

However, I could not get passed the fatal flaw of this book which is Hochschild's clear bias when wading through this history. This is not a hidden bias as Hoschschild makes it clear in the prologue what he is going to present and why he is doing so. I have no problem with his theses and often, I was very much in agreement with his observations.

However, the bias can get to the point where it is significantly distracting even when you agree with the author (and I agreed with a good amount of Hochschild's point of view). An example is when Hochschild mentions a military member (who he is clearly not a fan of) complimenting the Confederate flag. While this is certainly something we would analyze today if a public figure made such pronouncements, mentioning this specific event in 1917 is clearly a manipulative tactic. It would not have been strange to hear or see something like that in 1917, but today it is a hot button item. The history is sound as I have no doubt Hochschild is reporting the truth. However, the choice to include this is clearly meant to inflame today's reader with something not inflammatory in its own time. To make this choice even more jarring, this particular passage is followed soon after by a positive presentation of someone who was implicated in an attempted murder.

Ultimately, it becomes a question of how distracting you find things like the examples I have mentioned above. History is told from a point of view and there is no way around that. However, these episodes proved too blatant and repeated for me to enjoy the rest of the book which is quite good. If you can glide past such episodes better than me, then you will enjoy it immensely.

(This book was provided to me as an advance copy by Netgalley and Mariner Books. The full review will be posted to HistoryNerdsUnited.com on 9/27/2022.)

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