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The 'Savage Peace' of 1919, Relevant Today


The press release for a new book begins with these phrases: terrorist-generated paranoia, immigration raids, government intrusion into private lives of citizen, controversial forms of marriage and a contested U.S. intervention abroad. Now given that description, it would be easy to conclude that "Savage Peace" is a book about contemporary politics. It's not. The subtitle of the book is "Hope and Fear in America, 1919." The author is Ann Hagedorn and she's in the studios of member station WGUC in Cincinnati, Ohio. Welcome to the program, Ann.

Ms. ANN HAGEDORN (Author, "Savage Peace: Hope and Fear in America, 1919"): Oh, thank you, Liane.

HANSEN: Before we talk about some of the issues that made the year 1919 so important, what was the mood of the country at that time? I mean, after all, World War I was over and so was the flu epidemic.

Ms. HAGEDORN: Well, I think there was a great expectation and hope, and at that time - you have to remember that Americans fought in World War I because their president had told them that they were fighting to make the world safe for democracy - I think the single best word would be expectations, high expectations for what that peace would bring people in America.

HANSEN: It sounds to me that that didn't happen.

Ms. HAGEDORN: No, it didn't. The aftermath of war is a time of great instability and adjustment, and it's not very peaceful.

HANSEN: Let's talk about one of the issues that was an issue then and is an issue now: domestic spying. But in 1919, the spies weren't employed by the government, they were volunteers. They were groups: seditions, slammers, you write about the boy spies of America, the American Protective League. How did these groups evolve?

Ms. HAGEDORN: Well these groups began during World War I. And some of them disbanded after the armistice. But there were also quite a domestic intelligence unit - several units - in the government.

HANSEN: What was the Negro Subversion Unit?

Ms. HAGEDORN: Well, the Negro Subversion Unit came out of military intelligence. There were many agents who were shadowing African-American leaders. W.E.B. DuBois had several agents following him. And their job was to report back the activities of African-Americans and with the concern that they might be influenced by the Germans.

Then in 1919, when there was a good deal of unrest in African-American communities, the fear was, oh all of this unrest is because of Bolshevism. Bolshevism was the -ism that is what we call Communism today. And what they discovered was there were race riots because of discrimination, because black soldiers were coming home and in uniform being lynched.

There was unrest in black communities because there were very serious problems and there was no Bolshevik influence and they had fought. And so those agents actually sent in their reports. A man named Major Walter Loving wrote up a report, but that report, which came out in August of 1919, never ended up on the front pages of newspapers. And ironically or interestingly, in the same week, J. Edgar Hoover assumed his new job, 24-year-old J. Edgar Hoover, and within two months he was telling newspapers that the problem in the black community was Bolshevism.

HANSEN: Oliver Wendell Holmes was a Supreme Court justice during that time.

Ms. HAGEDORN: Yes. Oh, yes.

HANSEN: He used the phrase "a clear and present danger."

Ms. HAGEDORN: That's right.

HANSEN: What was his role when it came to the issue of free speech?

Ms. HAGEDORN: He wrote three opinions in the spring of 1919 and that's where you get the clear and present danger. And that's effectively the concept that if free speech creates a clear and present danger, you know, to the security of a nation, then it has to be repressed.

Well, after March of 1919, which is when he issued that opinion, legal minds of the time - Zachariah Chafee, Harold Lasky, Felix Frankfurter - came to him and asked him to rethink what he had done in the name of free speech for the future of the nation. And he did.

And I just - I call that chapter "Greatness," the one in November of 1919, when he has another case and he writes a dissent. In that dissent, he says, we have to have the free trade of ideas above all else, because if we repress it to the extreme that they were repressing it through the Espionage Act and the Sedition Act, then we do not hear the voice of the people. And the voice of the people might be telling us something that's really important to keep the democracy alive. So he wrote the most beautifully written dissent, and it established the notion of civil liberties in this country.

HANSEN: Woodrow Wilson was president...


HANSEN: ...during this year. What's your take on his successes and failures during that time?

Ms. HAGEDORN: He himself, I suppose, personified the shift from the 19th century to the 20th century in some respects. And he was a scholar and he was an intellect. But he had a major blind spot: he could not see the problems in his own country and he was a 19th-century mind. I mean, I feel that 1919 is effectively the first year of the 20th century. I think when you look at the foundations of attitudes, I think it had so much to do with how we and our generation in the American century thought about war and peace and how to deal with race relations.

And so - I mean, it's just a stunningly important year. And Woodrow Wilson was focused on one thing and one thing only, which is how to achieve world peace. And he was so focused that he missed some of the most important details of his country's survival and identity. And so he's far more complicated and far more interesting than I ever thought he would be.

HANSEN: Ann Hagedorn is the author of "Savage Peace: Hope and Fear in America, 1919." It's published by Simon & Schuster. She joined us from the studio of WGUC in Cincinnati, Ohio. Thanks very much.

Ms. HAGEDORN: Oh, thank you.

(Soundbite of music) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.