The Corner


Real Mass Hysteria, American Style

A portrait of Woodrow Wilson, by William Orpen (Wikimedia Commons)

My friend Dennis Prager writes, “You and I are living through the greatest mass hysteria in American history. For many Americans, the McCarthy era held that dubious distinction, but what is happening now is incomparably worse.”

The mass hysteria he has in mind is the liberal and mainstream-media groupthink about Trump and allegations of Russian collusion. I’ll leave that argument for others, or at least for another time.

Instead, I’d like to dissent from the claim that today’s hysteria — or the hysteria of the McCarthy period — deserves the title of “greatest mass hysteria in American history.”

My nominee for that would be the domestic terror fomented by Woodrow Wilson during the First World War and the first “red scare” that followed it. Let me offer a small taste of the evidence (some of it culled from my book, Liberal Fascism).

During the war, the American Protective League — a quasi-official squadristi boasting membership of a quarter million at its height — beat up dissidents, spied on citizens, and fomented mobs in close cooperation with the state.

The first modern propaganda ministry in the Western world, the Committee for Public Information, dispatched an army of nearly 100,000 agents to foment passion for the war and distrust of German Americans and others. The CPI’s “Four Minute Men” were equipped and trained to deliver a four-minute speech at town meetings, in restaurants, in theaters — anyplace they could get an audience — to spread the word that the “very future of democracy” was at stake. In 1917–18 alone, some 7,555,190 speeches were delivered in 5,200 communities.

Wilson considered German-American citizens and other “hyphenated Americans” to be enemies of the people: “Any man who carries a hyphen about with him carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of this Republic whenever he gets ready.”

The German language was barred from public in many parts of the country. German authors were purged from libraries, families of German extraction were harassed and taunted, sauerkraut became “liberty cabbage,” and — as Sinclair Lewis half-jokingly recalled — there was talk of renaming German measles “liberty measles.”

At least one German-American was lynched. That man, coincidentally named Robert Prager, swore he loved America, but the mob didn’t care:

“They stripped him totally naked, and they put a rope around his neck, and they paraded him down Main Street, making him sing patriotic songs,” Stevens says. “And they would take their beer bottles and break them in front of him. So he had to step on the broken beer bottles, cut his feet really badly.”

In 1919, at a Victory Loan pageant, a man refused to stand for the national anthem. When the music ended, a furious sailor shot the “traitor” in the back three times. According to the Washington Post, “the crowd burst into cheering and handclapping.”

Another man who refused to rise for the national anthem at a baseball game was beaten by the fans in the bleachers.

In February 1919, a jury in Hammond, Ind., took two minutes to acquit a man who had murdered an immigrant for yelling, “To Hell with the United States.”

In 1920, a salesman at a clothing store in Waterbury, Conn., received a six-month prison sentence for referring to Lenin as “one of the brainiest” leaders in the world.

Mrs. Rose Pastor Stokes was arrested, tried, and convicted for telling a women’s group, “I am for the people, and the government is for the profiteers.”

The Republican anti-war progressive Robert La Follette spent a year fighting an effort to have him expelled from the Senate for disloyalty because he’d given a speech opposing the war to the Non-Partisan League.

The Providence Journal carried a banner — every day! — warning readers that any German or Austrian “unless known by years of association should be treated as a spy.” The Illinois Bar Association ruled that members who defended draft resisters were not only “unprofessional” but “unpatriotic.”

In Oklahoma, opponents of the war were tarred and feathered, and a crippled leader of the Industrial Workers of the World was hung from a railway trestle. At Columbia University, the president, Nicholas Murray Butler, fired three professors for criticizing the war, on the grounds that “what had been wrongheadedness was now sedition. What had been folly was now treason.”

I could go on for pages. Tens of thousands were arrested, many for thought crimes. This is not to say there weren’t real domestic terrorists and radicals who did their part to invite this mass hysteria. But that doesn’t change the history. A few dumb tweets and other comments from Obama appointees about Trump’s “treason” can’t hold a candle to what we’ve seen before.

Oh, one last, probably gratuitous point: When FDR, a Wilson-administration retread, ran for president, he looked back on this period with nostalgia and promised to use Wilson’s nationalist wartime techniques to fight the Great Depression. The New Deal was sold as an updating of Wilson’s war socialism.

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