by Jay Feldman
“Democracy can come undone. It’s not something that’s necessarily going to last forever once it’s established.” —Sean Wilentz
ON THE NIGHT OF APRIL 4, 1918, nearly a year to the day that the United States entered World War I, Robert Paul Prager, a 30-year-old German immigrant and by some accounts a radical socialist, was lynched by a mob of “patriots” outside Collinsville, Illinois, a small market center and coal-mining town of 4,000, located twelve miles across the river from St. Louis.
Prager was a sacrificial lamb, a casualty of wartime madness. His lynching was an extreme case, but it was not an aberration. In the months leading up to America’s entry into the war, and during the year and a half that the nation was an active participant, the federal government whipped the American public into a super-patriotic froth with a calculated program of propaganda, and attacks on German aliens and German Americans were all-too commonplace.
But Germans were not the only minority that felt the wrath of Americans’ fury — all dissenters were stigmatized, as the government fanned the flames of suspicion and fear, creating an environment in which opposition to the war, for whatever reason, was synonymous with disloyalty and even sedition. All dissenting voices were, by implication, pro-German, including pacifists, Wobblies, socialists, anarchists, Mennonites, and Irish-Americans. Nativism had been a force in American life since the early 19th century, but it was not until World War I that the government established the precedent of manipulating nativism to justify a larger crackdown on civil liberties and a suppression of dissent. Both legal and illegal tools were employed, including legislation, surveillance, intimidation, and secrecy.
SINCE WORLD WAR I, this pattern has played out repeatedly in the United States in periods of real or exaggerated crisis. Democratic and Republican administrations, federal and state governments alike have scapegoated “dangerous” minorities — be they ethnic, racial, political, religious, or sexual — citing them as the excuse for using a variety of lawful and unlawful methods to stifle opposition and curb civil liberties. This always brings with it clandestine and widespread surveillance of civilians. The program is most often carried out in the name of national security, but in at least one case, the justification was economic.
Seen in this context, the persecution of dissenters during World War I; the Red Scare and Palmer raids of 1919-20; the Mexican deportations and repatriations of the 1930s; the internment of Japanese, German, and Italian Americans during World War II; the witch hunts of the Cold War years; and the COINTELPRO operations of the 1950s and Vietnam era were not isolated threats to democracy, but related, recurring manifestations of a profoundly anti-democratic streak that lurks just below the surface in American society.
President Harry S. Truman, whose Cold War loyalty program for federal employees was itself just such a manifestation, observed with no apparent irony that there have always been those who “have seized upon crises to incite emotional and irrational fears. Racial, religious, and class animosities are stirred up. Charges and accusations are directed against many innocent people in the name of false ‘patriotism’ and hatred of things ‘foreign.'”
From this perspective, the excesses of the George W. Bush administration in attempting to put a stranglehold on civil liberties after 9/11 were not an anomaly; although the Bush government went far beyond what many people thought possible, those extremes were a difference of degree, not kind. It has been happening in one form and another for nearly a century — and it has continued during the Obama Administration.
IN THE WAKE OF WORLD WAR I, the Justice Department carried out the Palmer raids. In a series of roundups executed between November 7, 1919, and January 2, 1920, more than 7,500 Communists, anarchists and left-wing labor leaders were illegally arrested and the aliens among them earmarked for deportation. Named for Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, the raids were the culmination of a government-triggered red scare brought on by the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, which created seismic waves of anxiety among the ruling classes of Europe and the United States.
One of the chief architects of the red scare and the Palmer raids was J. Edgar Hoover. After joining the Bureau of Investigation (the precursor of the FBI) in July 1917, Hoover began a meteoric rise to the top of the agency, from which position he would establish himself for a half-century as the most adroit expert in the practices of secret government and surveillance of citizens that the United States has ever known. During the post-World War I red scare, as head of the BI’s General Intelligence Division (also known as the “Radical Division”), Hoover employed his “Editorial Card Index” of 200,000 detailed, cross-referenced entries on individuals, organizations, and publications he deemed “subversive.”
Louis F. Post, the assistant secretary of labor who played the single most crucial role in bringing the red scare to a close, later wrote, “The whole ‘red’ crusade stood revealed as a stupendous and cruel fake.” Couched in terms of a concern for national security, the red scare and the Palmer raids were a monstrous abuse of power, a cynical and sordid manipulation of the American public by government and business leaders, working in concert to solidify their power and repress minority opinion.
DURING THE GREAT DEPRESSION, Mexicans and Mexican Americans became the target. In 1910, the Mexican revolution had sent people fleeing across the border, and with the urgent need for seasonal labor that accompanied the burgeoning expansion of agriculture throughout the Southwest, the large influx of Mexican immigrants was a boon for the U.S. It continued during World War I, when Mexican workers shored up a depleted labor supply in the copper mines. After the war, the great numbers of African Americans moving from the rural South to the industrial North created a dearth of field hands, and to fill the void, every year from 1917 to 1920, the Labor Department exempted 50,000 Mexicans from the literacy test and head tax established by the Immigration Act of 1917.
Mexican immigration peaked in 1924, as nearly 90,000 people headed for el Norte, and then leveled off at about 50,000 annually. By the end of the 1920s, the mobility of American society enabled significant numbers of Mexican workers to find employment all across the country in such diverse industries as automobiles, canning, construction, meat-packing, mining, railroads, and steel.
The success of Mexican immigrants led to calls for a limit on immigration from Mexico. Starting in the mid-1920s, economic and social arguments for a quota were used to disguise a strong racist undertone. As Robert A. Divine wrote in American Immigration Policy, 1924-1952, “the drive for restriction represented primarily the desire to keep out what many considered an undesirable ethnic group. The economic and social arguments tended to be window dressing.”
When attempts at creating a quota failed, a campaign of deportation and “voluntary” repatriation was undertaken that included mass roundups of Mexicans and Mexican Americans. There are no definitive numbers, but from 1929 to 1939, between half a million and a million Mexican aliens and Mexican-Americans U.S. citizens were either deported or repatriated to Mexico. The two most authoritative studies of the subject offer contrasting estimates. In Unwanted Mexican Americans in the Great Depression, Abraham Hoffman cites the lower figure, while in Decade of Betrayal, Francisco Balderrama doubles the number. Whichever number is closer to accurate, either is staggering.
THE FORCED EVACUATION and incarceration of 112,000 Japanese Americans — almost 70 percent of whom were American citizens — during World War II is by now a well-known chapter of shame in our nation’s history. What is less generally known, however, is that thousands of ethnic Germans and Italians were also interned during that period.
The removal of the entire West Coast ethnic Japanese population under the auspices of the War Relocation Authority is generally regarded as having sprung independent and full-blown in direct reaction to the bombing of Pearl Harbor. On the contrary, the WRA program was part of a larger, more encompassing process — a natural and direct outgrowth of the groundwork that had been laid with its antecedent, the Alien Enemy Control program.
Beginning in 1939, the FBI, at Director Hoover’s instruction, began compiling the notorious Custodial Detention Index. The CDI was the direct descendant of the Editorial Card Index, and was compiled in an equally secretive manner, with surveillance — both legal and illegal — the main tool. Better known as the “ABC list,” the CDI was a catalog of people “who should be considered for custodial detention…in the event of a national emergency.” By December 10, 1941, three days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, nearly 2,300 individuals had been taken into custody — many of them without warrants — including 1,291 Japanese, 857 Germans, and 147 Italians, a significant number of whom were U.S. citizens. Those arrested in the days and weeks following Pearl Harbor included community leaders, Buddhist priests, owners of businesses that catered to ethnic interests and tastes, martial arts masters, newspaper editors and publishers, ordinary workers, and thousands of other utterly harmless individuals. By March 20, 1942, there were approximately 6,700 “alien enemies” in custody.
In all, 8,004 Japanese Americans, 6,847 German Americans, and 2,991 Italian Americans were taken into “custodial detention,” and in some cases held up to three years after the end of the war. Hundreds of others were “repatriated” to Germany and Japan in prisoner-of-war exchanges, among them many U.S.-born children — American citizens — who were sent “home” with their immigrant parents. In the end, not a single person arrested and interned under the Alien Enemy Control Program was convicted of committing a war-associated crime against the United States.
IN THE COLD WAR that followed World War II, the second great red scare was unleashed, set in motion by President Truman’s loyalty program for federal employees — the first step in establishing the climate of fear that led to the rise of Senator Joseph McCarthy.
Working as a secret team, McCarthy, Hoover, and the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities spearheaded a reign of terror in which thousands of accused “subversives” lost their jobs, reputations, and even families. In 1958, an independent study estimated that 20 percent of all employed Americans had been subjected to some type of loyalty or security screening.
In addition to the political scapegoats, close to 1,000 State Department employees were dismissed for “sex perversion” during the Cold War years. In The Lavender Scare, David K. Johnson estimates that figure to be one-fifth of the total number of homosexuals who lost their government jobs in that time. The persecution of gays was carried out despite there having been, as Stewart Alsop and Joseph Alsop — the latter himself a gay man — wrote, “not a single case of actual subversion in all the State Department’s security firings — and it is doubtful if there was one such case throughout the Government.”
Also at the height of the Cold War, President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration instituted Operation Wetback in July 1954, a systematic rerun of the Depression-era scapegoating of Mexican aliens and Mexican Americans. More than half a million people, many of them the U.S.-born children of illegal aliens (again, American citizens), were either deported or “voluntarily” repatriated. What took the better part of a decade in the 1930s was accomplished in less than six months in 1954.
While the second great red scare subsided by the end of the 1950s, the undemocratic and illegal methods used to persecute Communists and hound gays would continue to be used against dissenters and political minority groups for another decade and a half.
IN DEFENDING THE ROUNDUPS of 1919-20, Attorney General Palmer had established the precedent that law-abiding political dissidents were not entitled to the protections of the Constitution when he wrote that the Justice Department “decided that there could be no nice distinctions drawn between the theoretical ideals of the radicals and their actual violations of our national laws.” The same principle was also enforced against Communists during the Cold War, and during the 1960s and early ’70s, against virtually every other dissident strain in American life, as the Cold War state of mind continued to permeate American public life. Intelligence and law enforcement agencies came to regard any individual or group that challenged or even merely questioned the status quo as “the enemy,” and as such, deemed them fair game for the most underhanded, unethical, and illegal sorts of dirty tricks. Through a series of “counterintelligence programs” called COINTELPRO, the FBI persecuted members of the American Communist Party, the Puerto Rican independence movement, the Socialist Workers Party, “white hate groups,” “black nationalist hate groups,” and the “new left.” The Bureau also carried out COMINFIL — “communist infiltration” — investigations of other organizations, ranging in scope from the NAACP to the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy to the Boy Scouts of America.
By the end of the 1960s, the FBI had files on more than 430,000 law-abiding individuals and organizations, as investigations reached into every area of American political activity. One of the most malicious operations was the relentless crusade conducted for years against the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. Beginning in October 1962, with a COMINFIL investigation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and its head, Dr. King, the program rapidly escalated into an all-out, no-holds-barred attempt to shame and discredit the civil rights leader, based on nothing more than Hoover’s personal vendetta against King.
THREE YEARS AFTER HOOVER’S DEATH at age 77 in May 1972 (eight days shy of his 48th anniversary as head of the FBI), a Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities began a nine-month investigation of the FBI and other U.S. intelligence agencies. Chaired by the Idaho Democrat Frank Church, and assisted by a 150-member support staff, the panel of six Democrats and five Republicans issued fourteen reports in 1975 and 1976 consisting of over 50,000 pages, the bulk of which have been made public. The reports documented decades of FBI abuses, as well as offering a wide-ranging account of the similarly illegal activities of other civilian and military intelligence bureaus. As a result of the Church Committee’s revelations, new strictures were imposed on the FBI, the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Administration, and the other intelligence agencies. The days of manufactured hysteria, governmental scapegoating, rampant surveillance, secret rule, and concomitant threats to civil liberties were supposedly at an end.
But post-9/11, we find ourselves in a dismally recognizable situation, confronting a fresh, yet not completely unknown set of bogeymen, as Islamophobia, homophobia, and anti-immigrant sentiment stalk the land. It is all too familiar.
In 1976, Senator Church spoke of the “very extensive capability of intercepting messages,” and warned that that capability “at any time could be turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left, such is the capability to monitor everything, telephone conversations, telegrams. It doesn’t matter. There would be no place to hide.” More than three and a half decades on, technology has advanced the government’s surveillance power a quantum leap beyond what it was when Church issued his alert — as made clear by Edward Snowden’s revelations in May, 2013 about the National Security Administration’s wide-ranging surveillance apparatus.
The scapegoating of minorities — be they ethnic, racial, religious, political, or sexual — with its affiliated surveillance and governmental secrecy, is one of the most insidious degradations of democracy, because to deny the civil liberties of any specific group, even in the name of national security, is to take the first step toward curtailing the civil liberties of all. It is a testament to the resiliency of the American political system that despite the recurring persecutions of minorities since World War I, we have thus far managed to right the ship of state each time such a challenge to democracy has presented itself.
It would be imprudent, however, to assume that it will always be so. Each such trial has been more perilous than the previous one, and persisting in such behavior is manifestly reckless. One of these times, we could reach a point of no return. As the great abolitionist Wendell Phillips declared in an 1852 speech to the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” More than a century and a half later, his admonition has lost none of its relevance. Now, as ever, vigilance is required if liberty is to survive.
Jay Feldman (www.jfeldman.com) is a writer and musician, author of Manufacturing Hysteria: A History of Scapegoating, Surveillance, and Secrecy in Modern America (Pantheon, 2011), as well as When the Mississippi Ran Backwards: Empire, Intrigue, Murder, and the New Madrid Earthquakes (Free Press, 2005), Suitcase Sefton and the American Dream (Triumph Books, 2006), and Hitting: An Official Major League Baseball Book (Simon & Schuster, 1991). His articles have appeared in Sports Illustrated, Smithsonian magazine, Newsweek, The New York Times, Gourmet, and a wide variety of other national, regional, and local publications.