The America That Was Free And Is Now Dead

excerpted from the book

Buried Alive

Essays on Our Endangered Republic

by Walter Karp

Franklin Square Press (Harper's magazine), 1992


The triumph of Woodrow Wilson and the war party [World War I] struck the American republic a blow from which it has never recovered. If the mainspring of a republican commonwealth - its "active principle," in Jefferson's words-is the perpetual struggle against oligarchy and privilege, against private monopoly and arbitrary power, then that mainspring was snapped and deliberately snapped by the victors in the civil war over war.

The sheer fact of war was shattering in itself. Deaf to the trumpets and the fanfare, the great mass of Americans entered the war apathetic, submissive, and bitter. Their honest sentiments had been trodden to the ground, their judgment derided, their interests ignored. Representative government had failed them at every turn. A President, newly reelected, had betrayed his promise to keep the peace. Congress, self-emasculated, had neither checked nor balanced nor even seriously questioned the pretexts and pretensions of the nation's chief executive The free press had shown itself to be manifestly unfree-a tool of the powerful and a voice of the "interests." Every vaunted progressive reform had failed as well. Wall Street bankers, supposedly humbled by the Wilsonian reforms, had impudently clamored for preparedness and war. The Senate, ostensibly made more democratic through the direct election of senators, had proven as impervious as ever to public opinion. The party machines, supposedly weakened by the popular primary, still held elected officials in their thrall. Never did the powerful in America seem so willful, so wanton, or so remote from popular control as they did the day war with Germany began. On that day Americans learned a profoundly embittering lesson: they did not count. Their very lives hung in the balance and still they did not count. That bitter lesson was itself profoundly corrupting, for it transformed citizens into cynics, filled free men with self-loathing, and drove millions into privacy, apathy, and despair.

Deep as it was, the wound of war might have healed in time had Wilson and the war party rested content with their war. With that war alone, however, they were by no means content. Well before the war, the war party had made its aims clear. It looked forward to a new political order distinguished by "complete internal peace" and by the people's "consecration to the State." It wanted an electorate that looked upon "loyalty" to the powerful as the highest political virtue and the exercise of liberty as proof of "disloyalty." The war party wanted a free people made servile and a free republic made safe for oligarchy and privilege, for the few who ruled and the few who grew rich; in a word, for itself The goals had been announced in peacetime. They were to be achieved under cover of war. While American troops learned to survive in the trenches, Americans at home learned to live with repression and its odious creatures-with the government spy and the government burglar, with the neighborhood stool pigeon and the official vigilante, with the local tyranny of federal prosecutors and the lawlessness of bigoted judge's, with the midnight police raid and the dragnet arrest.

In this domestic war to make America safe for oligarchy, Woodrow Wilson forged all the main weapons. Cherisher of the "unified will" in peacetime, Wilson proved himself implacable in war. Despising in peacetime all who disturbed the "unity of our national counsel," Wilson in wartime wreaked vengeance on them all. Exalted by his global mission, the ex-Princeton professor, whom one party machine had groomed for high office and whom another had been protecting for years, esteemed himself above all men and their puling cavils. He could no longer tolerate, he was determined to silence, every impertinent voice of criticism, however small and however harmless. Nothing was to be said or read in America that Wilson himself might find disagreeable. Nothing was to be said or read in America that cast doubt on the nobility of Wilson's goals, the sublimity of his motives, or the efficacy of his statecraft. Wilson's self-elating catchphrases were to be on every man's lips or those lips would be sealed by a prison term. "He seemed determined that there should be no questioning of his will," wrote Frederick Howe after personally pleading with Wilson to relent. "I felt that he was eager for the punishment of men who differed from him, that there was something vindictive in his eyes as he spoke."

By the time Wilson reached Paris in December 1918, political liberty had been snuffed out in America. "One by one the right of freedom of speech, the right of assembly, the right to petition, the right to protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, the right against arbitrary arrest, the right to fair trial . . . the principle that guilt is personal, the principle that punishment should bear some proportion to the offense, had been sacrificed and ignored." So an eminent Harvard professor of law, Zechariah Chafee, reported in 1920. The war served merely as pretext. Of that there can be little doubt. In a searing civil conflict that threatened the very survival of the republic, Americans, under Lincoln, enjoyed every liberty that could possibly be spared. In a war safely fought three thousand miles from our shores, Americans, under Wilson, lost every liberty they could possibly be deprived of.

Under the Espionage Act of June 1917, it became a felony punishable by twenty years' imprisonment to say anything that might "postpone for a single moment," as one federal judge put it, an American victory in the struggle for democracy. With biased federal judges openly soliciting convictions from the bench and federal juries brazenly packed to ensure those convictions, Americans rotted in prison for advocating heavier taxation rather than the issuance of war bonds, for stating that conscription was unconstitutional, for saying that sinking armed merchantmen had not been illegal, for criticizing the Red Cross and the YMCA. A woman who wrote to her newspaper that "I am for the people and the government is for the profiteers" was tried, convicted, and sentenced to ten years in prison. The son of the chief justice of the New Hampshire Supreme Court became a convicted felon for sending out a chain letter that said the Sussex Pledge had not been unconditional. Under the Espionage Act American history itself became outlawed. When a Hollywood filmmaker released his movie epic The Spirit of '76, federal agents seized it and arrested the producer: his portrayal of the American Revolution had cast British redcoats in an unfavorable light. The film, said the court, was criminally "calculated . . . to make us a little bit slack in our loyalty to Great Britain in this great catastrophe." A story that had nourished love of liberty and hatred of tyranny in the hearts of American schoolchildren had become a crime to retell in Wilson's America. The filmmaker was sentenced to ten years in prison for recalling the inconvenient past.

Fear and repression worked its way into every nook and cranny of ordinary life. Free speech was at hazard everywhere. Americans were arrested for remarks made at a boarding house table, in a hotel lobby, on a train, in a private club, during private conversations overheard by the government's spies. Almost every branch of Wilson's government sprouted its own "intelligence bureau" to snoop and threaten and arrest. By 1920 the Federal Bureau of Investigation, a swaddling fattened on war, had files on two million people and organizations deemed dangerously disloyal. At the Post Office Department, Albert Burleson set up a secret index of "illegal ideas"-such as criticizing Samuel Gompers, the patriotic union leader-and banned from the mails any publication guilty of expressing one. Even if an independent paper avoided an "illegal idea," it could still be banned from the mails for betraying an "audible undertone of disloyalty," as one Post Office censor put it, in otherwise non-felonious remarks. Under the tyranny of the Post Office, Socialist papers were suppressed outright and country editors sent to jail. Freedom of the press ceased to exist.

Nor did the administration rely on its own bureaucratic resources alone. To cast the net of repression wider and draw the mesh finer, the Justice Department called on the "preparedness" clubs, shock troops of the war party, for help. Authorized by the Justice Department to question anyone and detain them for arrest, the prepareders fell eagerly to their task of teaching "consecration to the State" by hounding free men into jail. Where the "preparedness" clubs were thin on the ground, the Justice Department recruited its own vigilante groups- the Minute Men and the American Protective League-to enforce with the police power "the unity of our national counsel." By August 1917 Attorney General Thomas Gregory boasted that he had "several hundred thousand private citizens" working for him, "most of them as members of patriotic bodies . . . keeping an eye on disloyal individuals and making reports of disloyal utterances, and seeing that the people of the country are not deceived."

Truth and falsity were defined by the courts. According to judicial decisions, public statements were criminally false under the Espionage Act when they contradicted the President's April 2 war message, which became, at gunpoint, the national creed, the touchstone of loyalty, and the measure of "sedition," a crime that Wilson and the war party resuscitated 118 years after it had destroyed forever the old Federalist oligarchy. This time it did not destroy oligarchy. It helped destroy "the old America that was free and is now dead," as one civil libertarian was to put it in 1920. Under the Espionage Act no one was safe except espionage agents, for under the act not a single enemy spy was ever convicted.

The War Enemy Division of the Justice Department had more important war enemies in mind. Every element in the country that had ever disturbed the privileged or challenged the powerful Wilson and the war party were determined to crush. They were the enemy. "Both the old parties are in power," Lincoln Steffens wrote a friend during wartime. "They are the real traitors these days. They are using the emergency to get even with their enemies and fight for their cause." Radicals were ruthlessly persecuted. The International Workers of the World was virtually destroyed in September 1917 when Justice Department agents arrested 166 I.W.W. leaders for heading a strike the previous June. Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist Party's candidate for President, was sentenced to ten years' imprisonment for attributing the world war to economic interests in a speech before a Socialist gathering. Under the cloak of "patriotic bodies" and armed with the federal police power, reactionary local businessmen and machine politicians crushed local radicals and prewar insurgents. The wartime tyranny in Washington spawned and encouraged a thousand municipal tyrannies.

"It was quite apparent," Howe recalled in his memoirs, "that the alleged offenses for which people were being prosecuted were not the real offenses. The prosecution was directed against liberals, radicals, persons who had been identified with municipal ownership fights, with labor movements, with forums, with liberal papers that were under the ban." The entire prewar reform movement was destroyed in the war, said Howe, "and I could not reconcile myself to its destruction, to its voice being stilled, its integrity assailed, its patriotism questioned. The reformers "had stood for variety, for individuality, for freedom. They discovered a political state that seemed to hate these things; it wanted a servile society.... I hated the new state that had arisen, hated its brutalities, its ignorance, its unpatriotic patriotism."

Most of all, Wilson and the war party were determined to corrupt the entire body of the American people, to root out the old habits of freedom and to teach it new habits of obedience. Day after day, arrest after arrest, bond rally after bond rally, they drove home with overwhelming force the new logic of "the new state that had arisen": Dissent is disloyalty, disloyalty a crime; loyalty is servility, and servility is true patriotism. The new logic was new only in America; it is the perennial logic of every tyranny that ever was. The new state affected men differently, but it corrupted them all one way or another. The official repression drove millions of independent-minded Americans deep into private life and political solitude. Isolated, they nursed in private their bitterness and contempt-the corrupting consolation of cynicism. Millions more could not withstand the force of the new state that had risen. It was easier, by far, to surrender to the powerful and embrace their new masters, to despise with the powerful the very opinions they themselves had once held and to hound with the powerful their fellow citizens who still held them-the corrupting consolation of submission. Millions more simply bowed to the ways of oppression, to official lies and false arrests, to "slacker raids" and censored newspapers, to saying nothing, feeling nothing, and caring nothing-the corrupting consolation of apathy.

"The war has set back the people for a generation," said Hiram Johnson. "They have become slaves to the government." Yet the tolling of the bells for armistice brought no release to a corrupted and tyrannized people. To rule a free republic through hatred and fear, through censorship and repression, proved a luxury that the victors in the civil war over war refused to relinquish with the outbreak of peace. On Thanksgiving Day 1918, two weeks after the armistice, the war party, as if on signal, began crying up a new danger to replace the Hun, a new internal menace to replace the German spy, a new object of fear and hatred, a new pretext for censorship and repression. "Bolshevism" menaced the country, declared William Howard Taft, although Communist Party members constituted a minuscule .001 percent of the American population. Bolshevik propaganda menaced America, declared a Senate committee in the middle of winding down its investigation of the nonexistent German propaganda menace. Purge the nation of "Reds," declared the National Security League, opening up its campaign against "Bolshevism" a month after completing its hunt for "pro-Germans" and three and a half years after launching its campaign for "preparedness." In Washington the Wilson Administration, too, joined in the new outcry against Bolshevism and continued to wage war unchecked against the liberties of the American people. The Post Office censorship machine continued to tyrannize the independent press. The Justice Department began deporting aliens suspected of belonging to "the anarchistic and similar classes," to cite the federal statute authorizing the mass deportations. For the first time in American history, guilt by association became a formal principle of law.

Everything seemed possible to the powerful and the privileged, so cowed by fear, so broken to repression had the American people become. Wilson even took time out from his messianic labors in Paris to urge passage of a peacetime federal sedition law, "unprecedented legislation," as Harvard's Professor Chafee put it at the time, "whose enforcement will let loose a horde of spies and informers, official and unofficial, swarming into our private life, stirring up suspicion without end." The war was over, but Wilson did not want the American people to regain their freedom of speech and disturb once more "the unity of our national counsel." Although Congress never voted on the bill, the state party machines followed the President's lead. After the armistice almost every state in the Union passed laws abridging free speech. The statutes were sweeping enough in some states to satisfy a dictator's requirements. In Connecticut it became a crime to say anything that, in the words of the statute, "intended to injuriously affect the Government" of Connecticut or of the United States. Striking while the iron was hot, Wilson and the war party were determined, in the immediate aftermath of war, to set up the legal machinery of permanent repression and to reconquer for oligarchy the venerable terrain of liberty in America. Fourteen months after the armistice, the New York World, awakening from its Wilsonian raptures, cried out in alarm over the new "despotism of professional politicians." The newspaper wondered why the prewar reform spirit and the prewar insurgents had died away so completely. It wondered, too, why "no other country in the world is suffering so much from professional politics" as America. There was no cause whatever to wonder. The professional politicians had won the only war they cared about, the war against a free republic that Wilson had begun in 1915 in the name of America's "mission."

The Republican oligarchy was bent on returning to power. Postwar America, degraded and despoiled, was an America made safe for their rule. There would be no trouble with reformers: the prewar reform movement had been destroyed. There would be no perilous popular demands for governmental action: Americans had grown to hate their government so much they merely wanted it lifted off their backs. The Republican Party, however, was not in good odor. Popular hatred of Wilson and the war was its only real asset, and Republican leaders had no choice but to exploit it as best they could. That hatred, as yet unvoiced by a citizenry too cowed to appear "disloyal," was a palpable force in the country nonetheless. It surged powerfully through the Middle West. It burned with white heat among the downtrodden "hyphenates." It waxed strong, too, among America's demobilized soldiers. By June 1919 some 2.6 million of them had returned from Europe, hating the war they had fought and the President who had conscripted them. If the Republicans could somehow identify themselves with that hatred, their triumph was assured and Wilson doomed. The President's power at home was almost as illusory as his power in Paris. For years it had rested on the bipartisan unity of the powerful and the cordon they had thrown up to protect him and his sophistries from the effective judgment of the American electorate. Without that protective cordon Wilson would stand, for the first time, within the electorate's reach, and millions of Americans were ready on signal to reach for his throat. It was not because Wilson had tried to keep America out of war that millions of Americans hated him, just as it was not because war had been forced upon him that he had failed so wretchedly in Paris.

While Wilson was still at the peace conference, Republicans, led by Senator Lodge, launched their attack on the President through a concerted attack on his League. That a large majority of Republican senators favored a League of Nations in principle, that Wall Street supported Wilson almost unanimously, did not deter Republican leaders. For ventilating popular hatred, Wilson's League made the perfect outlet, and the party was not about to pass it up.

To attack Wilson's League was to attack Wilson's war, without incurring the dangers of doing so openly. Republicans assailed the League as a "breeder of war," denounced it as a "supergovernment" concocted by Wilson to snuff out American sovereignty. Unless altered by the Republican-controlled Senate, it would drag America, they said, into corrupt foreign conflicts under the pretense of international "obligation." The implication was clear. Wilson's League would inflict on Americans the kind of war they hated most-the one they had just fought. That Republican leaders had supported that war with the utmost enthusiasm, millions of Americans were past caring. Unrepresented for so long, they were meanly grateful for whatever crumbs men of power threw them.

To attack Wilson's League was to assault Wilson himself Of the actual merits and defects of the League of Nations, millions of Americans cared little. They knew only that Wilson wanted it and that was reason enough to oppose it. As the Philadelphia Public Ledger complained: "The mere fact that President Wilson wants something is not an argument against it." Wilson was reaping what he sowed. The President had robbed Americans of what they had cherished most. Now, spitefully and vindictively, millions of Americans wanted him deprived of what he cherished most. "Nine out of ten letters I get in protest against this treaty," a pro-League senator complained, "breathe a spirit of intense hatred of Woodrow Wilson.... That feeling forms a very large element in the opposition

to this treaty." Licensed, as it were, by the Republican oligarchy, pent-up hatred of Wilson poured into the political arena. "No autocracy," shouted Republican foes of the League, and audiences booed "the autocrat's" name to the rafters. "Impeach him! Impeach him!" a Chicago Coliseum audience screamed after Senator William Borah of Idaho finished assailing Wilson's League. It was no edifying spectacle, this picture of free men deliberating grave issues with little thought save personal vengeance. Yet here again Wilson reaped what he sowed. He had been the chief instrument of the republic's degradation. Now hate-ridden millions howled for a degraded revenge.

By the end of 1919 half the country would have cheered his impeachment. Hatred of Wilson had not abated while the President lay stricken; it had grown more intense. Pitiless toward others, Wilson aroused no pity in others. While the White House fell silent, anti-League orators publicly denounced "the crimes of Wilson."

A madman and a criminal, that was what millions of Americans now thought of their President.

The United States was never to ratify the Treaty of Versailles or to enter the League of Nations. This was Wilson's final achievement. After wreaking havoc on his country for the sake of the League of Nations, Wilson strangled the League at its birth. It was a noble catchphrase once more, untarnished, sublime, justifying everything.

Contemporaries saw matters more clearly. The President was now discredited almost everywhere. His selfish, destructive course had disgraced him even in the eyes of admirers. With one year left of his term, he was utterly without power. In May Congress passed a joint resolution terminating the war with Germany. Wilson vetoed it and Congress overrode his veto. A few weeks later, the ailing half-mad President watched in disappointment as his party nominated Governor James Cox, a party hack from Ohio, to run for his office against Senator Warren G. Harding, a party hack from the same state.

Cox never stood a chance of winning. Just as millions of Americans had cared nothing about the merits of the League of Nations, so in 1920 they cared nothing about the merits of the candidates. The chief issue of the 1920 election was Thomas Woodrow Wilson. Wilson's enemies poured their support into Harding's campaign headquarters and it flowed in a torrent. Hatred of the President dominated the campaign. In the denunciations of Wilson the "dictator" and Wilson the "autocrat," Cox himself was virtually forgotten, buried, as the Springfield Republican put it, under a "mountain of malice." With nothing to recommend him save the fact that he was not a Democrat, Harding won the election with 16.2 million votes to Cox's 9.1 million. It was the most crushing election victory ever won by a presidential candidate of no distinction whatever. The 1920 election was indeed the "great and solemn referendum" Wilson had called for, and it rendered its judgment on Wilson: guilty as charged. So ended the political career of a President whom Americans for years had been compelled to "stand by," whose lies had been deemed in the courts to be truth itself, whose honest critics had been denounced as "conspirators" and arrested as felons. On his last morning in office this terrible ruin of a man was asked to pardon Eugene Debs, rotting his life away in a federal penitentiary. Unforgiving, Wilson refused. He had pity only for himself Today American children are taught in our schools that Wilson was one of our greatest Presidents. That is proof in itself that the American republic has never recovered from the blow he inflicted upon it.

In 1920 Americans yearned for the "good old days" before Wilson and war, before everything had gone so wrong. They yearned in vain. The war and the war party had altered America permanently, and since the war party had shaped America to serve its own interests, the change was a change for the worse. In postwar America the "despotism of professional politicians" went unchallenged. Independent citizens ceased to pester the party machines. The "good citizens" whose rise to civic consciousness had spawned the progressive movement now spurned the public arena in disgust. Wilson's hymns to "service" had made public service seem despicable. Wilson's self-serving "idealism" made devotion to the public good seem a sham and a fool's game. "The private life became the all in all," a chronicler of the 1920s has written. "The most diverse Americans of the twenties agreed in detestation of public life." The Babbitt replaced the political insurgent, and what was left of the free public arena was a Kiwanis club lunch. In 1924 three-quarters of the electorate thought it useless to vote.

The nation's Republican rulers governed with impudence and impunity. A major administration scandal scarcely cost them a vote. They not only served the interests of the trusts, they boasted openly of doing so, for the "captains of industry" were now restored to their former glory as if the prewar reform movement had never existed. The Republican rulers even set about creating multi-corporate cartels to enable the monopolists to govern themselves and the American people as well. This refurbished monopoly economy the rulers and their publicists praised fulsomely as the "American System," although it was a system prewar Americans had fought for thirty years and which the very laws prohibited. Herbert Hoover, the chief architect of the cartels, described the new economy as "rugged individualism," which was very like calling the sunset "dawn" or describing Wilson's neutrality as "America First," for official lies and catchphrases dominated the country after Wilson's demise as much as they had in his heyday. The catchphrases were crass rather than lofty. That was the chief difference.

Magazines that once thrived on exposing the corrupt privileges of the trusts now retailed gushing stories of business "success," supplied recipes for attaining "executive" status, and wrote paeans in praise of big business, although it was even more corruptly privileged in the 1920s than it had been in the days of the muckraker. America basked in unexampled prosperity, the publicists wrote, although half the country was poor and the farmers desperate. In the 1920s the poor became prosperous by fiat. America had entered an endless economic golden age, proclaimed the magnates of Wall Street whose ignorant pronouncements were now treated with reverence and made front-page news. Peace had returned to America, but the braying of bankers, not the voice of the turtle, was heard in the land. There were other diversions, too, for the populace: Babe Ruth, Red Grange, Al Capone, and an endless stream of songs and movies extolling the charms of college life, although most Americans had never graduated from high school. In postwar America the entire country lived on fantasy and breathed propaganda.

Against the fictions and the lies, where were the voices of dissent? There were few to be heard. What had happened to America's deep enmity toward monopoly and private economic power? It had virtually ceased to exist. It was just strong enough to call forth a few euphemisms. Republicans labeled the cartels "trade associations" and that was that. When the indomitable La Follette ran for President in 1924 as a third-party candidate, it was hardly more than the swansong of a cause long lost. Outside of a few of the old insurgent states (now known collectively as the "farm bloc," a mere special interest) the country fell silent. Apathy and cynicism were the universal state. The official propaganda of the 1920s meant little to most Americans, but by now they were inured to a public life that made no sense and to public men who never spoke to their condition. Like any defeated people, they expected their rulers to consider them irrelevant. Even when the Great Depression struck down the postwar economy (it was a house of cards) and toppled the tin gods of the 1920s, Americans remained as if dumbstruck. Foreign visitors to America in the early 1930s were astonished by the American people's docility, for we had never been docile before. In the 1893 depression America had looked like the Rome of the Gracchi; forty years later people whose life savings had been wiped out by the "American System" stood quietly on breadlines as if they had known breadlines all their lives.

Not all of this postwar degradation was destined to last. Some hope, in time, would return to the defeated, and a semblance of civic courage to the servile. What did not return was the struggle for republican reform. That was the lasting achievement of Wilson and the war party. That was the irreparable damage they had done to the American republic. They had destroyed once and for all the republican cause. Never again would the citizenry of this republic enter the "political arena determined to overthrow oligarchy (as Lincoln bid his countrymen do), to extirpate private power and eliminate special privilege.

The new age revealed itself first in the degradation of the discontented. Of the generation that tasted the bitter betrayal of the war, most were too disheartened to speak out. In the early 1920s, there were still Americans angry enough to lash out against their lot, but they had grown too cowardly to fight their real enemies. So they bought white bedsheets from the local Ku Klux Klan and terrorized Negroes, Catholics, and Jews. A few prairie states were all that remained to uphold the old republican cause. The degradation of the discontented proved especially long-lasting. Seventeen years after the war's end, Americans who refused to suffer the shams of the professional politicians turned not to the old reform traditions of the country. They turned instead to the fascistic fulminations of Father Coughlin or to the greedy puerilities of Huey Long's "Share Our Wealth" movement. That, too, was part of our hard-won "experience." Millions of Americans followed a Louisiana dictator and cheered the language of dictatorship, something we had never done in our "innocence." That is how thoroughly the war party had triumphed. It spawned a generation of Americans who mirrored its own corruption, for it no longer cherished the American republic and no longer fought for its principles.

What the war generation ceased to care about, its children were to forget almost entirely. Who was left to remind them? Over the long years since 1917 the "despotism of professional politicians" has suffered its own ups and downs, but it has never been menaced-as it was menaced for so long-by free men struggling to protect their own freedom and regain a voice in their own affairs. From the ruins of the war, the republican cause has never revived to rally free men. It has ceased to make a difference in our politics. What the Spanish-American War deflected and weakened, the First World War obliterated. And who can measure the cost of that loss, both to ourselves and humanity, in whose name both wars had been fought.

Buried Alive

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