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The Road to Hysteria: 1940

ISSUE:  Spring 1940

It was a raw and blustering day in early April. Down the main street of the little Illinois town came a crowd of men, shouting and laughing, three-quarters drunk. They stopped at the town jail and while the officers of the law stood silent and meek, a few of the leaders went in and dragged out a terrified, white-faced man.

“What are you going to do?” he asked in a thick foreign accent.

“We’re going to hang you, you dirty German traitor,” he was told. The crowd dragged him to the outskirts of town and threw a rope across a tree limb high enough for their purpose. Then, oddly, they let their prisoner sit down on the ground and write a pathetic letter of farewell to his mother in far-away Germany. This done, they hanged him and left his body swinging against the bleak and wintry sky. His name was Robert Prager and he had been arrested a few days earlier with a number of others on “suspicion of disloyalty.” There was no evidence then or at any time since that he was disloyal or had broken any law; he was a silent man, unpopular with his fellows. All the others rounded up with him had been released at once and it was only by accident that he was still in the jail when the war-crazed mob decided it wanted a victim.

That was in Collinsville, Illinois, April 4, 1918.

There was blazing heat that day in Montana—the fierce heat of the short northern midsummer. Through the quiet streets, shimmering under the sun, marched a silent, unsmiling body of men, pulling forward in their midst one whose arms were tightly held. On the edge of town they found what they were looking for—a railway viaduct across a gully, with an open space below the ties. A rope was slung across the trestle and their victim was jerked off the ground. He was Frank Little, a labor leader who had just arrived in Montana to aid in organizing the copper miners. Little was a spokesman for the Industrial Workers of the World and the mine owners had complained that union activities interfered with “getting out needed war supplies.” So they hanged him.

That was in Butte, Montana, August 1, 1917.

In a musty old courtroom in Ohio, the defendant stood up to be sentenced. He was tall, emaciated, bald, with gold-rimmed spectacles and behind them keen and friendly eyes. He was being tried because a few weeks earlier he had said in a speech at Canton that war was evil, that he objected to men killing each other for causes with which they were not really concerned. He was the spiritual and intellectual leader of many thousands of Americans; two years later, while still a convict, he was to get 900,000 votes for the Presidency. The names of the prosecutor who tried him, the judge who sentenced him, every other participant in the drama, have disappeared into the mists; only his remains and grows brighter. Now the judge spoke. “I sentence you, Eugene Debs,” he said, “to ten years in the Federal Penitentiary at Atlanta.”

That was in Cleveland, Ohio, September 11, 1918.

On a street corner in a busy business section, the elderly white-haired man put down the soap-box he was carrying, mounted it, and began to read aloud from a black leather-bound book.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” he read, “for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. “Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. “Blessed are the meek. . . .” And he got no farther. The policeman who had been waiting for this purpose pulled him off his soap-box and dragged him away to court. There he was found guilty of violating the Federal Sedition Act.

That was in 1918 in a city that need not be humiliated by having its name called here.


If you were already an adult when America entered the war in 1917 you ought to remember these and similar happenings ; but the chances are that you have forgotten them. We all have a tendency to put out of our minds things of which we are ashamed; and America is certainly ashamed of what it did during the war hysteria.

Some of the follies are hard to believe. When the response to their pleas was not to their liking, speakers at Liberty Loan rallies openly called their audiences pro-German and threatened to denounce them to the authorities. Those who were considered financial slackers were forced to march in Liberty Loan parades wearing humiliating placards. The barns or houses of people who failed to be as aggressively loyal as someone else thought they should be, were sometimes smeared with yellow paint. Everyone remembers how musicians and other artists who happened to be born in Germany or Austria were abused, how thousands of innocent German-Americans were mistreated, how German was taken out of school curricula, and how sauerkraut became Liberty Cabbage.

A member of the United States Senate, the senior Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin, was tried by his fellow Senators on suspicion of disloyalty, largely because when he said in a speech, “We have a grievance against Germany,” the Associated Press reported him as saying, “We have no grievance.” At the University of Wisconsin, for which he had done more than anyone else in the state, nearly every member of the faculty signed a resolution denouncing him in abusive terms.

Representative Victor Berger of Wisconsin was found guilty (after the war was over) of violating the Espionage Act. The Milwaukee Leader had its mail privilege revoked; The Nation was held up by the Postoffice for an editorial entitled “Civil Liberty Dead”—thus nicely proving the editor’s argument. The board of editors of The Masses was tried for disloyalty. Solidarity, the paper of the Industrial Workers of the World, was suppressed. One hundred I.W.W. members were sentenced to prison, their leader W. D. Haywood getting twenty years.

Belonging to an organization which advocated syndicalism became a penitentiary offense in many states even though the individual members were wholly innocent and ignorant. Congress passed a law punishing “seditious utterances” despite the fact that these utterances might have no connection with seditious acts. Under this law you could not criticize the way in which the war was being conducted by the army and navy, discuss the wisdom of taxes, bond issues or loans or complain about profiteering or corruption in connection with war contracts. This stricture may have had something to do with the appalling waste and graft in army purchases that were revealed after the war was over—when it was too late.

For allegedly violating the Espionage and Sedition Acts, twenty-four people each received twenty years in prison, six received fifteen, and eleven received ten. Of 3,989 conscientious objectors, 450 were sent to prison and the remainder were put at forced labor of one type or another. Some of them were in jail as late as November 23, 1920, more than two years after the end of the war, and fifteen months after | England had released the last of her C.O.’s.

The reign of terror instituted by Attorney General Palmer, Postmaster Burleson, and their imitators in various states seems almost incredible today. Magazines were censored, ministers and teachers muzzled. People were held indefinitely without a warrant and without learning what the charges were against them. Socialist members of the New York State Assembly were formally expelled from that body. What amounted to heresy trials were held all over the country, directed especially against school teachers and other persons in public or quasi-public office. One striking incident came when a man jumped to his death from a high window of a New York skyscraper. It was then discovered that he had been arrested and held secretly by the Department of Justice for some time. What they did to him to make him jump out the window is not known.


Why do I rake all this up out of the past? Because once again America seems to be moving into the grip of something similar to the hysteria of the World War and early post-War years. Once more the Red hunt is in progress. It did us great harm twenty years ago—harm from which we have never quite recovered. It will do us great harm again if we cannot get it under control.

What are the reasons for our repeating the history of a score of years ago? No doubt there are many, as is almost always true of social phenomena. However, at least four occur to me that are important enough to be listed.

First, there is the depression itself. At one time, we must have had very nearly sixteen million persons out of work, more than a third of the nation’s employables. Even today there are probably about ten million or, with their dependents, thirty-five or forty million, a full quarter or more of the entire population. (No one knows exactly; we don’t count them.) The hardships through which millions of these people have gone, the inadequate living standards, the deadly terror of the future, are almost beyond description to anybody who has not come into direct contact with them. Not unnaturally, many safe, secure people, sheltered from the economic storm, have feared that these individuals would become ready victims of radical doctrines and that revolution was perhaps imminent. They did not realize the simple truth that revolutions are almost never made by those on the brink of starvation. To revolt you must be over the brink— or else well fed but with a deep sense of grievance. During the worst of the depression some radical ideas (remember Technocracy?) were introduced in the United States, but they made far more headway among the middle class than among the workers who were the chief victims.

Second, there are the fruits of the “United Front” policy of the Communists, which they pursued from about 1935 until August 23, 1939, when the American group was stunned by the news that Stalin had signed up with Hitler. Practicing their United Front tactics, the Communists joined every liberal and progressive organization in sight. Naturally, in reporting back to Moscow and in boasting of their successes at their own pep-meetings, they greatly exaggerated their influence in these organizations. They seemed to the public far more numerous and more powerful than they actually were. The non-Communist individuals, forced into often unwilling collaboration, would emphasize the fact that they themselves did not adhere to Marxian theory. Thereupon, the Communists began to repeat the same tactics as part of their Trojan Horse campaign; presently a denial of Communism became a sure sign to the public you were one of the brotherhood. It all helped the busy scaremongers, who worked for purposes of their own, to alarm the always timorous populace.

The third reason is the propaganda so widely spread by enemies of President Roosevelt that he has been trying, through the New Deal, to bring about a revolution. To me, for one, this charge seems complete nonsense; I feel he has on the contrary been trying to bolster up the old order and make it work endurably well. I don’t see anything revolutionary about ordering Wall Street to reform practices under which billions had been stolen from investors. I am equally unalarmed about putting young men to work in the forests, about using unemployed labor to build schoolhouses, roads, bridges, sewers, or about paying farmers to participate in soil conservation and in the elimination of agricultural surpluses. I can’t get excited about the harm of seeking to guarantee to American labor the right of collective bargaining which one tory government after another has conceded in conservative Great Britain for two generations. Finally, I can’t imagine a regime which intended to bring about a revolution waiting, to begin, through seven such years as we have experienced.

Among the New Dealers there may have been one or two persons with more or less secret radical leanings, who now and then talked loosely about the new day they intended to bring in; but it is no more reasonable to judge the whole effort by their casual remarks than it would be to get panicky on a ship bound from New York to Cuba if one of the stokers observed that the vessel was headed for Greenland. However, this is a big and timorous country, and I don’t doubt that the hostile propaganda against the New Deal has actually frightened a great many people into believing that our sacred institutions are in peril.

Perhaps more important than any of these causes except the last named is the work of the Dies Committee. Its story has been told often enough to need no detailed repetition here. Mr. Dies obviously began without any clear idea of what he intended to do, and improvised his technique and plan of campaign as he went along. The House gave him so little money at the beginning that he couldn’t afford the usual paraphernalia of a Congressional committee—expensive investigators, careful checking, and so on. Instead, he let practically anybody get on the witness stand and say practically anything he chose. There are many professional radical-baiters in this country who always itch for limelight and this was their heaven-offered opportunity. They promptly appeared and began firing salvos of charges against all sorts of people. Some of them were true, many were false, and others were technically true but were put into a distorted setting and made the basis for inferences and conclusions that were fantastic nonsense. When the victims of these slanders peppered Mr. Dies with angry telegrams of denial, and demands to be heard in self-defense, he put the telegrams into the official record (where nobody would ever see them) and usually refused the chance to appear. Many people in Washington believe that Mr. Dies is strongly anti-Roosevelt and that an important objective—even if an afterthought—has been to identify the New Deal in the public mind with Communism. Private reports which reach me from all parts of the country say that he has succeeded in this to a startling extent. A story about bogeys under the bed always goes over well with an American audience; we love to shiver, and we enjoy it all the more if it has little relation to reality.


How small that relation is should now be apparent to anybody not in the grip of a neurosis. It is particularly absurd that we have begun to get excited at the moment when Stalin and Hitler, by clasping hands, have destroyed at least ninety-eight per cent of the minute amount of influence their followers had here. The American Communist Party has never succeeded in getting more than 100,000 members. The common reports about “fellow travelers” are probably greatly exaggerated; but grant, if you like, that there is the fantastic total of 400,000. Half a million people is roughly one one-hundred-and-fortieth of the potential voting population of the United States, something like two-thirds of one per cent. In the old days, the Socialists, who were so “gradualist” that they were practically Utopian, never got more than a million votes, which would be about one and one-third per cent. In recent years this strength (largely a tribute to the personality of Debs) has nearly all disappeared. I refuse to get excited about any danger to this country from one per cent of its population. If you tell me that a tiny handful of Bolsheviks captured Russia, my answer is that the comparison is ridiculous. When the Bolsheviks took over, Russia had no government deserving the name. It had no middle class, it had about ninety per cent illiteracy, hardly any industrialization or communication. Anybody who thinks the American people would lie down and let a minute group of radicals walk over them as the Russians did simply doesn’t know America,

As for the other isms over here, Mussolini’s Fascism has made almost no headway except among recent Italian immigrants. We might add a few industrial tycoons who would like to see labor unions smashed and admire II Duce on the theory that the Italian trains run on time (which they often don’t). The matter of the Nazis is a little more serious. The true faith is upheld only by a small number of perhaps ten thousand German-Americans, nearly all of whom have come here lately. Some of their doctrines, however, have raised an answering echo in native Americans of Fascist tendencies and have created a more difficult situation of which I shall speak in a moment.

No American with two good eyes needs to be told that we have native Fascist tendencies that are powerful, deep-seated, and long-continued. This is true whether you define Fascism as meaning the destruction of civil liberties in the interest of certain privileged groups or more broadly as the attempt to preserve by force a decaying economic organization. Americans have always resorted readily and with the support of the dominant public opinion in the community to vigilantism, which in a large proportion of cases is more concerned with getting the suspect hanged or shot than with finding out whether he is guilty. They have never hesitated to refuse obedience to any law which large numbers of them oppose.

In recent years there has been a disturbing rise in popular movements supporting queer economic and social doctrines. Insufficient attention has been given to the evident widespread feeling of insecurity and apprehension which must underlie the popularity of Townsendism, inflationary movemerits, Ham and Eggs, Huey Long’s Every Man a King, and Father Coughlin’s queer melange of bad economics, race prejudice, and Catholic Church doctrines.

Of all these groups Father Coughlin’s is at present to be taken most seriously. He has accumulated a following which may be a million or more, composed largely of Catholics. His unhappy group suffers from confused loyalties. They have been trained from childhood to venerate a priest, and Father Coughlin is one. The Vatican has opposed Communism in Russia because it is atheistic and therefore Catholics in America oppose Communism and indeed all radicalism over here, despite the fact that some recent occupants of the papacy have issued encyclicals decidedly socialistic in character. These Catholics have accepted the (untrue) notion that Russia is controlled by Jews and have therefore identified Jewry with Communism and atheism. By the absurd argument that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, they some time ago came into contact with the American Nazis mentioned above. They have shut their eyes to the fact that in Germany the Nazis are bitterly anti-Catholic, and proceed to cooperate with them in a movement which, if it were successful, would certainly destroy the Catholic Church in America.

Luckily, there is no reason to believe that the Coughlinites are more than a small minority of the Catholics, who are themselves only a minority of the total American population. The revolutionary plot recently uncovered in New York in which a few young men (eighteen were arrested and the total number can hardly have been more than a few hundred at most) are reported as proposing to overthrow the government of the United States and to begin by bombing a Communist daily paper and a motion picture theater, was a pathetic and convincing proof of the dream world in which the Coughlinites live. I do not accuse Father Coughlin of knowing about these particular activities; but I do accuse him of having, by constant inflammatory speeches, created a situation which made such activities altogether probable. It is significant, moreover, that after first hastily disavowing them, a week later he stated that “I do not dissociate myself,” and proceeded to apologize for the would-be bombers in terms which would cause any average member of the Christian Front to believe that terrorism was condoned.


The danger of the Red scare is not that the scarers are right but that they will create an atmosphere in which good Americans, working for good American purposes, will be unjustly treated; in which all but the tories will be labeled as Reds and ruled out of court with that label.

Both houses of Congress have recently passed a law providing that aliens may be deported without trial if they will admit in writing that they have been guilty of committing certain crimes. Any policeman with three feet of rubber hose will know how to get such a written confession. In many states, teachers have recently been asked to take an oath of loyalty, although good Americans don’t need it and bad ones won’t mind a little perjury. The mere asking reflects upon their patriotism. Workers in shipyards, munitions plants, and other factories producing all types of war material are also being asked to sign “loyalty pledge cards” —a request that is in fact an order. Alien registration laws have been passed or are pending in various states, laws which seem harmless on the surface but offer a ready device for terrorization of ignorant and timid workers both by employers and political groups.

Ten or twelve bills have been introduced in Congress, some of which have passed one house or the other, ordering special procedures for aliens and especially for alien radicals. The measures they propose range all the way up to wholesale deportation or, in one case, confinement for an indefinite period of large numbers in concentration camps. In Minnesota, thirty-three former W.P.A. workers who rioted when their hours were lengthened and their pay was cut on the first of last July have been prosecuted and found guilty under a law carrying a possible penalty of ten thousand dollars fine and two years in jail, although a five dollar fine or three days imprisonment would have been an adequate and customary punishment for what they did.

Clearly, there is urgent necessity for Americans to keep their heads. Within the past two decades we have seen democratic principles and institutions attacked throughout the world as never before. Totalitarianism, with its negation of the rights of the individual and its immediate and incessant enforcement of its rules by whip and gun, has made great strides. Today, less than a quarter of the world’s population has any substantial degree of individual freedom and only about ten or twelve per cent knows what real individual liberty means. With every other free nation among the great powers now at war and putting freedom into mothballs for the duration, Americans have a responsibility so serious that one can’t overstate it. If we don’t keep Liberty’s lamp lighted, it will certainly go out everywhere. We cannot meet the totalitarian menace by copying its methods, however strong the temptation to do so; if we imitate the dictatorships in fighting them, they have already won a moral victory over us. By so doing, we may destroy the danger of alien ideas—which was never serious anyhow—but we shall have killed our own democracy in the process. If you can look on this prospect complacently, you are already in the camp of the enemy.


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