Adam Hochschild is a prominent American historian who focuses on violence and repression. Two of his best-known books are King Leopold’s Ghost and To End All Wars. In November he and our editor chatted by Zoom about his new book, American Midnight.
METTA SPENCER: Today I’ll have a conversation with one of my dearest, oldest friends, Adam Hochschild. Adam is just a superb writer and analyst of all things cruel. He writes books about wars and other horrible things that people do—and yet he can enchant you with his stories about the people. He’s in Berkeley. I’ve known him for over sixty years and it’s just a joy to have a chance to talk to him about his analysis of what we need to do to fix the world. So hi, Adam.
ADAM HOCHSCHILD: Hi, Metta. It’s great to be with you.
SPENCER: I want to talk about your new book, American Midnight. It’s really a history book about a particular period when Americans all went crazy together. Is that a fair thing to say?
HOCHSCHILD: Yes, that is a fair thing to say! The period that I focused are the years 1917 through 1921. And for those of us who went to school in the United States, the period largely gets left out of our standard high school history textbook. In my high school textbook, there was always a chapter on the First World War, where brave American soldiers, the Doughboys, as they were called, went to Europe wearing those broad brim forest ranger hats. They fought bravely, won the war, were greeted with ticker tape parades when they came home, and then you turned the page.
The next chapter began about the roaring ’20s, prohibition, speakeasies, and the heyday of Babe Ruth. But a period of a couple of years in between gets left out of that standard telling of our history because we Americans mythologize our history, the way all peoples do.
It was a very nasty time. This country really went crazy, and two things kicked it off. One was the United States entering the First World War, April of 1917.
Wars often provide an excuse for hysteria. As somebody who’s been working for peace all your life, I think you know a lot about the dangerous emotions that wars unleash.
The other thing that added to the level of hysteria was the Russian Revolution of November 1917, which many people in the American establishment feared would spread to the United States. I think that was a crazy fear. I don’t think there was a chance in a million that that would have happened. But it provided excuse for war and repression. And those two things together—first the frenzy about the war, and then the hysteria against the Russian Revolution—produced the worst assault on civil liberties that the United States has experienced since the immediate aftermath of slavery. That’s what American Midnight is about.
SPENCER: I worked for a year or two for Seymour Martin Lipset in the late sixties on a book titled The Politics of Un-Reason. It’s a history of American right-wing craziness. Something like that was going on at the time in Boston—the opposition to busing. Lipset wrote about Father Coughlin and Huey Long and other strange right-wing people, but that 1917 period didn’t get a chapter in his book, as I recall. So, I was really surprised a couple of years ago when in a conversation you called that period worse than the Trump period. That was before the January 6th insurrection, which I think maybe puts the Trump hysteria a little bit ahead.
HOCHSCHILD: No, I think I would still award the prize for hysteria and violence to the 1917 to ’21 period.
SPENCER: Really. Give us some examples. You have an abundance of horror stories.
HOCHSCHILD: Well, here’s what happened. First, the US entering the war, then the Russian Revolution, set off this period of hysteria in the United States. It was reflected in several ways that have been unparalleled by anything since then, including even the nasty stuff that happened under Trump. For one thing, there was something Trump would have liked to do, but wasn’t able: to shut up dissenting media. Trump was always railing against the media, “the press is the enemy of the people.” But Woodrow Wilson, who was president of the United States in this period, did one better; he shut them down. The US had severe press censorship for four years and forced some 75 newspapers and magazines to cease publishing. This was before radio, before TV, before the internet, so print was the way you reached people.
This happened under the Espionage Act, which was passed soon after the US entered the war. It gave the postmaster general the power to declare a publication unmailable. It couldn’t travel through the mail if the postmaster general deemed it to be objectionable or subversive. This didn’t affect mainstream daily newspapers, which were sold on street corners and delivered to people’s homes, but all weeklies, monthlies, journals of opinion—Peace Magazine, if it had existed—had to travel through the mail, as did most of the American foreign language press, which were not dailies.
The postmaster general who had this power was the worst possible person to have it. He was Albert Burleson, a former congressman from Texas, extremely right-wing arch-segregationist. His father and grandfather were Confederate veterans, his family owned 20 slaves at the time that he was born. And he loved being chief press censor and shut down one newspaper or magazine after another because it had published investigative stories about him and how he had leased some land he owned in Texas to be worked by convict labor from the Texas prison system. Others, because they seem to be too far left for his taste. Others, because they argued against American participation in the First World War. Many Americans and people in other countries, I’m sure in Canada and in Europe, recognized the First World War for the craziness that it was. They saw that it would remake the world for the worse in every conceivable way, which it did, and they felt that their country shouldn’t be in it. But those voices felt very dangerous to the US administration, which was going all-out to join the allies and fight the war.
SPENCER: When they clamped down on things, was it just political stuff? Or was it some of the things that we would be troubled about now? Pornography or misinforming the public about COVID, for example. When it comes to online social media platforms, we have a whole bunch of issues that all of us feel conflicted about. How much monitoring to do? And what to do about people who are grossly misinforming people?
HOCHSCHILD: I completely agree. But no. Pornography or scientific misinformation was not the issue at that point. It was totally political—about taking a strong stance opposed to the government or being too forceful in favor of social justice at home. The most famous publication that was shut down was a magazine called The Masses, which was the best magazine in the United States. John Reed, Walter Lippmann, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Sherwood Anderson—the best writers and artists of the day. It was sort of a precursor to The New Yorker and published a lot of art as well pioneered the style of cartoon that The New Yorker would make famous, with one line of dialogue as the caption. They shut it down. Its last published issue was a cartoon that showed the Liberty Bell shattering. And ironically, Postmaster General Burleson managed this whole operation out of the building that was then the US Post Office headquarters, which a hundred years later became the Trump International Hotel.
SPENCER: Is that the same building?
HOCHSCHILD: Same building! It’s now under new management but when it was the Trump International Hotel, you could stay in the Postmaster General suite for $4,000 a night. Anyway, censorship was one way in which the repression of that time took place. Another was vigilante violence.
The largest vigilante group was chartered by the Department of Justice and was called the American Protective League. By the end of 1917, they had 250,000 members—mainly white men who were too old to fight, but who still wanted to feel they were doing their bit in the war. They beat up anti-war demonstrators. They would beat up striking workers. And they carried out what was called “slacker raids,” Thousands of them would fan out through a town or city and do citizens’ arrests of all young men who couldn’t show a draft card—people who had left their draft cards at home. Maybe some of them hadn’t registered for the draft.
SPENCER: Was it legally obligatory to carry a draft card at all times?
HOCHSCHILD: Yes, you were supposed to do that to show that you had registered. But the bureaucracy of registering people had not gotten fully set up yet. The draft boards who were supposed to do this were behind in a lot of their work. The biggest of the so-called slacker raids was in New York City. They did citizens arrests of some 60,000 young men. A sizeable number of those who couldn’t produce the right paperwork were locked up in armories for several days, while their families frantically tried to contact the local draft boards, get papers proving that their sons were innocent, A small percentage were genuinely dodging the draft. They were shipped off to the army, but 99 percent of the people rounded up in these raids had done nothing illegal.
The third thing that happened was that the government used this new law, the Espionage Act, to imprison people who spoke out in ways that they did not like. It was called the “Espionage Act,” but of the roughly 2,000 people prosecuted under it, only ten were alleged German spies. The remainder had nothing to do with espionage. They were Americans who were speaking their minds, usually speaking against American participation in the First World War. And they were sent to jail. It’s appalling to realize on what a huge scale that was. During this four-year period, roughly a thousand Americans spent a year or more in prison and a far larger number shorter periods of time solely for things that they wrote or said.
I don’t mean that there wasn’t any violence during this period, for there was some violence from the left. There were some anarchist bombings, but they were never able to catch and prosecute the people who did them. It was just easier to go after people for things that they had said.
SPENCER: The vigilante thing sounds almost like an official operation. But other stories sounded more like the Wild West. I mean, you gave an example of people “tarred and feathered.” I had heard that expression, but I didn’t know it was something people really did.
HOCHSCHILD: Yes, this was a common punishment. If you read Huckleberry Finn, there’s an account of people being tarred and feathered. In American Midnight, in the photo spread in the middle of the book, there’s a picture of what somebody looks like when he is tarred and feathered. They would beat people up and then smear hot tar over them and then slit open a pillow so a lot of feathers would stick to the tar. This was supposed to be additional humiliation. And if tar is hot enough to be smeared on you, it’s going to burn your skin.
I begin the book with a scene of a group of Wobblies. These were members of the Industrial Workers of the World, the most militant American trade union, who were seized in the middle of the night. The police couldn’t figure out anything to charge them with. Then a hooded mob saw them as they were being driven from one jail to another. They took them to an empty field, beat them severely, took their shirts and shoes off, and tarred and feathered them.
SPENCER: I’ve also heard of Wobblies all my life. They were an extra-radical labor union, right? What made them worse than other unions in public opinion?
HOCHSCHILD: The Wobblies were considered the most militant part of the American labor movement. They never constituted more than about five percent of unionized American workers, but they captured the public imagination because, very unusually for labor unions of that day, they admitted everybody: black and white, immigrant and native, men and women. A number of the principal Wobbly organizers were women. They preached that workers should belong to this one big union. In practical terms, it never accomplished a lot. They also had a principled position against signing contracts with employers, which is not a very good position if you want to be influential as a union. But it did capture the public imagination and the government was terrified of them because it knew that most Wobblies opposed the war, and moreover, they were organizing very actively in some crucial industries.
So, the government cracked down on them. For example, in the summer of 1917, in the copper mining town Bisbee, Arizona, there were several thousand copper miners on strike, who were organized by the Wobblies. One morning before dawn a Sheriff’s posse of two thousand men swept through town, rousted these striking miners out of their beds, forced them into the street, and told them at gunpoint go back to work, or else! More than a thousand refused to go back to work. They were herded onto a train of freight and cattle cars, taken 180 miles through the desert across the state border into New Mexico, and locked up in an army stockade. This was the kind of thing that happened routinely in this period.
SPENCER: You also have a section on Eugene V. Debs, who was imprisoned. I have a soft spot for Debs. Why did they consider him so dangerous?
HOCHSCHILD: Ironically, Debs was a threat because he was not a wild-eyed militant. He was deeply committed to nonviolence and to working within the electoral system. And he was effective in that. In 1912, Debs had won six percent of the popular vote for president, running ahead of the Republican candidate in a couple of states. And in the fall of 1917, his socialist party, which was strongly against the war, did extremely well in municipal elections, winning more than 20 percent of the vote in some 14 major American cities—more than 30 percent in a couple of them. In New York City, the biggest, they got 22 percent of the vote. The Wilson administration was terrified, because the last thing they wanted was for the socialists, who at this point had only one seat in Congress, to get more seats in the House of Representatives, because then they could have the balance of power. Wilson’s Democrats controlled the House of Representatives by only a very tiny margin, rather like today. So, they cracked down on the party. They arrested Debs right after he gave an anti-war speech in Canton, Ohio and sentenced him to ten years in the federal penitentiary.
SPENCER: So just being anti-war was enough in itself?
HOCHSCHILD: Yeah, that violated the Espionage Act. If you spoke out against the US armed forces in any form, it could get you sent to prison. But Debs ran again as socialist candidate for president when he was still in prison in the elections of November.
SPENCER: I love the idea that a guy can run for president from inside a jail cell.
HOCHSCHILD: Yeah. And he got more than 900,000 votes.
SPENCER: Wonderful. You know, you reverse the valence on some of the characters in your book from the ones that I had acquired by osmosis from public opinion. Take Woodrow Wilson. I didn’t know much about him, but I thought he was a hero for starting the League of Nations. I thought he was a good guy, but you sure convinced me otherwise. I have one friend who keeps a little bust of Wilson on his desk because he was such a great peacemaker. You convinced me but I don’t know how unusual your perception is of him.
HOCHSCHILD: A lot of people have come to see him more critically these days. He’s a complicated man. It not easy to loathe him as we feel toward Donald Trump, for instance. Some things about Wilson in his first term are admirable. He was the last president of the progressive era. He was good on issues like graduated income tax, child labor laws, putting some regulations on business and we must admire his deep belief in the League of Nations, which he was convinced was going to solve the problem of war for all time. In fact, I don’t think that a League of Nations with the United States as the most influential power within it, which was his dream, would have had any more luck at stopping countries from going to war than the UN has been since it was formed in 1945. But nonetheless, you can’t dispute that it’s much better to have a vision of countries sitting down around a table to talk out their differences than fighting.
And in fact, to give him a little more credit, his dedication to this idea of the League of Nations was so strong that it shortened his life. When he was in very ill health in 1919, he set off on a long speaking tour around the United States romoting the League. A speaking tour n those days before public address systems meant a shouting tour. You were addressing 10,000 people just with your own voice in a baseball stadium or someplace like that.
SPENCER: There were no loudspeakers? When did loudspeakers come in?
HOCHSCHILD: Well, maybe some sort of hand-held megaphone, but not until a few years later did electric loudspeakers become common, so public speaking was exhausting. And a month into that trip, Wilson had the first of several near-fatal strokes, which knocked him out of commission for the last year and a half of his presidency. He died a few years after that. So, one must admire him for that. However, he had absolutely no mercy in this war against people speaking out against what he thought was the great noble crusade of the US during the First World War. He pushed hard for censorship to be part of the Espionage Act. I quote in American Midnight a letter that he sent to his Attorney General enclosing a copy of an anti-war newspaper in Chicago, saying, “Can we do something about these people?” Meaning, shut them down, put them in jail, something like that. He had absolutely no concern that thousands of Americans went to prison for what they wrote or said, including Eugene Debs, who had run against him in 1912.
Comparing him to Trump’s campaign and 2016, Trump’s followers chanted “lock her up, lock her up” about Hillary Clinton. Well, Wilson did lock up one of his opponents, Debs, and he locked up a lot of other people as well.
And I think somehow, part of his righteousness and idealism was a belief that anybody who didn’t share these ideals was suspect. That’s the part of him that looms largest in the book. He was also the first Southerner elected to the presidency since the Civil War.
SPENCER: I’ve heard that he was quite a racist.
HOCHSCHILD: He was. He believed black people were inferior. It didn’t bother him at all that they were prevented from voting in the United States. He said virtually nothing about the wave of lynchings that swept the country during this period. And as a historian—he wrote a dozen books—he took a startlingly benign view of slavery. But at the same time, he was the most dignified, professorial, well-spoken, cultured president imaginable and never raised his voice, never shouted and screamed, didn’t dye his hair orange or anything like that, which just shows that you don’t have to be a kind of loudmouth demagogue to preside over a lot of repression.
SPENCER: Well, I said that I’d held a favorable view of him, but I’ve actually held a mixed attitude, though for a different reason. I wrote a book about the separatist wars at the end of the Cold War. There were about 30 separatist wars going on at one time, and I was very concerned about that and the principle that they were based on. Wilson had enshrined the doctrine of “self-determination” as a legitimate basis for changing national boundaries. I have always felt that people who want independent countries because of their right for “self-determination” as a people (whatever that is), if they’d pay more attention to trying to get better governance in the state they were in, we’d have a much better world right now. So, I never have liked the principle of self-determination of peoples as a group. But that’s the only thing I held against Wilson.
HOCHSCHILD: I think you’re right. It’s a tricky thing to put into practice. On the one hand, we feel if a people, a particular ethnic group, or whatever, want their own country, they should have the right to have it. Clearly, the vast majority of people in Ukraine want to have their own country and not be absorbed by Russia. At the same time, in so much of the world, perhaps especially in Eastern Europe, you’ve got several different ethnic groups sharing the same land. And we get into horrible situations when it all gets divided up, as it is right now. In the former Yugoslavia, for instance, where you have tiny little patches of land, it doesn’t make sense. We have to find ways for people of different languages and ethnicities to live together happily in the same shared space. And countries like Switzerland and Belgium and Canada and other places have managed that.
SPENCER: Right. That’s a whole other conversation about nationalism. When the Soviet Union broke up, I had Ukrainians living with me who spoke Russian. They were from Chernigov, which is now Chernihiv, but they believed that Ukraine should be an independent country. I said: No, you should pay more attention to fixing the Soviet Union and making sure that it’s a good government.
HOCHSCHILD: A big job!
SPENCER: Anyway, nowadays I’m in favor of the poor Ukrainians, obviously, rather than the Russians. Anyway, let’s go back to your book. What I wonder is whether other countries caught the same degree of craziness as the US did. I remember reading about the enthusiasm that people had for World War One. It seems to have been out of line with the outset of any other war that I know of. When war comes, people usually say, “Oh, it’s a terrible thing that we’ve got to do it, but we have to do it.” They don’t say “Whoopee!” whereas in World War One they said, “Let’s go, this is going to be fun.” People were so excited and thrilled that they were going to have this great war. And I think that World War One was special in that respect. Am I mistaken?
HOCHSCHILD: You’re not mistaken. It’s true. I think it partly had to do with the fact that Western Europe had not experienced a war for more than forty years. The Franco-Prussian War was the last that they’d had and it had not taken very long. Everybody felt proud of their own army. The British, the French, the Germans were all confident that they could overcome the other side in a short time. You can find pictures of French soldiers waving and smiling as they climb into railway freight cars labeled on the side, ‘To Berlin,” and German soldiers climbing into railway cars that are labeled on the side “To Paris.”
And of course, it didn’t work out that way. It turned out to be history’s most destructive war up to that time. World War Two would later surpass it. They got bogged down on the western front with hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people killed every year. The front line moved very little, was stuck in trenches.
But then the same thing happened all over again when the United States joined the war. Here in America, we’d not had a major overseas war in quite a while. In this crazy way that we human beings have of loving wars, many Americans felt, “Why should the Europeans get all the pleasure of being involved in the greatest war in history, and we’d be left out of it?” So, when the US entered the war in April of 1917, it was greeted with an outburst of enthusiasm. I begin the first chapter of American Midnight about the day that Woodrow Wilson went before Congress and asked them to declare a war. People were not sure whether he was going to ask for an all-out war or a more limited war or would just be telling the Navy to sink German submarines. For me, the moment that symbolizes the madness is that, when it became clear that he was asking for an all-out war and massive conscription to raise a large army, the cheering was led by the Chief Justice of the United States, Edward White of Louisiana. He was a Confederate veteran who leaped up on the floor of the House of Representatives and led the clapping, weeping tears of joy that his country was going to war and that millions of young men would be risking their lives. That feeling existed all over the country.
SPENCER: Did it exist in other countries? Was it related to this whole anti-communist, anti-black, anti-Unionist, anti-Jew, anti-German, all of these right-wing movements that your book is about? Are the two phenomena connected—this enthusiasm for war and the bigotry and other kinds of violations of civil liberties?
HOCHSCHILD: Absolutely. Because, if you feel that your country has just joined the noblest crusade on the planet and needs to put all its effort into fighting this great war and building an enormous army and sending it across the ocean, you’re going to be angry at people who say, “Wait a minute, there are other priorities. There are workers who are receiving inadequate salaries, so let’s raise their wages. There are black people who are discriminated against, so let’s bring justice there.” And so, with the war hysteria underway, anybody working for those other causes could be accused of impeding the war effort. We talked about the Wobblies in Bisbee, Arizona who were rounded up and arrested. Well, they were on strike and that strike could be accused of impeding the war effort by impeding the production of copper. Similarly, the government sent military intelligence officers to reprimand black Americans who spoke out against lynching. “This is just giving ammunition to our German enemy if you talk too much about this stuff.” So, all this war hysteria very quickly shaded over into supporting strands of bigotry and nativism, which of course had been there all along in the United States. But when something happens like the war and the Russian Revolution, it’s like pouring gasoline on embers that are already smoldering.
SPENCER: Okay, but did other countries go crazy together to the same extent? I live in Canada and my assistant was telling me that he has coffee every day in a shop that has a plaque on its outside wall saying this is where Emma Goldman lived. And, in fact, she died here and lay in state for days because people admired her. So, I asked him whether he thinks that Canadians went crazy together as you describe the US in your book. He came up with some juicy stories. I mean, you write about how people who spoke German encountered discrimination. He said that the city of Kitchener, about an hour’s drive from here, was originally Berlin. His grandmother was born in Berlin, but his mother was born in Kitchener because they changed the name. It was settled largely by Germans. So, to what extent were the Canadians swept up in either of these hysterical movements? And did anything comparable happen in Britain, in terms of anti-this and anti-that movements?
HOCHSCHILD: I think Canada did experience some of it, but not on quite the same scale as the United States. The British government took a somewhat different tack. It did prosecute and imprison conscientious objectors under very harsh conditions. It rather shrewdly decided not to do so much press censorship and permitted some anti-war publications to keep on publishing but censored some issues. In part, they did this because for the first nearly three years of the war, they were trying to get the United States to enter the war on the Allied side. They didn’t want to appear to be repressing their dissenters at a time when the United States had not yet entered the war, and when this could be upsetting to Americans. Then I think they realized that it was probably a shrewd course of action to not completely suppress the dissenters after all. So, the belligerent countries took various attitudes. There were people who believed passionately that the war was a terrible thing that shouldn’t be fought and were put in prison because of that. While Emma Goldman was in prison in the United States, Rosa Luxemburg was in prison in Germany.
SPENCER: You got me to Wikipedia today, looking up Emma Goldman because of the conversation I had with my assistant Adam. I found that your appreciation of Emma Goldman is not the mainstream way of appraising her, and not exactly the way I would either. I think you went easy on her in the biography, depicting her as almost a cuddly person. My goodness, she had a life! The thing that puts me off are the two times when she was considered responsible for a murder. One was this guy Frick, and the other one—she maybe wasn’t responsible for it—was President McKinley. I guess she probably really was involved with the Frick murder.
HOCHSCHILD: Oh, she was—very definitely. He wasn’t murdered. It was an attempted murder.
SPENCER: Well, they tried.
HOCHSCHILD: Her then-boyfriend and lifelong compatriot Alexander Berkman tried to assassinate Frick, who was an anti-labor steel executive. And Emma Goldman had helped him prepare for this and then tried in vain to smuggle him out of prison after he was caught, convicted, and sentenced to prison. She later claimed to have abandoned her commitment to violence and indeed was not engaged in any violent activities. She didn’t have anything directly to do with the assassination of President McKinley, but the person who did assassinate him was an anarchist and she was a leading anarchist figure. But by the period that I wrote about in American Midnight, her main activity was organizing against the draft to defy conscription, and for that she was imprisoned for two years and then expelled from the United States for the rest of her life. That’s why she ended up in Canada.
SPENCER: Another fact in Wikipedia was that she was not much of a feminist. Maybe later she was, but she started off opposing the first feminist movement.
HOCHSCHILD: I don’t remember specifically what she said on that point. However, she believed in an overall revolution, rather than just arguing for better status for women, though she certainly favored better status for women. She was completely opposed to traditional marriage. She said, “Marriage is to love as capital is to labor.” That struck a chord with some people, but not with others.
But she had a wide-ranging mind and was extremely alert to every intellectual current of the day. She heard Freud lecture in Vienna. She gave speeches, not just about anarchism and political issues but about Ibsen and Shaw and the modern novel, to a huge variety of audiences. I was very moved by the speech that she gave in court when she was sentenced to prison for organizing against the draft. I can’t quote the whole thing from memory, but it goes sort of like this: “Gentlemen of the jury. We respect your patriotism, but may there not be different kinds of patriotism? Our patriotism (referring to herself and Berkman) is that of the man who loves a woman with open eyes. He is enchanted by her beauty, yet he is not blind to her faults.” And she went on to say that that’s how she felt about the United States, enchanted by its great promise, and its people who have worked for liberty but at the same time, alert to its corruption.
SPENCER: Was she enchanted by Berkman, and then mindful of his faults too? Because he sounds like an unsavory character. In fact, she does, too. Frankly, I don’t feel as warmly toward her as you do—even having now read at least three paragraphs more than I had earlier today.
HOCHSCHILD: But you should also give her credit for when she was deported from the United States. She was deported to Russia. Unlike many other leftists at the time, she very quickly realized what a horror show this new Soviet Union was becoming. She left there in great despair two years later and tried to alert everybody: “This is not the grand experiment in human liberty that you think it is.” And she lost many of her relationships on the American left because of that.
SPENCER: You discuss her relationship with this woman, Kate somebody.
HOCHSCHILD: Kate Richards O’Hare.
SPENCER: Yeah. She was a socialist and opposed to Emma Goldman’s politics, but they got along famously. Did they compare their theories and come up with some sort of composite?
HOCHSCHILD: They came from very different traditions, the anarchist tradition being one that believes in no government at all. Some anarchists also believed that there was something curative and healthy about violence, especially if directed against institutions of power alone. Many other anarchists were not violent. Emma Goldman was somewhere in between. The socialists, of course, believed that there should be government, but that it should be controlled by the workers—by everybody—and that it should also control and run industry for the benefit of people.
Kate Richards O’Hare was the most prominent woman in the American Socialist Party. She ended up in the very next prison cell to Emma Goldman. And they thought, gosh, if we were on the outside, we’d be political rivals, but they became fast friends, and remained so for the rest of their lives, and used to kid each other about Jewish cooking versus Irish cooking. O’Hare typed some of Goldman’s letters for her because she knew how to type and had access to a typewriter. And together they worked to keep the other prisoners happy and do things for them. They were both there because they had been opposed to the war and spoke out against it.
What’s nice for me as a writer is that there were two of the principal characters in my book and they each left a very detailed account of their feelings about the other. Goldman in her memoirs, and Kate Richards O’Hare in a series of letters that she wrote from prison that were smuggled out of prison by a friendly chaplain. And when you’re a writer who likes to build a book through character portraits, when you get to have characters who know each other and say things about each other, it’s just a writer’s dream.
SPENCER: Did they change each other’s opinions? Did they talk about politics in a way that looked for convergence?
HOCHSCHILD: Not that we have any record of. They didn’t seem to talk politics much. They were trying to get things done in the prison—to get library books in and horrible sanitation conditions cleaned up and so forth.
SPENCER: It seems that Emma Goldman was trained as a midwife.
HOCHSCHILD: She worked as a midwife at one point, yeah. That’s what made her a real apostle of the birth control movement. She went to prison for speaking about birth control in New York City.
SPENCER: I would love to be in on some dinner table conversations with you and Arlie (also one of my dearest friends) because you work on comparable projects. You’re both studying extremism in American life. I wonder what we all should learn from this tragic period of American history.
Fortunately, the midterm elections were not as catastrophic as I expected, but I don’t think we’re out of the woods. In fact, I think democracy is broken, but that’s a whole different conversation. What should mainstream democrats with a small d learn from your experience—and do you and Arlie agree?
HOCHSCHILD: I think we do agree. And the main lesson that I take away from the period that I tried to write about in American Midnight is that all of the dark currents which boil to the surface — racism, nativism, tendency towards vigilante violence, hunts for scapegoats to blame for whatever goes wrong—all that stuff is still with us in the United States and a lot of other countries as well. We need to prepare for it.
The other lesson is that democratic institutions are wonderful things. Some of the features built into the American Constitution—checks and balances, separation of powers, the First Amendment, the Bill of Rights—these are wonderful things, but they’re fragile. They can vanish in the blink of an eye, especially in times when there’s some sort of external crisis. And the crises that I was writing about in American Midnight—the US entering the First World War, and then the shock of the Russian Revolution—provided an excuse to suspend some of these things. I don’t ever want us to be in such a situation again.
SPENCER: What can we do to support and protect democracy? I look at that problem as a group dynamics phenomenon: every group of people has the potential to really go crazy together, and even education doesn’t necessarily prevent it. You talk about Wilson having been the president of a university, his education…
HOCHSCHILD: The first American president with a doctoral degree.
SPENCER: So, I’m not sure how to inoculate us except to put us all in the same cocktail shaker and give it a good stir. Make sure that we know each other well enough to have some respect, though the cleavages between us are so deep that sometimes the respect isn’t real.
HOCHSCHILD: We need to be alert to demagogues of all kinds—and I count Wilson as a demagogue, although of a very different sort than Donald Trump. All demagogues are looking to suspend these civil liberties, to suspend the norms under which we usually operate, using some crisis as an excuse. I don’t know what the crisis is going to be next time. Maybe there will be another attack on the United States, like September 11, 2001. That’s the kind of thing that the wrong political leaders could seize on as an excuse for enormous restrictions. We’ll have a continuing crisis due to global warming, which really should be called global heating, because much of the equatorial zone are gradually becoming uninhabitable. There will be a constant flow of people northward to North America and Europe. That can become a crisis that the bad guys can manipulate to their advantage. So, we need to be alert.
SPENCER: Yes, difficult years are coming for everybody. We haven’t done what needed to be done in time and we’re going to pay heavy prices for it. And then I’ll come back and ask you again: What should we do to fix it?
HOCHSCHILD: It’s a deal!
SPENCER: Fine. Give my love to Arlie. It’s been a treat to be with you again, and I hope everybody reads your book.
HOCHSCHILD: Thanks, Metta. Bye.