This week we tackle chapters 2 through 5. The chapters are titled:
2. Betrayal and the Birth of Modern Liberalism
3. Randolph Bourne Writing Novels
4. Three Trials
5. Giants in Decline
What I took away from these chapters is that a harrowing and confusing period in American history, World War I and its aftermath, divided those who sought social reform from those who, it pains me to say it, sought social cleansing and the rise of a new ruling class. Many of the individuals described in chapter one played a part during this time. The forces of lasting reform seem to have gone dormant in America and those for the other goal are, as yet, thwarted. Succeeding chapters will show how these latter forces strove to accomplish their agenda throughout the twentieth century.
This is my inadequate review and commentary of chapters two through five. Many quotes are drawn from Professor Siegel’s book and are supplemented by original sources when necessary.
A young progressive reformer, John Chamberlain, characterized the period prior to America’s entry into WWI as: “the years of Great Expectation when the Millennium, Woodrovian fostered, seemed just around the corner.” The Millennium alluded to was the thousand years of peace prophesied in the Revelation of John. It was not to be.
On July 30, 1916, at 2:08 AM, saboteurs caused a one kiloton explosion on Black Tom Island off the New Jersey coast, near Liberty Island, in NYC harbor. Two million pounds of munitions on their way to the allies were detonated through a series of fires.
This sabotage is viewed as the proximate cause for President Wilson to denounce Germany’s supporters in America as “creatures” of “disloyalty and anarchy [who] must be crushed.” He pushed for and got the Sedition Act of 1918 passed. The Sedition Act extended the Espionage Act of 1917.
The Act’s section 3 text called for in part:
Whoever,…when the United States is at war, shall wilfully utter, print, write, or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States, or the Constitution of the United States, or the military or naval forces…or any language intended to bring the form of government… or the Constitution… or the military or naval forces… or the flag… of the United States into contempt, scorn, contumely, or disrepute…shall be punished by a fine of not more than $10,000 or imprisonment for not more than twenty years, or both….
The incongruity between Wilson’s fighting the war to end all wars to make the world safe for democracy and his curtailment of liberties at home drove a wedge between progressives and those who would soon call themselves liberals.
In 1919, Walter Lippmann wrote, “The word liberalism, was introduced into the jargon of American politics by that group who were Progressives in 1912 and Wilson Democrats from 1916 to 1918.”
Whereas, pre-war Progressives hoped to reform a nation of immigrants grounded in the Protestant ethic, Liberals objected to wartime conscription, civil liberties repression, Prohibition, and the first Red Scare. They saw middle class values as a continuation of WWI repressions.
“Like most sensible people,” liberal Harold Edmund Stearns said, “I regard Prohibition as an outrage and a direct invitation to revolution.”
Randolph Bourne, noted in 1918: “The modern radical opposes the present social system not because it does not give him ‘rights’ but because it warps and stunts the potentialities of society and of human nature.”
The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic… The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.
Yet, Harold Stearns wrote in his 1919 book, Liberalism in America: Its Origin, Its Temporary Collapse, Its Future:
In Soviet countries there is in fact no freedom of the press and no pretense that there is. In America today there is in fact no freedom of the press and we only make the matter worse by pretending that there is.
In the same book, Stearns wrote:
The root of liberalism, in a word, is hatred of compulsion, for liberalism has the respect for the individual and his conscience and reason which the employment of coercion necessarily destroys. The liberal has faith in the individual – faith that he can be persuaded by rational means to beliefs compatible with social good.
About Main Street, Siegel says:
Main Street caught the post-war literary mood of disillusion perfectly. It distilled and amplified the sentiments of Americans who thought of themselves as members of a creative class stifled by the conventions of provincial life.
Lewis followed up Main Street with his satire Babbitt in 1922. At the end of the novel, the main character, George Follansbee Babbitt, says, “I’ve never done a single thing I want to in my whole life! I don’t know’s I’ve accomplished anything except to just get along.”
H. L. Mencken wrote:
It is not what he [George Babbitt] feels and aspires that moves him primarily; it is what the folks about him will think of him. His politics is communal politics, mob politics, herd politics; his religion is a public rite wholly without subjective significance.
He thought George Babbitt embodied what was wrong in society. Thus Mencken agreed with Lewis, who characterized Babbitt as: “This is the story of the ruler of America.”
In his 1927 New Republic essay “The Drug on the Market,” Waldo Frank said:
In a democracy, where castes are vague, where money-power has few manifest badges of dress or standard of living; where indeed millionaire and clerk go to the same movie, read the same books, travel the same roads, and where intellectual distinctions must be carefully concealed,” it is the “herd” that rules.
Three defining court cases took place in the 1920s. They were the 1924 Leopold and Loeb, 1925 Scopes, and 1926-27 Sacco and Vanzetti trials. Clarence Darrow defended the first two and future Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter argued for a second appeal to the Massachusetts State Supreme Judicial Court of the third one. Each trial helped shape case-law and how justice is carried out in America.
Leopold wrote to Loeb: “A superman…is, on account of certain superior qualities inherent in him, exempted from the ordinary laws which govern men. He is not liable for anything he may do.” Pleasure was their moral guide, as Nietzsche’s writings suggested.
During his plea to Cook County Circuit Court Judge John R. Caverly, Darrow asked:
Why did they kill Bobby Franks? Not for money, not for spite, not for hate. They killed him as they might kill a spider or a fly, for the experience. They killed him because they were made that way. Because somewhere in the infinite processes that go to the making up of a boy or the man something slipped, and these unfortunate lads sit here, hated, despised, outcasts, with the community shouting.
All the Leopold and Loeb trial documentation is available online. Darrow put Biblical morality on trial and survival of the fittest won.
As part of the defense, Darrow called Scopes’ student, Harry Shelton, to the witness stand to demonstrate that Scopes’ evolution lessons had not adversely him:
Darrow: “Are you a church member?”
Shelton: “Yes, sir.”
D: “Do you still belong?”
S: “Yes, sir.”
D: “You didn’t leave church when he [Scopes] told you all forms of life began with a single cell?”
Through several witnesses’ testimony, Darrow attempted to show no moral corruption resulted due to learning about evolution.
If this boy is to blame for this, where did he get it? Is there any blame attached because somebody took Nietzsche’s philosophy seriously and fashioned his life upon it? And there is no question in this case but what is true. Then who is to blame? ‘The university would be more to blame than he is. The scholars of the world would be more to blame than he is. The publishers of the world—and Nietzsche’s books are published by one of the biggest publishers in the world—are more to blame than he is. Your Honor, it is hardly fair to hang a 19-year-old boy for the philosophy that was taught him at the university.
The Sacco and Vanzetti case concerned whether the two were guilty of a factory robbery and killing in support of the Galleanists, an Italian anarchist group that advocated revolutionary violence, including ongoing bombing and assassination in America.
Critical opinion assessed that they were railroaded because of anti-Italian prejudice and their anarchist political beliefs. The trials and various appeals were riddled with judicial and prosecutorial misconduct. Later investigations and admissions asserted Sacco was directly involved in the murder but both were involved with the group.
In October 1927, H.G. Wells wrote “Wells Speaks Some Plain Words To Us,” a New York Times essay that described Sacco and Vanzetti as “a case like the Dreyfus case, by which the soul of a people is tested and displayed.” He said:
The guilt or innocence of these two Italians is not the issue that has excited the opinion of the world. Possibly they were actual murderers, and still more possibly they knew more than they would admit about the crime…. Europe is not “retrying” Sacco and Vanzetti or anything of the sort. It is saying what it thinks of Judge Thayer. Executing political opponents as political opponents after the fashion of Mussolini and Moscow we can understand, or bandits as bandits; but this business of trying and executing murderers as Reds, or Reds as murderers, seems to be a new and very frightening line for the courts of a State in the most powerful and civilized Union on earth to pursue.
Prompted by the Sacco and Vanzetti case, the Massachusetts legislature passed a law in 1939 requiring a review of all evidence in first-degree murder cases. The review can result in a reduced conviction or a new trial based on the law and on the evidence or “for any other reason that justice may require.” (Mass laws, 1939 c 341).
Those supporting Communism and the Soviets used the Sacco and Vanzetti trial as a wedge to draw prominent liberals to their cause. Drawing on declassified Comintern documents, Stephen Koch, in his Double Lives: Spies and Writers in the Secret Soviet War of Ideas Against the West, explains that Willi Münzenberg, the Comintern’s master propagandist, intended:
to create for the right-thinking non-Communist West… the belief that…to criticize or challenge Soviet policy was the unfailing mark of a bad, bigoted, and probably stupid person, while support was equally infallible proof of a forward-looking mind committed to all that was best for humanity and mankind by an uplifting refinement of sensibility.
Münzenberg thought the “the idea of America” had to be countered. Koch noted that Soviet sympathizers used events such as the trial:
to instill a reflexive loathing of the United States and its people, to undermine the myth of the Land of Opportunity, the United States would be shown as an almost insanely xenophobic place, murderously hostile to foreigners.
After Herbert Croly’s death in 1930, George Soule, The New Republic’s polemicist for economic planning, said Croly intended liberalism to be “a mental attitude, the faith in the pursuit of a new truth as the chief agency of human deliverance.”
Earlier, in Wells’ 1920 Outline of History, he writes, “There can be no peace now…but a common peace in all the world; no prosperity but a general prosperity, but there can be no peace and prosperity without common historical ideas.”
In 1924, Wells wrote the essay “The Spirit of Fascism: Is There Any Good in It?” In it, Wells wrote:
Moscow and Rome are alike in this, that they embody the rule of a minority conceited enough to believe that they have a clue to the tangled incoherencies of human life, and need only sufficiently terrorize criticism and opposition to achieve a general happiness…Neither recognizes the enormously tentative quality of human institutions, and the tangled and scarcely explored difficulties in the path of social reconstruction.
In 1928, Wells described his alternative in his book The Open Conspiracy: Blue Prints for a World Revolution (revised and republished as What Are We to Do with Our Lives?) where he states: “the freemasonry of the highly competent” ruling class would subject the masses to “the great processes of social reconstruction.” and, through their rule, “escape from the distressful pettiness and mortality of the individual life.” He also wrote:
We no longer want that breeding swarm of hefty sweaty bodies, without which the former civilizations could not have endured, we want watchful and understanding guardians and drivers of complex delicate machines, which can be mishandled and brutalized and spoilt all too easily.
If only words had no power to move mankind’s heart to actions which, in retrospect, are monstrous and despicable. But such is the choice we have as humans. The same choice, in kind, as that which we had in the Garden:
And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die.” Genesis 3:2-4 English Standard Version (ESV)
And so it goes.