Power  /  Book Review

War Fever

The crusade against civil liberties during World War I.

With the exception of the Second World War, every military conflict in which the United States has taken part has generated an anti-war movement. During the American Revolution, numerous Loyalists preferred British rule to a war for independence. New Englanders opposed the War of 1812; most Whigs denounced the Mexican-American War launched by the Democratic president James K. Polk; and both the Union and the Confederacy were internally divided during the Civil War. More recently, the wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan split the country. At the same time, wars often create an atmosphere of hyper-patriotism, leading to the equation of dissent with treason and to the severe treatment of critics. During the struggle for independence, many Loyalists were driven into exile. Both sides in the Civil War arrested critics and suppressed anti-war newspapers. But by far the most extreme wartime violations of civil liberties (with the major exception of Japanese American internment during the Second World War) took place during World War I. This is the subject of Adam Hochschild’s latest book, American Midnight.

Adam Hochschild is one of the few historians whose works regularly appear on best-seller lists, a tribute to his lucid writing style, careful research, and unusual choice of subject matter. Most historians who reach an audience outside the academy focus on inspirational figures like the founding fathers or formidable achievements such as the building of the transcontinental railroad. Hochschild, on the other hand, writes about villains and rebels. His best-known book, King Leopold’s Ghost, is an account of the Belgian monarch’s violent exploitation of the Congo, one of the worst crimes against humanity in a continent that has suffered far too many of them. When Hochschild writes about more admirable figures, his heroes are activists and reformers: British antislavery campaigners in Bury the Chains, the birth control advocate and socialist Rose Pastor Stokes in Rebel Cinderella, the Americans who fought in the Spanish Civil War in Spain in Our Hearts.

American Midnight does not lack for heroic figures. But as Hochschild notes at the outset, the book presents a tale of “mass imprisonments, torture, vigilante violence, censorship, killings of Black Americans.” It will certainly not enhance the reputation of President Woodrow Wilson or that of early 20th-century liberalism more broadly, nor will it reinforce the widely held idea that Americans possess an exceptional devotion to liberty.