In recent days, many at Yale have discussed the significance of the centennial of America’s entry into the First World War on April 6 1917. Jay Winter’s Alumni Magazine feature urges us to remember the legacy of refugees in Europe and the Middle East, first seen in mass numbers a century ago. Yale’s Grand Strategy and International Security Studies programs have much to say about the Great War and its lessons for international relations. Paul Kennedy’s campus lecture at the University’s war commemoration will surely add more.
There is, however, another legacy, in some ways more salient than others. A century ago, the Great War revealed American democracy to be broken in ways strikingly familiar today.
For months now, observers have been grasping for historical analogies to our unsettled politics. Some, like Tim Snyder, reach for the creeping nationalisms of the 1930s. Others point to the bitter days before the American Civil War, or draw comparisons to the demagoguery of McCarthyism.
But consider the similarities between our democratic crisis and the problems that arose upon American entry into war a century ago.
World War I touched off a nationalistic security panic targeting immigrants. Pointing to the fifteen million new arrivals who had entered the country in the previous decades, President Woodrow Wilson warned of so-called “hyphenated Americans” whom he claimed threatened to “pour the poison of disloyalty into the arteries of our national life.” At the war’s end, hundreds of aliens were deported on the basis of their political views.
The executive branch condemned the press. The Wilson administration decided that no publication using the mail could even so much as impugn the motives of the government. The Post Office impounded dozens of magazines and newspapers, and even seized an issue of The Nation. New legislation expanded the executive branch’s authority. The Espionage Act banned speech critical of the war effort. The Sedition Act prohibited speech critical of the United States. Ultimately, no fewer than two thousand Americans were convicted under these laws.
Grave racial tensions gripped the country. After a racially charged 1917 episode involving the police, whites in East St. Louis rioted and killed between one and two hundred African Americans. Later that year, police mistreatment of a black soldier in Houston led to violence. In the war’s aftermath, race riots around the country left hundreds of African-Americans dead and many more injured.
Economic inequality was on the rise, too; in 1917, the top one-tenth of one percent of Americans held nearly 25% of the nation’s wealth. In the wake of the conflict, the American labor movement hit rock bottom, as union victories in a booming wartime economy gave way to setbacks at its close.
Perhaps most disturbingly, close observers came to think that they were watching a breakdown in the very mechanisms by which voters learned about the world. Observers like Walter Lippmann and Upton Sinclair concluded the press was failing in its basic democratic mission. The news, they charged, was made up of stereotypes, propaganda and lies.
Parallels with the First World War are daunting. The conflict’s end ushered in a decade of nativism and a resurgent Ku Klux Klan. Economic inequality increased for another decade before crashing into the Great Depression. Postwar American isolationism participated in the nationalisms that led to World War Two. According to some, it is only economic calamity and catastrophic violence that solve crises like those the Great War revealed a century ago.
Yet the war’s legacy has a lesser-known silver lining. Too few today appreciate that in the ashes of war, Americans began to lay a foundation for the mid-century United States’ greatest democratic triumphs. The modern free speech tradition began in 1919 in Supreme Court dissents. A year later, a group of social workers, war critics and labor activists propelled free speech questions to the fore by establishing the American Civil Liberties Union. A decade after that, these dissenting voices came to fruition in the first decisions in the history of the Supreme Court protecting free speech.
Civil rights groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People became mass organizations during and after the war. The expanded NAACP led publicity campaigns that radically lowered the number of lynchings long before the federal government embraced civil rights efforts. By the end of the 1920s the group launched the campaign that would lead to Brown v. Board of Education.
In the American labor movement, a cadre of new leaders fostered new modes of democratic participation. Some leaders conceived of new inter-racial unions that would break out of the patterns of ethnic discrimination that had hobbled labor at the end of the 1910s. A modern administrative state developed, too, establishing nonpolitical expertise that could counter the propagandistic excesses of the partisan media.
A century ago Americans did not merely resist, though they did that too. Over the course of a decade and a half, they built the long-term institutions that resuscitated American democracy. When economic collapse came, and when a new world war broke out, these institutions positioned the United States to take a democratic path into the future. Today the task is to remake the country’s basic democratic infrastructure once more.
John Fabian Witt is a professor of history and law. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .