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Woodrow Wilson led the U.S. into WWI. He also waged war on democracy at home

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I am Terry Gross. Democracies around the world are under threat including here in the U.S., where the Jan. 6 insurrection tried to overturn the 2020 presidential election. And former President Donald Trump recently called for the termination of all rules, regulations and articles, even those found in the Constitution, to overturn the election and reinstall him as president. Earlier anti-democratic movements in America are the subject of a new podcast series and a new book. Rachel Maddow's new podcast, "Ultra," is about what she describes as a seditious conspiracy to overthrow the U.S. government by a violent, ultra-right authoritarian movement aligned with Germany just before World War II. We plan to have her on the show Thursday.

My guest today, Adam Hochschild, has written a new book about the threats to American democracy from within from 1917 to 1921. That was the period when the U.S. entered World War I to the period just after the war. He describes how the federal government imprisoned people for what they said, censored newspapers and magazines, failed to investigate white riots against Black communities, targeted labor unions, and mounted a campaign to deport immigrants, turning Ellis Island into a jail.

White supremacist and vigilante groups are on the rise. One vigilante group became an arm of the government. Anti-German sentiment blended with antisemitism. The military crafted a secret contingency plan to put the entire country under martial law. Hochschild's new book is called "American Midnight: The Great War, A Violent Peace, And Democracy's Forgotten Crisis." He's the author of previous books about brutal European colonial rule in Africa, people in Britain who opposed World War I, and Americans who fought against authoritarianism in the Spanish Civil War just before World War II.

Adam Hochschild, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Did threats to American democracy inspire this book?

ADAM HOCHSCHILD: Yes, I think so. I started the book during the first year or so of the Trump administration. I think a lot of us were worried that American democracy might go down the tubes. But I've always been interested in this period in our country's life of just over a hundred years ago. And I'm particularly drawn to write about parts of history that feel, to me, covered up. And the more I learned about what happened in the United States between 1917 and '21, the more it felt as if somebody was writing a history of these years we're living through right now a hundred years from now, and they didn't mention anything about the Jan. 6 invasion of the Capitol last year, they didn't mention anything about the murder of George Floyd on video for the whole world to see, they didn't mention anything about a string of appalling Supreme Court decisions. All countries tend to sanitize their history. And I think this period of a century ago is one of the many parts of American history that gotten (ph) sanitized.

GROSS: So during this period from 1917 to 1921, you have the great migration of Black people from the South moving to northern industrial cities. You have waves of immigrants including Jewish, Polish and Italian immigrants, who weren't thought of as white. And you have the rise of the labor movement. Why did they all become bigger targets as a result of World War I?

HOCHSCHILD: Well, those were exactly the conflicts that were dividing the United States in those years. And they were very violent - you know, nativists versus immigrants, Blacks and whites, business and labor. Dozens of people got killed, for example, in labor disputes every year. Just in 1913, 1914 alone, more than 70 people, some of them women and children, were killed by National Guardsmen and company detectives in a miner's strike in Colorado. Then, the United States enters the First World War, and it's like pouring gasoline on all of these sets of flames so that that person - you hear of - there's all this hostility towards immigrants. Suddenly, that person speaking a foreign language on a street corner might be a German spy.

Then, something else happened in November of 1917, some six months after we entered the First World War. The Russian Revolution happened. It terrified the American establishment. And now that person speaking a foreign language on a street corner might be a Russian spy. So going to war always has a - it injects a kind of hysteria into a country. And then, the threat that the Russian Revolution might spread to the United States, which, I think, was not a realistic possibility in any case - but nonetheless, many people felt it - kind of ratcheted up the hysteria still more. And it resulted in a wave of repression that really has gotten swept under the rug in those four years, 1917 to '21.

Press censorship operated on a huge scale in the United States. Some 75 newspapers and magazines were forced to shut down. There was a nationwide vigilante group with 250,000 members that was chartered by the Justice Department that went around making citizen's arrests, roughing people up in a very violent way. And during that period, there were roughly a thousand Americans sent to prison for a year or more, and a far larger number for shorter periods of time solely for things that they wrote or said.

GROSS: Your book starts with a very dramatic story. It's a raid on the headquarters of the most radical of the labor groups, the Industrial Workers of the World, which were known as the Wobblies. And they advocated for one world union. The Wobblies who were there when headquarters were raided were arrested for vagrancy although they were employed. And after the sentencing in the court, several witnesses for the defense were seized by the bailiffs. They, along with the defendants, were loaded into three cars. Describe what happened.

HOCHSCHILD: Well, these cars were driven through the night supposedly from the local jail in Tulsa, Okla., to a larger prison. But in fact, that turned out not to be the case. When the cars crossed a railroad track, they were stopped, surrounded by a band of masked-and-robed men in black robes and masks. They were taken to a ravine on the outskirts of town. All these men were stripped to the waist, beaten severely, and then tarred and feathered, which was a common punishment in those days. And what - and the - an account of this appeared in the newspapers sort of as a threat to other people - don't try labor organizing anymore. The leader of the mob that did this to them was the local police chief.

GROSS: So this is an example of how World War I was basically used as justification for attacks against labor unions. The leader of this vigilante group proclaimed that this attack was in the name of the outraged women and children of Belgium 'cause German atrocities against Belgians were a centerpiece of American war propaganda. Can you talk about that a little bit more?

HOCHSCHILD: Yeah. The Wilson administration faced the problem of how they were going to get Americans excited about this war because, after all, nobody had attacked the United States. It was not, you know, something like Pearl Harbor in 1941. There was no attacks like the Sept. 11, 2001, attack. Nobody had attacked the United States. So there was a huge war propaganda operation. The Committee for Public Information, it was called. It was mounted by the government.

And one central part of that propaganda is that the United States was going to take revenge upon Germany for its occupation of Belgium. And, in fact, the German occupation of Belgium was pretty brutal. Many people were shot and so forth. But this was one of the ways in which they tried to whip up American hysteria about the war. The amazing thing to me, though, is just how much hysteria there was even though the U.S. had not been attacked. And I think that's because all of these other conflicts that were going on in the U.S. at that time - Blacks and whites, nativists, business and labor - somehow got funneled into enthusiasm for the war.

GROSS: You mentioned that one vigilante group was used by the Justice Department as, basically, an unofficial arm of it, the American Protective League. So tell us a little bit about this vigilante group.

HOCHSCHILD: Yeah. This was an organization which by the end of 1917 had 250,000 members. And it was composed almost entirely of men. It was all white. And these were men who were a little bit too old to go to the front and fight. But they wanted to feel that they were battling for their country. And battle they did. I can actually read you a quotation from one member of the American Protective League, used when he described, with a couple of his comrades, beating up anti-war demonstrators in Grant Park in Chicago in 1917. I'll read it to you.

(Reading) When one particularly vicious orator began to incite the mob, I jumped on the platform and grabbed him. A few seconds later, I landed on the heads of the people in front. My two companions rushed to me. And shoulder to shoulder, we battled for our lives. Wagons full of police with riot clubs arrived. And we managed to arrest the leaders.

Now, this is violence against somebody who was merely using their right of free speech to speak out against the United States entering this war. That's the kind of thing that the American Protective League did. They did a lot else as well.

GROSS: How did they connect to the government? How did the Justice Department start using the American Protective League?

HOCHSCHILD: They were officially chartered by the government. And when you joined the American Protective League, you got to wear a sort of silver shield like that worn by a police officer. It had your rank on it, you know, lieutenant, captain, operative, chief. It said American Protective League. And then in the middle of the badge, it said auxiliary to the U.S. Department of Justice. In addition to roughing up people at anti-war demonstrations and so on, one of the things that the members of this organization did was carry out what they called slacker raids, where they would sweep through, in large numbers - you know, thousands of members sweep through a major city like New York or Chicago - and arrest any young men, do citizen's arrests on any young men who couldn't produce a draft card, or who left their draft card at home or whatever.

These guys were held, often, overnight - sometimes several days - in an armory or a warehouse or a police station until their desperate families could reach them with their draft cards. And then they were let go. Or those who actually were evading the draft, usually a very small percentage, were then shipped off to the Army. So this allowed these older men to still feel that they were fighting the war, by being part of this paramilitary organization.

GROSS: So this is the period, 1917-1921, when you have the beginning of government surveillance of Americans. How did the paranoia brought on by World War I empower government agencies, the military, to do their own spying and infiltrating?

HOCHSCHILD: You know, once a country goes to war, it provides the excuse for all sorts of things. And one of those things that happened was a huge ratcheting up of the surveillance - government surveillance of ordinary citizens. One of the agents that did it was the U.S. Army, where there was a very ambitious young Army officer, Ralph Van Deman, who had gotten interested in surveilling subversives when he was battling guerrillas in the Philippines. Now he was in Washington, 1917. He managed to persuade the army to set up a military intelligence branch directed at civilians in the United States. And within a year, he had more than a thousand people working for him. And you can find his reports on these - the people they surveilled in the National Archives today.

Another agency that did this was the Bureau of Investigation in the Justice Department, the agency that added federal to its name in the 1930s, which also began watching labor organizers, anti-war radicals of all sorts. And one of the characters I follow in the book, which is built around following the lives of eight or 10 people who lived through this period, is an undercover agent for the Bureau of Investigation who infiltrated the Wobblies - the Industrial Workers of the World - in Pittsburgh, Pa., and was so trusted by them that he was elected secretary of the local Wobbly branch, found himself leading marches and demonstrations, giving speeches and so forth. The whole time, he was sending three or four reports a week to the Justice Department.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Adam Hochschild. And his new book is called "American Midnight: The Great War, A Violent Peace, And Democracy's Forgotten Crisis." We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF KEVIN EUBANKS' "POET")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Adam Hochschild, author of the new book, "American Midnight: The Great War, A Violent Peace, And Democracy's Forgotten Crisis." And it's about the period when we entered World War I to the period just after the war - that's 1917 to 1921 - when the federal government basically started surveillance of American citizens, when citizens were locked up for what they said or wrote, when there was press censorship, when racism, anti-immigration sentiment, antisemitism were all on the rise and so were vigilante groups. The attorney general was a liberal Democrat who had opposed the war. But his home in Washington, D.C., was one of the targets of a synchronized set of bombings in eight cities. A part of his home was destroyed by this bomb. He and his family were at home at the time. And that seems to have completely changed him and set him on a course targeting immigrants for deportation. Tell us about Palmer.

HOCHSCHILD: Yeah. A. Mitchell Palmer was the attorney general in the second part of Wilson's second term. I think what really changed him - he was a Quaker, by the way, and, you know, used thee and thou in his speech sometimes, had refused an appointment as secretary of war at the beginning of the Wilson administration because he was opposed to wars in general. But by 1919, he had his eye on the Democratic nomination for president in 1920, especially when it became clear Wilson was not going to be running again. And as the country's top law enforcement officer, he saw himself as the law and order candidate. Then, just as he was starting to think about all these things, his house was bombed, which also made him a victim in the public's eyes. He and his wife and daughter were not hurt, but their house was destroyed. The images of it were on front pages of newspapers all over the country.

And this set him on a very vengeful course. And this is another one of these things that makes this period seem eerily like today. In fact, we can even say this is sort of the Trumpiest (ph) period of American history before Trump. Palmer was campaigning for president on the platform of mass deportations, as was the leading candidate on the Republican side, General Leonard Wood, who was also promising to deport people in large numbers. And this was something that sort of filled the air in that presidential campaign leading up to the nominating conventions in 1920.

GROSS: So during this period, immigrants who were rounded up, at least around New York, were held at Ellis Island. Ellis Island is the place where so many immigrants came through to be processed before entering the U.S. So that place that had ushered immigrants in was now basically a jail for people being deported.

HOCHSCHILD: That's right. Nearly 40% of us in this country have one or more ancestors who arrived through Ellis Island. But in this frenzy of promises of deportation in the 1920 presidential campaign, thousands of people were rounded up, were being held for deportation as soon as the government could, you know, get the paperwork done. And many of them were, in fact, held at Ellis Island.

GROSS: You know, somebody who's kind of a hero in your book prevented a lot of those people from actually being deported. Tell us about him.

HOCHSCHILD: His name was Louis F. Post, and he was acting secretary of labor. And here's why that was important. Attorney General Palmer had his Justice Department arrest thousands of people who, even though they were living in the United States, were not yet citizens. Therefore, they could be deported. And these people were being held in jails throughout the East and the Midwest awaiting deportation.

But there was a wrinkle, which was this - although it was Palmer's Justice Department that had the power to make arrests, deportations had to be approved by the Immigration Bureau, which fell under the Department of Labor. And as it happened, the acting secretary of Labor, Louis F. Post, was a very good guy. He was not a radical, not a socialist or an anarchist, but he was somebody who believed deeply in civil liberties and believed that nobody should be deported from the United States because of his or her political opinions. He found problems, legal problems, with the arrest warrants. He was a very experienced lawyer. He invalidated them. And he managed to save thousands of people from being expelled from this country.

This infuriated Palmer and Palmer's top deputy, the 24-year-old J. Edgar Hoover, who was just at the beginning of his long and powerful career. They tried to get Congress to investigate Post. They got the American Legion to demand his firing. But Post was a very wily bureaucratic fighter and managed to hold on to his job to the very last day of the Wilson administration.

GROSS: We need to take another break here. So let me introduce you first. If you're just joining us, my guest is Adam Hochschild. He's the author of the new book "American Midnight: The Great War, A Violent Peace And Democracy's Forgotten Crisis." It's about the period from 1917 to 1921. That's the period when America entered World War I through the period just after the war. We'll be right back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF TERENCE BLANCHARD'S "FOOTPRINTS")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Adam Hochschild. His new book is called "American Midnight: The Great War, A Violent Peace, And Democracy's Forgotten Crisis." It's about the period from 1917 to 1921, which is the period when America entered World War I to the period just after the war. It's the period when the federal government imprisoned people for what they said, censored newspapers and magazines, failed to investigate white riots against Black communities, targeted labor unions and mounted a campaign to deport immigrants. Meanwhile, white supremacists and vigilante groups are on the rise, and one vigilante group became an arm of the government, an anti-German sentiment blended with antisemitism. The military crafted a secret contingency plan to put the entire country under martial law.

Let's talk about J. Edgar Hoover's role during this period. He was tapped by the head of the Justice Department, Attorney General Palmer, to start this new unit. Tell us about this new unit.

HOCHSCHILD: OK. At that time, the unit was called the radical division of the Justice Department. And this was really part of Palmer's plan to deport large numbers of people and then be able to claim, as he ran for president in 1920, that he was the law-and-order candidate, that he was the one who had rid the country of dangerous troublemakers. So Hoover helped identify who were the thousands of people that they were going to round up. But it was really rather careless identification because they didn't have that good data on who was actually members of Socialist or Communist parties or belonged to what organization. But the main point was to serve Palmer's hope for a presidential campaign by arresting large numbers of people.

And in the Palmer raids, which they're called, they really should be called the Hoover raids, which took place late 1919 and early 1920. And Hoover himself actually led the raiders on a couple of occasions and was sure to invite newspaper reporters along. They rounded up about 10,000 people. They didn't keep them all in jail. And there are no accurate figures on what proportion of them were kept in jail, maybe 4,000 or 5,000 total, those who appeared not to be American citizens and therefore were eligible for deportation. And, of course, they were often roughed up when they were arrested. And you can actually see videos of that on YouTube because the Bureau of Investigation invited newsreel photographers along.

GROSS: You mentioned earlier the military intelligence operation that was started during the period that you write about. And the person who ran it was Ralph Van Deman, who was a lieutenant colonel in the military. And he recruited military intelligence agents from private detective agencies like the Pinkertons who were used to spying on labor unions. Why was the military going after labor unions?

HOCHSCHILD: Well, I think this really comes back to one man, Ralph Van Deman, whose great love in life was surveilling people he thought subversives. He'd gotten his start as an Army officer in the Philippine War, that very brutal war from 1899 to 1902 that continued sporadically a while after that, where he was in charge of something called the Bureau of Insurgent Records in Manila. Who were insurgents? They were Filipinos who did not want to become a colony of the United States. He'd gotten a taste for this kind of work there. And then when he found himself in a desk job in the War Department in 1917, when the U.S. went to war. He immediately went to the secretary of war with a proposal that he start a similar operation, surveilling Americans who were subversive. And within a year, he had a thousand people working for him, military and civilian. And you can find their records today in the National Archives.

GROSS: In 1917, the Espionage Act was passed, and soon after, the Sedition Act was passed. What did those acts officially intend to do and how were they actually used?

HOCHSCHILD: Well, they were basically intended to shut down dissent against the war because there were a lot of Americans who were skeptical. You know, should the United States really join this war in Europe? Here was the largest war and most deadly war the world had ever seen up to that point. The United States was not involved. We were on the other side of the ocean. Many Americans felt it was a mistake to go to war. Wilson however, President Wilson was very eager to go to war, and he pushed the Espionage Act through Congress. One of the things that allowed him to do was to shut down media that opposed the war. And media in those days meant newspapers and magazines. There was no internet, no radio, no TV. The Espionage Act gave to the postmaster general the power to declare a publication unmailable. And, of course, you know, newspapers and magazines depended on that. Daily newspapers, the mainstream daily newspapers, which pretty much supported the war, could still be sold on street corners and delivered to people's homes. But weeklies, monthlies, journals of opinion, the vast majority of the socialist press, the vast majority of the foreign language press had to travel through the mail. The postmaster general...

GROSS: The Black press, too, right?

HOCHSCHILD: Yes, very much so. A lot of the Black press. There were only a handful of Black dailies. The postmaster general at that point, Albert Burleson, was a very right-wing former congressman from Texas, arch segregationist. His family had owned 20 slaves at the time that he was born. And he loved being chief censor and used that power to shut down some 75 newspapers and magazines over the next four years. Ironically, Burleson ran this whole censorship operation from the building that was then Post Office headquarters and a century later became the Trump International Hotel, where, when it was under that name - it's just changed ownership - you could stay in the postmaster general suite for $4,000 a night.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you again. If you're just joining us, my guest is Adam Hochschild, author of the new book "American Midnight: The Great War, A Violent Peace, And Democracy's Forgotten Crisis." We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Adam Hochschild, author of the new book "American Midnight: The Great War, A Violent Peace, And Democracy's Forgotten Crisis." It's about the period from 1917 to 1921, the period when America entered World War I through the period just after the war. It's a period of the rise of government surveillance, government censorship, plans for the mass deportation of immigrants. And it's a period when white nationalist groups are on the rise as well as anti-labor vigilante groups.

While the government was active in suppressing the rights of people it saw as its opponents or opponents of World War I, it failed to uphold the rights of people it saw as threats or enemies. And that included immigrants, Jews, Black people. There were a series of white-inspired riots in the period that you write about. In 1917, there was a white riot against a Black neighborhood in East St. Louis. In 1919, there was a series of white riots against Black communities. In 1921, it was the now-infamous Tulsa riot.

Let's start with 1917. Would you describe the white mobs that attacked a Black neighborhood in East St. Louis?

HOCHSCHILD: Yeah. This was the first of these explosions of white violence. East St. Louis was a smoky, industrial city in Illinois across the river from St. Louis - a lot of factories there, steel mills, that kind of thing. And cities like this were a destination for people who were making the Great Migration. These were Black Americans who were fleeing the South, a region where they were stuck in miserable jobs as picking cotton, as sharecroppers, doing that kind of thing, and also a region where there was often, like, one lynching a week somewhere in the South. They fled to places like East St. Louis, where there were industrial jobs that paid better.

But they found themselves not welcome there because they were willing to work often for lower wages than the white workers, many of them recent immigrants who were already established there. Rioting broke out that was provoked, instigated almost entirely by white people. Somewhere approaching a hundred people were killed, virtually all of them Black. We don't know the exact number because the bodies of many of the victims were tossed into the Mississippi River and floated away downstream.

The Black residential area of East St. Louis was pretty much burned to the ground. And there are horrible, vivid descriptions of things - like, one Black guy tried to take refuge by hiding inside a large wooden box. The crowd saw him, nailed the box shut, and tossed it onto a flaming bonfire - one thing after another like that. And then, it all happened on a much larger scale in the summer of 1919.

GROSS: In terms of the East St. Louis riot, you write that what the government did in response was to investigate whether it was caused by Germans because we were at war with Germany. And when it found no German influence, the investigation was dropped.

HOCHSCHILD: Absolutely. And Woodrow Wilson said nothing about what happened in East St. Louis. A delegation of Black leaders went and pleaded with him, and he said almost nothing about a much larger wave of riots that happened in 1919. He was virtually completely silent on this whole issue. And in fact, under his administration, the federal government, already somewhat segregated to begin with, became still more segregated. The number of Black Americans working for the federal government decreased under his administration.

GROSS: This was also a period - 1917 to '21 - when there was a rise in Black people being lynched and burned alive. And you write that, again, the government failed to investigate these brutal crimes.

HOCHSCHILD: Absolutely. There were more than 70 Black Americans lynched in 1919, for example. And many Black people had hoped that joining the army, you know, they would gain some stature in this country. They would gain protection. They would show that they had, you know, fought for their country and deserved a better deal here than the miserable deal they had at the time. But not so. Some 11 of those lynching victims in 1919 were veterans. Three of them were lynched in uniform. The very sight of a Black man in a military uniform, indicating that he'd had military training, knew how to shoot and so on, was something that often infuriated a white mob.

GROSS: You know, it's interesting that you're writing about the period of World War I and a kind of, can we say, authoritarian streak in...

HOCHSCHILD: Definitely.

GROSS: ...America?

HOCHSCHILD: ...An authoritarian streak that is still with us, these toxic currents of...

GROSS: Well, that's what I want to ask you about 'cause...

HOCHSCHILD: ...Nativism and racism - yeah.

GROSS: Yeah, 'cause coincidentally, like, Rachel Maddow is writing about an authoritarian streak just before World War II and efforts to subvert American democracy. You know, it seems like there is a strain of authoritarianism, racism, antisemitism, anti-immigrant feelings that never really goes away. It recedes into the background, but it doesn't go away.

HOCHSCHILD: Times of stress bring this current to the surface, and I think we're going through a time of stress right now. You know, there are large portions of this country, particularly the red states, the red counties, where income levels are decreasing, where people are feeling I'm not going to do as well in life economically as my parents did. And they look around for somebody to blame.

In the unsettled period of a century ago, it was a different kind of stress. I think it's no coincidence that the worst racial warfare happened in 1919. It was a time when 4 million men got released from the U.S. Army, the U.S. military - they came back to the United States. And there weren't enough jobs because the factories that had been making tanks and planes and machine guns and ships and so forth during the war had shut down. So Blacks and whites were competing for jobs. And for many white Americans, it was all too easy to blame Black competition for the fact that they couldn't get a job. So that produced the racial warfare then.

In the 1930s, the period that Rachel Maddow is talking about in that very excellent podcast series, it was the stress of the Great Depression that, I think, led to the upwelling of all this nastiness there. So I think we just have to be alert in the future to, what are the stresses? What are the crises that are going to bring all this toxic stuff boiling up to the surface again?

GROSS: What do you think the stresses and crises are today?

HOCHSCHILD: Well, I think one of them is the division of the country between - it's - and it's quite remarkable if you look at the statistics of how the blue states, blue counties, blue cities are prospering more economically than the rural areas, large parts of the South, of Appalachia, parts of the country that are getting left behind economically. And whenever people are in an economically declining position, that's a danger point, I think, because then demagogues can come along and give them somebody to blame.

Another point of stress in the future is obviously going to be climate refugees. You know, the equatorial areas of the world are becoming gradually less and less habitable. And so it's no wonder that we've got millions of people trying to get across the southern border into the United States. Same thing is happening in Western Europe. That's going to be a point of stress in the future as well. It already is today.

GROSS: Some people might take a message of optimism from your book that there were so many threats to American democracy during the period of World War I; yet here we are today. You know, democracy has survived. Do you take away a message of optimism having written this book?

HOCHSCHILD: I wish I could say that.

GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah.

HOCHSCHILD: I wish I could say we went through a terrible period and then the people who were responsible for all this repented of their sins and reformed and swore it was never going to happen again. But I don't think that's the case. I think what happened is that this period of enormous repression came to an end because in the eyes of those who were in control in this country, it had accomplished its purpose. And its purpose, really, despite all the brouhaha about German spies and possible, you know, Russian Revolution spreading to the United States and all that - its purpose was basically to crush progressive forces.

And that was the result of these four years of repression. The IWW, the Industrial Workers of the World, the Wobblies, was crushed as an organization. It was never a significant force again. The Socialist Party was crushed as an organization. It never fully really came back to life. It would never have been a powerful force in the United States in the way that socialism has been in Western Europe, for example. But had the party continued and thrived, it might have pushed the two major parties to do more in the way of creating a better social safety net, a national health care system, the way they have in most of Western Europe and across the border in Canada.

And in this period, it also saw a lot of very anti-labor legislation. Even the American Federation of Labor, which was very mainstream, very moderate, lost a million members. So I think that's why the repression came to an end, that it largely accomplished its purposes.

GROSS: Adam Hochschild, thanks so much for coming back to our show. It was a pleasure to talk with you again.

HOCHSCHILD: Well, thank you, Terry. It's always great to be with you.

GROSS: Adam Hochschild's new book is called American Midnight. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARCUS ROBERTS TRIO'S "LET IT SNOW! LET IT SNOW! LET IT SNOW!") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.