DECEMBER 14, 2017
THE UNITED STATES TODAY may seem oblivious to the relentless global military activity carried out in its name, but, as Ken Burns’s recent documentary on the Vietnam War reminds us, that wasn’t always the case. Half a century ago, you would have had a hard time finding Americans unaware of our foreign wars and a very easy time finding people who objected to them — vociferously. Fifty years further back, President Woodrow Wilson’s call for the first large-scale dispatch of American troops abroad also provoked serious opposition — and preoccupied the lives of four of the five principals of Jeremy McCarter’s new book, Young Radicals. At the time, as McCarter points out, the United States had only the 17th largest army in the world, whereas now, a century of foreign interventions later, the American military budget is larger than that of the next eight or 10 runner-up nations combined.
McCarter starts his story on January 1, 1912, Walter Lippmann’s first day as executive secretary to George Lunn, the newly elected Socialist Party mayor of Schenectady, New York. The 22-year-old Lippmann has arrived with great expectations: he came recommended by Socialist Party founder and leader Morris Hillquit; the philosopher William James had once dropped by his dorm room to praise an article he wrote for a campus publication positing a brighter socialist-oriented future; in short, he was, according to McCarter, “the boy wonder of socialism.” Lippmann promptly produced a glowing account of the new Lunn administration for The Masses, the New York City socialist monthly started the previous year. But by the beginning of May (page seven of the book), he was out, now characterizing the Schenectady venture as “timid benevolence” and concluding that, while “[r]eform under the fire of radicalism is an educative thing[,] reform pretending to be radicalism is deadening.” By the next year, Lippmann, now “souring on socialism in all its forms,” had joined the staff of another new magazine, the New Republic, which its publisher called “radical without being socialistic.” It would rapidly become a leading voice for war preparedness, and Lippmann himself would soon take a job with the War Department (as the Defense Department was more appropriately called at the time), mobilizing for the war effort, his days as a radical effectively at an end — almost.
Lippmann knew John Reed at Harvard College when he was an officer in the Intercollegiate Socialist Society and Reed was a cheerleader and student actor. Their political trajectories subsequently crossed, with Reed first drawing public notice for his sympathetic, on-the-spot coverage of Pancho Villa’s Mexican revolutionary forces in 1913. Lippmann, who published his first book that same year, would have the more prominent career, being viewed as one of the nation’s most influential journalists for much of the next six decades. But it is Reed whose considerably shorter story seems to have retained the greater cachet as an embodiment of the zeitgeist: Warren Beatty played him in the 1981 Oscar-winning movie Reds.
Earlier in 1913, Reed had worked in support of 25,000 mostly immigrant silk industry laborers, who organized with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in a strike for better wages and working conditions in Paterson, New Jersey. When the New York press refused to report on the strike, hampering the union’s ability to take their story to a larger regional working class audience, someone came up with the idea of ferrying 1,000 laborers across the Hudson River to Madison Square Garden to tell the story themselves. Crossing the river in the other direction to check out the scene, Reed was arrested at the picket line and thrown in jail for four days; he subsequently assisted with the Madison Square Garden event. (Lippmann also helped, while grousing, McCarter tells us, about Reed’s “inordinate desire to be arrested.”) In addition to the speeches, the event featured an Italian folk song backed by a German chorus, IWW chants adapted to college football tunes, and the entire crowd of 15,000 rising to their feet for a finale of the “Internationale.” All in all, it was perhaps the greatest show the American labor movement ever produced.
Three years later, Reed joined a group of bohemian friends hoping to develop a new type of American theater in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Among their number was Eugene O’Neill, who would go on to become the only American playwright to win the Nobel Prize, but who at that point had never had a play actually performed. In 1917, Reed and wife Louise Bryant, a writer, activist, and feminist of some note, went off to cover the Russian Revolution, an experience Reed described in Ten Days That Shook the World (1919), one of the best and most influential firsthand accounts of a social revolution ever written. Reed and Bryant both, it should be added, were far from being “objective” observers or “disinterested” journalists. McCarter tells us that Reed had been obsessed with Russia ever since his mentor, renowned muckraker journalist Lincoln Steffens, “told him the new world was being born there.” In January 1918, Reed addressed the Third All-Russian Congress of Soviets, and not long after, Leon Trotsky appointed him the Soviet consul in New York. Even though the appointment didn’t work out, he came to be regarded as the “foremost American communist in the world,” sitting on the Executive Committee of the Communist International before resigning in frustration at the Russians’ heavy-handed role in the organization.
In late 1920, after Reed had died in Moscow of typhus five days short of his 33rd birthday, the American journalist and author Max Eastman delivered the eulogy at his funeral. The service was held in New York, but Reed’s body stayed in Moscow, one of three Americans whose remains are interred at the Kremlin wall. The editor-in-chief of The Masses, Eastman once referred to Reed as the publication’s “jail editor.” McCarter describes the New Republic as a “prematurely middle-aged magazine,” but no one ever said anything like that about The Masses. Based in Greenwich Village, the publication was, according to a manifesto co-authored by Eastman and Reed, “a revolutionary and not a reform magazine; a magazine with a sense of humor and no respect for the respectable.” But while The Masses may have been “conspicuously merry,” its politics were never frivolous. When The Masses accused the Associated Press of suppressing news about West Virginia mines and miners, Eastman was indicted for libel, along with cartoonist Art Young. Those charges were eventually dropped, but more would soon follow.
In many ways, this was a more genteel era than our own (Eastman once actually discussed the war with President Wilson), yet it is also true that, in some respects, the government’s repression of war opponents surpassed anything the 1960s antiwar movement encountered. The Masses would soon find itself running afoul of the newly passed Espionage Act, which allowed the Postmaster General to bar from the mail publications deemed to hamper the war effort. A ban was soon issued on all of the major socialist publications, starting with The Masses. Eastman, McCarter writes, “marvel[ed] that the American government has suppressed the socialist press more quickly and completely than the Germans did.” And that wasn’t the half of it: Socialist Party offices were raided by the authorities and vandalized by vigilantes, IWW members were arrested, peace marches were broken up. Socialist Party presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs, who had won six percent of the 1912 vote, had to conduct his 1920 campaign from the Atlanta Penitentiary, where his opposition to the war had landed him with a 10-year sentence under the Espionage Act.
With the Bernie Sanders campaign having brought the ideals of socialism some of their most positive public exposure in decades, Young Radicals suggests that a reconsideration may be in order as to the root cause of the “public relations” problems socialism has experienced during the past century. As McCarter shows, even before the Bolshevik Revolution and the birth and degeneration of Russian Communism (events generally considered decisive in souring many Americans on socialism), the jingoistic pro-war right was already pushing the idea that there was something “un-American” about the movement. After all, the American Socialist Party had actually stuck to the Socialist International’s antiwar principles and opposed the nation’s war effort, unlike the socialist parties in most of the other belligerent nations (the Russians being a notable exception).
Eastman himself subsequently moved hard left during the 1920s, embracing the Twenty-one Conditions for membership in the new Communist International that were rejected by many of the United States’s most prominent socialists, including Debs and Hillquit. Later he would tack to the right, regarding his prior positions as “half-fanatical glassy-mindedness” and dismissing socialism as “a dangerous fairy tale.” By 1955, he was serving on the editorial board of William F. Buckley Jr.’s conservative publication, National Review. His life was often held up as a caution to the 1960s New Leftists, purportedly illustrating the foolishness of their youthful radicalism.
Eastman, who lived to be 86, was in 1918 the only one of this book’s five central characters not to be affected by the worldwide influenza outbreak that killed more people than the war had itself. One of the epidemic’s casualties was Randolph Bourne, the first of the book’s characters to die, at age 32. Bourne’s personal life was dominated by his physical condition: a childhood illness had stunted his growth and twisted his spine, leaving him hunch-backed and short. A college classmate who heard him play the piano marveled at “how beautifully this strange misshapen gnome could make a piano sing and talk.” McCarter reports that, after publishing Bourne’s first essay and inviting him to a club lunch, the editor of The Atlantic cancelled “shortly after Bourne arrived, as he couldn’t bear to be seen with one so deformed.” (The reader’s inevitable curiosity as to his appearance is frustrated by the book’s lack of illustrations.)
The last years of Bourne’s political life were dominated by the war. After the New Republic declared that it was the intellectuals who had brought the nation into the conflict, and that this was to their credit, Bourne wrote that “[o]nly in a world where irony was dead could an intellectual class enter war at the head of such illiberal cohorts in the avowed cause of world liberalism.” Like a lot of Bourne’s writing, this essay would stand up equally well 50 years later as an indictment of the Kennedy Era’s “best and brightest” who did so much to bring us the disaster in Vietnam. American critic Lewis Mumford considered Bourne “perhaps the only writer who gauged” the “virulence of the animus” set loose by the world war “at its full worth.” As McCarter writes, “Bourne had predicted that leaders stupid enough to start a world war would be too stupid to end it.” It is not hard for contemporary readers to see that judgment as a critique of the state of affairs once called the global War on Terror but now known as everyday reality.
Alice Paul, the one female among McCarter’s five youthful radicals, was also the only one for whom the war always remained a secondary concern. Nothing would divert her attention from the suffrage issue until women actually had won the right to vote. Raised amid progressive ideas in a Quaker family and educated in them at Swarthmore, Paul found her life’s calling at age 22 when she saw crusading suffragette Christabel Pankhurst in action in Great Britain. Quickly enrolled in the movement led by Christabel’s mother Emmeline, Paul was arrested numerous times for disruption of public events. Suffragette strategy was to seek political prisoner status and then engage in hunger strikes; during her last prison stay, Paul was force-fed 55 times.
After this experience, which harmed her health permanently, Paul returned to the United States to recuperate and apply herself further to the cause. She made her mark nationally by helping to mount a march of 8,000 suffragists along Pennsylvania Avenue the day before Woodrow Wilson’s 1913 inauguration. After a congressional resolution was deemed necessary to secure the route, a half million people came to witness the colorful parade, whose way had to be cleared by the Pennsylvania and Massachusetts national guards, the local police having failed to do so. Paul herself soon met with Wilson, taking the new president aback by asking if he did “not understand that the Administration has no right to legislate for currency, tariff, and any other reform without first getting the consent of women to these reforms.”
Four years later, when Russian diplomats from the short-lived Kerensky government arrived at the White House for a meeting on the war effort, two suffragettes unfurled a banner declaring that “America is not a democracy” because “[t]wenty million American women are denied the right to vote.” After suffragists had stood outside the White House for over a year, Wilson endorsed legislation to expand the franchise, which passed the House in early 1918 and the Senate the following year, becoming the 19th Amendment to the Constitution when the requisite number of state legislatures endorsed it in 1920. Of all of McCarter’s subjects, Paul was unquestionably the most successful in achieving her goals, yet he believes that her “absolute single-mindedness” also led her to “evil” compromises with Southern white supremacists who feared that “enfranchising women will create more pressure to enfranchise black people.” In one editorial, Paul even claimed that the “enfranchising of all women will increase the relative power of the white race in a most remarkable way.”
Paul — and the National Woman’s Party she headed — continued the struggle by introducing the Equal Rights Amendment in 1923, which finally passed both houses of Congress in 1972 (though it stalled in the state legislatures). When Paul died in 1977 at the age of 92, she was the last of the book’s survivors. Eastman, whose rightward turn had led him to an editorial post at Reader’s Digest (according to McCarter, “the squarest and least radical magazine in America”) had died in 1969. Lippmann, 85 when he departed the planet in 1974, turned out to have one last spark of radicalism left in him. When most establishment liberals lined up behind the “domino theory” that brought us the Vietnam War, Lippmann refused to join in. Lyndon Johnson never forgave him, but Life magazine called him “the embodiment of meaningful opposition.”
With the rise of Donald Trump causing many Americans to scrutinize our politics and history more rigorously than they might otherwise have done, in an earnest search for alternatives to the status quo, McCarter has given us a well-written and compelling introduction to the lives of five young radicals who embarked upon a similar journey of resistance one century ago.
Tom Gallagher is a writer and activist living in San Francisco. He is the author of Sub: My Years Underground in America’s School (2015) and The Primary Route: How the 99 Percent Takes on the Military Industrial Complex (2016).