Lessons from a Dark Time and Other Essays

Lessons from a Dark Time and Other Essays

by Adam Hochschild

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In this rich collection, bestselling author Adam Hochschild has selected and updated over two dozen essays and pieces of reporting from his long career. Threaded through them all is his concern for social justice and the people who have fought for it. The articles here range from a California gun show to a Finnish prison, from a Congolese center for rape victims to the ruins of gulag camps in the Soviet Arctic, from a stroll through construction sites with an ecologically pioneering architect in India to a day on the campaign trail with Nelson Mandela. Hochschild also talks about the writers he loves, from Mark Twain to John McPhee, and explores such far-reaching topics as why so much history is badly written, what bookshelves tell us about their owners, and his front-row seat for the shocking revelation in the 1960s that the CIA had been secretly controlling dozens of supposedly independent organizations.
With the skills of a journalist, the knowledge of a historian, and the heart of an activist, Hochschild shares the stories of people who took a stand against despotism, spoke out against unjust wars and government surveillance, and dared to dream of a better and more just world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520969674
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 10/02/2018
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 296
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Adam Hochschild is a journalist and author who has written on issues of human rights and social justice. His books include the bestselling King Leopold’s Ghost. He has been a finalist twice for the National Book Critics Circle Award and once for the National Book Award. He has been awarded the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and is a two-time recipient of the Gold Medal of the California Book Awards.


San Francisco, California

Date of Birth:

October 5, 1942

Place of Birth:

New York, New York


A.B., Harvard College, 1963

Read an Excerpt


Lessons from a Dark Time

FROM THE MOMENT HE TOOK OFFICE, American newspapers and TV screens have overflowed with President Donald J. Trump's choleric attacks on the media, immigrants, and anyone who criticized him. It makes you wonder: what would it be like if nothing restrained him from his obvious wish to silence such enemies? For a chilling answer, we need only roll back the clock a century, to a time when the United States endured a three-year period of unparalleled surveillance, censorship, mass imprisonment, and anti-immigrant terror. And, strangely, all this happened under a president usually remembered for his internationalist idealism.

When Woodrow Wilson went before Congress on April 2, 1917, and asked it to declare war on Germany, the country was as riven by divisions as it is today. Even though millions of people, from the perennially bellicose Theodore Roosevelt on down, were eager for war, President Wilson was not sure he could count on the backing of some nine million German Americans or of the 4.5 million Irish Americans who might be reluctant to fight as allies of Britain. Hundreds of elected state and local officials belonged to the Socialist Party, which strongly opposed American participation in this or any other war. And tens of thousands of Americans were "Wobblies," members of the militant Industrial Workers of the World, or IWW, and the only battle they wanted to fight was that of labor against capital.

The moment the United States joined the conflict in Europe, a second, less noticed war began at home. Staffed by federal agents, local police, and civilian vigilantes, it had three targets: anyone who might be a German sympathizer, left-wing newspapers and magazines, and labor activists. The war against the last two groups would continue for a year and a half after the First World War ended.

In strikingly Trumpian fashion, Wilson himself helped sow suspicion of dissenters and hidden enemies. He had run for reelection in 1916 on the slogan "he kept us out of war," but he was already quietly feeling out congressional leaders about joining the conflict, and he also knew American public opinion was strongly anti-German. Well before the declaration of war, he had ominously warned that "there are citizens of the United States, I blush to admit, born under other flags ... who have poured the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life. ... Such creatures of passion, disloyalty, and anarchy must be crushed out."

Once the United States entered the war, shortly after Wilson's second term began, the crushing swiftly reached a frenzy. The government started arresting and interning native-born Germans who were not naturalized U.S. citizens — but in a highly selective way, rounding up, for example, all those who were IWW members. Millions rushed to spurn anything German. Families named Schmidt quickly became Smith. German-language textbooks were tossed on bonfires. The German-born conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Karl Muck, was locked up, even though he was a citizen of Switzerland; notes he had made on a score of J.S. Bach's St. Matthew's Passion were suspected of being coded messages to Germany. Berlin, Iowa, changed its name to Lincoln, and East Germantown, Indiana, became Pershing, named after the general leading American soldiers in their broad-brimmed hats to France. Hamburger was now "Salisbury steak" and German measles "Liberty measles." The New York Herald published the names and addresses of every German or Austro-Hungarian national living in the city.

The government stepped up its spying on civilians. An army intelligence agent in New York became expert at the new art of tapping telephones and loaned his skills around the country as required. With odd clicks on their calls and strangers taking notes at rallies and meetings, it was not long before dissidents realized they were being watched. When a Socialist Party official addressed a crowd on the Boston Common in June 1917, he began "Mr. Chairman, friends, conscripts, and secret agents ..."

Soon things went far beyond surveillance. In Collinsville, Illinois, the following year, a crowd seized a coal miner, Robert Prager, who had the bad luck to be German-born. They kicked and punched him, stripped off his clothes, wrapped him in an American flag, forced him to sing "The Star-Spangled Banner," and lynched him from a tree on the outskirts of town. No matter that he had tried to enlist in the U.S. Navy but been turned down because he had a glass eye. After a jury deliberated for only forty-five minutes, eleven members of the mob were acquitted of all charges, while a military band played outside the courthouse.

The next stage of conflict was an assault on the media unmatched in American history before or — so far — since. Its commander was Wilson's postmaster general, Albert Sidney Burleson. A pompous former prosecutor and congressman whose father had fought for the Confederates, Burleson was the first Texan to serve in a U.S. cabinet. On June 16, 1917, he sent sweeping instructions to local postmasters ordering them to "keep a close watch on unsealed matters, newspapers, etc." for anything "calculated to ... cause insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny. ... or otherwise embarrass or hamper the Government in conducting the war." What did "embarrass" mean? A new Burleson edict gave examples, from saying "that the Government is controlled by Wall Street or munition manufacturers" to "attacking improperly our allies."

One after another, Burleson went after newspapers and magazines, many of them affiliated with the Socialist Party, including the popular Appeal to Reason, which had a circulation of more than half a million. Virtually all Wobbly literature was banned from the mails. Burleson's most famous target was Max Eastman's vigorously antiwar The Masses, a literary journal that had published writers from John Reed to Sherwood Anderson to Edna St. Vincent Millay to the young Walter Lippmann. While The Masses never actually reached the masses — its circulation averaged a mere 12,000 — it was one of the liveliest magazines this country ever produced. Burleson shut it down; one of the items that drew his ire was a cartoon of the Liberty Bell crumbling. "They give you ninety days for quoting the Declaration of Independence," Eastman declared, "six months for quoting the Bible."

With so many recent immigrants, the United States had dozens of foreign-language papers. All were now required to submit English translations of all articles dealing with the government, the war, or American allies to the local postmaster before they could be published — a ruinous expense that caused many periodicals to stop printing. Another Burleson technique was to ban a particular issue of a newspaper or magazine and then cancel its second-class mailing permit, claiming that it was no longer publishing regularly. Before the war was over seventy-five different publications would be either censored or completely banned.

Finally, the war gave business and government the perfect excuse to attack the labor movement. The preceding eight years had been ones of great labor strife, with hundreds of thousands of workers going on strike every year, and now employers could brand all who did so as traitors to the war effort. Virtually every IWW office was raided; at the group's Chicago headquarters, police smashed tables and chairs, left papers strewn all over the floor, and took away five tons of material, including even some of the ashes of the popular Wobbly songwriter Joe Hill, recently convicted of murder on shaky evidence and executed. In Seattle, authorities turned Wobbly prisoners over to the local army commander, who then claimed that because they were in military custody, they had no right of habeas corpus. When 101 Wobblies were put through a four-month trial in Chicago, a jury found all of them guilty on all counts after a discussion so brief it averaged less than thirty seconds per defendant. The judge passed out sentences totaling 807 years of prison time.

Others sent to jail for opposing the war included not only well-known radicals like Emma Goldman and Eugene V. Debs but hundreds of conscientious objectors to the draft. The C.O.'s were dispatched to military prisons, where some were shackled to cell bars so they would have to stand on tiptoe nine hours a day. A haunting charcoal drawing of this ordeal was later made by one of the victims, the Masses illustrator and cartoonist Maurice Becker. By the time of the Armistice, there would be nearly 6,300 warranted arrests of leftists of all varieties, but thousands more people, the total number unknown, were seized without warrants.

Much repression never showed up in statistics because it was done by vigilantes. In June 1917, for example, copper miners in Bisbee, Arizona, organized by the IWW, went on strike. A few weeks later, the local sheriff formed a posse of more than two thousand mining company officials, hired gunmen, and armed local businessmen. Wearing white armbands to identify themselves and led by a car mounted with a machine gun, they broke down doors and marched nearly 1,200 strikers and their supporters out of town. The men were held several hours under the hot sun in a baseball park, then forced at bayonet point into a train of two dozen cattle and freight cars and hauled, with armed guards atop each car and more armed men escorting the train in automobiles, 180 miles through the desert and across the state line to New Mexico. There, after two days without food, they were placed in a U.S. Army stockade. A few months later, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a mob wearing hoods seized seventeen Wobblies and whipped, tarred, and feathered them.

People from the highest reaches of society bayed for blood like a lynch mob. Elihu Root, a corporate lawyer and former secretary of war, secretary of state, and senator, was the prototype of the so-called wise men of the twentieth-century foreign policy establishment who moved smoothly back and forth between Wall Street and Washington, DC. "There are men walking about the streets of this city tonight who ought to be taken out at sunrise tomorrow and shot," he told an audience at New York's Union League Club in August 1917. "There are some newspapers published in this city every day the editors of which deserve conviction and execution for treason."

Although Woodrow Wilson fruitlessly tried to persuade the American people to join the League of Nations, so as to peacefully resolve conflicts abroad, his zeal for reforming the international order included no tolerance for dissent at home. His Justice Department, for example, encouraged the formation of vigilante groups with names like the Knights of Liberty and the Sedition Slammers. The largest was the American Protective League, whose ranks filled with employers who hated unions, nativists who hated immigrants, and men too old for the military who still wanted to do battle. APL members carried badges labeled "Auxiliary of the US Department of Justice" and the Post Office gave them the franking privilege of sending mail for free. The organization rapidly mushroomed into an ill-controlled mass of some 250,000 members, who gathered more than a million pages of wildly unreliable surveillance data spying on Americans they claimed might be aiding the German war effort.

The government offered a $50 bounty for every proven draft-evader, which brought untold thousands to the hunt, from underpaid rural sheriffs to big-city unemployed. Throughout the country, the APL carried out "slacker raids," sometimes together with uniformed soldiers and sailors. One September 1918 raid in New York City and its vicinity netted more than 60,000 men. Only 199 actual draft dodgers were found among them, but many of the remainder were held for days while their records were checked. Wilson approvingly told the secretary of the Navy that the raids would "put the fear of God" into draft dodgers.

A surprisingly diverse array of Americans opposed the war. Fifty representatives and six senators voted against it; one of the latter, Robert La Follette, who had listened to Wilson's speech to Congress asking for war with conspicuous defiance, crossing his arms and chewing gum, then began receiving nooses in his office mail. Men who failed to register for the draft, didn't show up when called, or deserted after being drafted totaled well over three million. "A higher percentage of American men successfully resisted conscription during World War I," the historian Michael Kazin writes, "than during the Vietnam War." Several men and women, among them Norman Thomas, A. Philip Randolph, and Jeannette Rankin, lived long enough to vocally oppose both wars.

Although brave and outspoken, such war opponents were only a minority of the population. The Wilson administration's harsh treatment of them, sadly, had considerable popular support. The targeting of so many leftists and labor leaders who were immigrants, Jewish, or both drew on powerful undercurrents of nativism and anti-Semitism. And the United States was inflamed with war fever that left millions of young American men, still ignorant of trench warfare's horrors, eager to fight and hostile to anyone who seemed to stand in their way of doing so.

* * *

By the time the war ended the government had a new excuse for continuing the crackdown: the Russian Revolution. It was blamed for any unrest, such as a wave of large postwar strikes in 1919, which were ruthlessly suppressed. Gary, Indiana, was put under martial law, and army tanks were called out in Cleveland.

That year also saw anarchist bombings make headlines across the country. An alert New York postal worker intercepted suspicious-looking packages addressed to sixteen prominent political and business figures, but a number of other mail bombs reached their destinations. One killed a night watchman guarding a judge's home in New York, and another severely damaged the house of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer in Washington, DC. Government officials had evidence that the bombs were all the work of several dozen Italian-American anarchists — one of whom managed to blow himself up while planting the explosives at Palmer's home. But it did not suit them to solve the case by prosecuting such a small group when what they really wanted was to wage a far more sweeping war on communism and organized labor. The director of the Bureau of Investigation, predecessor of the FBI, claimed that the bombers were "connected with Russian bolshevism." With the bombings providing the perfect excuse, the crackdown on radicals intensified. Two hundred and forty-nine foreign-born leftists were placed under heavy guard on a decrepit former troopship and deported to Russia. One of them, Emma Goldman, reportedly thumbed her nose at the rising young Justice Department official J. Edgar Hoover, who was seeing off the ship from a tugboat in New York Harbor.

The tumultuous year 1919 also brought an outburst of protest by black Americans and violence against them. Nearly 400,000 blacks had served in the military and then come home to a country where they were denied good jobs, schooling, and housing. As they competed with millions of returning white soldiers for scarce work, race riots broke out, and in the summer of 1919 more than 120 people were killed. Lynchings — a steady, terrifying feature of black life for many years — reached the highest point in more than a decade; seventy-eight African Americans were lynched that year, more than one per week. But all racial tension was also blamed on the Russians. Woodrow Wilson, himself a Southerner and ardent segregationist, predicted that "the American negro returning from abroad would be our greatest medium in conveying Bolshevism to America."

This three-year period of repression reached a peak in late 1919 and early 1920 with the "Palmer Raids" under the direction of Attorney General Palmer. He had been understandably jarred by the anarchist bombing of his house, but his raids, with the help of Hoover, cast a net that scooped up every imaginable variety of radical or dissenter. On a single day of the raids — January 2, 1920 — 5,483 people were arrested; one scholar calls it "the largest single-day police roundup in American history." The raiders were notoriously rough, beating people and throwing them down staircases. After one raid, a New York World reporter found smashed doors, overturned furniture, wrecked typewriters, and bloodstains on the floor. Eight hundred people were seized in Boston and some of them marched through the city's streets in chains on their way to a temporary prison on an island in the harbor. Another eight hundred were held for six days in a windowless corridor in a federal building in Detroit, with no bedding and the use of just one toilet and sink.


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

The Surveillance State
1 • Lessons from a Dark Time
2 • Students as Spies
3 • Hoover’s Secret Empire
4 • The Father of American Surveillance
5 • Prison Madness

6 • The Listening House
7 • All That Glitters
8 • A Showman in the Rainforest
9 • Heart of Darkness: Fiction or Reportage?
10 • On the Campaign Trail with Nelson Mandela

11 • India’s American Imports
12 • Palm Trees and Paradoxes
13 • The Brick Master
14 • The Impossible City

15 • Our Night with Its Stars Askew
16 • Shortstops in Siberia
17 • A Homage to Homage
18 • On Which Continent Was the Holocaust Born?
19 • Sunday School History

20 • Pilot on the Great River: Mark Twain’s Nonfiction
21 • A Literary Engineer
22 • A Nation of Guns

The Continent of Words
23 • You Never Know What’s Going to Happen Yesterday
24 • Practicing History without a License
25 • On the Road Again
26 • Books and Our Souls

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Lessons from a Dark Time and Other Essays 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
bookwomen37 More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed reading this collection of essays. Some of them gave me hope, others left me feeling worried about the future. The author has organized his essays by country and he has been fortunate to witness history many times. He writes about the famous and and the not so famous overcoming injustices around the world. There are also some non political essays. Enjoy