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Friday, February 25, 2011

February 25, 2011: War and Peace

Few presidents, or national leaders of any kind, have as vexed a relationship to war as did Woodrow Wilson. With World War I raging across Western Europe, Wilson ran for reelection in 1916 on the slogan “He kept us out of war,” and the phrase was in its moment entirely accurate and yet in hindsight cannot help but be reflected in a funhouse mirror by the fact that Wilson would lead the US into that war only a few months after his second inauguration. And yet, having reversed course so dramatically (and for lots of complex and perhaps entirely justifiable reasons), Wilson would end his presidency and political career fighting ceaselessly for the creation of the League of Nations, an international peacekeeping organization that could make real his pledge that World War I would be “the war to end all wars.” That the League failed, and that another world war would commence not two decades later, provides yet another tragically (and possibly unfairly) distorted reflection of Wilson’s aims and efforts.
Given all of those contradictory or at least conflicting elements of Wilson’s wartime foreign policy, it might become slightly easier to wrap our heads around a particular—and particularly contradictory—member of Wilson’s administration: A. Mitchell Palmer (1872-1936). Palmer was a Quaker who in 1912 turned down a chance to serve as Wilson’s Secretary of War, arguing that to be “a Quaker war secretary” would be to become “a living illustration of a horrible incongruity.” Yet when the US entered the war, Palmer took on, and performed with a diligence that is both impressive and disturbing, two of the most warlike roles within Wilson’s second administration: first from 1917 to 1919 as the Alien Property Custodian, an agency responsible for seizing and reallocating property belong to domestic “enemies”; and then, most famously and controversially, from 1919 to 1921 as Attorney General, a role in which Palmer (under the auspices of the Sedition Act) engaged in an increasingly overt and extraordinary war against “radicals,” conducting the so-called Palmer Raids on numerous political organizations and rounding up thousands of members for arrest and possible deportation (many of whom were not deported only due to the efforts of an under-secretary of labor, Louis Freeland Post, who opposed the raids).
World War I ended with the Armistice in November 1919, but the Palmer Raids continued well beyond that month, exemplifying just how fully Palmer carried over these wartime activities into other domestic efforts as Attorney General. These included extremely hostile responses to labor protests and strikes and a series of doomsday warnings about radical uprisings (to overthrow the federal government) on May Day (May 1st) of 1920 (warnings that would help commence the decade’s hysterical and repressive Red Scare). Palmer would also run for the Democratic nomination for President in that year, and his campaign rhetoric was as extreme as his actions had become: he noted in one speech that “I am myself an American and I love to preach my doctrine before undiluted one hundred percent Americans, because my platform is, in a word, undiluted Americanism and undying loyalty to the republic.” Many historians, including most recently Christopher Capozzola in his excellent Uncle Sam Wants You: World War One and the Making of the Modern American Citizen (2008), have traced the rise of our modern military-industrial, surveillance, Patriot Act-creating state to developments around World War I, and in that view there can be few Americans more responsible for helping originate those trends than Palmer.
I’ve written before here about the kinds of atrocities and brutalities that occur in even the most noble or just of wars, and the same can certainly be said about domestic abuses: Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus and FDR’s internment of Japanese Americans without question rival any of Palmer’s abuses in this regard. War, as we have seen far too often over the last decade, can bring out the worst at home as well as abroad. Yet the most significant legacy and lesson of Palmer’s role are slightly different and just as important to remember: how fully those abuses can likewise bleed over into peacetime, turning a Quaker pacifist into one of the most aggressive and divisive figures in our political history in the process. More tomorrow, another tribute post!
PS. Three links to start with:
1)      The full text and audio of a brief speech of Palmer’s:
2)      A longer piece of Palmer’s, on his anti-communist crusade:
3)      OPEN: Thoughts?

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