What 1919 Taught Us

What 1919 Taught Us

Struggles for the rights of women, immigrants and black Americans defined the US in a year that holds striking parallels to today.


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Reading about immigration policy, religious and racial bigotry, and terrorism fears in America in 1919 offers an eerie sense of decades melting away and past and present blurring together.

The blend isn’t exact. Bigotry was expressed much more explicitly a century ago, not in code as it usually is now. Jim Crow laws in the South and other forms of racial segregation in the rest of the country were seen by most white Americans as the normal state of affairs. In the national debate on immigration, the most inflammatory rhetoric was largely aimed at immigrants from Asia, not Latin America or the Middle East; Slavs, southern Europeans, and Jews from Eastern Europe also faced widespread hostility. Religious prejudice was typically directed at Jews and Catholics, not Muslims. Yet despite those differences, many of the underlying attitudes and the tone of the immigration argument 100 years ago were strikingly similar to those that roil our society today.

I haven’t read of anyone in 1919 saying “make America great again” or referring to unwanted immigrants’ homelands as “shithole countries.” But those exact ideas, if not precisely the same words, were commonly expressed a century ago. And some key words and phrases appeared then as now—referring to immigration as an “invasion,” for example, or disparaging immigrants as dirty, poor, and criminally inclined.

A pair of quotes illustrates the common thread, a widespread feeling in both eras that, after several decades of large-scale immigration, American identity itself was under threat.

In an article published in March 1919, the Immigration Restriction League, an influential anti-immigrant group, put it this way: “A preponderance of foreign elements destroys the most precious thing [a country] possesses—its own soul.” Fox News’s Laura Ingraham delivered exactly the same warning when she claimed in an August 2018 broadcast that immigration had contributed to “massive demographic changes” in the US population, and that “in some parts of the country, it does seem like the America we know and love doesn’t exist anymore.”

Facing a wave of criticism, Ingraham unconvincingly denied that she was referring to racial or ethnic groups, but it’s impossible to find any other meaning in her words. The author of the Immigration Restriction League article was more straightforward, writing sentences like: “Races follow Gresham’s law as to money; the poorer of two kinds in the same place tends to supplant the better” and “Just as we isolate bacterial invasions, and starve out the bacteria by limiting the area and amount of their food supply, so we can compel an inferior race to remain in its native habitat.”

Reforming Immigration Law, Then and Now

The 2019 calendar is full of dates that evoke similar echoes. May 19th, for example, will mark 100 years since the 66th Congress convened in Washington with Republicans newly in control of both houses, a shift that set the course for a drastic revision of immigration laws in the 1920s.

Under the new majority, the chairmanship of the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization passed to Albert Johnson of Washington, a newspaper owner and fervent supporter of the anti-immigrant movement. In his new post, Johnson, who wrote in one editorial that “the greatest menace to the Republic today is the open door it affords to the ignorant hordes from Eastern and Southern Europe,” set about creating a completely new immigration system. Under his plan, immigrants would be admitted on the basis of country-by-country quotas that heavily favored northern Europeans, while drastically reducing immigration from less favored European countries. (Asians were already banned under previous legislation.)

In spirit, Johnson’s effort reflected exactly the same view conveyed in President Trump’s recent declaration that “our country is full” and his shakeup of the Homeland Security department leadership in pursuit of new and potentially extreme immigration and border control policies.

Johnson’s initial quota bill was enacted in 1921. Three years later, Congress replaced that law with an even harsher version that he co-sponsored with Senator David Reed of Pennsylvania. The 1924 statute remained in effect for more than four decades until Congress abolished the quota system in 1965.

After the 1924 law was enacted, Reed made no bones about its motive. “The racial composition of America at the time,” he declared, “is thus made permanent.”

That story, too, reverberates in the present era. More than 90 years after the Johnson-Reed Act became law, Jeff Sessions, the Alabama senator who went on to serve as President Trump’s first attorney general, cited it as a specific and appropriate model for new reforms. “It slowed down immigration significantly,” he said in a 2015 interview. “We then assimilated through 1965 and created really the solid middle class of America, with assimilated immigrants, and it was good for America.”

Sessions, a fervent advocate of more restrictive immigration laws, said nothing in the interview about the 1924 act’s intentionally discriminatory nature. Whether he didn’t know that part of the story or just didn’t think it mattered enough to be worth mentioning is an open question—but a telling one.

In 2019, lawmakers and Trump administration officials who are advocates for ever more restrictive immigration policies would not say out loud, and possibly not even to themselves, that their aim is to preserve “the racial composition of America.” But there can be no doubt that, consciously or not, that is exactly what they want to achieve.

Linking Immigrants and Terror—A Song We’ve Heard Before

Another similarity between 1919 and now is a phobic fear of “foreign-born terrorists.” That fear was not invented in post-9/11 America. It was alive and well 100 years ago, along with the related fear that immigrants were potential carriers of a menacing foreign ideology that rejected American principles and endangered the country’s security.

Today’s rhetoric is about the threat of violent Islamist extremism. In 1919, the scare stories were about Bolshevism and anarchism. In our era we hear ideas like candidate Trump’s 2016 proposal to ban all foreign Muslims from the country. A hundred years ago, the cry was that protecting the country required keeping out European immigrants, especially those from revolutionary Russia and other countries where radical movements were strong (or thought to be strong). If you blank out the names, though, you would be hard-pressed to tell which era you were reading about.

Russian immigrants in 1919 were suspect as possible followers of the Bolsheviks who had come to power in that country just two years before. Immigrants from Italy were associated with another kind of terrorist violence fueled by followers of an anarchist named Luigi Galleani who had emigrated to the United States in 1901.

In April and again in June 1919, a group of Galleanisti, as they were called, carried out attempted bomb attacks against prominent Americans, including John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and several dozen others. No one on the target list was killed, but one blast in the second wave of attacks did damage the home of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer.

Afterwards, on Palmer’s orders, federal agents carried out widespread raids, rounding up not just suspected anarchists in the Italian immigrant community but leftist radicals of many stripes, as well as other activists who had opposed American participation in World War I. Immigrants from Russia, particularly Jews, were prominently targeted, reflecting fears sparked by the Bolshevik revolution. Large numbers of detainees were deported, while others were tried and imprisoned, often on transparently fabricated charges.

The Red Scare, or Palmer raids, as they came to be known, were executed more crudely but still were remarkably similar to the security sweeps, groundless prosecutions, and deportations in American Muslim communities after the September 11th attacks.

That chapter of 1919 history, incidentally, deserves to be more widely remembered than it is, because it played a decisive role in the history of two institutions that remain important today, the FBI and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

The Justice Department official whom Palmer designated to oversee those 1919 raids was a 24-year-old lawyer named J. Edgar Hoover who would become the FBI’s first director some years later. The Red Scare experience clearly reverberated in his leadership of the bureau during his long tenure. Meanwhile, the ACLU was founded in 1920 in direct response to the Palmer raids, which—as the FBI’s own online historical account acknowledges—trampled heavily on civil liberties and constitutional rights.

Racial Justice—A Century Apart, Promises Unkept

On the domestic racial landscape, the parallels between 1919 and now may seem less obvious, but are nonetheless real.

In 1919, entrenched racial injustices were far cruder and crueler than they are today. Rigid segregation was unchallenged in the southern states, including laws that barred virtually all blacks from voting. Other forms of discrimination—racially restrictive property deeds and strict racial barriers in employment, for example—were standard practices in the rest of the country. Lynching was common. By one count, an African American was lynched roughly every five days in 1919, a figure that doesn’t include several hundred more deaths that year in a series of race riots that largely, though not exclusively, involved white-on-black mob violence.

The differences between that era and now are profound, but there are also some striking similarities. The historical timelines, for example, are almost poetically symmetric. In 1919, 54 years after the Civil War ended slavery, racial oppression was still pervasive and the promise of true freedom for black Americans remained a distant dream. In 2019, essentially the same amount of time has passed since the civil rights movement, the 1963 March on Washington, and the federal civil rights and voting rights laws of 1964 and 1965. But the hopes of that era, like those after the Civil War, have hardly been fully realized and racial injustices in the criminal justice system and elsewhere continue to cast a shadow over American life.

To cite one symbolic example: 1919 was the year Confederate General Stonewall Jackson’s statue was erected on a main thoroughfare in Richmond, Virginia. It still stands, despite a campaign—supported by two of Jackson’s great-great-grandsons—seeking to have it removed, along with other Confederate monuments expressly built to symbolize and celebrate the segregationist ideology and institutions of that past era.

A May 1919 essay by W.E.B. Du Bois, the famed civil-rights activist, is a reminder that words from that time can still ring powerfully today. Writing about the return of several hundred thousand black soldiers who had served in the strictly segregated armed forces of World War I, Du Bois saluted their service, but also delivered a lacerating indictment of the country those soldiers came home to:

“For America and her highest ideals, we fought in far-off hope; for the dominant southern oligarchy entrenched in Washington, we fought in bitter resignation. For the America that represents and gloats in lynching, disfranchisement, caste, brutality and devilish insult—for this, in the hateful upturning and mixing of things, we were forced by vindictive fate to fight also.”

Some of the particulars may sound dated, but others are entirely relevant today, even if the details differ. Blacks may no longer be systematically prohibited from voting, as they were across the south in Du Bois’s time, but the more subtle present-day attacks on voting rights still give a sharp sting to his verdict: “The land that disfranchises its citizens and calls itself a democracy lies and knows it lies.”

In his closing, returning to the theme of the homecoming of black soldiers, Du Bois wrote that they were right to fight for their country with all its faults, but that their fight at home was not over:

“Under similar circumstances, we would fight again. But by the God of Heaven, we are cowards and jackasses if now that that war is over, we do not marshal every ounce of our brain and brawn to fight a sterner, longer, more unbending battle against the forces of hell in our own land.”

A hundred years after those words were written, they remain urgent: That battle has not been won and still needs to be fought.

An Earlier “Year of the Woman”

June 4, 1919, marked another milestone event of profound importance, then and now, to the nature and meaning of American democracy. On that day, Congress passed the 19th Amendment to the Constitution declaring, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

The vote came exactly 41 years, four months, and 25 days after the amendment, identically worded, was first introduced in Congress. It was ratified the following August, in time for the 1920 elections.

Approaching the centennial of that suffrage amendment, American women are in the midst of another dramatic and rapid transformation of their political role. In last year’s midterm elections, a record-setting number of women won seats in both houses of Congress, while women scored significant gains in elections for state-level offices as well. Reflecting the same trend, by mid-March of this year, no fewer than six women had announced their 2020 presidential candidacies, a lineup that no one could have imagined in any past presidential campaign.

It’s hard to guess what the women of 1919 might think today, whether they would be surprised at how far women have come in politics or disappointed that, a century later, they had not come further. But they would certainly recognize themselves and their struggles and achievements in the women of 2019 and see that the fight for equality did not end a century ago, but—like the broader struggle for a better, more just democracy—lives on.

It would take a much longer essay than this to describe all the unexpected connections and continuities between 1919 and today. The start of Prohibition, for example, a cause that fueled an intense politicization of religion (as abortion does in our time); or that, in 1919, income inequality was on the threshold of a dizzying rise over the next decade in a rich-get-richer trend very similar to the one that has reached new peaks since the turn of the twenty-first century; or the US Army’s first motorized convoy across the North American continent in the summer of 1919, an early harbinger of the automobile age that would transform American life.

That expedition, organized jointly by the Army’s Motor Transport Corps and a group of private-sector interests including automobile manufacturers, was explicitly staged to get publicity and promote political support for improving a road system then so primitive that it took the convoy 62 days to travel from Washington to San Francisco at an average speed of six miles an hour. One of the soldiers who made that drive in 1919 was a 29-year-old lieutenant colonel named Dwight Eisenhower, who as president nearly 40 years later initiated the interstate highway program that is the deteriorating backbone of our national transportation system today.

History may not repeat itself but, as the proverb goes, it often rhymes. The events of 1919 are particularly rich in examples of that metaphor—a history full of moments that rhyme, in illuminating and often very surprising ways, with our own time.

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