It is Ellis Island, New York harbor, 1919. A familiar setting for the hopeful arrivals of millions of immigrants, the scene has been turned on its head as hundreds of non-citizen aliens queue up for deportation from the United States to Europe, largely to now-Soviet Russia. Some of these same people had been welcomed here only years before.
Most have been convicted of no crime, but have been scooped up in raids authorized by U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer at the peak of America’s Red Scare right after World War I. For most, their “guilt” is that of associating with organizations identified as Bolshevist.
By author Jay Feldman’s readable, often chilling account in “Manufacturing Hysteria,” renewed nativist panic about potential subversives was a neat transition from previous scapegoating of all non-citizen German immigrants, who legally became “enemy aliens” by virtue of Germany’s role in the war.
In an almost hysterical attempt to cleanse the home front encouraged by President Woodrow Wilson himself, politicians, public officials, businessmen and media had joined in lumping together ethnics (“hyphenated Americans”) as well as political organizations of assorted stripes (not all left-wing), peace groups and even labor unions as dangers to U.S. security.
Far from a political anomaly, Feldman makes a disturbingly compelling case that such scapegoating of minorities and unpopular political views—backed by the power of the state—has become almost an American tradition.
Reaching back to the Haymarket Square bombing (Chicago often figures into his stories), the author illustrates the commonalities of government excesses during 1917-1919, the McCarthy era, and the 1960s civil rights and anti-war movements. (One common thread was questionable surveillance fostered by J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI.)
Feldmam’s dissection of the Bush administration’s security response to 9/11, including the USA PATRIOT Act and Guantanamo, is much more abbreviated, but he leaves little doubt about where he thinks further investigation would lead. “…we emerge from the shadow of one of the most repressive administrations this country has ever known,” he writes, adding, “the surveillance apparatus is still in place, and President Obama has demonstrated little if any inclination to dismantle it.”
So far, excesses often have been reversed by some few brave individuals throwing themselves against the grinding machinery of the state. In 1919, seventy-one-year-old Louis Post, an acting labor secretary, fought against the Justice Department and its Bureau of Investigation’s bullying of the Bureau of Immigration. In his own journal he expressed real fear of “an overthrow of our Government as a free government” as a result of such excesses.
By mid-1920, even conservative former President William Howard Taft was condemning wholesale deportations, and Alabama Congressman George Huddleston decried assaults on due process: “Oh, a lawless people is bad enough, but a lawless government is infinitely worse.”
Feldman’s narrative makes clear that public hysterias often have had their origins in real violence, such as the anarchist terrorism of the late 1800s and the unsolved series of urban bombings in 1919. But repeatedly demagogues and business interests have used such events as opportunities to whip up public fear to serve their own agendas.
Their success in manipulating our government is sobering, but Feldman’s forthrightly progressive stance—this book is dedicated to Howard Zinn—makes it too easy for dogmatists on the other side to dismiss. Also, there have always been—and here the record too is clear—those who insist national security justifies certain infringements of civil liberties.
But the habit is dangerous, Feldman warns: “…we have thus far managed to right the ship of state each time such a challenge to democracy has presented itself,” but each trial has been “more perilous than the previous one. … One of these times, we could reach a point of no return.” (Martin Northway)
“Manufacturing Hysteria: A History of Scapegoating, Surveillance, and Secrecy in Modern America”
By Jay Feldman
Pantheon Books, 400 pages, $29