Suppose--hypothetically--that upon being attacked by a set of dangerous, swarthy foreigners who want to take over the world, the United States retaliated against a completely different set of dangerous, swarthy foreigners and found itself stuck in a dirty war with no exit and endlessly ramifying bad consequences as far as anyone could foresee. You might think we're talking tediously about Iraq again, but we're not: It's something we've done before. Then, as now, American leaders systematically misled the American people to justify the misdirected intervention: But as Ann Hagedorn notes in her new, smart, and well-told Savage Peace: Hope and Fear in America, 1919, the people, the press, and their prejudices had to help, too.
Early in 1917, the German military took their last gamble of World War I. Believing that their U-boats could sink American supply ships fast enough to choke the Allies into suing for peace before the antagonized United States could mobilize for war, they set their submarines to attack U.S. ships. In mid-March they sank three merchantmen, and in early April President Woodrow Wilson got a congressional declaration of war. Within a year the U.S. Army, before the war a negligible force of around 100,000 men, swelled into a force of more than a million that, almost by its mere appearance in France, sealed the fate of the Central Powers.
But he American response to the German threat went awry in response to Russia, which had fought with the Allies against the Central Powers, but signed a separate peace with Germany after the Bolshevik Revolution in the autumn of 1917. A few months later, a coalition of allies willing to change the Bolshevik regime invaded Russia. Around 15,000 U.S. soldiers went along.
The expedition didn't lack justifications--if anything, it had too many. Russian bases had stockpiled war materiel that might get into the wrong hands; there was an orphaned Czech Legion that wanted rescuing; a variety of strategists wanted to topple the Bolshevik government before it consolidated its victory. Wilson expressed solidarity with the Russian people while he soured on their undemocratic rulers.
But the justification that the U.S. government published in October 1918 was perhaps the most ludicrous and also the most readily embraced by the American public: that the Bolshevik Revolution was a wholly owned and operated subsidiary of the German general staff. After all, if there were ties between this undeniably unpleasant dictator Lenin and a power with which we were at war, plainly we should wage war against Lenin, too.
The papers the U.S. Committee on Public Information published under the title, "The German-Bolshevik Conspiracy," as examined by dispassionate experts many years later, looked like obvious forgeries. (Two glaring details: The documents of German origin had been typed on the same typewriter as the documents of Russian origin, and the German officials allegedly writing the papers had, unusually for Germans, signed their names using the Russian alphabet.) But at the time, the publication bolstered public support for the intervention. And so Wilson sent American soldiers into frigid Russia with no very clear idea of what would bring them home.
Marc Bloch, the great French historian who fought in the war, mulled afterward over the effects of such misbegotten situations, when a myth or a lie supported an invasion with no clear goal. Exhausted soldiers, "novice warriors, the invaders are haunted by terrors that grow stronger as they remain necessarily rather vague." Deprived of an enemy army to fight, they find themselves among increasingly surly civilians. And soon, under real or imagined provocation, they begin to wage war on those civilians.
Which is what apparently happened with the U.S. soldiers in Russia. As Sergeant Silver K. Parrish wrote, "We took 16 enemy prisoners and killed 2--then we burned the village %amp% my heart ached to have the women fall down at my feet %amp% grab my legs and kiss my hand %amp% beg me not to do it. But orders are orders." Parrish got up a petition among the men to ask why they were there, and why they hadn't adequate equipment or medical care.
Reports from the undeclared war trickled back. Throughout 1919, the administration resisted a Senate resolution that would explain its Russian adventure and hometown pleas to bring the boys home.
The Russian front might have closed sooner had not a third set of dangerous, swarthy foreigners attacked the United States. In June, Italian anarchists bombed the home of the attorney general, missing him but killing themselves in the process. The Justice Department seized the opportunity to blame Russian Bolsheviks, and the press went along, as Hagedorn notes: Justice officials told The New York Times that the anarchists were in league with the Bolsheviks, and the Times printed the connection without comment. Soon J. Edgar Hoover began his due-process-free deportations of suspicious foreigners.
Something--maybe stupidity, maybe ignorance, maybe fear of government prosecution--prevented the press from helping the public understand why one set of radicals might actually differ rather significantly from, and even oppose itself to another, even while both hated the United States. As Hagedorn writes, "The American public needed wise counsel and leadership. Could the nation for just one moment indulge in introspection and not fear? The answer was no."
And perhaps nobody wanted to entertain the possibility that some of America's problems came from America. Beset throughout 1919 by strikes, maybe many Americans preferred to believe that the Reds fomented labor unrest than to wonder whether workers weren't actually suffering unduly. Reading that summer of one lynching after another, maybe many Americans liked to believe the Bolsheviks funded black activism -- then they could believe that communists goaded otherwise peaceable whites into extralegal murder. It was easier than blaming homegrown American racism for the violence.
The Russian war, which petered out in a couple of years, gave Soviet propagandists a factual basis for insisting that the United States and its allies started the cold war. And it let Americans go on believing that all their troubles came only from a single enemy, who hated them for their freedom. We'll see whether its modern, bloodier parallel in Iraq has similar consequences: though at this point a multi-decade cold war with some combination of Islamist powers might look like a good outcome.
By Eric Rauchway