America is bitterly divided. Economic conflicts inspire the rise of new and radical political forces.
Frightened by violence abroad, many Americans eye a large immigrant population with suspicion.
In the White House, a president with nativist leanings boasts of what bold leadership can accomplish and claims expansive powers to achieve it.
It is spring 1917.
And in Minnesota, exactly a century ago, volatile anxieties were about to combine in one of the boldest experiments in authoritarian government in U.S. history — the Minnesota Commission of Public Safety.
Pausing to mark the centenary of America’s strife-torn passage through World War I — the war to “make the world safe for democracy” that imperiled democracy in the Upper Midwest — might encourage confidence that today’s political fevers also shall pass.
The early 20th century was, as today often seems, an era of political realignment and ideological convergence. Progressivism — then a young philosophy calling broadly for bolder, stronger government to improve society — had come in various guises to dominate political thinking across party lines. The movement, in its early decades, gave America both the women’s vote and Prohibition, both the income tax and, as we shall see, the “disloyalty” crackdown.
Politics in that period, wrote Minnesota historian John Haynes, was divided between “progressivism with a left wing” and “progressivism with a right wing.”
Today, as an insurgent Republican president calls for an infrastructure spending spree and protectionist economic policies, while liberals urge a tougher anti-Russian foreign policy and vouch for the integrity of U.S. intelligence agencies, we are reminded of how jumbled ideologies can become.
What made 1917 unlike 2017, of course, was the raging of a horrific world war overseas — a bloodbath inexorably drawing a reluctant, isolationist America into its carnage. President Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat and the quintessential progressive of his era (which did not then include a passion for diversity), had promised to keep the nation out of Europe’s war. But it was not to be.
Outraged by Germany’s submarine warfare against civilian ships and swayed by the pro-British sympathies of the American establishment, the nation entered World War I on April 6, 1917. And immediately there began what scholar Robert Nisbet has called “the most complete thought control ever exercised on Americans” in the sweeping suppression of “disloyalty,” especially among immigrants, above all German-Americans.
The loyalty crusade, snarled columnist H.L. Mencken, involved, “Wilson and his brigades of informers, spies, volunteer detectives, perjurers and complaisant judges … clubbing and jailing all citizens … venturing to exercise the constitutional right to free speech [while] other men were harassed and hounded in a dozen other ways.”
Not least in Minnesota.
The Minnesota Legislature created the Commission of Public Safety just weeks after war was declared. This extraordinary panel, chaired by Republican Gov. Joseph Burnquist, was essentially given all powers of state government to maximize Minnesota’s contribution to the war effort.
In its own boastful report on its achievements, the commission eloquently described its approach to governing Minnesota by decree:
“The Commission,” said the report, “assumed that it had the right … to use the strong arm of force to suppress disloyalty … . It also did not hesitate to exercise it.
“The Commission aimed not alone to jail individual traitors and to clean up individual cesspools of vice, but also to make malefactors generally realize that many things which in peace times would be insignificant were serious in war times … . It does not think the Constitution suffered under the ordeal, and it is unable to regard the Constitution as so delicate a document that its pages will be soiled or torn by a little rough usage … .”
Rough usage it got. The commission was dominated by representatives of the Twin Cities business community, alarmed by an advancing organized labor movement, which in those days included some genuinely subversive elements. Chaos overseas, not least the Communist revolution in Russia, inflamed class tensions, and the commission used its authority to suppress union activity, intervene in strikes and forcefully back Burnquist’s re-election campaign against opponents from the Non-Partisan League coalition of labor and agrarian interest.
The commission enlisted a Home Guard of 8,000 troops to back up its orders and touted its “marked … moral effect.” It ordered the registration of all noncitizens, the better to help “foreign-born civic slackers … appreciate their high privileges as Americans.”
It prohibited “seditious” political meetings and dispatched detectives across the state to implement what it called “a continuous surveillance of public gatherings.”
When one public gathering in the German-American enclave of New Ulm ended in speeches questioning the constitutionality of a military draft — especially if it meant compelling young German-Americans to make war on their families’ homeland — the commission deposed the city’s elected mayor and city attorney, forced out a college president, and jailed a newspaper editor.
Such dissenters were “[m]isinterpreting the constitutional guaranty of freedom of speech and of the press” if they “pretended to think that even in war times, they could properly oppose the government’s policies in speech and writings.”
Happily, in the commission’s view, most Minnesota newspapers “sustained a high tone of loyal agitation” throughout the war.
With the conflict’s end in 1918, the commission was disbanded. In Minnesota and across America, the repressive spirit lifted (though some thought it lived on in Prohibition). In Minnesota, bitter memories of commission excesses contributed to the rise of the left-leaning Farmer Labor Party and to a lasting liberal political tradition in the state.
World War II brought wartime repressions — especially the large-scale internment of Japanese-Americans — but for most in the U.S. “thought control,” even during military conflicts, has never quite returned to the World War I level.
The bigger, bolder, self-confident government progressivism sought, of course, has endured and grown, and the idea clearly still has both a left and a right wing.
Remembering 1917 can keep us on guard about how far, under the right stresses, its “rough usage” of the Constitution can go.
D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.