Written with the sweep of an epic novel and grounded in extensive research into contemporary documents, Savage Peace is a striking portrait of American democracy under stress. It is the surprising story of America in the year 1919.
In the aftermath of an unprecedented worldwide war and a flu pandemic, Americans began the year full of hope, expecting to reap the benefits of peace. But instead, the fear of terrorism filled their days. Bolshevism was the new menace, and the federal government, utilizing a vast network of domestic spies, began to watch anyone deemed suspicious. A young lawyer named J. Edgar Hoover headed a brand-new intelligence division of the Bureau of Investigation (later to become the FBI). Bombs exploded on the doorstep of the attorney general's home in Washington, D.C., and thirty-six parcels containing bombs were discovered at post offices across the country. Poet and journalist Carl Sandburg, recently returned from abroad with a trunk full of Bolshevik literature, was detained in New York, his trunk seized. A twenty-one-year-old Russian girl living in New York was sentenced to fifteen years in prison for protesting U.S. intervention in Arctic Russia, where thousands of American soldiers remained after the Armistice, ostensibly to guard supplies but in reality to join a British force meant to be a warning to the new Bolshevik government.
In 1919, wartime legislation intended to curb criticism of the government was extended and even strengthened. Labor strife was a daily occurrence. And decorated African-American soldiers, returning home to claim the democracy for which they had risked their lives, were badly disappointed. Lynchings continued, race riots would erupt in twenty-six cities before the year ended, and secret agents from the government's "Negro Subversion" unit routinely shadowed outspoken African-Americans.
Adding a vivid human drama to the greater historical narrative, Savage Peace brings 1919 alive through the people who played a major role in making the year so remarkable. Among them are William Monroe Trotter, who tried to put democracy for African-Americans on the agenda at the Paris peace talks; Supreme Court associate justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who struggled to find a balance between free speech and legitimate government restrictions for reasons of national security, producing a memorable decision for the future of free speech in America; and journalist Ray Stannard Baker, confidant of President Woodrow Wilson, who watched carefully as Wilson's idealism crumbled and wrote the best accounts we have of the president's frustration and disappointment.
Weaving together the stories of a panoramic cast of characters, from Albert Einstein to Helen Keller, Ann Hagedorn brilliantly illuminates America at a pivotal moment.
Former Wall Street Journal staffer Hagedorn (Beyond the River) makes a stylish entry into the history-of-a-year genre with this account of America in upheaval in the wake of WWI. In 1919, both the world and the U.S. were in need of reconstruction: soldiers returning from war needed jobs, and the influenza epidemic wasn't quite under control. Two threads Hagedorn follows are middle-class Americans' fear of Bolshevism, and the struggles of black Americans. U.S. Attorney-General Palmer instigated raids to try to root out leftist activists, and in what may have been "the State Department's first official interference in African-American politics," the agency denied black Americans' request for passports to travel to France and speak to the Paris Peace Conference about racial equality. In a year rife with lynchings in the Deep South, W.E.B. Du Bois, who had urged black Americans to shelve their grievances and fight the Germans, now argued that blacks, having served the nation, deserved to be accorded civil rights. Still, some exciting cultural developments presaged the roaring '20s: F. Scott Fitzgerald's star rose, and the nation's first dial telephones were installed in Norfolk, Va. This vivid account of a nation in tumult and transition is absorbing, and the nexus of global and national upheaval is chillingly relevant. (Apr.) Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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Simon & Schuster
April 09, 2007
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Excerpt from Savage Peace by Ann Hagedorn
Armistice Day 1918
We are here to see, in short, that the very foundations of this war are swept away. Those foundations were the private choice of a small coterie of civil rulers and military staffs. Those foundations were the aggression of great Powers upon the small. Those foundations were the power of small bodies of men to wield their will and use mankind as pawns in a game. And nothing less than the emancipation of the world from these things will accomplish peace.
-- WOODROW WILSON, JANUARY 1919
Somewhere beyond the mist and the misery on that November morning, six men met in a railcar to end a war. News of the truce moved through the trenches on the trembling lips of soldiers waiting for the screams of flying shells to cease before they believed what they were told. Some heard it first from their captains who distributed strips of paper that read: "Cease firing on all fronts. 11/11/11. Gen. John J. Pershing." Others would never know. They were the unlucky ones killed in the fragile hours before 11 A.M., before the fighting abruptly stopped. The silence, so unfamiliar, was almost as unsettling as the sounds, as if a giant hand suddenly lay across this land of rotting flesh to hush the din of battle. Silence. Prayers. Tears. Then came the roar of cheering and the popping of bonfires piled high with captured ammunition and anything that could burn. The madness was ending, or so it seemed. And fear was giving way to hope.
"One minute we was killing people," a soldier later said, "and then the world was at peace for the first time in four years. It seemed like five minutes of silence and then one of us said, 'Why don't we go home?' "
"I shall never forget the sensation," wrote an officer who climbed out of the trenches when he saw rockets signaling the cease-fire. Onto the open, unprotected ground, he walked toward the front lines of battle. The sun shining on his vulnerability, he moved tentatively, as if the earth beneath each foot might cave in. First he saw German helmets and caps vaulting into a distant haze and then beyond a ridge he saw German soldiers dancing a universal jig of joy. "We stood in a dazed silence unable to believe that at last the fighting was over."
It was at once a magnificent and a brutal day. After 1,563 days of war on the Western Front, no one, on the front lines or at home, would forget the moment news of peace entered their lives. Especially moved were those who carried in their hearts and minds the greatest hopes for what the end of the war could mean. In the parlors and factories and fields of their future lives, they would tell the stories of where they were and what they were doing on the day in 1918 when the Armistice came. They would talk of lost friends and of bold dreams, of expectations and of plans for the world they had risked their lives to save. "The nightmare is over," wrote the African-American leader W. E. B. Du Bois. "The world awakes. The long, horrible years of dreadful night are passed. Behold the sun!"
Sergeant Henry Lincoln Johnson, America's first soldier to win the Croix de Guerre, France's Medal of Honor, surely would not forget. His twenty-one wounds still stung with the memory of the battle for which he had won his medal. Sergeant Johnson was in the Vosges Mountains in France on November 11, very near the German border. Low on supplies, short on water and food, and exhausted, the men of Johnson's regiment, the 369th, were setting the American record for the most consecutive days under fire: 191 in all. Sharing blankets on that brisk morning -- one for every four soldiers -- they cheered upon hearing of the truce, some filling the gray, sober air with songs. They must have felt they had learned all that the universe could teach them about fighting, about brotherhood, about the will to survive.