As a student of American history, I long had the impression that much bad stuff had occurred in the U.S. in the years 1917-1920. But had we really experienced such a calamitous cluster? After all, consider the Russian Revolution and its convulsive impact around the world, the triumph of the “dries” and the onset of “Prohibition,” and arguably the “steal of the century,” when for $150,000 the Boston Red Sox sent Babe Ruth to the Yankees. But not until I dug deeper into those years did I conclude that a strong case could be made about these terrible times. Take note.
Accidents always happen, but some of the following stand out as both deadly and bizarre. Explosives were stacked along docks prior to shipment to our World War I allies and later to U.S. “doughboys” fighting overseas. These stockpiles were vulnerable. (The huge Black Tom blast – a case of German sabotage – had in fact occurred in New York harbor in 1917.) The following year brought another deadly blast with detonations over three days in New York, killing over 100, and also one involving TNT in Pennsylvania, claiming 200 fatalities. Then there was an immense forest fire in Cloquet, Minnesota, which took 453 lives; and a disastrous subway crash in Brooklyn in the midst of a transit workers strike, in which over 93 died; as well as a Great Train Wreck in Nashville, Tennessee, taking 101 lives. Consider also a dirigible crash in Chicago, the aircraft hurtling down onto a bank building, killing thirteen. Stranger still was Boston’s Molasses Disaster in which a huge tank of molasses exploded, releasing its contents in waves of deadly liquid (25 feet high in places), moving at top speed of 35mph, that engulfed bystanders, killing 21 and injuring 150!
Of course the overriding crisis of these years was the flu pandemic. First observed in January of 1917, it spread quickly in military camps where U.S, soldiers were training for combat in World War I. Ultimately, half of the American troops fighting overseas who died succumbed to the flu. Back home, most unusual was the fact that the flu proved especially severe among young adults, with outbreaks more widespread in the summer and autumn. A second and more deadly wave began in October of 1917. Mortality rates were calculated to be around 2.5%. Chicago was one of the many cities that closed theaters, movie houses, and prohibited public gatherings, while San Francisco mandated masks for many of its citizens. New York City required all flu cases to be isolated at home, and its health department outlawed spitting. Philadelphia was hard hit – more than 500 corpses awaiting burial, some for more than a week. In total, 28% of Americans became infected and overall fatalities may have been as high as 675,000. Post-war periods are typically unstable; this time even more chaotic when you add a pandemic into the mix.
Now introduce the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and its repeated threats to stage world-wide uprisings in order to topple existing governments. Socialists in America had caused “trouble,” opposing the war, and were jailed for defying the Sedition Act. Anarchists were sending bombs through the mail to public officials. An explosion went off near the home of Attorney General A. Mitchel Palmer and, on September 16, 1920, a huge blast rocked the offices of J. P. Morgan on Wall Street, killing 38 – an attack attributed to anarchists. All this and more served as the prelude to the Red Scare producing an atmosphere of extreme peril that darkened those years. The FBI and local police staged raids in at least thirty cities, seizing thousands of suspected radicals – several hundred of whom – all foreign-born, were deported. America was not on the brink of revolution, but some leaders might be excused for thinking the ground was shifting under their feet.
Laboring men and women were deeply discontented owing to a combination of sharply rising prices and economic recession. Many prepared to go on strike for higher wages. America’s first-ever General Strike occurred in Seattle, together with a major steel strike, walkouts of coal miners, longshoremen and even female telephone operators in Boston. Especially alarming was a strike by most of Boston’s police force, threatening the public safety. Americans generally remained unsympathetic to these actions accepting the view of authorities that they were largely the result of agitation by assorted radicals and Communists.
The position of African Americans after the war was even more precarious than that of most other Americans. Many had left the South encouraged to fill jobs left open by those entering the armed forces. Still, they encountered extreme hostility after they arrived. The KKK had once again become active and contributed to an acceleration of racist violence long prevalent in American Society. Race riots, both large and small, broke out all across the United States. In Chicago it raged over a period of about a week and claimed 38 lives. In Elaine, Ark., 300 were killed in three days of fighting. (In Tulsa, Oklahoma, a massive riot occurred in 1921, which destroyed the entire black section of the city and led to the deaths of a substantial and, to this day, unknown number of victims.) In short, the post-war period, difficult for most Americans, tested the black community even more severely.
The bleak characterization of these years became even more pronounced when we add the following events.
American troops are dispatched to Russia in an attempt to undo the Russian Revolution… The New York State Assembly expels five Socialist members for disloyalty to the United States… An armed robbery and murder in Massachusetts leads to the highly controversial trial of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti (executed in 1927)… Swindler Charles Ponzi, promising large returns with postal coupons makes millions from unsuspecting “investors”… Supreme Court rules regulation of child labor unconstitutional… Teddy Roosevelt dies in 1920 at age 60… President Woodrow Wilson suffers stroke and partial paralysis as wife assumes many presidential responsibilities… The U.S. does not join the League of Nations… Black Sox scandal, involving eight members of the Chicago White Sox, accused of World Series game fixing against Cincinnati Reds… Congress passes Volstead Act (Prohibition)… U.S. Military units cross over Mexican border in pursuit of Pancho Villa… U.S. Army Motor Transport Corps (including Lieutenant Colonel Dwight Eisenhower) drives 3,250 miles across country (Washington, D.C. to Oakland, California) and suffers 21 injuries and 230 road accidents… Local leaders of IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) lynched in Centralia, Washington… Prices double between 1916 and 1919… Yankee pitcher Carl Mays hits Cleveland Indians batter Ray Chapman in the head. Chapman dies the next day – first and only baseball fatality… Al Capone moves to Chicago.
Sure there was upbeat news in this period: Women’s Suffrage, for example. But overall, the evidence seems to support the conclusion that these were far from being “the good old days.”