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Savage Peace: Hope and Fear in America 1919

Savage Peace: Hope and Fear in America 1919

4.5 2
by Ann Hagedorn

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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


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.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Savage Peace reads like a wondrous and sprawling novel, except that it is all true. Thoroughly researched and insightful, it spins together the fascinating threads of 1919. And what a wonderful cast of characters! From Eddington to Einstein to Du Bois and Wilson, they all come alive. This book is so joyful you'll forget that it's serious history."

— Walter Isaacson, author of Benjamin Franklin: An American Life and Einstein: His Life and Universe

"Ann Hagedorn gives us a grand reappraisal of the American context for the Savage Peace of 1919. Everyone interested in the path to our present struggles and future alternatives will want to read this splendid and important book."

— Blanche Wiesen Cook, Professor of History, John Jay College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York; author of Eleanor Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt: Volume 2, The Defining Years, 1933-1938

"Savage Peace is Ann Hagedorn's brilliantly conceived, meticulously researched, and beautifully written biography of the year 1919. Now we have a historian who is up to the challenge of vividly demonstrating not only 1919's historical significance, but also its political and cultural relevance to us in the era of 9/11 and the Patriot Act." — William M. Tuttle Jr., author of "Daddy's Gone to War": The Second World War in the Lives of America's Children and Race Riot: Chicago in the Red Summer of 1919

Publishers Weekly

Former Wall Street Journalstaffer 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 2006 Reed Business Information.

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Simon & Schuster
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Read an Excerpt


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.


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. The 369th was the first black regiment to arrive on the Western Front and now it would soon be the first American division to cross the Rhine River into Germany. "They had achieved the impossible," wrote one of their commanders. "These men were going home as heroes."

Two thousand miles northeast of the Vosges Mountains on a vast frontier of tundra and fir in northern Russia, the moment that made the Western world hold its breath came and went unnoticed. Fifteen thousand Allied soldiers, including at least seven thousand Americans, were scattered across hundreds of miles radiating out from the port of Archangel on the Dvina River, twenty-six miles from the White Sea. On the morning of November 11, there was no cheering and there was no relief. Isolated by long delays in receiving mail and blocked from cable communications, the troops in Russia were not told about the Armistice, and even if they had known, there were no orders for the Allied North Russia Expeditionary Force to cease firing. While their compatriots in the west slipped into reveries of life back home and their families laid out plans for joyous homecomings, a contingent of American soldiers of the 339th Infantry was fighting its hardest battle yet. In temperatures hovering at 60 degrees below zero and in shoes that had worn through six weeks before, around the time the snow had begun to fall, they were trying to defend an American outpost two hundred miles from Archangel. They would remember the day for the battle they had fought and for the one hundred soldiers who would die in the four days that the battle lasted. On November 11, Sergeant Silver Parrish, of Bay City, Michigan, wrote in his diary, "We were atacked on our flank front and rear bye about 2500 of the enemy & their Big field Guns. We licked the [Bolsheviks] good & hard but lost 7 killed and 14 wounded." The long, steady scream of flying shells would continue to split the Arctic stillness for many more months.

In Paris, at exactly 11 A.M., guns boomed, bells rang, and American and French flags seemed to fall out of the sky, hanging from balconies, dangling out of windows, and waving from rooftops. Thousands of people shouted "Vive la Paix!" as they swarmed the Place de la Concorde and moved up the Champs-Elysées. On the balcony of the Paris Opera House, a chorus led a crowd of twenty thousand in singing "La Marseillaise." "The song bursting from that crowd was enough to stir the spirits of the heroic dead," wrote the American journalist Ray Stannard Baker, who was there in the throng. "Such a thrill comes not once in a hundred years."

News of the signing of the Armistice had traveled swiftly to America by transatlantic cable, arriving at the State Department at approximately 2:25 that morning. At 2:50 A.M. the government informed the press that the war would end at 6 A.M., Eastern Standard Time, and that the terms of the Armistice would be announced shortly thereafter. As early as 3 A.M. Americans awakened to the sounds of victory rippling through their streets, moving westward with the rising sun. They rolled out of bed to join the delirious throngs, grabbing wooden spoons from cupboards to bang on everything from tin pans to garbage cans, clanging bells as big as cows' heads, tying copper kettles and dishpans to the bumpers of every kind of vehicle, and moving their feet in rhythm with the chiming of church bells and the unrestrained cheering that only intensified in volume and energy as the day progressed.

The month of November had been unseasonably cold on the East Coast, so cold, in fact, that a mail carrier flying between New York and Washington earlier in the month encountered a blizzard, at seven thousand feet, for nearly forty miles. The snow was so thick, the pilot said, he could not see the wings of his machine and the flight so frigid that the government decided it must provide electrically heated clothing for the pilots of its new Air Mail Service. It had been a harsh autumn nationwide, but for more reasons than the weather. Death lists from the war competed with those from the raging epidemic known as the Spanish flu. In the last week of October, at the height of the second wave of the outbreak, more than five thousand people had died in New York City and three thousand in Philadelphia. The death toll nationwide for that month alone would be nearly twenty thousand. Military posts were especially hard hit. "We have been averaging 100 deaths per day," wrote a doctor in Surgical Ward No. 16 at Camp Devens, in Massachusetts, where seventeen thousand soldiers and staff had died by the end of October. Although the war always upstaged the flu in news coverage, the flu took a fearful toll on the nation. Even little girls jumped rope to the chant: "I once knew a bird and its name was Enza. I opened a window and in-flu-Enza."

Rumors of peace, debates over Prohibition and the recent elections, and, of course, baseball were all popular distractions from the anxieties and fears inherent to a season of darkness and death. Babe Ruth helped lead the Boston Red Sox to a World Series victory in October, and Ty Cobb had been the American League's leading batter for the 1918 season. The Republicans had just recaptured control of both the Senate and the House of Representatives, causing considerable consternation in the White House, where the Democratic president, Woodrow Wilson, believed a unified government was essential to achieve his goal of reconstructing the world. The elections too had boosted the number of states prohibiting the legal sale and consumption of alcohol. Prohibition was now only one state away from becoming the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution — cause for some to applaud and others to shudder. After Germany and Austria, said the Anti-Saloon League, alcohol was the enemy — on whose head the forces of temperance heaped the blame for the rising number of labor disturbances; for fuel shortages, because breweries and saloons used more coal than all the nation's schools and churches combined; and for the scarcity of sugar. "Did Booze ever benefit you?" read one ad. "Did it ever add to the happiness of your family?"

Nothing, however, distracted the people from their woes as much as their hopes for peace. And so it was that on the morning after the election returns, on November 7, Americans had awakened to the news they most wanted to hear: that the Germans had signed the Armistice and by 2 P.M. the war would be over. Although the news was false, paperboys bellowed, "The Germans gave up!" as they peddled Extra editions with gripping dispatches from London and Paris about the Armistice. The nation broke into frantic revelry, only to learn late that night and early the next morning that the war had not yet ended. On November 8, the Washington Post reported, "No one can say now with any certainty when the Armistice will be signed or when the fighting will stop." Three days later, an anxious populace awakened to the same news — and again believed it. This time it was real.

November 11 was a mild, springlike day in most of the United States — so unusual that chilly autumn. Perhaps the millions of people celebrating the Armistice, their souls aflame with the passions of victory and hope, had the power nearly to change the season, the way an earthquake can reverse the flow of a river. From sunup to sunup, they opened windows and unfurled flags, stood on rooftops tossing the shredded pages of telephone books, built bonfires with anything made of wood that could be easily detached, and waded through ankle-deep confetti, waving newspapers with two-inch headlines that read:


Stunts and lunacy were abundant. In New Jersey, a soldier on leave climbed a five-story building in Jersey City and at the top of a flagpole on the roof, 125 feet from the ground, he lost his grip and fell to the street, landing, unharmed and still cheering, on the cloth top of an automobile moving slowly through the crowd. In Chicago, funeral corteges of black hearses paid a tribute to war's end, one with a band marching next to it playing Chopin's "Funeral March." In San Diego sailors sprinkled countless containers of talcum powder on the crowds, while ships rang their bells and factories tied their whistles open.

The ear-splitting, horn-blowing, flag-waving mayhem spurred immediate — and premature — repeals of health regulations that, because of the flu, had prohibited public gatherings in churches, schools, theaters, and saloons since late September. Although the danger had hardly passed and the end of the war would enable a resurgence, the illusion that the nation's two biggest killers, war and flu, were now dead ruled the day. Doors opened. Churches filled as quickly as bars. Streets throbbed with the beat of a public heart that had been broken and mended in turns, creating a mentality of victory and defeat, of heroes and enemies, of high aspirations for all that democracy could mean. They carried the flags and sang the songs, each step in rhythm with every patriotic tune ever written, expecting nothing less than heaven.

The sun rose at 6:47 A.M. in Washington, D.C., on November 11, where President Woodrow Wilson was informed of the Armistice at breakfast, shortly after seven. He immediately gave orders for all government employees to take the day off, and, with a pencil, he wrote his announcement to the nation, to be sent to the press: "My fellow countrymen. The armistice was signed this morning. Everything for which America fought has been accomplished. It will now be our fortunate duty to assist by example, by sober, friendly counsel and by material aid in the establishment of just democracy throughout the world."

Six hours later, the president stood in the House of Representatives before both houses of Congress, the cabinet, the diplomatic corps, and the U.S. Supreme Court. It was there, nineteen months before, that Wilson had asked the nation to go to war. Looking out at the hastily convened session with the solemnity of a warrior beginning a battle rather than ending one, he announced that the aims and hopes of the enemies of militarism had been achieved. "Armed imperialism" he said, "is at an end." And then he slowly read the thirty-four terms of the Armistice. From the second stipulation onward the grand chamber, where applause was strictly forbidden while Congress was in session, nearly shook from the furor of clapping hands, standing exultations, and screeching cheers. At precisely 1:21 P.M., Wilson declared the official end of the war, barely completing the seven words "The war thus comes to an end" before the tumult of victory cut him off.

That evening, in a city wild with joy, President and Mrs. Wilson rode in an open auto up and down Pennsylvania Avenue through crowds so dense that the Secret Service could barely force a space for the car and so immersed in revelry that only on the couple's return trip, amid the flickering light of bonfires, did the crowd even notice the presence of their president. When they did, they brought the car to a standstill long enough for a soldier carrying an American flag to force his way to the back of the car and, reaching forward, to thrust the large flag above Wilson's head. Apparently unalarmed, the president stood up and saluted the soldier. Then for the next two blocks he continued to stand, waving his own small flag and bowing to the pulsing crowds.

Despite the delirium and the pomp, Wilson's November 11 was no less consumed with the sober questions that would shape the peace. Would he, the president of the United States, dare to travel to Europe for the peace conference, although no U.S. president had ever left the country while in office? The people of Europe demanded that he come — this man who seemed to be the voice of their own aspirations. Europe's ruling class, however, which scoffed at Wilson's League of Nations and his notion of permanent peace, preferred that he stay home. But if he chose not to go, what would the consequences be? Who could fight as well as he against the greed, distrust, and fear that could rise up and set the stage for new wars? And if he chose to go, what would it mean to leave his nation during the transition from war to peace, sure to be an unstable, disquieting time?

Perhaps the biggest question of all was whether Wilson could fulfill his promise to the people of his own nation who had believed his pledge in 1916 of keeping America out of the war and who now trusted his promise of an enduring peace based on justice, equality, and respect for the common man, not on imperialistic self-interest. Was it possible that this man who seemed unafraid to dream of a better world could bring the masses of humanity to share that dream?

"Wilson has yet to prove his greatness," Ray Stannard Baker wrote in his diary in Paris that November. "The fate of a drama lies in its last act, and Wilson is now coming to that. Can he dominate the seething mass of suspicion and disbelief? And when it comes to the crucial point, can we Americans trust ourselves? Do we really believe what Wilson preaches? Are we willing to make real sacrifices and take on responsibilities to bring about the new heaven and the new earth?"

On Armistice Day, Theodore Roosevelt checked into a New York City hospital with severe sciatica; Samuel Gompers, the president of the American Federation of Labor, was in Washington for the funeral of his daughter, a victim of the flu; John Edgar Hoover, a young lawyer in the Department of Justice, had planned to dine with the daughter of a prominent Washington attorney, but she did not keep the date; A. Mitchell Palmer, the War Department's alien property custodian, responsible for confiscating, managing, and sometimes selling assets owned by Germans in America, announced the upcoming sale of property valued at approximately $200 million, including $200,000 worth of tea and 346 pearls, three rubies, and two emeralds valued at $2.25 million; Douglas Fairbanks, the silent film star who had just raised $7 million in Liberty Bonds for the war effort, left the nation's capital on a coast-to-coast tour to raise $25 million more. And suffragist Alice Paul was quoted in newspapers about the upcoming battle in the Senate: "Before these hundred days remaining in this Congress have gone, the suffrage amendment shall have passed!"

The poet and journalist Carl Sandburg was writing news stories out of Stockholm, Sweden, where he had been interviewing a Russian source who worked for the Bolshevik leader V. I. Lenin. British aviator Captain John Alcock was a prisoner of war in Turkey beginning his thirteenth month in captivity and working on his plan to fly an airplane nonstop across the Atlantic once he was freed. And the popular American writer who used the pseudonym David Grayson was standing in the throng at the Opera House in Paris, taking notes for one of his next books.

In celebration of the Armistice, Albert Einstein, a young German physicist teaching in Berlin, wrote a joyful letter to his sister: "The great event has taken place! . . . That I could live to see this!" At the same time in London, an international committee of astronomers and physicists announced its ambitious plan to send two expeditions, one to South America and one to Africa, to test Einstein's general theory of relativity and to demonstrate through science the value of global cooperation. Weather permitting, they would observe an unusually long total eclipse of the sun on May 29 to determine whether the sun's gravity could bend the light of the stars, as Einstein's theories predicted. With war's end, scientists could now focus their attention on the revolutionary concepts that Einstein's papers, smuggled out of Germany across the battlefields of Europe to England, had expressed.

For Roger Baldwin, who had protested the war and refused to fight, the day was memorable for the obvious relief of war's end, and for more. A firm believer that physical force was not a method for achieving any goal — whether or not the battle was for a worthy cause — Baldwin, a Harvard graduate and an outspoken advocate of free speech, was serving a one-year sentence for violating the Selective Service Act. This was his thirty-second day in the Tombs which, true to its name, was New York City's dark, dungeon-like jailhouse. And on this day, two U.S. marshals escorted him out of the Tombs to a better facility in Newark, New Jersey, where he would remain for the rest of his sentence.

Baldwin was one of thousands of Americans in jail in November of 1918 for violating the 1917 Selective Service Act or for violating the Espionage Act of 1917 or its amended 1918 version, known also as the Sedition Act, which condemned dissenting voices that allegedly threatened the security of the nation at war. In October one man had been sentenced to six months in the workhouse for saying he preferred Germany's kaiser to President Wilson. Another was sentenced to ten years in prison for delivering speeches in which he called conscription unconstitutional. Yet another received a twenty-year sentence and a fine of $10,000 for telling a Liberty Bond salesman that not only did he not want to buy any bonds but he also hoped the "government would go to hell."

At the Tombs that day, Baldwin left behind several such convicts, including a twenty-one-year-old Russian girl, Mollie Steimer, recently sentenced to fifteen years in prison for violating the Sedition Act by distributing leaflets that opposed American intervention in Russia. Outspoken about her preference for prison over surrender of her beliefs, Steimer had been at the Tombs since late August, when she was arrested. This "slip of a girl," as Emma Goldman would later call her, was her own field of force, despite her tiny, unobtrusive stature and her young age. Stirring up heated debates about free speech, about the meaning of the espionage and sedition laws, and about the harshness of prison sentences, Steimer agitated government men like J. Edgar Hoover, for whom she would soon become a fixation.

From her jail cell, Steimer may have heard the excited multitudes on the streets of New York and the loud clanging and singing in celebration of the Armistice, or she may have learned of the Armistice from Harry Weinberger, her lawyer, who visited the Tombs upon hearing of his own great victory: that the U.S. Supreme Court had granted Steimer's bail and that of her co-defendants, three Russian immigrants given twenty-year sentences also because of the allegedly seditious leaflets. At their trial, Weinberger had described his young clients as "liberty-loving" with a dream of a better life for their people. To be pro-Russian, Weinberger had argued, was not to be pro-German. And to protest the U.S. invasion of a nation struggling for its own new day in a revolution that the defendants viewed as progress for their homeland was not a violation of a law enacted for the purposes of protecting the United States during a war with Germany. How could pro-Russian leaflets fluttering onto Broadway from the seventh-floor restroom window of the shirtwaist factory where Steimer worked profoundly damage the war effort against Germany? "Sad is the day when America becomes afraid of mere words that are spoken or printed," Weinberger wrote.

Now, with the news of the Armistice, Weinberger knew that his argument for bail was stronger than ever. Without a war, there was no security-related reason to continue the incarceration of Steimer and the three young men. After all, they had been convicted and held without bail on the premise that they were endangering the nation while it was at war with Germany. Now, with the war over, Weinberger planned to push again for their release. But the Supreme Court saved him the trouble. While the justices were sitting in Congress listening to their president define the terms of the Armistice, Weinberger received a letter from a Supreme Court clerk saying that the High Court had approved bail for his young clients. Filled with renewed hope that the convictions might be overturned, Weinberger immediately began the daunting task of raising bail funds, $40,000 in all.

At the Tombs that day, male prisoners were taken out of their cells into the prison yard and told to rejoice. Steimer remained in her cell, with its walls covered in newspaper clippings about people she admired, such as Eugene Debs and John Reed. "Peace has come," she said to her cell mate, Agnes Smedley, who was serving time for disseminating birth control information, "but not for us. Our struggle will be all the more bitter now."

In the woods outside a small town in northern Alabama, a black man died on Armistice Day, at the end of a rope hanging from a tree. His name was William Byrd, and late on the eve of the Armistice a mob of at least one hundred men had dragged him out of his jail cell, where that same night police had incarcerated him for allegedly killing a police officer. No one knew exactly how old he was but those who watched him die said he must have been young, as he was so very strong or perhaps he was very determined to live or both. Whatever the reason, it took the man "longer than most," they said, to die. In fact, he died around the time that the State Department received its momentous cable from Europe announcing the Armistice.

For his reported crime of "creating a disturbance in the lower section" of the town, Byrd was the fifty-first black man on record to be lynched that year — in addition to three black women. On the night of the 11th, the mob found yet another man they suspected of shooting the policeman and they hanged him too, though not from the same tree. Across the nation, there would be two more black women and eight more black men lynched before the year ended, bringing the total to sixty-four. In 1917, the tally had been forty-four, and in 1919, there would be many more. For black Americans, the weeping would not end on November 11.

Two hundred thousand African-American men had heeded Wilson's passionate call to join the crusade in Europe to make the world safe for democracy. Of those, 42,000 fought on the battlefields of France. "You have won the greatest battle in History and saved the most sacred cause, the liberty of the world," wrote Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the commander-in-chief of the Allied armies, in a letter to the all-black 369th Infantry. "Be proud of it. With immortal glory you have adorned your flags. Posterity will be indebted to you with gratitude." African-Americans who stayed home led a different campaign during the war years. They wanted Wilson to make their own country safe for democracy, and for African-Americans. They wanted their president to include America's black citizens in the dreams he so eloquently expressed.

And so on the "11/11/11" cease-fire, America's black leaders worked on their strategies for using the upcoming peace conference to bring worldwide attention to the acute race crisis in Wilson's own nation. W. E. B. Du Bois, the founder and president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and editor of The Crisis magazine, attended an NAACP board meeting that day at which he read portions of his "Memorandum on the Future of Africa," discussed his plan for a Pan-African Congress in Paris, and supported a resolution to send twenty-five black representatives to the Paris Peace Conference.

William Monroe Trotter, the founder and editor of The Guardian newspaper in Boston, and the head of the National Equal Rights League, also announced a plan that day for his National Race Congress to convene in early December in Washington, D.C. This congress would select its own black delegation to promote a race agenda at the peace conference, which would include well-known African-Americans such as the exceptional businesswoman Madam C. J. Walker.

Trotter rarely missed a step in his quest to expose the hypocrisies that so impeded the progress and peace of his race. Loudly had he protested racist dramas on the Boston stage, the opening of the 1915 film The Birth of a Nation, racist policies in the offices of the Wilson administration, and nationwide indifference to the pandemic of lynching. In September of 1918, he had lost his wife, who was also his co-editor, to the flu. But, by the day of the Armistice, using work as an antidote to his grief, Trotter was focused on squaring Wilson's actions with his promises and words. For now, this meant demanding that the president appoint a black man to the American peace delegation, and that Wilson add a Fifteenth Point to his acclaimed Fourteen Points: "The elimination of civil, political, and judicial distinctions based on race or color in all nations for the new era of freedom everywhere."

The upcoming peace conference, where Wilson hoped to see the world reconfigured along the lines of global democracy, seemed an obvious venue for demands of racial justice and equality. Was this not the greatest opportunity to expose and overcome the injustices still oppressing his race? In his announcement on Armistice Day, Trotter wrote: "The earth and the heavens resound with the petitions of all races for freedom and democracy with the close of the World War. Every proscribed race and class is preparing to have its relief included in the world adjustment."

Thirty-five miles northwest of Boston, on the afternoon of November 11, the merchants and residents of Ayer, Massachusetts, were preparing for what they knew the Armistice meant for them: a flood of soldiers engulfing their streets and stores, taverns and trolleys. More than 100,000 soldiers had been trained at Camp Devens, in the southwest corner of Ayer, and soon many more returning soldiers — the ones from New England, at least — would reenter America through that same camp. When the flow would begin and just how many there would be was not yet clear. To demobilize 300,000 soldiers each month was the government's hope at the moment, beginning with the sick and wounded. For Ayer now, its stores must be abundantly stocked; its boarding houses and hotels must prepare rooms for soldiers' families; and its police force must be bolstered, especially for traffic control. A series of patriotic parades must be planned, and health alerts must be posted. There was, after all, the danger of the flu traveling home with the soldiers, adding to Camp Devens's already huge toll of flu casualties. The mass of humanity would overrun Ayer, possibly even spilling into the outlying areas surrounding the ponds: Squannacook Pond, Robbins Pond, Long Pond, and Sandy Pond, the biggest of all.

Sandy Pond, only two and a half miles from Ayer, was where the well-heeled in the region owned summer homes. On Armistice Day, one of the few permanent residents, if not the only one, Mabel Emeline Puffer, was tending to the tasks of preparing her cottage for winter. She was assisted by her handyman, Arthur Garfield Hazzard, who had worked for the Puffer family for more than fifteen years. The shades on Puffer's Sandy Pond home were up. As her neighbors during the warmer months well knew, this meant that the stately, soft-spoken, white heiress was having tea with her African-American hired hand. What they spoke about on this particular day is not known but their conversation likely drifted some distance from such topics as the impact of returning soldiers on their town and the possibility that some soldiers might take the trolley out to view the beauty of their placid Sandy Pond. Their thoughts and feelings were not necessarily centered on the end of the war and what it might mean for the world outside Sandy Pond, for Americans of African descent, for hopeful returning soldiers of all races, for the U.S. president, and for all who dreamed of a just world. But for the news surrounding them on that day, their world was a tiny one, focused on each other and their own plans for a life together.

Copyright © 2007 by Ann Hagedorn

Meet the Author

Ann Hagedorn has been a staff writer for The Wall Street Journal and has taught writing at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Her previous books are Wild Ride, Ransom, Beyond the River, and Savage Peace.

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Savage Peace: Hope and Fear in America 1919 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Awesome kinda
Guest More than 1 year ago
I liked this book a lot. Hagedorn is a very thorough researcher and a good storyteller. Some people have criticized her for this book and for her recognition of Schlesinger in the afterwords, etc. I think these critics miss the point of the book. That 1919 was a beast of a year is no debate. One could read about this year and make connections to today. Look at Katrina, new fears of Russia, immigration issues, and racism. Hagedorn goes a long way to showing the reader the importance, as well as the dangers, of strong central governments. I liked this book, particularly the last 50 pages because it is a very human story throughout - but especially during those last pages. I finished the book and it was like departing from someone. I hated to put it down.