America’s Reign of Terror by Roberta Strauss Feuerlicht

In America’s Reign of Terror by Roberta Strauss Feuerlicht we see a far more critical point of view of Wilson, his administration, the courts, and other figures in power. While Wilson was remembered for the idealism of the League of Nations, “[h]e is rarely remembered as the President who came closest to destroying free expression in America.”[1] Feuerlicht’s book surveys the landscape of World War I opposition and repression, albeit at a very general level. Starting with raid on the Russian’s People’s House during the Red Scare, Feuerlicht draws a through line from World War I repression to Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer’s aggressive campaign to imprison and deport suspected communists. The book covers the debates around the America’s entry into the war, the rationale to enter into the war (which are mostly economic reasons in Feuerlicht’s opinion), the government’s and the prowar lobby’s propaganda efforts that began an earnest with the war, the efforts to break-up the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), the repression of the Socialist Party (including the prosecution and imprisonment of Eugene V. Debs), censorship efforts on the press conducted by Postmaster Albert S. Burleson, and vigilantism including the organization of quasi-state organizations like the American Protective League. Feuerlicht treats the post-war shift from Germans to Bolsheviks as part of an overall campaign of repression, including the right wing’s interpretations of the race riots of 1919 as an aspect of the Red Scare.[2] While Feuerlicht’s book serves as a good way of gaining an orientation to World War I and its domestic controversies, this is a very general and basic work of history. The book relies on mostly secondary sources and a small number of contemporary articles that appeared in the press. Although this book is cited in a number of other works related to the topic, America’s Reign of Terror reads like a book geared for high school students. The book also reflects its time of writing, amidst widespread opposition to the Vietnam War and with a clear “New Left” orientation. This often leads to inchoate historical analysis. For example, assuming the Zimmerman telegram was a legitimate German diplomatic communiqué, there was solid ground for Wilson to argue the Germans took a substantial step towards war. However, in Feuerlicht’s interpretation, the territory promised to Mexico “had been taken from Mexico by force” by the US, and the Allies had also been making promises of territorial gains to draw “small nations into the war”.[3] While it is easy to look past the author’s Manichean worldview, America’s Reign of Terror only succeeds in providing a starting point on the topic of civil liberties during World War I.

[1] Roberta Strauss Feuerlicht, America’s Reign of Terror: World War I, the Red Scare, and the Palmer Raids (New York: Random House, 1971), 113.

[2] Feuerlicht, 73-78.

[3] Feuerlicht, 12.

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