Even though the First World War came to an end, and the Treaty of Versailles was signed, there was no respite for the United States. In fact, many turbulent events were taking place in America as the fighting continued on the fronts. How did the nation, and its leaders, tackle them? Let’s find out.
Slaughter of Spanish Flu
Before the fighting had actually ended, a terrible epidemic swept through the United States, in fact, the entire world—the Spanish flu.
It proved even more lethal than the war had been; 22 million people worldwide died in this epidemic, and about 625,000 in the United States.
Targeting the Young
It was a very unusual strain of the flu. Instead of killing the very young and the very old—which is usually what epidemics do—the flu attacked young adults, who are usually least likely to die in an epidemic. It swept through the army camps where large number of men were living close together. It almost bankrupted life insurance companies because suddenly so many people who were usually low-risk were dying.
Many cemeteries were running out of space for burials. Public meeting places in many American cities were closed down; and so were churches, phone booths, movies, and theatres. You could be fined for spitting on the streets, because it was thought that might be one of the vectors of transmission of the disease.
A Russian Revolution in America?
The Russian Revolution had had the effect of intensifying the fear of foreign radicals inside America, the possibility that there might be a Russian revolution in America as well. This horrified respectable Americans everywhere, and led to a purge of foreign-born Socialists and anarchists.
The anarchists had themselves partly to blame for this, because an anarchist bomb was exploded outside the home of Attorney General Mitchell Palmer. It was one of 40 bombs that were mailed to important people in American public life.
Another one was sent to one of the U.S. senators from the state of Georgia, but unfortunately, it was his servant who unwrapped it and it blew up in her hands. Well, Palmer, the Attorney General, retaliated by seeking out prominent Socialist and anarchist leaders in America, arresting them and deporting them without trial.
This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Palmer Raids: America’s First Red Scare
These are remembered in history as the “Palmer Raids”, and they’re clearly one of the great violations of due process in American history. It was Palmer who appointed J. Edgar Hoover, as head of his new General Intelligence Division, which later became the FBI.
Organized raids led to the arrest and deportation, without trial, of 249 Russian-born radicals. This was America’s first Red Scare, and there was going to be another one after the Second World War that made McCarthyism famous.
American Socialism itself, already weakened by the imprisonment of its leaders—notably Eugene Debs, for speaking out against the war—was now riven by division between Socialists and Communists.
U.S. Senate’s Rejection of League of Nations
When Woodrow Wilson came back from Versailles, the U.S. Senate refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations in the form presented to them.
Wilson had been so confident that he hadn’t properly prepared his own political basis. For example, just before he went to Versailles, in the mid-term congressional elections of 1918, his party, the Democrats had lost, so the Republicans were now in control of both houses.
No Support from Republicans
Very unwisely, though, he declined to take any senior Republicans with him to the Versailles treaty; he ought to have conciliated Republican opinion much more than he did. The former Republican president Taft said, “He’s hogging the whole show.” Many senators were influenced by the book that John Maynard Keynes published, Economic Consequences of the Peace, warning that in its present form, the treaty was no good.
The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, one of the most important Republican leaders of the day, and he wanted realistic recognition of power differentials inside the League before he’d throw the Republican Party support behind the treaty.
Wilson was, again, reckless not to conciliate Lodge, and what was a reasonable critique of the League as presently constituted.
America Out of the League of Nations
Wilson tried to outwit the Senate by going off on a speaking tour around the country, traveling by train. He went on an 8,000-mile train journey around America, and made 32 major addresses in the space of just 20 days.
By then, however, having been president for six years, through all the stress of the war, he was an aging and exhausted man, and he became terribly sick whilst he was at New Pueblo, Colorado. His doctor hurried the train back to Washington, and it was there on October 2, 1919, that Wilson suffered a very, very severe stroke; he was paralyzed on his left side.
However, Wilson was still of sound mind, but gravely weakened in his ability to work. He never made the necessary concessions on the League, with the result that the Senate never ratified, and with the further consequence that America never did become a participant in the League of Nations, so that right from the beginning, it was a fatally compromised organization.
Common Questions about America after the First World War
Before the fighting had actually ended, a terrible epidemic swept through the United States, in fact, the entire world—the Spanish flu. It proved even more lethal than the war had been; 22 million people worldwide died in this epidemic, and about 625,000 in the United States.
‘Palmer Raids’ were organized raids that led to the arrest and deportation, without trial, of 249 Russian-born radicals. This was America’s first tryst with Red Scare.
Weakened in his ability to work, Wilson never made the necessary concessions on the League, with the result that the Senate never ratified, and with the further consequence that America never did become a participant in the League of Nations.