1919 was a year of enormous turbulence. That year has been the subject of the 12th annual presentation of the Wilton Library and Wilton Historical Society’s series on American history. When has a series this distinguished offered subjects as provocative as sex and Sox, scandals and upheavals? The series’ planners had no choice because that’s what 1919 brought America in the same year that Einstein’s theory of relativity was confirmed by observations of a solar eclipse half way around the world.
The series began with remarkable military, naval, and geopolitical historian Professor Mark Albertson addressing what the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I brought the world, and his title sums his position up succinctly: “false promise.” The treaty’s purported ending of hostilities merely set the framework for continuing warfare played out over the rest of the 20th Century and into present times, making World War I the prelude to a century of continuing global conflict.
From Albertson’s perspective, World War I and World War II can be viewed as one continuum with the consequences of the Versailles Treaty’s “War Guilt” clause — with its huge demand for German reparations and the allies’ territorial divisions in the Middle East, North Africa, Ukraine, and Southeast Asia continuing to bedevil those regions and the world throughout the last half of the 20th century and to this very day. As but one example, with the post-war demise of the Ottoman Empire, “the Syrians were rising to throw the French out. Turkey put together an army [under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, first president of the Republic of Turkey] and threw out the British, French, Greeks and Italians. Turkey as you see it now is the result of that war…. Ho Chi Minh went to Versailles believing in [President Wilson’s] 14 Points [blueprint for world peace]. He didn’t even get a hearing.” Albertson masterfully wove together a compelling story of this enormous continuum of Versailles-Treaty-inspired conflict supporting his thesis that we struggle to this day with the consequences of that Treaty.
The series then turned in its second session to our nation’s focus in 1919 on major labor disputes (especially over the eight-hour workweek), race riots, and fear of Bolsheviks, Reds, and anarchists. Domestic unrest was a hallmark of that time, as Fairfield University Professor Cecilia Bucki chronicled in fascinating detail. Unrest was such that the preceding two years saw the passage of federal legislation that criminalized statements (let alone actions) deemed seditious to our form of government or our military, and the U.S. Postal Service became a very enthusiastic censor of mailings considered unpatriotic.
An anarchist’s bomb (that blew up the anarchist himself) exploded outside the home of U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer and provoked what came to be known as “Palmer raids” conducted by Palmer’s lieutenant, J. Edgar Hoover, against those considered Reds, anarchists and other “radical threats both real and imagined.” The Ku Klux Klan meanwhile was rapidly resurrecting and aiming its attacks not only against African Americans but also against Catholics, Jews and immigrants; only a half-dozen years later, it would stage a 50,000-man march in full regalia down Washington, D.C.’s Pennsylvania Avenue.
And our national pastime moved in a truly astonishing direction as members of the White Sox’s outstanding team, in an expression of rage against their team’s stingy owner, conspired with gamblers to throw the 1919 World Series — “Say it ain’t so, Joe!” — as ESPN’s Steve Wulf addressed in a far-ranging presentation in the series’ third session.
So 1919 marked a truly wild time in American life. Yet midst all this craziness, much good was happening — as with the victory of the suffrage movement when President Wilson reversed his long-standing position and supported the movement. That movement had struggled for more than a century in active form and can trace its roots back to Abigail Adams’ urging of her husband John, during the deliberations that created the U.S. Constitution, to “remember the ladies.” The movement to recognize women’s rights will be the subject of the series’ last session on March 31 featuring Pam Dougherty of the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame.
Encouragement for us, living a century later, can be found in President Coolidge’s remarks in 1925: “Whether one traces his Americanism back three centuries to the Mayflower or three years to steerage, is not half so important as whether his Americanism of today is real and genuine…. No matter by what various craft we came here, we are all now in the same boat.”