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Radical Mainers: The Red Scare Hits Maine

The Red Scare Hits Maine: War Fever & Nativist Hysteria, Part 1

by | Jul 13, 2020

A political cartoon in the Daily Kennebec Journal, December 1919.

When John Bross walked into the Eastern Manufacturing Company mill yard, in Brewer, on the Saturday morning of April 6, 1918, the Russian-American worker couldn’t have known he would barely make it out alive. This was supposed to be a time of national unity. A delegation of mill workers was preparing for the Bangor Liberty Loan Parade, an event organized to promote the purchase of government bonds in support of troops heading to France to fight in the Great War. But as the workers began discussing the situation in Europe that morning, rumors emerged that a man who worked in the machine room with Bross had overheard the Russian make treasonous statements two weeks earlier.

The men flew into a blind rage upon hearing that Bross “hoped the Kaiser would be in Paris within five or ten days and in New York pretty soon.” It didn’t matter that Bross vehemently denied any disloyalty to America or fondness for the Kaiser. Or that, according to subsequent newspaper accounts, he had “an excellent reputation at his boarding house in South Brewer and in the community.” To the mill workers, this man with a strange accent had uttered seditious sentiments. A gang of them set upon Bross and began mercilessly beating him, while hundreds of onlookers cheered on the attackers. Some even called out for a rope to lynch Bross right there in the yard.

After giving Bross what the Bangor Daily News described as a “good licking,” the mob drove him from the yard and warned him not to come back or he would face the rope. That afternoon, City Marshall Lunt went down to the mill to investigate and found the situation “so serious” that he decided it would be best to lock Bross up “for safe keeping.” Maine’s new wartime Committee on Public Safety later moved Bross to Portland to investigate the matter further.

The Rise of 100 Percent Americanism

In his book One Hundred Percent American: The Rebirth and Decline of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, Thomas Pegram noted that as American society finally entered the war, it “reimagined the squalid imperial conflict of 1916 as the democratic crusade of 1917,” and “issues of uneven wealth, corporate monopoly, urban infrastructure, and political corruption that had energized the Progressive Era gave way to a heightened concern with ‘hyphenated’ Americans, slackers, and other dissenters from national unity.”

Before America’s entry into World War I, President Woodrow Wilson had urged Congress to enact what became known as the “Espionage Act,” to clamp down on freedom of expression in order to “crush” the “creatures of passion, disloyalty, and anarchy.” In June of 1916, the Wilson administration introduced the bill, but it didn’t get any traction while the nation was still at peace.

When Congress finally did declare war, in April of 1917, a patriotic, jingoistic, paranoid fever swept the country, intensifying xenophobia and encouraging vigilantism against anyone who called for peace. Nativism had always been part of American society, but an anti-immigrant backlash had long been brewing and the war exacerbated these tensions; many feared mass immigration was threatening the white Anglo-Protestant social order.

During the war years, the U.S. government and the mainstream press — with the aid of churches, business groups, labor unions and fraternal organizations — fueled a massive campaign to demonize dissenters and persecute anyone deemed “disloyal” to America or the war effort. President Wilson had stoked anti-immigrant fears of so-called “hyphenated Americans” in his third Annual Address to Congress on December 7, 1915.

“These are citizens of the United States, I blush to admit, born under other flags but welcomed by our generous naturalization laws to the full freedom and opportunity of America,” Wilson said, “who have poured the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life.”

War Fever Grips Maine

Maine had a relatively small German population at the time of the Great War. According to Rita Mae Breton (whose master’s thesis, “Red Scare: A Study in Maine Nativism, 1919-1925,” is the most comprehensive study of the period yet produced), in 1920 there were just 932 Germans in Maine out of a population of 768,000, and 70 percent of those Germans were American citizens. But this did not prevent wild rumors or legislative crackdowns. And the nativist rage triggered by the war proved easy to transfer to other nationalities and ethnic groups.

In the previous century, a mass migration of French-Canadian Catholics to Lewiston, Biddeford and other mill towns had aroused long-held anti-Catholic prejudices among the state’s dominant Anglo-Protestant population. Other, smaller populations of Italians, Finns, Lithuanians and Russian Jews had also begun to arrive in Maine in the late 1800s, finding employment at the mills, lumber camps or quarries, and bringing their cultures with them. Suspicion of these groups heightened after the world bore witness to the earth-shaking event of the Russian Revolution, which began in 1917. Americans suddenly feared that Bolsheviks were lurking around every corner.

In fact, many of these immigrants came from countries where socialist parties were not considered outside the mainstream, and more than a few brought their radical politics with them. Many Finns, Italians, Jews and Lithuanians joined the Maine Socialist Party, and though it never attracted a large following here, the movement was influential in its own way. The Socialists’ stance on militarism heightened suspicions of their loyalty. They vociferously opposed war as a tool of capitalist imperial oppression. They saw war as an effort to divide the working class against itself. As George Allan England, the science fiction writer and 1912 Socialist candidate for Maine Governor, once wrote:

            If fight they must, [Socialists] refuse to consider as enemies the working class of other nations, but merely the ruling, capitalist class of their own and other lands. They recognize no antagonisms of race, creed, or color. For them the abstract dream of the brotherhood of man has assumed so tangible a reality that today they are actually at work to force the ruling classes into a recognition of its claims. … They recognize that the proletariat always furnishes the cannon fodder and the cash, while the ruling class reaps the rewards.

Yet within a few years, even England, along with many of the movement’s notable intellectual leaders, would succumb to war fever, and the small spark of socialism in Maine would be nearly extinguished. By the time the war erupted, the Socialist Party in Maine was already in decline, as it was elsewhere in the nation, with the exception of a few cities, such as Milwaukee, where Socialists had managed to establish a foothold. The entire Progressive Era was coming to an end as the Great War began.

In the early years of the 20th century, social activists, labor unions, muckraking journalists and political reformers had begun to transform the established political order. The Progressive movement paved the way for major actions against corruption and corporate monopolies, and for the modernization of public schools, women’s suffrage, improvement of public assistance programs and the institution of the income tax.

Though it scored a few more victories in the years after the war, including passage of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote, most of progressivism’s momentum died in the trenches. The victories won by organized labor in the previous decades were rolled back, as socialist reforms gave way to the unrestrained capitalism of the Roaring Twenties. Not until the spectacular crash at the end of the decade would Americans again begin looking to government, and to collective action, as necessary means to address social and economic problems.

Seen in this light, the Red Scare of World War I can be said to have accomplished its goal. For the country’s business and political elite, the crusade, despite its violent excesses, had proven useful. Dissent had been effectively squashed during the war, the power of the working class had been rolled back, and radicalism had been defeated or forced underground. When the fever finally broke, it left the landscape of American life permanently altered.

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