Penetrating account of xenophobia and the officially sanctioned persecution of minorities and the politically undesirable.
Feldman (When the Mississippi Ran Backwards: Empire, Intrigue, Murder, and the New Madrid Earthquakes, 2005, etc.) has his hackles up regarding the labyrinthine history of scapegoating and political repression in the Land of the Free, arguing that we tend to excuse or misunderstand this narrative, which actually tells the story of how the powerful keep the powerless in check. Beginning with the ugly lynching of a supposed German “spy” in an Illinois coal town, the author assembles a concrete narrative spanning the years from World War I through the Church Committee investigation of the 1970s, showing that governmental and private forces consistently ginned up “red scares” in response to social and labor unrest. Few remember, for instance, that Woodrow Wilson spoke of “the fine gold of untainted Americanism,” adding to anti-foreign suspicions before WWI. After the war, which saw the demise under pressure of the Socialist party, the expulsion of anarchists like Emma Goldman and attacks on the radical Wobblies, this patriotic fervor led to the first Red Scare and the Palmer raids, “a cynical and sordid manipulation of the American public by government and business leaders.” Improbably, J. Edgar Hoover was appointed to lead the growing Bureau of Investigation in 1924 as a supposed moderate, “a choice that would have devastating long-term consequences” for American civil liberties. Feldman argues that the federal government’s hostility to radicals and undesirable immigrants continued through WWII—most notoriously, via the internment of Japanese Americans. After the war, Joseph McCarthy witch hunts continued the hysteria—as one fired teacher recalled, “There were many wrecked lives.” Even as the country became more progressive, Hoover relentlessly pursued civil-rights and antiwar groups through the FBI’s notorious Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO). Feldman is an attentive historian, unearthing many disturbing, forgotten examples of official malfeasance. (He only addresses the post-9/11 era in an epilogue.)
An alternate history rife with violence and class oppression, presented with rigor and detail, though with a strident tone that renders it somewhat dry.