Tony Platt on Wall Street Terror Attack
Posted on Mar 13, 2009
By Tony Platt
But the 1920 action was the death knell of the anarchist movement, not of the Wall Street plutocrats whom it had targeted. Its demise was the result in part of the growth of labor, socialist and communist organizations that increasingly rejected the use of terror as a tactic on the grounds that it alienated mass support and inevitably generated what today we would call “collateral damage.” The 38 people who died on Wall Street were not bankers and speculators, but messengers, stenographers, clerks, salesmen and drivers. While Beverly Gage is not as blunt as writer Mike Davis, who calls the use of dynamite in public places “an inherently fascist weapon,” she leaves no doubt about where her ultimate sympathy lies: The book ends with an in memoriam to the victims of the Wall Street explosion.
The thread that holds the book’s disparate elements together is the unsolved bombing that almost pierced the inner sanctum of American capitalism. “The Day Wall Street Exploded” works best when it investigates in great detail the bumbling incompetence and internecine squabbling among the various public and private agencies attempting to track down the group or person responsible for what the press described as an outrage “unprecedented in horror.”
Gage brings to life the various departments and larger-than-life personalities who vied with each other to break the case. Whether New York Police Commissioner Arthur Woods, or Bureau of Investigation Director William Flynn, or his replacement (the founder of the William J. Burns International Detective Agency), each public figure turned the investigation into a fiasco, with several suspects arrested and discarded before trial, and money wasted in sending agents on fishing expeditions for red herrings in Russian and Italy. Five years after the Wall Street bombing, the case was unsolved, and it would remain so.
The only functionary to emerge from the debacle unscathed was a young and opportunistic J. Edgar Hoover, who parlayed his experience as a Library of Congress cataloger into becoming the custodian of the Justice Department’s new Radical Division, eventually amassing files on 450,000 suspected radicals. In 1924 he was promoted to director of the Bureau of Investigation and in the 1940s as head of the now renamed Federal Bureau of Investigation would successfully lead a witch hunt against the leadership of the Communist Party.
This long section of the book is a good read as Gage draws us into the hunt for the Wall Street bomber. By the time we reach the last chapter, we are invested in figuring out who pulled off the operation. Three pages from the end of the book, Gage delivers a coup de theatre, revealing that another historian, Paul Avrich, in his definitive 1991 book on American anarchism, had proposed Mario Buda, a comrade of Sacco and Vanzetti, as the likely candidate. As far as Gage—as well as Mike Davis—is concerned, Avrich probably got it right, given that the September 16th bombing took place five days after Sacco and Vanzetti were indicted. I understand why as a dramatic technique Gage withheld Avrich’s 18-year-old thesis until the last three pages of the book, but it’s surprising that she did not give Buda the same kind of detailed attention that she devoted to other suspects.
Although the government bungled the prosecution of the Wall Street bomber, it succeeded before, during and after World War I in creating an unprecedented network of domestic counterinsurgency operations. In February 1917, Congress passed legislation making advocacy of destruction of property or assassination of a public official grounds for deportation. After President Woodrow Wilson declared war on Germany on April 2, hundreds of radicals were rounded up. The June 15 Espionage Law made it a crime to oppose the war, resulting in the jailing of more than 1,000 anti-war activists.
After the war, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer set out to purge the country of its “anarchist element,” starting with the arrests of hundreds of members of the little-known Union of Russian Workers; the roundup of thousands of foreign-born anarchists and communists followed in November 1919. If the Palmer Raids, as they became known, were aimed at deporting political activists, the nativist immigration law of 1924 was designed to prevent leftists from entering the country. The result, notes Gage, was the “first mass political deportation in American history.” Meanwhile, at the local level, state legislatures cracked down on “criminal anarchy,” while police departments set up “Red squads” and sent spies and agents provocateurs into hundreds of leftist organizations.
Among the victims of this “madness of jingoism,” as Emma Goldman put it, were the crème de la crème of the American left: Big Bill Haywood did time and then secretly left the country before his re-arrest, dying in Moscow; Goldman and Alexander Berkman were imprisoned and later deported with 250 comrades to Russia; even the more moderate Eugene Debs, then 63 years old, was put in prison in May 1918 after he gave an anti-war speech in Canton, Ohio. By the mid-1920s, the once vibrant and optimistic American left was on the run.
In the aftermath of 9/11, while working on “The Day Wall Street Exploded,” Gage worried that it might not be possible “to write decent history on a subject so heavily publicized. Most of all,” she asked herself, “did the entire subject now seem too ghoulish and opportunistic?” She was reluctant, with good reason, to make facile comparisons between late 20th century jihadism and early 20th century anarchism. “I no longer feel quite so much urgency,” she concluded, “to compare the present and past, or to justify my subject in relation to the present day.”
But it’s a pity that Gage did not take the opportunity to make clear what is implicit in her book: that the repertoire of post-9/11 repression—punishment without trial, rendition, demonization of immigrants, racial profiling, left baiting and invasion of privacy—was shaped by events in the 1910s and 1920s when for the first time the government orchestrated and led campaigns to limit political dissent, whipped up right-wing populism and justified suspension of the Constitution in the name of national security. Sen. Hiram Johnson’s critique of the Republican Party in 1920 as “bowing to a hundred repressive acts” works just as well as a critique of the legacies of the Bush administration. To paraphrase the senator’s most famous maxim, the first casualty of counter-terrorism is truth.
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