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Tony Platt on Wall Street Terror Attack

Posted on Mar 13, 2009
book cover

By Tony Platt

(Page 2)

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.”


book cover


The Day Wall Street Exploded


By Beverly Gage


Oxford University Press, 416 pages


Buy the book


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.

Tony Platt, professor emeritus at Sacramento State University, is the author, with Cecilia O’Leary, of “Bloodlines: Recovering Hitler’s Nuremberg Laws, From Patton’s Trophy to Public Memorial” (2006). His blog is posted at

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By cyrena, March 20, 2009 at 9:25 pm Link to this comment

I’m just now catching up with things here at Truthdig, and this is another one for the bravo corner. Great review, and I’m delighted to say that I’m planning to purchase this work by Ms. Gage. I’d like to read more from Tony Platt as well. Good stuff.

I particularly appreciate the way he wound it up…

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 post9/11 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 rightwing 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 counterterrorism is truth.”

This provides us with the prompt to further explore what Ms. Gage may not have covered, for whatever the reasons. Most importantly, we can use the senator’s most famous maxim (the first casualty of counterterrorism is the truth)to examine each and every one of these truth casualties so that they can be healed/restored via exposure to the light.

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By robert m puglia, March 17, 2009 at 10:50 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

wall street is a terror attack

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By Purple Girl, March 15, 2009 at 4:32 pm Link to this comment

Funny when we talk about Terrorist Attacks no one ever mentions those committed by the Religious Right. No mentions of the Clinic bombing which were so in vogue esp in the early 80’s. The MD assasinations. Even the Atlanta Olympic pipebombings . Yet a least a few times a year some sociopath from the religious right committs some atrocity- Drags a black man behind a pick up, Beats and Ties a gay man to a fence post on the open plains of WY, opens fire at a kids church recital.
I am far less concerned about being killed by an islamic terrorist from the M.E., than I am a hopped up self righteous zealot from AL when I step out of my house. Tell me the Value of the Female Citizen held by ‘pastor’ Huckabee when he claims an embryo has the Right to “life liberty and the pursuit of happiness” thus abortion and stem cell is ‘unamerican’ and a sin. Gee Huck you think you might have forgotten a citizen who has been actually born in that logic? The woman, The parkinsons patient,the paraplegic?
Now that Pres Obama has lifted the ban on stem cell research should these facilities beef up security? I think so- History has proven these people have no ethics or Morals. They will kill an innocent just to make their point (like those at the Olympics).
The only difference between our “Christian” sociopathic extremeist and the Islamic ones, is that the Muslims are willing to kill themselves as well in the process.
What is most interesting between these two terrorist Groups is that ideologically they are exactly the same- same judgemental and oppressive doctrines- only difference is the ‘sacred Cow’ they idolize and Worship.Which is far above and beyond that they Even have for God- since they both have proven they hold the 10 Commandments in No regard whatsoever.there are no (*)after any of those very straight forward creeds.“Love thy neighbor”, ‘Thou Shall NOT Kill”, “Thou shall not Covet”,“thou Shall Not Bear False Witness”...‘One and Only One’ means not Jesus or Mohammad or David- at the most they were all just merely Fleshy Vessels utilized by God, but Not actually God.Genie in a bottle- The Genie has the power to grant the Wishes,Not the Bottle, It is merely the Genie’s container (or prison)
The fact that they are willing to break every golden Rule of Human engagement to prove their point means they have none, therefore it is time to take off the kit gloves and call these maniacs what they are- All are terrorist to humanity regardless of which Symbol or ‘Cow’ they idolize and Worship.
As for the Criminals on Wall Street et al- theyhad better hope we convict them on Economic Treason and hang them. Otherwise we might find them guilty of lesser crimes which carry life sentences- How’s 50 yrs in General population with a Sadistic Roommate with the nick name Chester the Molester, Sound?
Justice can also be a Dish Best served Cold.

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By prgill, March 15, 2009 at 2:28 am Link to this comment

Great book review. Must reading for the TD community.

My first reaction is that this book is about a violence begat by violence, about internecine hatreds nurtured by a dialogue among the deaf, by a dialogue among society’s unhearing and uncomprehending, dominant and dominated.

The lack of diversity in America’s public dialogue is troublesome, to say the least.

What is the point in currying favor among distant peoples if you cannot even get along with your neighbors? What will it take for us to remember that all democracy is essentially local?

American society has for too long acted as if growth and expansion were the only model worth pursuing. What may have been true in our youth cannot possibly be true for our middle age. Perhaps it is time we reconsidered the model.

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By Volma, March 15, 2009 at 12:10 am Link to this comment

oh oh after re-reading my comment, I noticed more than one mistake, I said radical left wing gun toting etc…I really meant right wing….But how could a group of people who think so wrongly be called right wing???Really….Well I guess, or so I think I have been told is that as part of psych ops throughout the world, it’s common or standard operating procedures to create terrible acts or deeds that would make the average person angry and/or fearful for their lives, and scapegoat the targeted group for the dirty deed…Rowan Atkinson’s video is great, good to get a laugh, it’s too stressful to look at all the shit without happiness breaks…Makes me feel pretty defeated with all the bad news, that seems to be hopeless and defeatist type scenarios….Empowerment, is that anything but a psycho babble propaganda type word to make liberals feel (like me) that I actually can change this huge overgrown spiderweb on top of spiderweb of corruption, greed, lies and general nastiness????Oh well, life goes on…

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By Volma, March 14, 2009 at 1:47 pm Link to this comment

Project has a really good investigative report that you can download as a PDF file, read at your leisure called “Deconstructing Deceit:  9/11, The Media, and Myth Information”  Thanks, “crimes of the state blog” for the link to the McVeigh information…I could really never understand the motive or real reason for the event, or how a truck load of explosive made from home made products could do so much damage…The propaganda about McVeigh, and also the assault and destruction of the Branch Dividian, group by our government…The message I got from all of this was clear, the government is watching you and will make sure that any groups that form will never have enough power or weapons to take over, even the local city hall…It always amazes me when the gun toting left wingers scream about their rights to own guns, protect their property and liberty if need be, even against the government…The government, or powers over us, want us to believe that we are free, and the spiel about the right to own gun, within a conservative “love America or leave it mentality”...There is a conservative militia, eager and willing to kill off the liberal, Godless, commies at a moments notice…Will the truth really set us free in America, when the power structure has such enormous controls in place to stay in power at all cost? Sad that even a book written about the history of anarchism, misses the point, blames the victims who are fighting oppression and the powers that victimize them…To omit the early civil rights, women rights movements, and skew the book, is typical of historians…History is skewed to give the advantage to the rich powerful people who actually gain more security through propaganda…I really have no honest hope for the human race, we will destroy ourselves and each other, or the earth and/or meteors, whatever will rid itself of us…We are like a growing deadly virus that Mr. Smith call’s us in “The Matrix”...

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By Crimes of the State Blog, March 13, 2009 at 1:02 pm Link to this comment

“Timothy McVeigh blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City 75 years later.”

Did McVeigh put those demolition charges on the supporting columns?

The Oklahoma City bombing investigation of Benton K. Partin, Brigadier General, USAF

Live News confirms bomb squad removed unexploded bombs from Murrah building

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