Immigrants deported? Truth made up to fit the situation? An inept businessman in the Oval Office? A Congress that refuses to take the president’s lead? Unions bludgeoned? Official pronouncements that can’t be true? Endless war in the Middle East? The Far Right resurgence in Europe? Attacks on Social Security and health care programs in the United States? What is this?
These sound like current events, but I’ve given up the New York Times in favor of a number of remarkable of American journalists from the 1920s and 1930s, including Vincent Sheean, Anna Louise Strong, and Dorothy Thompson.
In 1919, the attorney general deports 500 foreigners because the German, Irish, and Italian Americans can’t be trusted. The "war to end all wars" is over, and Congress refuses to ratify the president’s plan for peace. It is an era of high prices, low wages, and long hours. There is no legal right to organize unions, so every striker is met by a strikebreaker backed up by public and private police and the National Guard.
In 1928, a liberal Democrat from New York (Al Smith) runs for president against a conservative Republican businessman (Herbert Hoover). Reporter Vincent Sheean visits the Democratic headquarters in New York City as the votes are counted. “Democrats win!” announces the radio. A mob surrounding the skyscraper litters the streets with confetti to celebrate Smith’s victory. But upstairs at party headquarters, Sheean finds confusion and hysteria. In the campaign director’s office he hears the somber news that Smith has, in fact, lost.1 Hoover is in.
Sheean reports on Hoover’s speeches that the American system of mass production will abolish poverty. What the American people get is the subsequent crash of 1929 and the Great Depression, “a greater crisis of poverty-in-the-midst-of-plenty than national capitalism had ever produced before.”2 Sheean then departs for Palestine to report on the commotion among Zionists, Palestinians, and Europeans.
Ten years later his fellow reporter and friend Dorothy Thompson writes that it is barbarous to say, as the Nazis do, that truth is only that which serves the interests of the state.3
In 1939, journalist Anna Louise Strong takes a break from her globe-trotting coverage of war and revolution for a yearlong journey through her native land. One of her stops is rural Minnesota, where most people, between occasional outbreaks of populism, elect Republicans whose policies harm them economically. She visits Minneapolis, where a woman striker tells her: “Tear gas isn’t as bad as you think . . . you keep right on going. Only you keep crying every few minutes for hours afterwards.”4
Everywhere Strong finds Republicans sabotaging New Deal programs, as they pass the 1939 Woodrum Act, which lengthens hours and cuts pay for Works Progress Administration workers; defund federal programs for musicians, writers, and artists; and subject WPA strikers in Milwaukee to draconian treatment. Strong concludes: “We have a lot of these termites in the New Deal apparatus; they are taken as almost the normal thing. We don't arrest them; we don't even call it 'conspiracy'; we call it playing politics with the old gang. . . . I saw politicians doing it all over the country—holding posts under the New Deal while undermining its substance.”5
Meanwhile, across the whole Moslem world there are uprisings of muhajadeen and secular warriors against the invasions and occupations of Europeans. Thousands die in endless wars in Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Ethiopia, and Egypt. America remains neutral while the fascist regimes of Germany and Italy overthrow the elected government of Spain in a brutal three-year-long war, practice for conquering the rest of Europe.
Why do Americans think there’s any news in the headlines today? We’ve been there and done that. All we need to do is remember.
E. Paul Durrenberger is emeritus professor of anthropology from the University of Iowa and Penn State University and recipient of the Society for Applied Anthropology's Malinowski Award for 2014. He has done fieldwork in tribal and peasant areas of Thailand, Iceland, and the United States and has published a number of academic papers and books, including The Anthropological Study of Class and Consciousness, The Anthropology of Labor Unions, Gambling Debt, and Uncertain Times.