The hostility to political or social radicalism in the United States had roots in pre-WWI times. The trend was set in the Gilded Age (late nineteenth century) when in the early years of industrialization the government sided with business interests and forcibly put down labor unrest, systematically breaking workers’ strikes. In many ways, the progressive movement was a product of anti-radicalism as it attempted to substitute gradual reformist solutions to the great social problems of the day. The war exacerbated the feelings of anti-radicalism in the United States at the same time as radicalism was growing (both rightwing and leftwing) throughout the world.
To understand the issue of anti-radicalism in the United States during this time, one needs to fully grasp the impact of economic and industrial expansion in the war years, which vastly increased the workforce and transformed the landscape of American employment sharply in the direction of industrial manufacturing. This meant more workers; and this meant the growth of workers’ organizations. The end of the war was probably the high point in the strength of the workers’ movements. It also represented a critical time for the movement, for business now needed to scale down and transition from wartime to peacetime production, a move that would present challenges for the labor movement. This potential source of tension was brought in stark relief by the Bolshevik Revolution and the creation of the Soviet Comintern, whose mission was the stoke revolution throughout the industrialized world. In response to this perceived threat of Bolshevism, the U.S. government and many non-governmental organizations and associations fought back. Strikes were broken, purported socialists, communists, and anarchists were bullied or deported (Red Scare), a new type of public propaganda sought to distinguish between newly crystallized “American values” and “dangerous” ideologies that came into the nation from abroad. Organizations like the American Legion, created in 1919, developed to champion this new image of America as a bastion of anti-radicalism, conservative and/or traditional values, and pro-business. Even movements that had justification to take more radical approaches (like the movement for African American rights) fell back into more conservative solutions. Indeed, this tensions between radicalism, reformism, and conservatism within reform movements led to an important divide within the African American community between reformist movements like that of the NAACP and W.E.B. Du Bois and the conformist approach advocated by Booker T. Washington. If progressivism managed to survive into the 1920s, radicalism was for all intents and purposes crushed by the mighty weight of an emerging national identity.
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