In the United States, 1919 also brought unprecedented turmoil. It seemed all the more disorienting for occurring in the midst of a worldwide flu epidemic that killed between 20 and 40 million persons, including nearly 700,000 Americans. Racial violence, as noted above, was widespread. In June, bombs exploded at the homes of prominent Americans, including the attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer, who escaped uninjured. Among aggrieved American workers, wartime language linking patriotism with democracy and freedom inspired hopes that an era of social justice and economic empowerment was at hand. In 1917, Wilson had told the AFL, “While we are fighting for freedom, we must see to it among other things that labor is free.” Labor took him seriously—more seriously, it seems, than Wilson intended. The government, as one machinist put it, had “proclaimed to the World that the freedom and democracy we are fighting for shall be practiced in the industries of America.”

By the war’s end, many Americans believed that the country stood on the verge of what Herbert Hoover called “a new industrial order.” Sidney Hillman, leader of the garment workers’ union, was one of those caught up in the utopian dreams inspired by the war and reinforced by the Russian Revolution. “One can hear the footsteps of the Deliverer,” he wrote. “Labor will rule and the World will be free.” In 1919, more than 4 million workers engaged in strikes—the greatest wave of labor unrest in American history. There were walkouts, among many others, by textile workers, telephone operators, and Broadway actors. Throughout the country, workers appropriated the imagery and rhetoric of the war, parading in army uniforms with Liberty buttons, denouncing their employers as “kaisers,” and demanding “freedom in the workplace.” They were met by an unprecedented mobilization of employers, government, and private patriotic organizations.

An advertisement placed by a steel company in a Pittsburgh newspaper announces, in several languages, that the steel strike of 1919 “has failed.” The use of the figure of Uncle Sam illustrates how the companies clothed their anti-union stance in the language of patriotism.

The strike wave began in January 1919 in Seattle, where a walkout of shipyard workers mushroomed into a general strike that for once united AFL unions and the IWW. For five days, a committee of labor leaders oversaw city services, until federal troops arrived to end the strike. In September, Boston policemen struck for higher wages and shorter working hours. Declaring “there is no right to strike against the public safety,” Massachusetts governor Calvin Coolidge called out the National Guard to patrol the city and fired the entire police force. In the nation’s coalfields, a company manager observed, wartime propaganda had raised unrealistic expectations among workers, who took the promise of “an actual emancipation” too “literally.” When the war ended, miners demanded an end to company absolutism. Their strike was ended by a court injunction obtained by Attorney General Palmer.

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