The early 20th century’s Social Gospel was a cocktail of ideas achieved through the blending of Enlightenment philosophy and Socinian theology. The Enlightenment had promised an egalitarian society founded on human reason. The post-Reformation heresy known as Socinianism had proclaimed a human-centered salvation, also founded on reason. Together they proved to be a potent tonic for the relief of liberal anxiety over society’s huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
But not everyone was drinking it. At the beginning of the 20th century, many preferred the mixture of Enlightenment philosophy and Darwinian science that bore the label of Social Darwinism. For these folks, the only anxiety from which they sought relief was the problem of how to keep “inferior” members of the human race from propagating excessively and ruining everything for the Übermenschen—the “supermen” of a future genetically superior human race.
Those who preferred this Social Darwinist brew could be found everywhere, but unfortunately for the world, as it was about to become painfully clear, a good many of them were German. By the middle of the second decade of the 20th century, both the Social Gospel aficionados and the Social Darwinism imbibers had gotten themselves too intoxicated to notice what was about to happen on the world stage, and the hangover would be a—well, let’s just say it would be very, very bad.
The Guns of August
They had done everything they could think of to prevent it. The major powers of the world had carefully devised a system of treaties designed to avoid it. Most hoped that by establishing a balance of power it would never happen. Others, however, felt it was inevitable. Some thought that if it did happen, it would be over quickly. Others, however, believed it could drag on for years. In both cases, the others were right.
But these were the most advanced civilizations on the face of the Earth. Surely their scientific and technological advances would prevent any conflict from becoming a major catastrophe! Right?
Almost exactly 125 years passed between the French Revolution of 1789, in which the world view of the Enlightenment violently introduced its Utopian vision to the Western world, and the beginning of World War I in 1914, which destroyed that vision with violence far greater than anyone dared dream. Nearly 50 years later the onset of that massive conflict haunted President John F. Kennedy as he agonized over how to respond to the presence of Soviet missiles and nuclear warheads in Cuba.
A short time before, he had read Barbara Tuchman’s book The Guns of August, and he talked about the miscalculations of the Germans, the Russians, the Austrians, the French, and the British. They somehow seemed to tumble into war, he said, through stupidity, individual idiosyncrasies, misunderstandings, and personal complexes of inferiority and grandeur.
[Robert F. Kennedy, Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis, (New York, NY, USA: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1971; 1999), 49.]
But that doesn’t quite grasp Tuchman’s point. Although it may appear that way in hindsight, the tragedy of World War I cannot be chalked up to mere human stupidity. If any “stupidity” was involved it was not a deficit of intellect, but the blindness induced by the overweening optimism of the age in which they lived.
In The Guns of August a picture emerges of military machinery of unprecedented power that would change the way wars would have to be fought under the command of a bureaucracy unable to deviate from its now-obsolete training. A major war had not been fought in Europe in 43 years. During that time, military technology had advanced at a hitherto unparalleled pace while military doctrine had changed little. “Dead battles, like dead generals, hold the military mind in their dead grip, and Germans, no less than other peoples, prepare for the last war” (Barbara W. Tuchman, The Guns of August, [New York, NY, USA: The Macmillan Company, 1962], 22).
With plans so carefully laid, with every conceivable contingency provided for, “every precaution had been taken except one—flexibility” (ibid., 32). The very preparations designed to assure that any unavoidable conflict would be relatively brief and inexpensive—at least for the winner—doomed Europe and a good chunk of the rest of the world to a four-year bloodbath that flung 37 million total casualties onto the pages of history.
War pressed against every frontier. Suddenly dismayed, governments struggled and twisted to fend it off. It was no use. Agents at frontiers were reporting every cavalry patrol as a deployment to beat the mobilization gun. General staffs, goaded by their relentless timetables, were pounding the table for the signal to move lest their opponents gain an hour’s head start. Appalled upon the brink, the chiefs of state who would be ultimately responsible for their country’s fate attempted to back away but the pull of military schedules dragged them forward.
[Tuchman, ibid., 72.]
Thus the very societies that gave birth to the Age of Reason went insane, sacrificing a myriad of souls for a few square miles of territory, only to repeat the ordeal after losing it again and again. The very nations that considered themselves the pinnacles of civilization dove headlong into protracted barbarism, unleashing chemical weapons, flamethrowers, fragmentation shells, and other technological brutalities on the modern world. And the very countries that had been the bulwarks of Christendom for so many centuries topped it all off with a peace treaty that served as a recipe for the next war.
Rarely had the writing on society’s wall been so clearly written and so quickly understood. The juggernaut of liberal change propelled by the engine of human progress lay smoking in a ditch, mauled by missiles of modern technology. Was this where evolution was leading us?
Intellectual élites on both sides of the Atlantic fell into a deep introspective gloom. The expatriate American T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) changed the rules of poetry in order to express the melancholy of his generation. Walking through his 1922 poem “The Waste Land” is like slogging through the forests of Ypres, France in 1917 as dead trees tower like burnt matchsticks all the way to the smoky horizon. “I will show you fear in a handful of dust,” wrote Eliot (The Norton Anthology of American Literature, 2nd ed., Vol. 2, Nina Baym, et. al., eds., [New York, NY, USA and London, UK: W.W. Norton & Company, 1985], 1211). Three years later, in the middle of the Roaring Twenties, his despair reached its nadir.
We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar …
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
[T.S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men” (lines 1-10 and 95-98), ibid., 1225, 1228. The italics are Eliot’s.]
Even as the war was underway, reaction to the absurdity of its horrific destruction was finding expression in the cultural movement known as Dadaism. The name “Dada” was deliberately selected for its random meanings across languages. In French it meant “hobby horse.” In German it could mean “goodbye.” In Russian it was a double affirmative, a kind of “Yes, yes.” Examples could easily be added. But as the title of a new movement, “Dada” itself was intentionally meaningless.
Beginning in Switzerland and spreading throughout Europe and North America, Dadaism rebelled not only against the social and political causes of The Great War (as it was then called), but against reason and logic itself—which, according to Dadaists, were simply tools of war-mongering bourgeois capitalism. After all: look at where reason and logic had taken us.
Before there was any talk of postmodernism, Dadaism ridiculed the modern world as meaningless. Before the existentialists Albert Camus (1913-1960) and Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) wrote of the absurdity of existence, and before Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) wrote Waiting for Godot (1953), Dadaists put absurdity on display on canvasses, in sculptures, and in poetry.
In 1917 Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) submitted a men’s urinal to an art exhibition, titling it “Fountain.” In a deliberate slam on the philosophy of Georg W.F. Hegel, Raoul Hausmann (1886-1971) took a wooden head used for making wigs and attached a ruler, pieces from a pocket watch, a typewriter, and a camera, and a crocodile wallet. He called it Der Geist unserer Zeit—Mechanischer Kopf (“The Spirit of Our Age—Mechanical Head”). The movement influenced Eliot, who included Dadaesque lines like “Twit twit twit / Jug jug jug jug” (lines 203-204) in “The Waste Land,” in addition to obscure citations in languages ranging from classical Greek, Latin, German, French, and Sanskrit.
It seemed as though an entire generation of thinkers had given up. But the attempt to completely divorce any form of meaning from reality could not last long. Liberal theologians and philosophers were already working on how to fix things.
Meanwhile, radicalism attempts to fill the void
Early 20th century liberals were down in the dumps essentially because their view of the inherent goodness of humanity was being contradicted by the behavior of the Great War’s victors. Many early 20th century radicals, on the other hand, were not nearly as dispirited, since they held to no such doctrine and generally considered those in power to be purely evil. Some of them now sensed that the time was ripe to bring their agenda before an eagerly-awaiting public using the methods they knew best. They could not have been more wrong.
A specter was haunting America—the specter of the First Red Scare. Toward the end of January 1919, while Americans were still reading reports of the depredations of the communist revolution in Russia, a shipyard workers’ strike in Seattle quickly spread to the rest of the city leading to a work stoppage by 65,000 union members. Feeding on labor propaganda, local newspapers drummed up hysteria over imported Bolshevism. Non-union residents began stockpiling food and guns. Seattle’s mayor deployed 1,500 police and an equal number of federal troops throughout the city to prevent a possible communist uprising. Even the American Federation of Labor panicked, and refused to support the strikers.
By mid-February the strike collapsed, but it had attracted the attention of a U.S. Senate subcommittee chaired by Lee Slater Overman of North Carolina. The Overman Committee had been set up the previous September to investigate possible American cooperation with Germans and Bolsheviks during the war. The committee ended up doing little to solve the problem of communist infiltration, but its witch-hunt sensationalism was quite effective at stirring up fear of the Red Menace, along with anything else that smacked of radicalism, in the general populace.
Almost as if acting on cue, in April followers of Italian anarchist Luigi Galleani mailed 30 dynamite package bombs, hoping they would arrive at their targets’ locations on May Day, International Workers’ Day. In addition to the names of standard objects of leftist hatred—names like John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, Jr., and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.—the list of intended victims included the mayor of Seattle and (you guessed it) Senator Lee Slater Overman.
Only a few of those bombs made it to their targets, and casualties were minimal. So the Galleanists followed up with bigger package bombs in June. This time three people were killed, although none were intended targets, and the evidence allowed authorities to trace the source of the packages. There was not enough evidence to bring formal charges, but there was enough to begin deportations under the Anarchist Exclusion Act of 1903.
Going into the unusually hot month of July, the stage was set for the Red Summer of 1919. If the Galleanists thought their acts of terrorism would inspire a major uprising of the downtrodden and oppressed across the land, the reaction of the masses would soon put such delusions to rest. Rumors spread that African Americans returning from World War I had been infected with communist ideology. Between May 10 and October 1, 1919, race riots broke out in 34 northern and southern cities resulting in hundreds of deaths, both black and white, the worst occurring from July 27 to August 3 in Chicago, where it took 3,500 troops from four military units and an additional 2,000 newly-deputized former soldiers to restore order.
Perhaps the worst mistake the Galleanist anarchists made, however, was targeting U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer in both of their bomb campaigns. Palmer put the young head of the government’s Enemy Aliens Registration Section—a promising 24-year-old named J. Edgar Hoover—in charge of the newly-created General Intelligence Division of the Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation. Together they organized and launched the infamous Palmer Raids, in which untold thousands of suspected radicals were arrested on the flimsiest of evidence, although ultimately only 556 were actually deported due to resistance from an Acting Secretary of Labor whose office was responsible for deportations and unhappy at the lack of due process employed by Palmer.
Palmer had support in Congress, but when his prediction of a major radical uprising to occur on May 1, 1920 failed to materialize, it signaled the end of his political power and ambitions. Anarchist bombings, on the other hand, continued intermittently for years to come.
Against the backdrop of this domestic political violence, religious liberals were rethinking their strategy. For some of them, the radical option was looking better all the time. Other theological liberals, however, did something one might not expect such a liberal to do: they retreated to the Scriptures. The result was something no one could have foreseen.