Un-American: As Reported by the Press in the Early 20th Century America.

February 21, 2016

In the early decades of the 20th Century the term ‘un-American’ was widely used to disparage those whose thinking deviated from mainstream America. The dark days of the Civil War were a distant memory, and the recent industrialization created cities and communities that brought economic growth and family security. America had turned into a proud modern nation with a sense of nationalism. The young nation struggled to determine who they were. Defining the term ‘American,’ however, had a range of meanings, and many times those meanings had little to do with the nation’s core values: freedom of speech and religion; and, every American understood the American dream that with hard work anything was possible. Instead, being American for many ran parallel with their own deep-rooted biases and prejudices.

Charles Lindbergh standing by his airplane the Spirit of St. Louis.
Charles Lindbergh standing by his airplane the Spirit of St. Louis.
Charles Lindbergh in the 1930's.
Charles Lindbergh in the 1930’s.

In 1922 anti-Catholicism in America was widespread, and intensified with the rise of the Second Ku Klux Klan. In addition to Jews, and African Americans, Catholics were also on their hate list. Father Joseph Meiser, a Catholic priest in Fort Worth, Texas was dragged from his church and beaten by ten men. They were not charged or arrested. The mob declared that Meiser was un-American because he did not support public schools. This was widely reported in many papers all titling their articles with the word un-American, and that Father Meiser was a Catholic priest, “Priest Flogged, Mob Tells Him He is Un-American,” 9/9/1922, Broad Ax Times. Meiser, like many Catholic priests, was probably opposed to Catholic children, not children in general, going to public schools. Catholics, at that time, generally preferred their own parochial schools. It is unlikely that ten men would harm Meiser for that reason alone. His assault was clearly a hate crime. Father Meiser’s injuries were not mentioned and his side of the incident was not reported in the article.

Despite America’s entry into a new and modern time, many still clung to Puritan values from the previous century. In the article “Slashed Skirt Scored as Un-American Atrocity,” Grand Rapids Press, May 14, 1913, reported that the Chicago Dressmakers Club was appalled at the newly introduced slashed skirt. It was described as “tight” and condemned the skirt as an “Un-American Atrocity.” A slashed skirt showed some leg, and many would argue that it was not proper for a lady. Most club members probably grew up influenced by the Victorian age. A lady had to be modest in her appearance.

General John Pershing, France, 1918
General John Pershing, France, 1918

The uniform of General of the Army John J. Pershing was even called into question and investigated by Congress. According to the article “Pershing’s Coat and Trousers to be Investigated Texas Congressman Calls General’s Clothes Un-American,” February 25, 1920, Aberdeen American , it was stated “General Pershing’s coat is split up the back and his trousers bagged like the English uniform,” said Congressman Conally. In fact, American military uniforms had for over a century followed the fashions of European ones. The matter was eventually dropped and the uniform was found to be regulation.

High profile Americans were particularly targeted. Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt were called un-American because of their support of imperialism. Many felt that our nation was a republic, which should be responsible only for itself, and, extending our domain to other places was not what the founding fathers had envisioned.

Roosevelt was loved, as well as hated, and, was especially branded as un-American for various reasons. His big and many times unfiltered personality, got him into trouble especially with women. Some women’s groups considered him rough, crude and short on manners. He was also sexist, they thought. The Women’s PEACO Party of America had asked Roosevelt if he would join their peace movement against the war. The President had simply declined their offer. He made the mistake, however, of referring to their movement as “silly and base.” The result of the comment was a scathing article that appeared in newspapers throughout the country,“Right Back at Roosevelt un-American Unpatriotic and a Barbarian Women Say,” 4/17/1915, Kansas City Star. The headline says it all. A few years later and shortly after Roosevelt had passed away an article was published in a South Carolina paper, “Colonel Roosevelt Severely Criticized Mr. Porcher Says Late President’s Supreme Object in Life was Self,” State, November 1, 1919. He was called un-American several times in the article and the writer reasoned that true Americans were not as self-centered as Theodore Roosevelt.

Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson had been dead a century, but he was called un-American, by Woodrow Wilson. In an essay entitled “Mere Literature,” Wilson argued that Jefferson was not only un-American, he was not even a great American, because Jefferson had been influenced by French philosophies, instead of American ones. Wilson went on to point out the un-American flaws in Jefferson, “Abstract, sentimental, rationalistic, rather than practical.” Obviously not a fan of Thomas Jefferson, Wilson implied that Jefferson was a dreamer and not really practical. As defined by Woodrow Wilson, a true American was a practical person, and one who did not dream.

Farmers organizing in groups to ask for higher feed prices were called un-American. An Ambassador wrote a magazine article criticizing Southerners. He was called Un-American, and a group was formed demanding that he step down from his position. In 1923 a movement was proposed by the Veterans of Foreign Wars to revise history books, stating that they were becoming un-American because “foreign propaganda was creeping into the textbooks.” Labor unions throughout the country were labeled as unpatriotic and un-American when they asked employers for more pay and shorter hours for the workers. Three college professors were called un-American and dismissed from their jobs. They had disagreed with several other faculty members about support for World War I. The scope of what was defined as un-American seemed to be without limits.

The notion of being un-American was so broadly used that by 1919 the federal government got involved. It created the first federal committee with oversight of un-American activities. Over the years the Overland Committee was replaced several times by other committees charged with investigating subversive political ties (Bolsheviks, Communists, Nazis, Fascists), and any alleged disloyalty to the United States. By 1938 it was called the House Un-American Activities Committee.

The height of the un-American craze came when cities were also labeled. In the article “Our Most Un-American City, June 18, 1909 Springfield Republican, Washington, D.C. was named. Sydney Brooks, a staff writer with Harper’s Weekly made the pitch that Washington, D.C. was both the most and the least American city. According to Brooks it all depended on if Congress were in session. According to Brooks, when in session the city received “its representative effect.” Its monuments, museums, and history personified the greatest American city. When out of session, the city was a “wilderness” and had the “largest population of African Americans in the nation.” Sydney Brooks’ essay clearly implied that race determined if a city were truly American or not.

The press tagged many other cities as un-American, among them were Milwaukee, St. Louis and others. In 1917 Cleveland, Ohio was called the most un-American. The population in Cleveland was about 75% foreign born, and, according to the article, many of the residents could not speak English. It went on to state that these “individuals did not want to become citizens and had little interest in voting.” The article also implied that the city was going out of its way trying to spread Americanism using night schools to teach the immigrants English and educate them about American history. The accuracy of the article is questionable, and seemed slanted toward supporting the subject of an un-American city. If there was any resistance to Americanize, it may have been related to the aggressive draft (WWI) that the military had begun.

Ku Klux Klan 1924
Ku Klux Klan 1924
Ku Klux Klan parading through Virginia. 1922
Ku Klux Klan parading through Virginia. 1922

There were plenty of citizens who were un-American, and one particular group supremely defined the term. The birth of the Second Ku Klux Klan created a short reign of national terror between 1920 and 1924. Jewish, Catholic, and African-Americans were the constant targets of their hate and prejudice. Many news articles branded the group and their activities as particularly un-American. They went on to describe them as vigilantes, hate-mongers and generally unlawful. The lynchings of African Americans at the hands of the Klan were described with horror. The newspapers also pointed out that the federal government paid little attention to the activities of the Ku Klux Klan, but were instead eagerly pursuing those sympathetic to the Bolsheviks, and later, the Fascist and Nazi movements.

Charles Lindbergh was easily the most celebrated American in the first three decades of the century. In 1927, and at only 25 years old, Lindbergh flew his single seat plane, The Spirit of St. Louis, nonstop from New York to Paris. He was the first person to cross the Atlantic ocean in an airplane. He became an instant world hero and his stardom continued, until the mid 1930s when he began expressing views supporting Nazism and sharing his personal fears of Jewish Americans. Lindbergh’s many visits to Germany were well documented and photographs of his Nazi salutes were spread throughout the world media. Lindbergh was painted by the press as both Anti-Semitic and a Nazi sympathizer. In a 1940 letter to his Treasury Secretary, President Franklin Roosevelt wrote, “If I should die tomorrow, I want you to know this, I am absolutely convinced Lindbergh is a Nazi.” The once highly celebrated aviation hero spent the rest of his life under the shadow of being un-American.

By mid-century the term ‘un-American’ had been so misused that it had little real meaning. The federal government’s intervention legitimized witch hunting. The late President Harry Truman said on a number of occasions, ” I think the Un-American Activities Committee in the House of Representatives was the most un-American thing in America!”. America had entered the new century with many hopes and dreams. The opportunities were endless, and many Americans did hold deep feelings of national pride. Other Americans, however, could not escape our past, a past that was tied to bigotry, hate, and prejudice.