From email@example.com Thu Jun 1 06:26:48 2000
Date: Thu, 1 Jun 2000 01:37:15 -0400
From: H-Net Reviews <books@H-NET.MSU.EDU>
Subject: [BRC-NEWS] Book Review: Seeing Red
Seeing Red: Federal Campaigns Against Black Militancy, 1919-1925
Theodore Kornweibel, Jr., _
Federal Campaigns Against Black Militancy, 1919-1925.
Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.
xv + 225 pp. Notes and index. $12.95 (paper), ISBN 0-253-21354-1.
Red and Black All Over
This fine book makes the case that former Attorney General A. Mitchell
Palmer should be remembered for something more than those raids which
bear his name.
The Negro is ’seeing red,’ Palmer
announced in 1919, addressing his warning to what another former
Justice Department official, J. Edgar Hoover, liked to call
real America (hard working, tax paying, Christian, white). It was
taken to heart by the bureaucrats who ran the State Department,
Military Intelligence Division, Office of Naval Intelligence, Post
Office Department, and most of all the Justice Department’s
General Intelligence Division (GID) and Bureau of Investigation (the
Federal was added in 1935). Hoover himself worked off a
GID desk before moving up in 1924 to take over the
Bureau. Collectively, this nascent World War I-era intelligence empire
shared a common and eminently simple assumption. Namely, that
second-class citizens would have second-class loyalties and
thus were fair game for informants, bugs, taps, mail openings, dirty
tricks, bogus prosecutions, and other imperial habits.
Theodore Kornweibel has been plowing this field for some time. In 1980
he began work on _
Seeing Red_ and six years later edited for
microfilm publication some twenty-five reels of federal records housed
in the National Archives. (The Archives has 955 reels of old Bureau
of Investigation files alone.) Kornweibel also has another book in the
works on more or less the same subject. He knows as much or more than
any other scholar about how the American intelligence community from
the get go used what W. E. B. Du Bois called
the color line to
grow an empire long before the Cold War dawned. History, of course,
can be a strange thing, and thus it should be remembered that Du Bois
himself unsuccessfully sought a commission in military intelligence.
Sometimes, when one knows so much, it is difficult to tell the
proverbial forest from the trees. What this means here is that
Kornweibel’s theme, such as it is, comes across as rather
limp. The author argues that federal surveillance played an important
role in rolling back civil rights militancy and further that all those
intelligence agents had no right to do what they did because their
targets broke no laws. It was not a crime to espouse black pride under
the rubric of Pan Africanism. Nor was it a crime to condemn
burning of Negroes (lynching). Or to ask President Woodrow Wilson,
as William Monroe Trotter did, to make America safe for blacks while
he was busy making the world safe for democracy. Had Kornweibel gotten
further across the color line we would have had a more interesting
book. Race, unfortunately, seems always to locate at or near the
center of everything’most notably, economics and electoral
Seeing Red_ clearly demonstrates that race locates
dead center on the question of why America developed an intelligence
empire. Yet a more direct approach here would have made a more
interesting and perhaps arresting theme for the book as a whole.
Still, this is a minor criticism and Kornweibel no doubt will make a
major interpretive contribution with the manuscript that remains in
progress. With this book, one settles happily for a wealth of detail
about what actually happened. From a chapter outlining a general fear
of Bolshevism on the march among blacks, Kornweibel moves on to tell a
series of eye-popping stores. A good portion of intelligence community
energy was directed towards newspapers and other publications,
including the Chicago _Defender_, the _Messenger_, the _Crusader_, and
the more complex case of the NAACP’s _Crisis_. There is also a
separate chapter on the pursuit of Marcus Garvey, the
Moses who ran the Universal Negro Improvement Association.
Surveillance of the African Blood Brotherhood attracts the
author’s attention as well, along with the Justice
Department’s habit of spying on any black member of the
Industrial Workers of the World.
Finally, Kornweibel focuses throughout on the strange tale of black agents hired by the old Bureau of Investigation to infiltrate black groups and otherwise go places where white agents could not. Before signing up and being told to take care of Garvey, one of those agents, James Amos, had served as President Theodore Roosevelt’s valet. If history is sometimes a strange thing, the stories well told in this book are usually just that.