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“Continuing the Mission”: World War I and the Roots of Red Scare Violence, 1919-1921

Matthew Kovac is a journalist and researcher from Chicago.

Prior to joining a Michigan-based government watchdog group, Matt investigated wrongful convictions with the Chicago Innocence Center and covered education, labor, and criminal justice issues for The Chicago Reporter magazine.  Matt’s work has been featured by AlterNet, Antiwar.com, Common Dreams, Popular Resistance, and Truthout. The Society of Professional Journalists named him a National Finalist for its 2013 Mark of Excellence Award in Online Opinion and Commentary. Matt graduated from Northwestern University, where he studied journalism and history and served as editor-in-chief of The Protest magazine."

This paper seeks to locate the origins of American counter-revolutionary violence from 1919 to 1921 in veterans’ experiences in World War I. By examining the rhetoric employed by the weekly magazine of the American Legion, the largest of the interwar veterans organizations and one of the primary perpetrators of right-wing violence, I will argue that veterans engaged in counter-revolutionary action largely understood and justified their struggle against radical labor and the Left in terms of their wartime service. From their comparisons of radical unionists to their erstwhile German enemy, to their allusions to trench warfare and invocations of comrades lost in the war, Legionnaires drew explicit connections between combat in Europe and the violence they unleashed at home. For these veterans, the war did not end with the November 1918 armistice. Their fight to preserve their conception of the American way of life simply entered a new phase, one that would transpose the savage violence of foreign battlegrounds to the coal fields and lumber yards of the United States. Building on work by William Pencak and Robert Gerwarth, this research aims to interrogate the processes by which veterans’ economic grievances were channeled into violence against immigrants, labor unions, and leftist activists. With U.S. troops now returning from brutal imperial wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the role of World War I veterans in Red Scare violence offers crucial insights into the ways in which war violence, previously confined to foreign lands, can explode onto the domestic scene.