How Did the United States Respond in the Past to Bombings by Terrorists?

History Q & A

Mr. Weisberger is a contributing editor at American Heritage and the author of America Afire: Jefferson, Adams and the Revolutionary Election of 1800.

Where to begin? With the bomb left in a horsedrawn wagon in front of J.P. Morgan’s Wall Street office on a busy Autumn morning in 1920? Its explosion killed several passers-by, wounded dozens of others, and panicked thousands more. But that wasn’t the start of it. We need to go back to 1886 when a bomb tossed into a mass meeting in Chicago’s Haymarket Square took the lives of eight policemen. In the aftermath, eight anarchists, none of them linked to the actual deed, were hastily tried and convicted. The public and press screamed for the repression of these"desperate fanatics. . .swiftly, sternly and without mercy." Four died on the gallows, one committed suicide, and three were later pardoned by a courageous Illinois governor. The"Haymarket Affair" and its resultant hysteria, 115 years ago, might well be marked as the first encounter of Americans with the new kind of political warfare embodied in the word"terrorism."

The hysteria wasn’t entirely without provocation. The popular villains back then were anarchists —- believers in the idea that the state itself inevitably became a corrupt instrument for helping the powerful to oppress the downtrodden. There were (and are) peaceful, philosophical anarchists who hoped for the gradual conversion of humankind.. But a mad fringe argued that only violent assaults on the nerve centers and leaders of existing states could mobilize the toiling masses to right thinking. Once it was shown that the structures of power were vulnerable, the whole edifice of state-sanctioned injustice would collapse. And so, pursuant to the concept of"propaganda of the deed," individual killers assassinated a Czar of Russia (with a bomb), an Empress of Austria, a King of Italy, a President of France —- and finally, a President of the United States, William McKinley -— between 1881 and 1901.

Even more frightening than these proofs that not even the mighty were safe were bombings of public assembly places —- an opera house, a police station, a church, a business office, France’s Chamber of Deputies. Innocent bystanders, women and children perished.

"Terrifying" was precisely the right word. Death or mutilation could come anywhere, at any time, without warning and without distinction between intended and accidental victims. What a contrast to the"orderliness" of war, with its uniforms, discipline, and organization! (Even today, there is something almost nostalgic in contrasting —- rather than falsely comparing -- the Pearl Harbor attack to last week’s cataclysm. Though it came without warning, it pitted the uniformed forces of one nation against a military base of our own. We knew at once whom to blame and what to do.)

The second wave of terrorism -— the one of which the Wall Street assault was a part -- struck America just after World War I. Bombs were anonymously mailed to governmental officials, luckily detected by most recipients before detonation. One bomb -- carrying assailant apparently rushed the front door of the Attorney General but was himself killed when it detonated prematurely on the front lawn. This time the enemies were the Bolsheviks recently triumphant in Russia. A full-blown Red scare was fed by headlines proclaiming a reign of terror and by news stories of"bomb laboratories" found in the headquarters of pro-Soviet organizations. The Justice Department rounded up thousands of suspected Reds without warrant or evidence, kept them under arrest in grim conditions for long periods, deported some and only freed the remainder without repentance or reparation. Why not, when the public mood was reflected in one editorial that thundered:"There is no time to waste on hairsplitting over infringement of liberty." Someone was guilty, and someone must pay.

I regret to say that I first gathered the facts and quotations presented here eight years ago for a magazine article in American Heritage inspired by the first bombing attack on the World Trade Center. That turned out to be the work of today’s successors of the anarchists and the Reds in the vocabulary of terrorist villainy,"Islamic fundamentalists." (No one seems to identify Timothy McVeigh with a group!) Terrorism continues, as it will continue despite whatever necessary and reasonable precautions we take. What is especially appalling about the September 11th disaster, however, is the gigantic increase in scale. Who would have thought that the fanatics would turn hijacked aircraft into guided missiles, kill hundreds of passengers as well as themselves, and claim the lives not merely of a single authority figure, or even a dozen or so innocents caught in an explosion, but literally thousands of office workers in doomed skyscrapers. No words are equal to the horror of terrorism gone big-time in its sophistication and its weapons of choice.

But perhaps, historically speaking, we should be less surprised than we are. The scale and cruelty of formal war itself has been escalating throughout the last century. Think of the industrial-scale slaughters of the 1914-18 Western Front. Those at least were confined to armies of conscripts. But conscripted armies themselves were the fruit of the French Revolutionary doctrine of an entire nation in arms. And that being so, what more logical than to make entire populations targets? And so we move to World War II’s bombing by both sides, of cities crowded with noncombatants -— capped by Hiroshima and Nagasaki -— and to the arsenals of nuclear warheads designed to kill not thousands, but millions.

That neither palliates nor justifies what was done on September 11th. I only note that when the forces of"recognized" nations appropriate technology to increase their killing power, it is not surprising that the shadow armies of underground movements will do the same and with the same magnification of the effects. For me, the really frightening aspect of the entire story is that unless we can somehow limit, if not eliminate the human propensity to violent solution of conflicts -— perhaps an impossibility -— we can expect the death tolls to increase exponentially. I wish recent history had a more upbeat message to bring, but it doesn’t.


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Gus Moner - 1/6/2003

Your article has prescient insight, especially on the long history of terror, which I believe goes back even further than covered here.

Nevertheless, I'd like to address the fact mentioned that WWI casualties were confined to soldiers. Firstly, it denigrates a soldier to justifiable cannon fodder, serving the murderous strategic whims of mad, megalomaniac generals.

Secondly, millions of civilian casualties were suffered in the warring nations who suffered invasion. Thirdly, in the warring areas as well as in Britain, Germany and the AHE, millions suffered the war's other ills, malnutrition, deprivation and the pain and suffering of losing so many loved ones and friends, in the trenches. Even in the non-warring nations shortages and suffering were experienced, associated with the war. The reconstruction of infrastructure had barely been completed when WWII began.

I share the concerns in your closing comment. My belief is that to limit the recourse to violence we need to eliminate the conditions that drive people to such extremes.

To just ‘hunt down terrorists’ will not be bringing us any closer to the solution unless we deal with the root causes of the terrorism. It would be merely extending the problem and postponing the day of reckoning with that grievance. Once we start listening to people and sorting out issues, the violence level will drop exponentially. Nobody attacks their mates, nor trading partners or good neighbours. We need a similar study to determine if it is true that people who get on well and don’t interfere with the internal affairs of others seldom go to war and have a lower violence level in their societies.

When was the last time Sweden attacked anyone, 1814?