The World on Fire
1919 and the Battle with Bolshevism
Anthony Read
The very thought of Bolshevism scared the pants off the leaders of England, France, Italy, the United States and the other victors of WWI. Battles with White Russians continued for the next three years, but Lenin and Trotsky and the Bolsheviks were the ultimate winners despite invasions by the English, American and French, troops sent in to do battle with the communists on their own territory (a fact never forgotten and often commented on by them during the next seventy years).

The thrust of The World on Fire is that at the end of the War to End All Wars there was no end of violent upheaval. Churchill, always quotable --- said, "The War of the Giants has ended. The wars of the pygmies begin." There were general strikes, walkouts, battles in the streets, bombings, and general turmoil. There was, says Read, "no peace, only a series of internecine struggles every bit as bloody as the world war itself."

Most of these miniwars were caused by the demobilization (and lack of employment) of tens of millions of servicemen, along with a continuation of the blockade of Central Europe until the belated signing of the peace treaty with Germany. When, after his return from Paris, Woodrow Wilson was asked by his physician to slow down, Wilson said that he didn't have time, "We are running a race with Bolshevism, and the world is on fire."

Winston Churchill was asked how to deal with Bolshevism, and replied that Germany should be revived. "Kill the Bolshie, Kiss the Hun," he said. Meanwhile, because of the continuing blockade, hundreds of thousands of men, women and children in Germany, Austria, and neighboring states died of starvation or sickness long after the end of hostilities.

America suffered from much of the same turmoil brought on by the return of millions of unemployed soldiers. Steel workers in Pennsylvania and Indiana asked for an eight-hour day, the right of collective bargaining, "One day's rest out of seven," and "Abolition of the 24-hour shift." The steel companies brought in "Black Cossacks," strike-breakers, and a "Military Intelligence Division" under General Leonard Wood. When Wood's MID found guncotton in a worker's home in Gary, Indiana, the Washington Post editorialized:

    Every viper's nest of anarchy in the country which can be uncovered should be stamped out. Every red should be run into jail, and all who are under suspicion of complicity in bomb outrages or other conspiracies of that sort should be put through the third degree. This is a disease which requires heroic treatment, and it is no time for mollycoddling ... The air will be purer and sweeter and America will be a fairer land when the last red is behind the bars or on a ship eastward bound.

The eighty-nine-year-old radical organizer Mother Jones was invited to make a speech in McKeesport, Pennsylvania. She said, comparing the steel baron Judge Elbert H. Gary to the German leader, "Our Kaisers sit up and smoke seventy-five-cent cigars and have lackeys with knee pants bring them champagne while you starve, while you grow old at forty."

    If Gary wants to work twelve hours a day, let him go into the blooming mill and work. What we want is a little leisure, time for music, playgrounds, a decent home, books, and the things that make life worthwhile.

One of the surprises of The World on Fire is the high regard that Read has for Herbert Hoover, who was appalled that no food was allowed into the blockaded countries after the end of hostilities. He was "determined not to allow the Allies to use food supplies, the bulk of which he would be providing, to blackmail the Central Powers into accepting peace terms." In 1919, he estimated that "in the twenty-eight countries of Europe there were some 400 million people, of whom 200 million were in imminent danger of starvation. One military specialist reported to Hoover from Vienna: "Twenty-five percent of the children in this town have died in the last two months. We can count food in calories, but we have no way to measure human misery."

Hoover, as the author reports, was "incandescent with rage --- he had been fighting the blockade since 1914. He wanted it lifted immediately. The uses to which the blockade is being put are absolutely immoral."

Soon enough, by mid-1919, Hoover, "with his usual bluntness, could announce that America had done enough and the Europeans could look after themselves."


The best of Read's volume is not a dreary recounting of uprisings in Latvia or Bohemia, but a stupendous introduction, a brief, lively, entertaining, and pithy history of the rise of Bolshevism. In addition, the book is dotted throughout with little facts that delight those of us who are looking for an ahistorical world of contraries:
  • Communism's Third International, set for Moscow in 1919, was so poorly attended that Lenin rounded up foreigners from the neighborhood just to get some warm bodies. Henri Guilbeaux had been expelled from Switzerland and knew nothing of the meeting until "Lenin personally knocked on the door of his hotel room and invited him to attend and make a speech."

  • John Maynard Keynes, at the Paris peace talks, was convinced that Herbert Hoover was working vigorously to feed the starving because he had bought "abundant stocks of low-grade pig products at high prices which must at all costs be unloaded on someone, enemies failing allies." Keynes opined that when Hoover slept at night, "visions of pigs float across his bedclothes."
  • Read reports that the Ku Klux Klan was revivified in 1915 in Atlanta, by a W. J. Simmons, "a fundamentalist preacher and former Methodist circuit rider." The Klan bible was called the Kloran.

  • In June of 1919, the Germans had still not signed the onerous treaty cooked up by Clemenceau and Lloyd George. The French, English, and Americans stood ready to resume the war, "to start the invasion at 5 a.m. on Monday 23 June." Only a last-minute decision by the German military, stating that it could no longer fight, brought the issue to a close.

  • Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer believed that Russian aliens in the United States were directly controlled by Trotsky and Lenin. "Out of the sly and crafty eyes of many of them leap cupidity, cruelty, insanity, and crime," he said. "From their lopsided faces, sloping brows, and misshapen features may be recognized the unmistakable criminal type."

  • The first meeting of the Bolsheviks was held in 1903 in "an angling club in London." Even though they were in the minority, Lenin called them bolshevik which means "in the majority." And even though the others were in the majority, he dubbed them mensheviks ("in the minority.") Later, a great writer would refer to this as "doublespeak."

--- Irving Spivak
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