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Author Gage Discusses ‘The Day Wall Street Exploded’

March 17, 2009 at 6:45 PM EDT
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Author Beverly Gage discusses her book, "The Day Wall Street Exploded," which examines the fallout from a 1920 bomb attack that killed dozens of people and wounded scores more during lunch hour on Wall Street.


JEFFREY BROWN: Just before noon on Sept. 16, 1920, a horse-drawn cart pulled up near J.P. Morgan banks’ headquarters on Wall Street. The explosion from the dynamite on the wagon killed 38 people and wounded 143 more.

Until the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, it was the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil. And yet this attack, coming at a time of enormous social and economic tumult, is little known and little marked in our history books.

A new book, “The Day Wall Street Exploded,” sets about to correct that. Its author is Beverly Gage, an historian at Yale University.


BEVERLY GAGE, Yale University: Thanks.

JEFFREY BROWN: So the target seems fairly clear, but in many ways this event is a great unsolved mystery.

BEVERLY GAGE: That’s right. The moment this bomb went off, everybody assumed that it had been a blow at American capitalism, aimed at the Morgan banks, the New York Stock Exchange, which was just down the street.

And they assumed it had been radicals of some sort who had set the bomb, probably anarchists or communists, but there was a four-year investigation into it, and they actually never ended up solving the crime at all.

JEFFREY BROWN: Huge investigation, no indictments, no trials. What’s the thinking on who did it and why?

BEVERLY GAGE: Right. Well, you had the Federal Bureau of Investigation involved. You had the New York Police Department involved. You had private detectives all over the country involved. They all tripped over each other trying to figure this out. And as we said, they failed.

Probably the best theory is that it was an Italian anarchist who was part of the same circle of anarchists that Sacco and Vanzetti, the famous defendants, were involved with and that this was set in part in response to their arrests, but also to the enormous repression and battles over capitalism that were underway.

'Dramatic violence' on Wall Street

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, that's what I want to ask you about, because this was a time of incredible tumult. You write, actually, early on in the book -- I mean, and questions about the very future of capitalism.

You write, "Millions of people around the globe believed that capitalism was on the verge of collapse or at least of transformation." That included people here in the United States.

BEVERLY GAGE: Absolutely, 1920 is an incredible year of turmoil, 1919, as well. I mean, in some sense, this is a battle that had been going for at least 50 years, as industrial capitalism was on the rise, as you had the great robber barons of the age sort of coming into their own, J.P. Morgan most notably, but in particular, in 1919, 1920, you had a real explosion, if you'll let me use the word, of unrest in the United States, partly inspired by the Bolshevik revolution abroad, which had just happened in 1917, some of the unrest from World War I.

But in 1919, 4 million American workers went out on strike, and a lot of this was happening in the midst of a conversation about, you know, would capitalism survive? Or were we all facing an inevitable socialist revolution in the future?

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, at the same time as you say, there was growing American power, economic power and financial power, much of it concentrated on Wall Street.

BEVERLY GAGE: Absolutely. It's a really funny moment for Wall Street bankers, because on the one hand they've come out of World War I. They are suddenly the dominant financial power in the world. The United States is a creditor nation for the first time, and so the future looks incredibly bright.

But they also feel really vulnerable because they're under attack and under criticism from all quarters and sometimes quite literally, as in the Wall Street bombing.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what, of course, is especially interesting now and newly relevant is to think back that a lot of that ended up in violence, in terrorism. We forget a lot of that.

BEVERLY GAGE: Absolutely. One of the things in 2009 that's really striking about the Wall Street bombings is that it hits at this intersection of two themes that are so much a part of our own politics: terrorism, on the one hand, in particular terrorism in New York and downtown; and then, on the other hand, these questions about Wall Street. These really fused. They came together in this moment of pretty dramatic violence.

Resentments against Wall Street

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, it is impossible to think about this without -- let's start with 9/11, I mean, obvious ties to 9/11. What parallels do you see? Certainly, one area is civil liberties questions that came up then, as they've come up since.

BEVERLY GAGE: Well, it's funny. I started working on this when I was living in New York, but it was a little bit before 9/11. and so the thing that really drew me into it were actually these questions about what it meant, in terms of people's debates about capitalism and Wall Street.

And then, of course, 9/11 came along and it raised all sorts of new questions about terrorism, not so much because I was interested in writing about terrorism in the present day, but because it seemed to be so missing from the historical literature.

And so much of what I was seeing from the fact that people used the word "terrorism" to describe what they saw to the sorts of debates that emerged around civil liberties in this moment, you know, are you going to treat a crime like this as a criminal act or are you going to treat it as something -- part of a much broader ideological or even military struggle?

And these same civil liberties debates really came out of this moment. In fact, two of the organizations that still dominate this debate, the ACLU on the one hand and the FBI on the other, both had their origins in this period around World War I.

JEFFREY BROWN: Really? So you can trace much of that back to this time?

BEVERLY GAGE: Absolutely.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, the other way that it hits us now is, you know, the very immediate moment is the -- is the resentments against Wall Street.

BEVERLY GAGE: Right. Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you didn't -- when you started, as you said, that wasn't really there. I mean, there were bubbles and there were bubbles crashing, perhaps, but not like what we've seen in the last month or so.

BEVERLY GAGE: Exactly. Yes, no, I started this actually sort of at the height of the dot-com boom. And so what was really striking -- that was a moment when American capitalism was triumphant, the Soviet Union had fallen, and there seemed to be a real consensus around economic questions, and so the past looked very different in that context.

Now, in some sense, we've come I wouldn't say full circle, but certainly the phrase "The Day Wall Street Exploded" has a very different meaning today than it did when I started out.

But still I think the most striking thing is just how different this moment in the early 20th century looks from the present day. I mean, this was a moment when you had millions of people out marching in the streets, you had incredible levels of violence, all around these economic questions.

And today I think it really, by contrast, makes our current debates, though they can be very fractious, there's a much more limited range of debate underway.

Forgotten piece of history

JEFFREY BROWN: Are there -- even with those dissimilarities -- I think that's the word -- are there lessons? You're a historian. Are there lessons in looking back that help us today?

BEVERLY GAGE: Right. Well, absolutely. I think we don't want to forget that Wall Street has actually been subject to a lot of controversy throughout its time. I mean, it's mostly done pretty well and has mostly survived, but there is something of a cautionary note in the tale.

I mean, a lot of what this book is about is about groups of people who found themselves so frustrated at their inability to express their grievances in other ways that they turned to violence in the end.

JEFFREY BROWN: And -- and one last thing. You write about how this was much forgotten. Why do we forget these things? Why was this episode forgotten?

BEVERLY GAGE: Right. Well, it's funny. I mean, that was one of the things that interested me from the first, was simply the fact that I hadn't heard of this. It seemed so dramatic, 38 people killed in the middle of the financial district.

And I think that there are a couple of reasons that it's been forgotten. Some of it has to do with the fact that there wasn't any big show trial, and that makes the story a little more truncated.

Wall Street itself didn't really want to remember. I mean, they came in; they cleaned up; they reopened the markets the next day; and they never held an anniversary celebration and they never put up a memorial.

But I think it's also something of, I guess, a failure of the imagination that it's actually really hard 100 years later to remember a moment when people were thinking there might actually be a revolution in the United States.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. The book is "The Day Wall Street Exploded." Beverly Gage, thanks very much.

BEVERLY GAGE: Thanks, Jeff.