The Red Scare

The end of the fighting in Europe did not bring peace and security to the United States. Hatred of the brutal “Huns” was quickly replaced by a fear of anarchists, communists and immigrants. The word "Red" has long been associated with the Communists and Socialists, while "White" has been associated with the conservatives. For instance, in the aftermath of World War I, control of Russia was contested between the Red Army of the Bolsheviks and various White armies. The entire prospect of growing Communist influence became known as the "Red Menace."

While President Wilson labored for his version of world peace in 1919, a series of violent events occurred at home that indicated the depth of public unease:

  • Seattle docks were idled by a strike in January and U.S. Marines were sent in response to a plea from the mayor.

  • Race riots in several dozen cities led to the deaths and injury of hundreds during the summer.

  • Boston was briefly paralyzed by a police strike in September; looting and theft were rampant.

  • Steelworkers seeking an eight-hour day struck in the fall, slowing the return of the nation’s economy to normal peacetime functioning.

  • In November, a labor organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.) was seized by citizens of Centralia, Washington, castrated and hanged.
Indeed, following the triumph of the Bolsheviks in Russia (November 1917) and the establishment of the Soviet Union, efforts were made by communist agents to promote revolution in Western Europe and the United States.

In 1919, Wilson appointed a new attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer, a Pennsylvania attorney with liberal credentials, including past support for workers’ rights and women’s suffrage. Palmer, however, reversed his views. In April, the Post Office discovered 38 bombs that had been mailed to leading American politicians and capitalists. Shortly thereafter, an Italian anarchist was blown up outside Palmer’s residence. The nation’s top law enforcement official became convinced that a radical plot was underway.

Word was leaked to the press that the government was tracking the activities of prominent American citizens who had voiced criticisms of the war effort and other government policies, including:

  • Jane Addams, the famed social worker, who had become and advocate of conscientious objection in her fight against conscription
  • Charles A. Beard, an economic and cultural historian at Columbia University, who had ruffled feathers by suggesting that the Founding Fathers had been motivated by the profit motive in many of their actions
  • Lillian Wald, the noted public health pioneer and advocate for many recent immigrants.
Palmer enlisted the services of a young attorney, J. Edgar Hoover , who worked to enforce the provisions of the Espionage Act (1917) and its companion legislation, the Sedition Act (1918).

The first in a series of so-called Palmer Raids was launched on November 7, 1919 — the second anniversary of the October Revolution in Russia. Thousands of anarchists and communists were rounded up, many of whom were detained for long periods without being formally charged. In December, in a highly publicized move, more than 200 alien detainees were deported to Finland and later to Russia. Placed aboard the Buford, dubbed the “Soviet Ark,” were such prominent leftists as Emma Goldman, the Russian-born anarchist, who had drawn disapproval by opposing the draft and promoting birth control.

Despite finding no credible evidence that a communist plot was underway, Palmer staged more raids in January 1920. With the assistance of local law enforcement officials throughout the country, as many as 6,000 suspects were arrested and detained.

Palmer claimed to know that May 1, the socialist Labor Day, would bring massive demonstrations as a prelude to revolution. The American public was apprehensive as the date approached, but the predictions proved to be without foundation and Palmer’s standing declined rapidly. He was criticized sharply for conducting searches without warrants and for denying detainees legal representation. Most damning were the charges of some who believed that Palmer had manufactured the crisis as a means to gain the Democratic presidential nomination in 1920.

The events of 1919-1920 were the first of a series of “red scares” in American history in which the government would clamp down on real or imagined domestic revolutionaries.

Looking back on the Jazz Age in 1931, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that it really began in 1919:

The ten-year period that, as if reluctant to die outmoded in its bed, leaped to a spectacular death in October, 1929, began about the time of the May Day riots in 1919. When the police rode down the demobilized country boys gaping at the orators in Madison Square, it was the sort of measure bound to alienate the more intelligent young men from the prevailing order. We didn`t remember anything about the Bill of Rights until Mencken began plugging it, but we did know that such tyranny belonged in the jittery little coun­tries of South Europe. If goose-livered business men had this effect on the government, then maybe we had gone to war for J.P. Morgan`s loans after all.

See also the Sacco and Vanzetti trial.

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