In 1919 Woodrow Wilson appointed A. Mitchell Palmer as his attorney general. Palmer had previously been associated with the progressive wing of the party and had supported women's suffrage and trade union rights. However, once in power, Palmer's views on civil rights changed dramatically.
Soon after taking office, a government list of 62 people believed to hold "dangerous, destructive and anarchistic sentiments" was leaked to the press. This list included the names of Jane Addams, Lillian Wald, Oswald Garrison Villard and Charles Beard. It was also revealled that these people had been under government surveillance for many years.
Worried by the revolution that had taken place in Russia, Palmer became convinced that Communist agents were planning to overthrow the American government. His view was reinforced by the discovery of thirty-eight bombs sent to leading politicians and the Italian anarchist who blew himself up outside Palmer's Washington home. Palmer recruited John Edgar Hoover as his special assistant and together they used the Espionage Act (1917) and the Sedition Act (1918) to launch a campaign against radicals and left-wing organizations.
A. Mitchell Palmer claimed that Communist agents from Russia were planning to overthrow the American government. On 7th November, 1919, the second anniversary of the Russian Revolution, over 10,000 suspected communists and anarchists were arrested. Palmer and Hoover found no evidence of a proposed revolution but large number of these suspects were held without trial for a long time. The vast majority were eventually released but Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman, Mollie Steimer, and 245 other people, were deported to Russia.
Sidney Hook, a student at the College of the City of New York, later recalled how his tutor, Harry Overstreet, reacted to what became known as the Red Scare: "Overstreet would flare up with an eloquent outburst of denunciation at some particularly outrageous act of oppression. This was especially hazardous during the days of the Palmer raids and subsequent deportations. There were few organized protests against these brutal highhanded measures that crassly violated the key provisions of the Bill of Rights. The general public reacted to the excesses as if they were a passing heat wave. In the postwar hysteria of the time, it seemed as if the public either supported these measures or, more likely, was indifferent to them."
Hook pointed out in his autobiography, Out of Step: An Unquiet Life in the 20th Century (1987): "The general public reacted to the excesses as if they were a passing heat wave. In the postwar hysteria of the time, it seemed as if the public either supported these measures or, more likely, was indifferent to them. One case that moved me profoundly was that of Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman. Goldman and Berkman had been unjustly convicted on the flimsiest evidence of conspiring to prevent young men from registering for the draft. What they had done was merely to express their opposition to conscription, which they had every right to do. After a caricature of a trial, they were sentenced to two years in jail, heavily fined, and ordered deported to Russia, from which they had emigrated as children, at the expiration of their sentence. The case against these truly noble idealists, whose chief failing was an incurable naivete, should have been thrown out of court. The day the S.S. Buford sailed with them and 239 others on board was one of the darkest days of my life. Several days after the Buford left port, Professor Overstreet, in a large lecture section, made an impassioned reference to the Buford as the Ark of Liberty on the high seas. A hush fell over the class. Suddenly a student known to us for his right wing sentiments rushed from the room. In the atmosphere of the moment, we were convinced that he was reporting Overstreet's subversive utterance to someone in authority."
In January, 1920, another 6,000 were arrested and held without trial. These raids took place in several cities and became known as the Palmer Raids. Palmer and Hoover found no evidence of a proposed revolution but large number of these suspects, many of them members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), continued to be held without trial. When Palmer announced that the communist revolution was likely to take place on 1st May, mass panic took place. In New York, five elected Socialists were expelled from the legislature.
James Larkin, an Irish trade unionist living in New York City, was charged with "advocating force, violence and unlawful means to overthrow the Government". Larkin's trial began on 30th January 1920. He decided to defend himself. He denied that he had advocated the overthrow of the Government. However, he admitted that he was part of the long American revolutionary tradition that included Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. He also quoted Wendell Phillips in his defence: "Government exists to protect the rights of minorities. The loved and the rich need no protection - they have many friends and few enemies."
The jury found Larkin guilty and on 3rd May 1920 he received a sentence of five to ten years in Sing Sing. In prison Larkin worked in the bootery, manufacturing and repairing shoes. Despite his inability to return to Ireland, he was annually re-elected as general secretary of the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union.
When the May revolution failed to materialize, attitudes towards A. Mitchell Palmer began to change and he was criticised for disregarding people's basic civil liberties. Some of his opponents claimed that Palmer had devised this Red Scare to help him become the Democratic presidential candidate in 1920.