The Red Scare

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.

Primary Sources

(1) Paul Kellogg, letter to Newton Baker about the list of subversives leaked by Archibald Stevenson of Military Intelligence (28th January, 1919)

In the name of common sense, fairplay and decent regard to the public service to our common country off some of the truest, most farseeing and courageous citizens of our generation has produced. Let me urge you to repudiate that indiscriminate, brutally unjust, fool-in-the-head list of Americans put under the ban by Military Intelligence.

(2) A. Mitchell Palmer, The Case Against the Reds (1920)

Behind, and underneath, my own determination to drive from our midst the agents of Bolshevism. I have discovered the hysterical methods of these revolutionary humans. I have been asked to what extent deportation will check radicalism in this country. Why not ask what will become of the United States Government if these alien radicals carry out the principles of the Communist Party?

In place of the United States Government we would have the horror and terrorism of Bolshevik tyranny such as the destroying Russia now. The whole purpose of communism appears to be the mass formation of the criminals of the world to overthrow the decencies of private life, to usurp property, to disrupt the present order of life regardless of health, sex or religious rights.

These are the revolutionary tenets of the Communist Internationale. These include the IWW's, the most radical socialists, the misguided anarchists, the agitators who oppose the limitations of unionism, the moral perverts and the hysterical neurasthenic women who abound in communism.

(3) Jane Addams, speech in Chicago (28th November, 1919)

Hundreds of poor laboring men and women are being thrown into jails and police stations because of their political beliefs. In fact, an attempt is being made to deport an entire political party.

These men and women, who in some respects are more American in ideals than the agents of the government who are tracking them down, are thrust into cells so crowded they cannot lie down.

And what is it these radicals seek? It is the right of free speech and free thought; nothing more than is guaranteed to them under the Constitution of the United States, but repudiated because of the war.

It is a dangerous situation we face at the present time, with the rule of the few overcoming the voice of the many. It is doubly dangerous because we are trying to suppress something upon which our very country was founded - liberty.

The cure for the spirit of unrest in this country is conciliation and education - not hysteria. Free speech is the greatest safety valve of our United States. Let us give these people a chance to explain their beliefs and desires. Let us end this suppression and spirit of intolerance which is making of America another autocracy.

(4) John Dos Passos, Facing the Chair: Sacco and Vanzetti (1927)

On June 3rd 1919 a bomb exploded outside the Washington house of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. In the previous months various people had received bombs through the mail, one of them blowing off the two hands of the unfortunate housemaid who undid the package. No one, and least of all the federal detectives ever seems to have discovered who committed these outrages or why they were committed. But their result was to put a scare into every public official in the country, and particularly into Attorney General Palmer.

No one knew where the lightning would strike next. The signing of peace had left the carefully stirred up hatred of the war years unsatisfied. It was easy for people who knew what they were doing to turn the terrors of government officials and the unanalyzed feeling of distrust of foreigners of the average man into a great crusade of hate against reds, radicals, dissenters of all sorts. The Department of Justice, backed by the press, frenziedly acclaimed by the man on the street, invented an immanent revolution.

(5) James Larkin, speech at his trial (3rd May, 1920)

What does all this mean for the freedom of thought and inquiry? Why Einstein and men like him would not be allowed to function, would not be allowed to think. You would have no field of activity either in religion, in art or in science. State functionaries are going to put a steel cap on the minds of the people of this country and they are going to screw it down until they make you all one type.

I have been a man who has always abhorred violence, because I have been brutally abused by this organized force. Who used force and violence? 'Is it the strong that use force? Is it the strong that use violence?' It is always the weak, the cowardly, those who can only live by conservatism and force and violence. It has always been down the ages the weak, the bigoted, those who lack knowledge, that have always used force and violence against the advancement of knowledge.

Gentlemen, some day you in America will be told the truth. In the meantime we who have been on the housetops telling the truth have to suffer. We have to go down the dark days and the dark nights, but we go there with the truth in our eyes and our hearts, and no lie upon our lips.

I have read Wendell Phillips since I was a boy. Wendell Phillips says, "Government exists to protect the rights of minorities. The loved and the rich need no protection - they have many friends and few enemies."

The ways of the broad highways have been my ways and I have never been encompassed by walls, and so it may be tomorrow - you may decide that in the interest of this great Republic of 110,000,000 people, this individual will have to be put away for five or ten years.

I do not object to your doing it. I say you have a right in honor and truth, if you believe this man has ever been guilty of any crime against your country, stand by your country, live by its people, live always in its interest. I have always done that with my country, and that is the reason I stand practically without anybody of my own people standing with me except the poor and unfortunate. I have got Irishmen, and Irishmen in this country, who believe in me and who will see to it that I have got a decent chance; and to those who belong to me at home they have always known me, always known what I stood for, and my wife and children will be looked after.