In the early 20th century the United States was in a period of massive upheaval. The underlying changes to the nation left it susceptible to the 1920s Red Scare and the Palmer Raids, the significance of which challenged the Constitutional rights of citizens and immigrants.
Beginning in the late 1800s, the United States began a rapid transformation to the modern age. This period is known as the Progressive Era, which lasted until its decline, which was largely brought on by the Red Scare of the 1920s.
The Progressive Era saw the emergence of many socioeconomic and political changes that challenged the status quo.
Included among these was the women’s suffrage movement, prohibition laws, improved technology, the crackdown on corruption and trust busting (such as the breakup of Standard Oil), and the rise of labor union power and effectiveness.
In addition, the US experienced a surge in immigration before World War I and had to change in the face of its newfound status of imperial power.
With all these changes occurring Americans were extremely anxious regarding the future of the nation. Adding to their troubles was the massive inflation post-World War I and the perceived threat of anarchism exacerbated by the Russian Revolution following the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.
These events all culminated in what’s known as the First Red Scare lasting from 1918-1920. One of the features of the First Red Scare were the infamous Palmer Raids, which rounded up thousands of anarchists and communists and would eventually deport several hundred from the country.
The 1920s Red Scare in the United States
A vast majority of the massive influx of immigrants to the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s were from Southern and Eastern Europe. Most of these immigrants were seen as low-skilled workers who competed for jobs with the local American-born population.
The media also cast these immigrants in an unfavorable light due to their religious beliefs and in some cases, political extremism. The capitalist-centric Americans were extremely wary of the socialists and communists that began to organize upon arrival in the United States.
Widespread paranoia against the anarchists and far-left extremists began in the aftermath of World War I. The Russian Revolution and ongoing Civil War led to the fear that communism would spread to the United States.
In the wake of skyrocketing inflation, unions gained popularity and power among workers seeking pay increases to match the rising prices of goods.
In February 1919 the Seattle General Strike began over dissatisfied shipyard workers seeking wage increases. The general strike ground the city to a halt and stoked the fear that “Marxists” were gaining a foothold in the country.
Despite the entirely peaceful five-day strike against low-paying cap institutions, the media painted the protests as “radical” and “revolutionary” in nature. A strike by the Boston Police department and other industry-specific strikes later in the year contributed to the notion that revolutionary thinking was spreading.
In addition, the “Red Summer” of 1919 was notoriously violent with several race riots and other violent demonstrations. These events all significantly contributed to the 1920s Red Scare.
Months later two separate incidents of anarchist bombings set the nation on high alert. Fortunately, few were injured in the bombings and authorities discovered most bombs before detonation.
The Definition of the Palmer Raids
One target in the bombings was the new Attorney General A Mitchell Palmer. Palmer’s house was specifically targeted in June and the bomb inadvertently exploded on his doorstep.
Though uninjured, the attempt may have influenced his views and subsequent actions in regards to anarchists and far-left radicals. While Palmer was initially reluctant to take serious action against the strikers and anarchists, he eventually acquiesced to the demands of the general population.
Public support was high for a crackdown against anarchists and radicals. The increased activity in labor movements was increasingly tied directly to radical activity.
Leftover nativist sentiment from World War I stoked the fears and anxieties of everyday Americans that radicals were infiltrating their country. The nation was also emerging from the 1918-1920 influenza outbreak that saw increased lockdown measures.
Palmer acted on these fears and in many cases fanned the flames to increase public anxieties over the supposed threat. Palmer was a popular and savvy politician and hoped to use his success against the radicals as a campaign platform to win the Democratic nomination in the 1920 election.
Following the June bombings Palmer moved quickly. In August he opened a new division within the Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation (precursor to the FBI).
Named the General Intelligence Division (GID), its task was to investigate radical groups with the purpose of identifying their members. A young J. Edgar Hoover was placed in charge of the division.
Armed with intelligence and a list of high-profile radicals, Palmer was ready to take action. In the ensuing Palmer Raids, the Justice Department conducted a series of high-profile raids with the goal of arresting and deporting radical leftists.
The Palmer Raids and the Red Scare
On the night of November 7, 1919 the first of what are known as the Palmer Raids began. The date chosen was significant in that it was the second anniversary of the “Bolshevik Revolution” in Russia.
Across several US cities the Justice Department rounded up thousands of anarchists and revolutionaries. Some were high-profile such as Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, but many were just notable members of anarchist organizations.
The arrests made headlines nationwide and were largely well-received. It was proof the government was taking action against the perceived left-wing threat.
On December 21, 1919 a ship dubbed the “Red Ark” sailed from New York City. On board were Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman, and 247 other anarchists and radicals. All were deported to Finland to great applause in the United States.
Given the popularity and anti-radical sentiment, Palmer ordered more raids to occur. On January 2, 1920 a second large raid occurred around the nation.
The raid led to the arrest of over 10,000 radicals and Palmer intended to deport a significant number of them.1
However, public opinion over the raids plummeted when it became known that there were disturbing violations to civil liberties in the arrests.
The Justice Department lacked search warrants and illegally entered homes. They held radicals in prison without giving them access to a lawyer and, in a sign of poor planning, often arrested those who had nothing to do with the radical movement.
Authorities also purposely either did not set a bail amount, set the bail amount exorbitantly high, or failed to tell the radicals just how much the bail was.2
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) emerged as a potent force to defend civil liberties including freedom of speech and press. Assistant Labor Secretary William F. Post successfully challenged Palmer’s actions, deemed thousands of warrants illegal, and refused to sign deportation papers.3
In an attempt to regain the narrative, Palmer predicted a violent wave of protests on May Day in 1920 and encouraged the nation to prepare for the worst. When the day passed with peaceful protests and no incidents, Palmer’s act was finished.
The Significance of the Palmer Raids
The historical significance of the Palmer Raids lies in how Palmer’s failed prediction of a communist uprising led to a gross violation of civil liberties in America. The raids led to a renewed effort to protect constitutional rights and helped lead to the end the 1920’s Red Scare and A. Mitchell Palmer’s political career.
While Americans were certainly still anti-radical, they were not willing to accept the subsequent violations of their civil liberties. Palmer’s attempt at winning the 1920 Democratic presidential nominee was predictably unsuccessful.
Though J. Edgar Hoover was largely responsible for the poor planning of the January 1920 raids that led to the violations of civil liberties, the event did not affect his career. In fact, the opposite occurred.
Hoover ascended to further leadership roles and President Calvin Coolidge later named him Director of the FBI in 1924. It was a position he would not relinquish until 1972.
Following the Red Scare the ACLU emerged as a significant force to protect constitutional liberties in the United States. The non-profit organization was unique in that it did not represent a specific group or theme, simply the issue of civil rights.
The legacy of the Red Scare of the 1920s is one of fear, anxiety, and suppression. Public hysteria over radicalists led to an overreaction from the government that impinged on the rights of American citizens and immigrants.
While the Red Scare was over, the fears and anxieties did not dissipate. The Immigration Act of 1924 was largely a response to the First Red Scare. The new immigration quotas largely restricted the numbers of Southern and Eastern Europeans allowed to enter the country.
As evidenced by the Red Scare of the 1950s and “McCarthyism,” the United States clearly did not learn its lesson of how to handle mass public hysteria.
To learn more about US history, check out this timeline of the history of the United States.
1) Renshaw, Patrick. “The IWW and the Red Scare 1917-24.” Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 3, no. 4, 1968, pp. 63–72. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/259851.
2) Ginger, Ann Fagan. “Political Deportations: 1944-1954.” Science & Society, vol. 19, no. 2, 1955, pp. 134–66. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40400330.
3) Braeman, John. “World War One and the Crisis of American Liberty.” American Quarterly, vol. 16, no. 1, 1964, pp. 104–12. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/2710832.