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.
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
AdvertisementColumbia 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.
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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Reds: McCarthyism in Twentieth-Century America by Ted Morgan.
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Blacklisted by History: The Untold Story of Senator Joe McCarthy and His Fight Against America's Enemies by M. Stanton Evans.
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World War I was finally over, however, there was a new threat toAmericans. This threat was Communism, which was greatly feared by mostU.S. citizens. Communism is "a system of social and economic organizationin which property is owned by the state or group, to be shared in commonor to be distributed among members of the community equally or inproportion to their respective needs."* In 1919, no more than one-tenth ofthe adult American population belonged to the newly formed Communistmovement, and even this small percentage were greatly persecuted. Although American "Reds" caught most of the fury of the raids, it was notjust the Communists who had stirred national panic. Emotions that hadbeen building since the turn of the century were brought out during WorldWar I, and then burst into a "xenophobic" (fear and hatred of foreigners)repression. Late in the afternoon of Friday, January 2, 1920, agents from theDepartment of Justice raided a Communist headquarters and began arrestingthousands of people in major American cities throughout the nation. Theypoured into private homes, clubs, pool halls and coffee shops, arrestingcitizens and aliens, Communists and non-Communists, tearing apart meetinghalls and destroying property. The Agents put their victims in jail, heldthem without an attorney, and interrogated them. The prisoners who coulddemonstrate that they *As quoted from The Lincoln Library copyright 1961were American citizens were released. Aliens were released a few dayslater unless they were members of the Communist Party or the CommunistLabor Party. These were the two groups that were formed from the AmericanCommunist movement. In two days, nearly five thousand people werearrested, and nearly five thousand were seized in the cleaning up thatfollowed during the next two weeks. The arrests were carried out withtotal disregard for the rights of the prisoners. There are some psychological views that might help to explain why theevents of 1919 -1920 took place. Some Americans during this time werealways on the verge of attacking. They were hostile toward minorities,extremely patriotic, and ready to rid their nation of any intruder thatseemed to threaten them. The postwar effort for "one hundred percentAmericanism" may have left our citizens with the desire to keep ourcountry pure. The Russian Revolution in the fall of 1918 also contributedto America's unrest. In a violent outburst, the Communists took control
of the Russian government and murdered the Tsar and his entire familyalong with thousands of "nonconforming" Russians. Communism wasestablished on the political philosophy of Karl Marx, and was dedicated toestablishing a society where there is no private ownership of property andwhere the government would control the making and distribution of allgoods. Americans wondered: If it could happen in Russia, why couldn'tithappen here? No plot to overthrow the government was ever uncovered. Yet, it was the paranoid fear of Communists that drove many Americans toviolence. >From researching this topic, I have learned a number of things. First ofall, America was caught in a web of fear and conspiracy. No one couldtrust his neighbor or his father for fear that he was involved in theCommunist movement. Americans were not happy with their government atthis time, but this didn't mean that they wanted Communism as an option. Americans no longer welcomed the "huddled masses yearning to breathe free"(The inscription on the Statue of Liberty). Hyphenated Americans wereparticularly suspected. I have also learned that although Communism mighthave caused a lot of panic, no plot of Communism was ever found to betrue. However, just because nothing was found doesn't mean that therewasn't anything to be found. During the 1920's, America was extremely prejudiced toward anyone whowasn't a "pure American". The Red Scare provided Americans with ascapegoat, now that we were no longer fighting the Germans. People reallybelieved that Communists were everywhere and were plotting to overthrowthe government. Americans were treated like the women who were accused ofbeing witches in the Salem Witch Trials. It didn't matter if you were orwere not a Communist if someone accused you of being one. You werebranded for most of your life. Eventually, the Red Scare died down, butdidn't go away completely. There are still Communist organizations tothis day. We really don't need to fear Communism because our governmentis more stable than it was in the 1920's. Idealistically, it is the bestform of government we have because it incorporates government regulationswhich better the community as a whole. However, careful measures must betaken to ensure that the central government under Communism does notbecome corrupt. In spite of this, we will probably never see America turnto Communism as a form of governing the people, so there will be no needto see a repeat episode of The Red Scare.