The tumult and the shouting dies, The captains and the kings depart. -Kipling, The
Mr. Kipling was wrong. War does not always end with the last cry on the battlefield.
World War I certainly did not. After the war formally ended on November 18, 1918, there
was an ideological war still going on in the US. An ideological war which prompted mass
paranoia and caused, among many other things, what would be known as the Red Scare, which
began in 1919 and ended in 1921. Red Scare was the label given to the actions of
legislation, the race riots, and the hatred and persecution of "subversives" and
conscientious objectors during that period of time._ It is this hysteria which would find
itself repeated several decades later in history when Senator Joeseph R. Macarthy accused
high government officials and high standing military officers of being communist._
Undoubtedly the most important topic of an investigation into a historical occurrence is
its inception. What caused the Red Scare?
At the heart of the Red Scare was the conscription law of May 18, 1917, which was put
in place during World War I for the armed forces to be able to conscript more Americans.
This law caused many problems for the conscientious objector to WWI, because for one to
claim that status, one had to be a member of a "well-recognized" religious
organization which forbade their members to participation in war. As a result of such
unyeilding legislation, 20,000 conscientious objectors were inducted into the armed
forces. Out of these 20,000, 16,000 changed their minds when they reached military camps,
1300 went to non-combat units, 1200 gained furloughs to do farm work, and 100 did Quaker
relief work in Europe. 500 suffered court-martial, and out of these, 450 went to prison.
However, these numbers are small in comparison with the 170,000 draft dodgers and
2,810,296 men who were inducted into the armed forces._ Nevertheless, the conscientious
objectors were targeted in the Red Scare after the war. They were condemned as cowards,
pro-German socialists, although that was not everything. They were also accused of
spreading propaganda throughout the United States. Very few conscientious objectors stood
up for themselves. Roderick Siedenberg, who was a conscientious objector, wrote that
"to steal, rape, or murder" are standard peacetime causes for imprisonment, but
in time of war "too firm a belief in the words of Christ", and "too ardent
a faith in the brotherhood of man" are more acceptable._
Some organizations such as the National Civil Liberties Bureau, which would later be
renamed the American Civil Liberties Union, took up the task of standing up for the rights
of conscientious objectors. Before the war, the NCLB-ACLU opposed American involvement,
and afterward defended the rights of the objectors. Later, the ACLU would gain a
reputation for helping people with liberal cases who were too poor to pay for their own
representation in court.
After the real war ended in 1918, the ideological war, which was gaining speed at home,
turned against conscientious objectors and other radical minorities such as Wobblies, who
were members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), and Socialists as well. These
Wobblies and Socialists were damned as being subversives who were trying to overthrow the
United States government.
Wobblies, in particular, were persecuted against for speaking out against the
capitalist system. Although most of what they said was only to attract attention to their
cause, their rhetoric was taken seriously by the government and its officials. From the
very beginning of the Red Scare, the Wobblies were the subject of attack by the
government, because they were a symbol of radicalism. The government put in place
legislation, not only against the Wobblies, but also against Socialists and Communists,
due to the fact that the government did not distinguish one of its enemies from another.
One such action taken by the government prevented Wobblies who were not yet citizens from
naturalization, even if they quit their organization. In 1917, the US government made a
law which gave the Secretary of Labor the power to arrest or deport any alien
"advocating or teaching" destruction of property or the "overthrow of
government by force."_ Words such as "advocating" and the vague language
used in the law allowed the government to use deportation as a cure for the
anti-government views of its enemies, namely the Wobblies, Communists, and Socialists.
After all the unfair legislation passed by the government, the scene was set for a
disaster. All that was left was for someone to take advantage of the anti-radical
legislation, and the bomb would soon explode. This is basically what Attorney General A.
Mitchell Palmer did in the years 1919-1920. Palmer used the laws set down in 1917 to
deport members of the IWW. He did not only reserve his weapon for the Wobblies; the
American Communists and many other radical groups were not to be left out. When the Palmer
Raids began, which will be discussed in more detail later, there were two main targets:
the Communist Party, and the Communist Labor Party. These groups grew out of the IWW, the
Socialist Party of America, and the Socialist Labor Party. The largest of the three, the
Socialist Party of America, had split because of a dilemma over World War I.
This split occurred when Europe entered the war. For the most part, American Socialists
opposed the war, unlike their European brethren who were much more nationalistic and
supported their countries armies. However, some of the more prominent American Socialists,
each for his own reasons, strongly supported the war.
This break in beliefs of the Socialist Party hurt it, but did by no means destroy it.
Many who were not Socialists opposed the draft, but the Party itself was the true focal
point of this opposition. Accordingly, these people became targets for attack by American
nationalists and the American government. Heinous acts such as the burning of Socialist
documents and the lynching of its members were commonplace.
While all this was taking place, an American Communist Party was emerging from the
ashes of the former Socialist strongholds which were all along the eastern seaboard of the
US. There, Russian immigrants identified with the Bolshevik revolution in Mother Russia
because of their similar lives of poverty and squalor. These conditions of dispair were in
part due to the exclusion of immigrants from unions and their not being permitted to vote.
These people held strong anti-government/anti-capitalist views, often advocating the
immediate overthrow of capitalism. Indeed, they were asking for trouble. And they would
As dangerous as these people appeared to be at the time, they were in fact only
one-thousandth of one percent of the voting American public. Even the two parties who made
up this minute percentage of voters were riddled with corruption and dissent.
After the war formally ended in 1918, all the groups which opposed the war came under
fire. They were seen as destructive to the peace and security of the American nation.
The focus of the attacks was no longer on the conscientious objectors, for many of them
were already jailed during the war, and were still in jail at the time; it had switched
over to the Socialists and the Wobblies, for they, unlike the conscientious objectors,
were a still viable target.
One way that these people were targeted was by use of the Espionage Act of 1918. This
act penalized anyone who obstructed the operation of the armed forces, was insubordinate,
or displayed disloyalty within the forces. Because of the law's vauge language, the
Justice Department convicted more than 1000 people. Among this number were a large number
of Socialists and Wobblies.
The Espionage Act was not the only form of legislation to discriminate against anti-war
groups. In October 1918, Congress passed the Alien Act, which gave the Secretary of Labor
the power to deport " any alien who, at any time after entering the United States, is
found to have been at the time of entry, or to have become thereafter a member of any
anarchist organization."_ The extremely broad language used in this bill and the way
it was interpreted gave Palmer the authority to conduct his raids, during which thousands
of people were arrested and detained without actually having been charged.
Because they anticipated what was to come, the suspect organizations worked for the
repealing of the legislation aimed against them. Many Socialists became prominent figures
due to their attempts to gain release for their imprisoned comrades.
Another reason for the Red Scare was the strike held by mine workers. They were thought
to be making threatening moves against the Capitalist system through subversive Socialist
organizations. These strikes were part of a series of events which took place in 1919.
This strike, which occurred in February, was of 60,000 coal mine workers._ In that
September, steel workers struck. All of the available blame was put upon the American
Communists, although many communists tried to oppose this strike. Nationalist Americans
called for a halt to this "Bolshevik Revolution" which was taking place on
As a result of this panic traveling through American society, a series of bombings
occurred. The Socialists were immediately assumed to be responsible.
Newspapers had a field day publicizing these bombings. Attorney General Palmer took
advantage of the widespread panic of the public and media and asked Congress for fund
appropriations to help avoid further danger. Congress obliged, not only supplying funds,
but going one step further. The message was then made clear: foreign radicals were to all
The government had formulated and put into effect their plan to rid the country of
unwanted foreign radicals, but the problem remained as what to do with those radicals were
citizens of the United States. This was not to go unanswered for long, however. In June of
1919, New York state officials raided the Rand School of Social Science in New York, as
well as the headquarters of the I.W.W. and the Socialists._ These raids were a product of
a New York legislature action that created the Lusk Committee. The idea behind this
committee was anit-radical, and the tactics of said committee spread nationwide very
quickly, or their methods of "defending the republic". Even with all the
legislation in place, Attorney General Palmer complained that not enough was not enough
was being done to deport aliens. It is ironic that after the Red Scare, he argued for the
release of a Socialist that was imprisoned during the Scare. However, during it he helped
convict many in a similar situation. It is highly probable that he held his anti-liberal
veiws only because he had presidential ambitions. But it must also be considered that he
himself was the target of a bombing. His actions may merely have been out of fear, but his
wavering attitudes hold no true reason._
In the August of that same year, Palmer created an intelligence department to deal with
problems originating with anarchists and that ilk. He appointed J. Edgar Hoover to lead
this newly founded agency. Hoover created files on each "subversive"
organization. One of the first field assignments of this agency was to raid The Union of
Russian Workers in New York._
Palmer was not the most extreme of these anti-radicals. Senator Kenneth McKellen of
Tennessee went so far as to propose sending all native-born radicals to a special penal
colony on the island of Guam._
Liberal journalists held very caustic opinions of the actions of Palmer and his
comrades. One journalist went as far as to say "Will it stop unrest? Yes! Just as
shaving the dog will keep his hair from growing. In fact, shaving is said to promote
Palmer didn't care what the journalists said. He went on with the raids which he was so
famous for. On December 27, around 250 deportees sailed for Russia from New York ion the
U.S.S. Buford, promptly labeled as the "Soviet Ark."_ On Friday, January 2,
1920, agents of the Justice department raided a Communist headquarters and began to arrest
thousands of people throughout America's major cities. In a period of two days, 5000
people were arrested and 1000 jailed._ There was no regard for due process, and the
treatment of the prisoners unacceptable.
The Red Scare finally came to an end after a series of actions by high government
officials, especially in the Justice Department itself, which showed dissent from Palmer's
philosophy. Assistant Secretary of Labor Louis F. Post began to reject most of the cases
brought before him concerning the immigrants. Even the Secretary of Labor himself, William
B. Wilson turned against Palmer. Out of 6,000 warrants issued during the raids, less than
1,000 deportations resulted._ Even with all this opposition to his actions, Palmer still
aspired to the office of the Presidency. He was never nominated. By 1920, the Red Scare
was dying down, and by 1921 it was virtually dead.
It is obvious that the Red Scare was a product of World War I and the anti-liberalism
that ensued on the homefront. The truth is that Mr. Palmer did not really cause the Red
scare, he only participated in it.
What is known as the Red Scare of 1919-1921 set precedent to the witch hunts of the
McCarthy era, where he accused two presidents (Dwight D. eisenhower was even a member of
his own party) of being Communists Even today, many lessons can and have been learned from
this experience. The main lesson learned is that the freedom of expression and of thought
is so important, that if it is taken away, in particular by the government, justice cannot
be either carried out or achieved.
Since the McCarthy era, nothing like the Red Scare has ever occurred in American
society or government. People have become very cautious not to repeat the mistakes of the
past, especially ones so rediculous as the deportation of immigrants for their political
beliefs. But the question remains as to whether America will always remember this episode
of the early 1920's, or will she simply forget it and make the same mistakes over and over
Perhaps Albert Einstein said it most eloquently in an interview on December 30, 1930...
I never think of the future,
It comes soon enough._
I. The Pocket Book of Quotations: Henry Davidoff, Pocket Books, New York, N.Y.
II. Into the Twenties: Burl Noggle, University of Illinois Press, Chicago, Illinois
III. The American Heritage History of the 1920's & 1930's: Ralph K. Andrist,
American Heritge Books, New York, N.Y.
IV. Outgrowing Democracy: John Lukacs, Doubleday and Company, Inc. , New York
_ Source I, p. 423
_ Source IV, p. 33
_ Source III, p. 29
_ Source II, p. 84
_ Source II, p. 86
_ Source II, p. 89
_ Source II, p. 95-96
_ Source II, p. 102
_ Source II, p. 105
_ Opinion taken from all sources except # I
_ Source II p. 107
_ Source II p. 107- verification, Cong. Record., 66 Cong., sess. (Dec. 20, 1919),