The Red Raids

statue of libertyGive me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest tossed, to me;
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

From the Emma Lazarus poem on the Statue of Liberty

The Mother of Exiles must have blinked her eyes in astonishment as the New Year dawned in 1920. Across the citadel of freedom the minions of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer were swooping down on the huddled masses. The Great Red Raid opened on January 1 with two hundred arrests and went into high gear the next day: two thousand were dragged into the net in thirty-three cities. In Hartford, Connecticut, a new device padded the catch: visitors who came to see the jailed "subversives" were arrested on the spot on the theory that they, too, must have some connection with Communists.

a. mitchell palmerThe raids were orderly. Palmer didn't like blackjacks and brass knuckles. He just told his men to take along "strings, tags and envelopes"&#151the better to wrap and classify such evidences of revolution as they encountered.

The raids were legal, too. Never mind the freedoms set forth in the First Amendment, nor the fact that nothing like this had happened in America since Thomas Jefferson's classic battle against the Sedition Law of 1798. The Espionage Act of 1917 and the much-tougher Sedition Act of 1918 made it a crime to say anything at all critical about the war effort or the Wilson Administration. bomb disasterAnd as if these rigid enactments were not adequate to preserve American institutions, a double edged Alien Act barred the "golden door" to anyone the Secretary of Labor deemed a radical, no matter how thin the evidence.

The Red fever took a powerful hold on the people, and a handful of fanatics and bomb throwers helped it retain its grip. Palmer's own home was dynamited in 1919; the only casualty was the man who planted the explosive. A TNT bomb planted across the street from the House of Morgan in New York on September 16, 1920, killed thirty people in a noonday Wall Street crowd and injured hundreds. Wobblies (members of the Independent Workers of the World) defending the IWW hall at Centralia, Washington, killed four American Legionnaires on Armistice Day of 1919 and paid dearly&#151one IWW man mutilated and hanged, and seven others jailed for twenty to forty years. An alert New York post office clerk, Charles Caplan, intercepted sixteen paper-wrapped iww posterbombs addressed to J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, and to Palmer and other government officials.

There were larger factors in the anti-Red hysteria, too. The Bolshevik uprising in Russia terrified the super-patriots here, as did the revolutionary outbreaks in Germany and Hungary. The bitterness stored up during the war also helped fan the flames; the leftover hatred of the Hun, who quit too soon, was turned on Miss Liberty's "tempest tossed." The alien, butt of the Prohibition lobby's worst gibes for years, now became the target for the whole country's pent-up fury and frustration. Even Johnny, marched home a hero, got in on the kill. He cracked a few skulls breaking up Socialist meetings and let a haymaker fly in a sortie against the IWW now and then: they were all Bolshies and bomb throwers and he wanted none of them loose in his United States. He was for filling the jails with them, and Palmer, Woodrow Wilson's "Fighting Quaker," was just the man to do it. Political prisoners went behind bars by the thousands. iww posterNewspapers (but not big ones) were shut down for publishing items deemed to be critical of the regime. College professors were expelled for teaching "subversive" doctrines out of the standard textbooks they had always used.

It was the time of the Big Whisper, duplicated thirty years later in the Security Follies of the 1950's. Palmer dwelt on the sanctity of the American farm and home and on American bank deposits and American Liberty bonds and enlisted 200,000 worried citizens as volunteers in his crusade to send the Bolsheviks "back where they came from." Even the soldier home from the wars might find his own neighbor cocking an ear his way to see if he had smuggled any dangerous ideas home from France. The Palmer Doom Book simply bulged with suspect names. berger posterFor the ex-doughboy who cared about such things, there must have been a terrible irony in all this; the "just democracy" preached by Woodrow Wilson lay in the dust right here at home in the wake of the war to make the world safe for democracy.

Eugene V. Debs, the labor leader and Socialist chieftain, languished in the Federal Penitentiary at Atlanta for opposing the war. Victor L. Berger, the Wisconsin Socialist, beat a twenty-year espionage sentence and got elected to Congress three times but the House wouldn't let him take his seat.

In New York, Speaker Thaddeus C. Sweet of the State Assembly directed the sergeant at arms to present the five newly-elected Socialist members before the bar to be expelled because their party had been deemed "a disloyal organization composed exclusively of perpetual traitors."

emma golmenTwo such historians as Charles and Mary Beard the Palmer raids and their offshoots across the land "recalled the fateful days of 1692 in Salem." And for what? The Beards in The Rise of American Civilization, published in 1930, drew two conclusions from the Red Raids:

"The first is that not a single first-class German spy or revolutionary workingman was caught and convicted of an overt act designed to give direct aid and comfort to the enemy. The second is that, as in England during the period of the French revolution, the occasion of the war which called for patriotic duties was seized by emotional conservatives as an opportunity to blacken the character of persons whose iww leadersopinions they feared and hated."

There were some revolutionary nests in operation, of course. The scattered bombings indicated as much. But the five thousand arrests in the Palmer crusade turned up a total of three pistols from among the hordes supposedly plotting to overthrow the government by violence. It makes one wonder, looking back, what all the fuss was about. Perhaps these two headlines from the Boston Herald summed up the time:

  • It turned out that neither story needed to be taken seriously.

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