Historical Context: The Post-World War I Red Scare

The end of World War I was accompanied by a panic over political radicalism. Fear of bombs, Communism, and labor unrest produced a “Red Scare.” In Hammond, Indiana, a jury took two minutes to acquit the killer of an immigrant who had yelled “To Hell with the United States.” At a victory pageant in Washington, DC, a sailor shot a man who refused to stand during the playing of the “Star-Spangled Banner” while the crowd clapped and cheered. A clerk in a Waterbury, Connecticut, clothing store was sentenced to jail for six months for remarking to a customer that the Russian revolutionary Lenin was “the brainiest” or “one of the brainiest” world leaders.

On May 1, 1919—May Day—postal officials discovered twenty bombs in the mail sent to prominent capitalists, including John D. Rockefeller and J. P. Morgan Jr., as well as government officials like Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. A month later, bombs exploded in eight American cities. On September 16, 1920, a bomb left in a parked horse-drawn wagon exploded near Wall Street in Manhattan’s financial district, killing thirty people and injuring hundreds. The suspicion was that the bomb was the work of radicals who had immigrated from Europe. Authorities came up with a list of suspects and even questioned the man who had recently reshod the wagon’s horse. But despite the offer of an $80,000 reward, no one was charged with the crime.

In November 1919 in the Washington State lumber town of Centralia, American Legionnaires stormed an office of the International Workers of the World (IWW). Four attackers died in a gunfight before townspeople overpowered the IWW members and took them to jail. A mob broke into the jail, seized one of the IWW members, and hanged him from a railroad bridge. Federal officials subsequently prosecuted 165 IWW leaders, who received sentences of up to twenty-five years in prison.

Congress and state legislatures joined in the attack on radicalism. In May 1919, the House refused to seat Victor Berger, a Socialist from Milwaukee, after he was convicted of sedition. The House again denied him his seat following a special election in December 1919. Not until he was reelected again in 1922 after the government dropped the sedition charges, did Congress finally seat him. In 1920, the New York State legislature expelled five members. They were told that they had been elected on a platform “absolutely inimical to the best interests” of New York State.

In 1919 and 1920, President Wilson’s Attorney General, A. Mitchell Palmer, led raids on leftist organizations such as the Communist Party and the radical labor union the International Workers of the World. Palmer hoped to use the issue of radicalism as a way to become president in 1920. He created the precursor to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which collected the names of thousands of known or suspected Communists.

In November 1919, Palmer ordered government raids that resulted in the arrests of 250 suspected radicals in eleven cities. The Palmer Raids reached their height on January 2, 1920, when government agents made raids in thirty-three cities. Nationwide, more than 4,000 alleged Communists were arrested and jailed without bond. More than 550 immigrants were deported, including the radical orator Emma Goldman.

Palmer claimed to be ridding the country of the “moral perverts and hysterical neurasthenic women who abound in communism.” But his tactics alienated many, who viewed them as a violation of civil liberties.