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The red scare

The tumult and the shouting dies,

The captains and the kings depart.

-Kipling, The Recessional.

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


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 get it. 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


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 American soil.

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 be deported.

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 growth.".

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


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 again. 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,


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), 990ff., 1334

. Source II, p. 108

. Source III, p. 30

. Source II, p. 108

. Source II, p. 110

. Source I, p. 107

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