The US and the first ‘Red Scare’

Written By: Ian Hernon
Published: January 28, 2018 Last modified: January 28, 2018

The 1919 ‘Red Scare’ – during an era of mass industrial action and police walk-outs – saw an outbreak of lawlessness which threatened everything the propertied class held dear. It was seen as an opportunity for the forces of Bolshevism to destroy burgeoning, American-style capitalism. It was a time of paranoia.

The cost of living had risen by 76% since 1913. By 1919, white and black soldiers returning from the ‘Great War’ were flooding the labour market, putting downward pressure on workers’ earning power. During 1919, one-fifth of the country’s workers would strike. The year opened with New York’s harbour workers striking in January, followed by the dressmakers. That was just the start. The Nation editorialised: “The common man, forgetting the old sanctions, and losing faith in the old leadership, has experienced a new access of self-confidence, or at least a new recklessness, a readiness to take chances on his own account. In consequence, as is by this time clear to discerning men, authority can no longer be imposed from above; it comes automatically from below.”

The Red Scare was the product of Great War jingoism and terror of the consequences of the Russian Revolution. US government, institutions and big business saw the threat of Communism everywhere, including the trade unions and organised labour in general at a time of huge industrial, racial and social unrest. Before the war ended, President Woodrow Wilson ordered a crackdown on subversion, real and imagined, by fair means or foul. That was aided immensely during wartime by legislation covering sedition and espionage. Particular targets were foreign-born radicals and anarchists, the Socialist Party of America and the Industrial Workers of the World, known as ‘Wobblies.’ The immediate post-war period saw hysterical rhetoric in newspapers, illegal searches, arrests and detentions, legal intimidation, and mass deportations. Bolshevism was blamed for pretty much everything perceived to be holding back the American Dream.

Later in January, 35,000 shipyard workers in Seattle went on strike for long-delayed wage rises. More than 100 local unions joined a general strike on February 6 and 60,000 strikers paralyzed city commerce, transport and urban services. The General Strike Committee maintained order and provided essential services. The hard-line Seattle Mayor, Ole Hanson, had 1,500 police and 1,500 federal troops on hand to put down any disturbances. He personally oversaw their deployment throughout the city “The time has come,” he said, “for the people in Seattle to show their Americanism … The anarchists in this community shall not rule its affairs.”

The leaders of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) feared that the general strike was turning opinion against them. The national press called the general strike “Marxian” and “a revolutionary movement aimed at existing government.” “It is only a middling step,” said the Chicago Tribune, “from Petrograd to Seattle.” Within two days some unions drifted back to work at the urging of their leaders. Although his role had been, at most, peripheral, Mayor Hanson took credit for ending the five-day strike and was hailed by the press. He resigned a few months later and toured the country giving lectures on the dangers of “domestic bolshevism.” He earned $38,000 in seven months, five times his annual salary as mayor.

He wrote a book on the perceived radical menace, saying: “I am tired of reading rhetorical, finely spun, hypocritical, far-fetched excuses for bolshevism, communism, syndicalism, IWWism! Nauseated by the sickly sentimentality of those who would conciliate, pander, and encourage all who would destroy our Government, I have tried to learn the truth and tell it in United States English of one or two syllables … With syndicalism – and its youngest child, bolshevism – thrive murder, rape, pillage, arson, free love, poverty, want, starvation, filth, slavery, autocracy, suppression, sorrow and Hell on earth. It is a class government of the unable, the unfit, the untrained; of the scum, of the dregs, of the cruel, and of the failures. Freedom disappears, liberty emigrates, universal suffrage is abolished, progress ceases … and a militant minority, great only in their self-conceit, reincarnate under the Dictatorship of the Proletariat a greater tyranny than ever existed under czar, emperor, or potentate.”

He added that the fact that the general strike was peaceful only underlined its revolutionary intent: “The so-called sympathetic Seattle strike was an attempted revolution. That there was no violence does not alter the fact … The intent, openly and covertly announced, was for the overthrow of the industrial system; here first, then everywhere … True, there were no flashing guns, no bombs, no killings. Revolution, I repeat, doesn’t need violence. The general strike, as practised in Seattle, is of itself the weapon of revolution, all the more dangerous because quiet. To succeed, it must suspend everything; stop the entire life stream of a community … That is to say, it puts the government out of operation. And that is all there is to revolt – no matter how achieved.”

As the year progressed, workers across the country struck for better pay and conditions – 10,000 wool-workers in Passaic, New Jersey; hotel workers in New York; 8,000 furriers in the same city; firemen in Cleveland; 35,000 ladies’ garment workers across several eastern states; and many more localised actions. Some were successful in cutting punishing working hours. The Survey magazine reported that in New York City “Cigarmakers, shirt-makers, carpenters, bakers, teamsters and barbers are out in large numbers. The most depressed trades are catching the strike infection, witness the walkout last week of women workers on feathers and artificial flowers, who want a forty-four-hour week and the abolition of home work. Even the scrubwomen employed in a downtown building put strike-breakers to rout with their mop handles.” In Chicago there were, in rapid succession, strikes by 1,700 street sweepers, 800 garbage collectors, 900 bridge labourers, 800 City Hall clerks and over 300 fire department engineers; in all, those who walked out totalled 5,000 public employees. The Survey reported on another strike at the Corn Products Refining Company in the Chicago suburb of Argo: “The attempt to operate the works led to an uprising of the cosmopolitan population, which resulted in bloodshed and a great demonstration at the funeral of the men who were killed in which many returned soldiers in uniform participated.” The victims had been shot by company security guards.

The Senate’s Overman Committee, previously charged with investigating war-time German subversion, announced during the Seattle general strike that it to study “any efforts being made to propagate in this country the principles of any party exercising or claiming to exercise any authority in Russia” and “any effort to incite the overthrow of the Government of this country. A “volunteer spy”, the New York lawyer Archibald Stevenson, testified during the subsequent hearings that anti-war and anti-draft activism during the war had turned into propaganda “developing sympathy for the Bolshevik movement.” The Senators heard that Bolshevism had united many disparate elements on the Left, including anarchists and socialists of many types, “providing a common platform for all these radical groups to stand on.” Other witnesses described the horrors of the revolution in Russia and the consequences of a comparable revolution in the United States: atheism, the seizure of newspapers, assaults on banks, the abolition of the insurance industry, and even women made the property of the state. On the release of the final report, newspapers printed sensational articles on the “Red Peril.”

Some of the scare-mongering proved justified, however, as 1919 also witnessed several anarchist bombings. In late April, 36 booby trap bombs were mailed to prominent politicians, judges and businessmen. They were in identical packages, timed to arrive on May Day. Some were undelivered because the full postage had not been paid. One bomb intended for Ole Hanson arrived early and failed to explode. On April 29, a package sent to Senator Thomas W Hardwick of Georgia, a sponsor of anti-anarchist legislation, injured his wife and housekeeper. The following day, 16 packages were recognised by a vigilant New York postal clerk, and another 12 bombs were recovered before reaching their targets. In June, eight bombs containing up to 25lbs of explosives detonated almost simultaneously in several US cities. Fatalities included a New York City night watchman, William Boehner, and one of the bombers who died when the bomb he placed at the home of Attorney General Palmer exploded in his face. Though not seriously injured, Palmer and his family were thoroughly shaken by the blast, and their home was largely demolished.

The Left in 1919 mounted especially large May Day demonstrations, and violence erupted during normally peaceful parades in Boston, New York, and Cleveland. In Boston, police tried to stop a march that lacked a permit. Both sides fought for possession of the Socialists’ red flags. One policeman was stabbed and killed. The former child prodigy William Sidis was arrested. He was sentenced to 18 months under the sedition act. During his later trial, Sidis stated that he had been a conscientious objector to the draft, was an atheist and a socialist. Later a mob attacked the Socialist headquarters. Police arrested 114, all from the Socialist side. In New York, soldiers burned printed materials at the Russian People’s House and forced immigrants to sing the Star-Spangled Banner.

In Cleveland, Ohio, a mob ransacked the campaign HQ of Socialist mayoral candidate Charles Ruthenberg. Mounted police, army trucks, and tanks restored order. Two people died, 40 were injured, and 116 arrested. The city government immediately passed laws to restrict parades and the display of red flags. Newspapers blamed the May Day marchers for provoking the nationalists’ response. The Salt Lake City Tribune said: “Free speech has been carried to the point where it is an unrestrained menace.”

And then, in Boston, the police went on strike over penny-pinching which hit all ranks suffering from post-war inflation. Ill feelings grew as police officers discovered they were earning less than an unskilled steelworker, half as much as a carpenter or mechanic and 50 cents a day less than a streetcar conductor. Boston city labourers were earning a third more on an hourly basis. Nineteen officers were suspended for trying to join organized labour.

Boston’s newspapers called it “Bolshevistic,” and urged the police to reconsider. One also warned the police that their eventual defeat was guaranteed, that they would lose because “behind Boston in this skirmish with Bolshevism stands Massachusetts, and behind Massachusetts stands America.” Governor Coolidge called the strikers “deserters” and “traitors,” and the police union responded: “The first men to raise the cry were those who have always been opposed to giving to labor a living wage. It was taken up by the newspapers, who cared little for the real facts. You finally added your word of condemnation….”

During the short strike the city witnessed an outbreak of hooliganism and looting. Gunfire in South Boston left two dead and others wounded. The death total ultimately reached nine. The Los Angeles Times wrote: “No man’s house, no man’s wife, no man’s children will be safe if the police force is unionized and made subject to the orders of Red Unionite bosses.” In Philadelphia, the Public Ledger reported: “Bolshevism in the United States is no longer a specter. Boston in chaos reveals its sinister substance.” And in an editorial on the first morning of the strike, the New York Times said that the strikers were “inspired unconsciously by anti-social ideals, or acting by ‘suggestion’ of their London and Liverpool brethren”, which had recently seen similar strikes.

Newspaper accounts exaggerated the level of crime and violence that accompanied the strike, resulting in a national outcry. President Woodrow Wilson, speaking from Montana, branded the walkout “a crime against civilization” that left the city “at the mercy of an army of thugs.” He said that “the obligation of a policeman is as sacred and direct as the obligation of a soldier. He is a public servant, not a private employee, and the whole honor of the community is in his hands. He has no right to prefer any private advantage to the public safety.”

There was more turmoil that year with a strike which shut down half the steel industry, including almost all mills in Chicago, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Lackawanna (New York) and Ohio. The owners fought back with a propaganda blitz that exposed AFL National Committee co-chairman William Z Foster’s radical past as a Wobbly. The steel companies played on nativist fears by noting that a large number of steelworkers were immigrants. Public opinion quickly turned against the striking workers. State and local authorities prohibited mass meetings. Police attacked pickets and thousands were jailed. After strike-breakers and police clashed with trade unionists in Gary, Indiana, the army took over the city on October 6 and martial law was declared. In western Pennsylvania there was a reign of terror. Sheriff Haddock of Allegheny County banned all outdoor meetings and deputised 5,000 armed strike-breakers. The Interchurch World Movement reported after an independent inquiry: “In Monessen, where the strikers held out for a long time, with the exception of the arrest of many Russians on vague charges of ‘radicalism’, the policy of the State Police was simply to club the men off the streets and drive them into their homes. Very few were arrested. In Braddock, however, where some of the mills were partly operating, the State Police did not stop at mere beating. Ordinarily, when a striker was clubbed on the street, he would be taken to jail, kept there overnight, and then fined from $10 to $60. In Newcastle, the Sheriff’s deputies carried the Braddock policy much further. Many of those arrested in Newcastle, who had lived in the town almost all their lives, were charged with being ‘suspicious’ persons and were ordered not to be released until the strike was over. Contemporary author William Z Foster wrote that the State Police admitted they felt free to use brutal methods against the strikers, many of whom they knew from their own communities, because “they realise fully that they can depend upon trade-union leaders to hold the strikers in check from adopting measures of retaliation.”

Former steelworker Joe Rudiak, the son of Polish immigrants, recalled his memories of the 1919 steel strike as a young boy. His father was blacklisted for acknowledging his support of the union, and from such experiences, he explained, unionism got “embedded in you.” He went on: “And then the steel strike came along and we were thrown out of the company house. And with the help of his friends that were union minded and all that, they built us a house … I was about eight years of age. And I’ve seen strikers being beaten by the coal and iron police – state police. And also this is the first time I ever heard the word scab.”

The companies brought in between 30,000 and 40,000 scabs to work in the mills. Congress conducted its own investigation, focused on radical influence upon union activity. In that context, US Senator Kenneth McKellar, a member of the Senate committee investigating the strike, proposed making one of the Philippine Islands a penal colony to which those convicted of an attempt to overthrow the government could be deported. The strike collapsed.

The day before the strike, Attorney General A Mitchell Palmer (pictured) had invoked the Lever Act, a wartime measure that made it a crime to interfere with the production or transportation of necessities. The law, meant to punish hoarding and profiteering, had never been used against a union. Certain of united political backing and almost universal public support, Palmer obtained an injunction on October 31.

Palmer was fast making a name for himself through his well-publicised crackdown on alleged Bolsheviks amongst the immigrant community. An initial raid in July 1919 against a small anarchist group in Buffalo failed when a federal judge tossed out his case. In August, he organized the General Intelligence Unit within the Department of Justice and recruited J Edgar Hoover, a recent law school graduate, to head it. Hoover studied arrest records, subscription records of radical newspapers, and party membership records to compile lists of resident aliens for deportation proceedings. Stung by criticism that he was moving too slowly against radicals, Palmer launched his campaign against them with two sets of police actions known as the Palmer Raids in November 1919 and January 1920. Federal agents supported by local police rounded up large groups of suspected radicals, often based on membership in a political group rather than any action taken. Undercover informants and warrantless wiretaps helped to identify several thousand suspected leftists.

The dismissal of most of the cases by Acting Secretary of Labor Louis Freeland Post limited the number of deportations to 556. Civil libertarians, the radical left, and legal scholars raised protests, but a public swayed by newspaper scare-mongering, broadly supported the raids. Officials at the Department of Labor, especially Post, asserted the rule of law in opposition to Palmer’s anti-radical campaign. Much of the press applauded Post’s work at Labor, while Palmer, rather than President Wilson, was largely blamed for the negative aspects of the raids.

On December 21, the army transport ship Buford, a veteran of the Spanish-American War which the press nicknamed the “Soviet Ark,” left New York harbour with 249 deportees. Of those, 184 were expelled because of their membership in the Union of Russian Workers, an anarchist group that was a primary target of the November raids. Others belonged to radical organizations but disclaimed knowledge of the organization’s political aims and had joined to take advantage of educational programs and social opportunities. The final destination – Latvia – was unknown as it sailed under sealed orders.

Within Attorney General Palmer’s Justice Department, the General Intelligence Division (GID) now headed by J Edgar Hoover had become a storehouse of information about radicals in America. It had infiltrated many organizations and, following the raids of November 1919 and January 1920, it had interrogated thousands of those arrested. Although agents knew there was an enormous gap between what the radicals promised in their rhetoric and what they were capable of accomplishing, they nevertheless told Palmer they had evidence of plans for an attempted overthrow of the US government on May Day 1920.

With Palmer’s backing, Hoover warned the nation to expect the worst: assassinations, bombings, and general strikes. Palmer issued his own warning on April 29, 1920, claiming to have a “list of marked men” and said domestic radicals were “in direct connection and unison” with European counterparts with disruptions planned for the same day there. Newspapers stirred up more paranoia. Localities prepared their police forces and some states mobilized their militias. Boston police mounted machine guns on automobiles and positioned them around the city.

The date came and went without incident. Hypocritically given their previous anti-Red hyperbole, newspapers mocked Palmer and his “hallucinations.” Clarence Darrow called it the “May Day scare.” The Boston American assessed the Attorney General on May 4: “Everybody is laughing at A Mitchell Palmer’s May Day ‘revolution’. The joke is certainly on A Mitchell Palmer, but the matter is not wholly a joke. The spectacle of a Cabinet officer going around surrounded with armed guards because he is afraid of his own hand-made bogey is a sorry one, even though it appeals to the humor of Americans. Of course, the terrible “revolution” did not come off. Nobody with a grain of sense supposed that it would. Yet, in spite of universal laughter, the people are seriously disgusted with these official Red scares. They cost the taxpayers thousands of dollars spent in assembling soldiers and policemen and in paying wages and expenses to Mr Palmer’s agents. They help to frighten capital and demoralize business, and to make timid men and women jumpy and nervous.”

Once Palmer’s warnings of a May Day revolution proved farcical, the anti-Bolshevik hysteria wound down quickly. A dozen prominent lawyers endorsed a report that condemned Palmer’s Justice Department for the “utterly illegal acts committed by those charged with the highest duty of enforcing the laws” including entrapment, police brutality, prolonged incommunicado detention, and violations of due process in court. The Massachusetts Federal District Court ordered the discharge of 20 more arrested aliens. The conservative Christian Science Monitor found itself unable to support Palmer any longer, writing on June 25: “What appeared to be an excess of radicalism … was certainly met with … an excess of suppression.” Leaders of industry voiced similar sentiments, and warned that Palmer’s clearly unjust activities had created more radicals than they suppressed. One called the Justice Department’s work evidence of “sheer Red hysteria.”

At the Democratic National Convention in July, Palmer never had a chance at winning the nomination. The eventual winner of the 1920 election, was the Senator from Ohio, Warren G Harding. He sounded a very different note in mid-August when he said that “too much has been said about Bolshevism in America. It is quite true that there are enemies of Government within our borders. However, the American workman is not a Bolshevik; neither is the American employer an autocrat.”

This is an extract from Ian Hernon’s latest book The Wild, Wild East – Gunfights, Massacres and Race War From the American Frontier, which will be published later this year.

About Ian Hernon

Ian Hernon is Deputy Editor of Tribune