Red Scare Essay, Research Paper
Analysis of 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. did Quaker relief work in Europe. 500 suffered court-martial, and out 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
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
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,
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
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 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 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
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
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."