Red Scare

A "Red Scare" is the promotion of a widespread fear of a potential rise of communism or anarchism by a society or state. The term is most often used to refer to two periods in the history of the United States which are referred to by this name. The First Red Scare, which occurred immediately after World War I, revolved around a perceived threat from the American labor movement, anarchist revolution and political radicalism. The Second Red Scare, which occurred immediately after World War II, was preoccupied with the perception that national or foreign communists were infiltrating or subverting U.S. society and the federal government.

First Red Scare (1917–1920)

Political cartoon from 1919 depicting the Russian revolution's impact on the Paris peace talks

The first Red Scare began following the Bolshevik Russian Revolution of 1917 and the intensely patriotic years of World War I as anarchist and left-wing social agitation aggravated national, social, and political tensions. Political scientist, and former member of the Communist Party Murray B. Levin wrote that the Red Scare was "a nationwide anti-radical hysteria provoked by a mounting fear and anxiety that a Bolshevik revolution in America was imminent—a revolution that would change Church, home, marriage, civility, and the American way of Life".[1] Newspapers exacerbated those political fears into anti-foreign sentiment because varieties of radical anarchism were becoming popular as possible solutions to poverty, often by recent European immigrants (cf. hyphenated-Americans). When the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) backed several labor strikes in 1916 and 1917, the press portrayed them as "radical threats to American society" inspired by "left-wing, foreign agents provocateurs". Those on the side of the IWW claim that the press "misrepresented legitimate labor strikes" as "crimes against society", "conspiracies against the government", and "plots to establish communism".[2] Opponents, on the other hand, saw these as an extension of the radical, anarchist foundations of the IWW, which contends that all workers should be united as a social class and that capitalism and the wage system should be abolished.[3]

A "European Anarchist" attempts to destroy the Statue of Liberty in this 1919 political cartoon.
A bomb blast badly damaged the residence of Attorney General Mitchell Palmer in the spring of 1919.

In April 1919, authorities discovered a plot for mailing 36 bombs to prominent members of the U.S. political and economic establishment: J. P. Morgan Jr., John D. Rockefeller, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, U.S. Attorney General Alexander Mitchell Palmer, and immigration officials. On June 2, 1919, in eight cities, eight bombs simultaneously exploded. One target was the Washington, D.C., house of U.S. Attorney General Palmer, where the explosion killed the bomber, who evidence indicated was an Italian-American radical from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Afterwards, Palmer ordered the U.S. Justice Department to launch the Palmer Raids (1919–21).[4]

Yet, in 1918, before the bombings, President Woodrow Wilson had pressured the Congress to legislate the anti-anarchist Sedition Act of 1918 to protect wartime morale by deporting putatively undesirable political people. Law professor David D. Cole reports that President Wilson's "federal government consistently targeted alien radicals, deporting them ... for their speech or associations, making little effort to distinguish terrorists from ideological dissidents."[4]

Initially, the press praised the raids; The Washington Post said, "There is no time to waste on hairsplitting over [the] infringement of liberty", and The New York Times said the injuries inflicted upon the arrested were "souvenirs of the new attitude of aggressiveness which had been assumed by the Federal agents against Reds and suspected-Reds".[5] In the event, the Palmer Raids were criticized as unconstitutional by twelve publicly prominent lawyers, including (future Supreme Court Justice) Felix Frankfurter, who published A Report on the Illegal Practices of The United States Department of Justice, documenting systematic violations of the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution via Palmer-authorized "illegal acts" and "wanton violence". Defensively, Palmer then warned that a government-deposing left-wing revolution would begin on 1 May 1920 — May Day, the International Workers' Day. When it failed to happen, he was ridiculed and lost much credibility. Strengthening the legal criticism of Palmer was that fewer than 600 deportations were substantiated with evidence, out of the thousands of resident aliens arrested and deported. In July 1920, Palmer's once-promising Democratic Party bid for the U.S. presidency failed.[6] Wall Street was bombed on September 2, 1920, near Federal Hall National Memorial and the JP Morgan Bank. Although both anarchists and communists were suspected as being responsible for the bombing, ultimately no individuals were indicted for the bombing in which 38 died and 141 were injured.[7]

In 1919–20, several states enacted "criminal syndicalism" laws outlawing advocacy of violence in effecting and securing social change. The restrictions included free speech limitations.[8] Passage of these laws, in turn, provoked aggressive police investigation of the accused persons, their jailing, and deportation for being suspected of being either communist or left-wing. Regardless of ideological gradation, the Red Scare did not distinguish between communism, anarchism, socialism, or social democracy.[9]