The Great Red Scare

PrintPrintEmailEmailIn November, 1919, and again in January, 1920, federal agents of the Department of Justice conducted a series of lightning-like raids on private houses and public buildings in cities across the United States and took into custody upwards of three thousand aliens suspected of plotting to overthrow the government. The mass arrests were enthusiastically acclaimed as Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer’s answer to “the sinister agitation of men and women aliens … either in the pay or under the criminal spell of Trotsky and Lenine.” Indeed, within hours of the January roundup, William J. Flynn of the Bureau of Investigation (now the F.B.I.) told newsmen, “I believe that with these raids the backbone of the radical movement in America is broken.”

If, as some have said, A. Mitchell Palmer was “a nervous man,” he had a great deal of company in the spring and summer of 1919. Only a year later, William Alien White was to write a friend, “What a God-damned world this is! … If anyone had told me ten years ago that our country would be what it is today … I should have questioned his reason.” It was a sentiment that many Americans had known in the months following World War I; for amidst the normal but unsettling confusions that marked the nation’s transition from war to peace, there had appeared signs of deep-seated dislocations seemingly unlike any the country had experienced before.

There was, to begin with, considerable uncertainty over the peace treaty that Wilson had brought back from Versailles. As the Senate and the nation argued over its terms, a bitter debate on the League of Nations unleashed political passions lately held in check by a wartime truce. A business recession had set in, and although it was not unexpected, its crippling effects were intensified by a series of explosive industrial disputes.

Labor and management had been uneasy partners under federal controls during the war; now they were again familiar antagonists in what, by the year’s end, totalled 3,600 separate strikes. Collective bargaining, higher wages, shorter work days, and union recognition were generally the issues at stake, but as violence and instability mounted—riots were common that year—the labor unrest took on a sinister cast. Inevitably there were those who remembered the old slogan of the discredited and now nearly defunct Industrial Workers of the World: “Every strike is a little revolution and a dress rehearsal for the big one.” Typical headlines of the day proclaimed: “Red Peril Here” … “Reds Directing Strike” … “Test for Revolution.” By autumn, the widely respected Literary Digest warned, “Outside of Russia, the storm center of Bolshevism is in the United States.”

There seemed to be, indeed, cause for alarm. Communism had triumphed in Russia and in Hungary; semi-anarchy reigned in postwar Germany; and there was political unrest in Poland, Italy, India, and China. The Third International had been organized in the spring of 1919 with world-wide revolution as its goal, and in the summer not one but two Communist parties were formed in the United States.

A far more frightening phenomenon had also appeared. On April 20, Mayor Ole Hanson of Seattle, Washington, had received a package containing sulphuric acid and dynamite caps. The triggering device had failed to operate, however, and Hanson, an outspoken foe of the I.W.W. and other radical groups, survived; lie told reporters that the infernal machine was “big enough to blow out the side of the County-City Building.”

Hardly had the papers carried that story when a brown-paper parcel, bearing the return address of (Umbel Brothers in New York, arrived at the Atlanta, Georgia, home of Senator Thomas W. Hardwick. The Senator, chairman of the Committee on Immigration, was not in, and a maid unwrapped the package. This time the detonator functioned properly and the parcel exploded, lipping off her hands.

By nightfall, the Hardwick bombing was front-page news, diaries Kaplan, a New York postal clerk on his way home by subway, was alerted by the newspaper description of the package delivered to the Senator’s home. He quickly changed trains and hurried back to the General Post Office, where he remembered having seen sixteen small, brown-paper boxes set aside on a shelf because of insufficient postage. They were there, all with counterfeit Gimbel labels, and each addressed to a high-ranking government official or a well-known private citizen. Included were Attorney General Palmer, Secretary of Labor William B. Wilson, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, John D. Rockefeller, and J. P. Morgan, Jr. Every package contained a bomb.

During the next week, watchful postal inspectors elsewhere in the country turned up sixteen more, eacli in its distinctive wrapper and addressed to a prominent person. The identity of the sender was never learned, but the newspapers and probably a majority of the public believed that the parcels had come from a Red bomb shop.