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The Great Red Scare
In 1919 the U.S. Attorney General swooped down on a alleged Bolshevik revolutionaries and deported them by the boatload. For a while he was a national hero; he dreamed of the White House. But then…
Februrary 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 2
A month later, on June 1, seven explosions in five eastern cities ripped apart homes, public buildings, and a rectory, killing one man. In Washington that same night, an assassin came after the Attorney General again. Palmer had been reading in the first-floor library of his home in a quiet residential section of the city. At about eleven o’clock lie put aside his book and went upstairs. He and Mis. Palmer had just retired when the thump of something hitting the front porch echoed through the house and a violent explosion shattered windows throughout the neighborhood. The Palmers were unhurt, but the downstairs front of the house, including the library, was ruined. On the lawn, in the street, and on the sidewalk of Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s home opposite, “great chunks of human being” told the story. What had saved the Palmers from death was the clumsiness of the bomber, who evidently had stumbled and fallen, dropping the bomb before it could do serious damage to anyone but himself. Near the shattered body on Palmer’s lawn and scattered along the street lay some fifty copies of Plain Words , an anarchist pamphlet that promised death to government officials (“There will have to be murder; we will kill.…”) and proclaimed the triumph of the revolution.
Although, according to a reporter, Palmer remained “the coolest and most collected person” in the crowd that gathered to examine the wreckage, by morning he was understandably a badly frightened man. As lie learned of the other bombings elsewhere on the eastern seaboard, he saw it all as part of a Red conspiracy to destroy the American way of life. He must act to save it.
The Attorney General had little difficulty persuading Congress to grant the Justice Department funds for the task. Yet as the summer of 1919 came un, Palmer appeared to be hesitating. The slowness ol his preparations came as no surprise to his friends; he had always been a meticulous and somewhat cautious planner. But to many editors who daily ran stories of new Red plots, the Attorney General seemed reluctant to (rush the threat the nation faced.
In truth, Palmer was at this point uncertain about the course he should follow. Alter the excitement of the bombings had died down, and despite the speed with which he had sought congressional aid, he became increasingly skeptical that the Reds were as active as many people claimed. Several of his close advisers predicted that the bombers would strike again and again; nothing of the kind happened. They warned that the Fourth of July would bring Bolshevik uprisings in major cities; the day passed quietly. Palmer adopted a policy of watchful waiting.
In part, his liberalism restrained him. A Wilsonian to the core, he believed strongly in the constitutional protections of the Bill of Rights, which as Attorney General he had sworn to uphold. Hc had been elected to Congress in 1908 with support from Pennsylvania steelworkers, coal miners, and clay-pit laborers, many of whom were recent immigrants. Now, years later, lie continued to think of himself as “a radical friend of labor,” and despite public pressures to the contrary, he had thus far refused to intervene in the strikes that were crippling the economy.
That kind of liberal restraint had marked his entire political career and. lie was sure, had helped him move with comparative ease from the obscurity of a Pennsylvania law practice to the prominence of a Cabinet post. Given the right set of circumstances, it might conceivably carry Iiim on to greater power and prestige in the White House itself.
Such a thought was not an idle dream, for at fortyseven the Attorney General was superbly equipped for the part. Tall, trim, and handsome, Palmer used his many talents with skill and grace. Besides his commanding physical presence, he had a quick and active mind, self-assurance in abundance, and above all, boundless energy. If—as one biographer has written—he was at times “too combative, too dogmatic, and too conceited” for his own good, lie nevertheless had made more friends than enemies in high places. And if—as another has noted—his major weakness lay in his effort always “to win power by carefully attuning himself to what lie felt were the strong desires of most Americans,” he was no mere opportunist. He chose the issues he would support as much from deep personal belief as from political expediency.
Born of Quaker parents of mwleratc means, lie was determined, he once wrote, “to be somebody,” and his drive for power did not slacken as the years wore on. Graduating summa cum laude from Swarthmore before he was nineteen, he read law in the office of a former congressman, entered a lucrative practice at Stroudsbuig, and soon became embroiled in the freewheeling political life of the local scene. By 1909 he was in Washington, where he swiftly rose to a position of leadership. At the end of his first year in the House, he secured a seat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee, placed himself in the forefront of the progressive Democratic wing, and during three successive terms became identified with tariff reform and the cause of labor.