The Great Red Scare


At the Baltimore convention of 1912 he delivered his state’s delegation to Woodrow Wilson, hoping for the post of Attorney General as a reward. But the expected appointment fell through: instead, Wilson decided to name him Secretary of War. “I am a man of peace,” Palmer said, declining the offer, and lie returned to (he House once more. Two years later he suffered his first major setback when, acceding to the President’s blandishments, lie entered a hopeless Senate race in Pennsylvania and went down to defeat.

With America’s entry into World War I, Palmer was again in the national news. Despite his professed pacifism he was fiercely patriotic; “I made up my mind that I just must get into it somehow, even if I had to carry a gun as a private,” he told a friend. His change of heart, however, never carried him to that extreme, and he accepted Wilson’s appointment as custodian of property in the United States owned by enemy aliens. For over a year he worked with such vigor and aggressiveness that the press labelled him the “Fighting Quaker,” a title he wore as a badge of honor. Some of his critics suspected that his prowar views were tied to his political hopes, but Palmer emerged from the war with his popularity intact.


In March, 1919, he claimed his long-awaited reward, appointment as Attorney General of the United States.

He had been three months on the job when the bomb burst outside his home. Despite his uncertainty about the seriousness of the Red threat, Palmer did proceed to reorganized the Department of Justice to cope with the problem. By August he had created the General Intelligence Division, a special arm within the Bureau of Investigation, to root out the Communist conspiracy if one existed. He gave charge of the new bureau to J. Edgar Hoover, a twenty-four-year-old lawyer who, in the summer of 1917, had come fresh from George Washington University Law School to serve in the Department of Justice as an aide in charge of Enemy Alien Registration. Now as a special assistant to Palmer, Hoover with his G.I.D. put together an elaborate filing system of over 200,000 cross-indexed cards containing information on 60,000 persons, several hundred newspapers, and dozens of organizations considered dangerous to the national interest.

But this quiet, systematic preparation did nothing to allay the fears of the public, or to satisfy their panicky desire for drastic action. For if the nation had been alarmed by the riots and bombs of the spring, it was terrified by the events of late summer and early fall.

July brought race riots in Cleveland and in Washington, D.C. Labor unrest continued without letup all summer long. Then, during the first week of September, the Communist party and the Communist Labor party emerged from separate Chicago conventions. Almost immediately there were reports that their combined memberships exceeded 100,000; some accounts placed the number at six times that figure. Recent studies have shown that the most modest of these estimates was greatly exaggerated; but in the fall of igi() it was the rumors that counted.

Already groups like the National Security League had published stories to the effect that most labor unions, the leading universities, some churches, the League of Women Voters, and a host of other organizations were under Red control or sympathetic to the cause. Some newspapers asserted that outspoken reformers like John Dewey, Roscoe Pound, Jane Addams, Robert M. La Follette, and Thorstein Veblen were linked to the growing Red menace.

In such an atmosphere and at such a time, it was difficult to know what was true and what was not. But as Bolshevism in Russia hardened into tyranny, and as magazine articles by the score rang continuous changes on the same terrifying theme of it must not happen here , even those who had discounted the earlier scare headlines became alarmed.

In September the Boston police went on strike. Two days of limited violence and looting followed before volunteers and some 5,000 National Guardsmen restored order. Governor Calvin Coolidge, who had done little to correct the situation, then sent his famous telegram to the A.F. of L.’s Samuel Gompers saying, “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time” (see “The Strike That Made a President” in the October, 1963, AMERICAN HERITAGE). Later in the month federal troops were sent to quiet the nation’s steel towns, where a bitter dispute had just begun. When 394,000 coal miners left the pits on November 1, the public feared the beginning of a nationwide general strike, or worse.

Meanwhile, Attorney General Palmer had been suffering under a terrific barrage of public criticism. “I was shouted at from every editorial sanctum in America from sea to sea,” he complained later. “I was preached upon from every pulpit; I was urged to do something and do it now, and do it quick and do it in a way that would bring results.” In mid-October of 1919, the Senate took up the cry; it unanimously demanded an explanation for Palmer’s inaction, and in a censure resolution implied that lie might well face removal from his post.