The Great Red Scare


The Senate’s censure was a harsh blow, especially in the light of Palmer’s presidential dreams. Woodrow Wilson’s debilitating stroke in mid-autumn had already awakened speculation among many men about possible successors in the election year ahead. How seriously Palmer took his own candidacy at this point is anybody’s guess (he did not mention it openly until February, 1920); but he was too experienced a politician not to know that once he lost the public’s favor he would be hard pressed to regain it. It is not surprising that a man of his ambition began to react profoundly to the clamor that he “do something.”

Moreover, Palmer was surrounded by men who had long since become convinced that the Red menace was real. Among his Cabinet colleagues, Secretary of War Newton D. Maker, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, and Secretary of State Robert Lansing had been writing and speaking about the threat of revolution from early summer on. Even President Wilson had inserted antiradical themes in his speeches on behalf of the League a few days before he fell ill. Hut it was the men whom Palmer numbered among his closest advisers in the Department of Justice itself whose influence was greatest. They had taken the Reds very seriously from the start. To be sure, almost all the information they possessed had come from theoretical discussions in radical newspapers and books; there was little worthwhile evidence of active preparation for revolt. Nonetheless, to these advisers, where there was smoke there was probably fire. They were ready to act.

By November, Palmer was ready too. Now convinced by his own reading of anarchist literature that the nation was besieged by “thousands of aliens, who were the direct allies of Trotsky,” he declared that the time had passed when it was possible or even desirable to draw “nice distinctions … between the theoretical ideals of the radicals and their actual violations of our national law.”

The time for watching and waiting was over. “Like a prairie-fire,” he himself wrote in Forum magazine the next year, “the blaze of revolution was sweeping over every institution of law and order.… It was eating its way into the homes of the American workman, its sharp tongues of revolutionary heat were licking the altars of the churches, leaping into the belfry of the school bell, trawling into the sacred comers of American homes, seeking to replace marriage vows with libertine law, burning up the foundations of society.” To put out the fires, Palmer decided to enforce a part of the immigration code, introduced during the war, that outlawed anarchism in all its forms. Aliens who violated that code, even if only by reading or receiving anarchist publications, could be arrested and, if found guilty, deported.

There was a beautiful simplicity to Palmer’s solution. Deportation hearings were neither lengthy nor complex. They were handled as executive functions by the immigration officers of the Department of Labor. Although the aliens were supposed to be protected by the procedural safeguards of the Bill of Rights, only minimum proof (usually a warrant of cause) was needed to show that some part of the immigration code had been violated. The rulings of the hearing officers were, in effect, arbitrary, checked only by the construction of the deportation statutes, a possible appeal to the Secretary of Labor, or, in rare instances, by a writ of habeas corpus, which led to a federal court trial. Palmer decided to test both the effectiveness of deportation as an anti-Red measure, and the public’s response.


On the night of November 7, 1919, federal agents from the Bureau of Investigation and city policemen quietly surrounded the Russian People’s House on East Fifteenth Street in New York. Inside the four-story brownstone that served as a meeting place and recreation center for Russian aliens, some two hundred men and boys were at work in night-school classes. That evening was the anniversary of the Bolshevik uprising in Petrograd two years before, but the directors of the school had planned no special observance, even though the school’s sponsor, the Federation of Unions of Russian Workers in the United States and Canada, had been a leading publisher of anarchist tracts.

Shortly after nine o’clock the agents swarmed into the building. “The harsh command to ‘shut up, there, you,’ brought silence” in the classrooms, the New York Times reported next day, and in the hush that followed, the agents announced that all present were under arrest. A teacher who asked why (for no warrants had been produced) took a blow in the face that shattered his glasses. Then, while some agents searched the bewildered suspects for weapons, city policemen tore open locked files, overturned desks, pulled down pictures from the wall, and rolled up rugs in an unsuccessful hunt for incriminating evidence. At last, no weapons having been found, they herded the prisoners toward the stairs and—as an investigator from the National Council of Churches reported later—forced them to run a gantlet of officers who lined the stairwell armed with blackjacks. By the time the suspects reached agents’ headquarters, thirty-three of them required medical treatment. Their bandaged heads and blackened eyes, the Times remarked, were “souvenirs of the new attitude of aggressiveness which had been assumed by the Federal agents against Reds or suspected Reds.”