The Great Red Scare


Elsewhere in the nation that night, federal officers in nine other cities east of the Mississippi raided other Russian centers. In all, about four hundred and fifty persons were rounded up. Before the night was over, more than half of them were released as innocent, but Attorney General Palmer was distinctly pleased with the results.

For by morning he was a national hero, praised by the very press that only the week before had been railing at him and demanding his resignation. Now, as one paper put it, he was “a tower of strength to his countrymen.” He new answer to the Reds, said another, was “S.O.S.—Ship or Shoot.” Still another suggested that the new year might bring a three-point trade program of “import—export—deport.”

By December, Palmer was riding the crest of enthusiastic public support. Working quickly now, he secured deportation orders for 199 Russians who had been found guilty under the immigration law. Taken to Ellis Island, they were joined by fifty other deportees, including Alexander Berkman, the would-be assassin of Henry Clay Frick in the Homestead Strike twenty-seven years before, and Emma Goldman, a well-known anarchist writer whose work had allegedly inspired Leon Czolgosz to murder President McKinley. All 249 aliens were to be deported to Russia by way of Finland, the Finnish government having agreed to act in this case as the agent for the United States, which had yet to recognize the Bolshevik regime.

Although immigration officials had promised that no married men would be deported and that ample time would be given the aliens to settle their affairs, neither pledge was honored. In the early hours of December 21, the aliens boarded the Buford , an ancient army transport now nicknamed “the Soviet Ark.” Two hundred fifty armed soldiers patrolled the decks, but, with the exception of a short-lived hunger strike, the voyage passed uneventfully. In mid-January, 1920, the Buford docked at Hango, Finland, and under a flag of truce—the Finns were now at war with Russia—the deportees passed into Soviet hands.∗

∗ After the furor attending their departure from the United States and the news of their arrival in Russia, the Buford deportees dropped out of sight. The majority apparently remained in Russia, hut two, at least, did not. Berkman, ever the anarchist, was quickly disillusioned by what he found in the Communist state, and by 1925 had published two highly critical books, The Bolshevik Myth and The Anti-climax. He had, of course, left Russia by then, and he spent the remaining years of his life wandering aimlessly through Europe. He committed suicide in Nice, France, in 1936.

Following disagreements and an open break with the Bolsheviks in 1921, Emma Goldman too left the country and two years later wrote My Disillusionment in Russia. In 1924 she was permitted to re-enter the United States for a lecture tour under the terms of a curious arrangement whereby she was not permitted to discuss politics in public. She was not allowed to remain, however, and crossed the border into Canada. She died in Toronto in 1940.

Meanwhile Palmer readied a second attack on the Reds. If the November raid had netted hundreds, the new series would bring in thousands. Hoping to speed the process, Palmer asked Secretary of Labor Wilson to change that part of the deportation rules that permitted the aliens to secure counsel, and at the same time he requested a blanket deportation warrant to cover any aliens who might be arrested once the raids began. Wilson refused both requests, emphasizing that the immigrants, despite their lack of citizenship, were nonetheless entitled to the protection of the Bill of Rights. Palmer, no longer sounding like a confirmed liberal, insisted that all too often it was lawbreakers, not the innocent, who were protected by these legal safeguards, but Wilson held firm.

For the moment, the Attorney General was stymied. Then, in mid-December, Secretary Wilson went on sick leave. His duties were divided between Louis F. Post, his assistant, and John W. Abercrombie, the Labor Department’s solicitor and a Palmer appointee. To Palmer’s relief, Post, whom the press had labelled a “Bolshie coddler,” took up the Secretary’s main duties, while Abercrombie assumed control of immigration. On December 29, Abercrombie consented to a change in Rule 22 of the deportation-hearing procedure so that it no longer required the arresting officers to inform aliens of either their right to counsel or the charges against them. Two days later he issued some 3,000 mimeographed warrants for the arrest of aliens whose names were to be entered in the blanks.