The Great Red Scare


The night of January 2 was chosen for a new set of raids. Agents who had infiltrated Communist cells were asked to arrange meetings for that evening “to facilitate arrests.” The others were instructed to bring in as many aliens as they could find. Their orders, issued over the signature of Frank Burke, the assistant director of the Bureau of Investigation, said, in part, “I leave it entirely to your discretion as to the method by which you gain access to such places [where aliens might be].… If, due to local conditions in your territory, you find that it is absolutely necessary to obtain a search warrant for the premises, you should communicate with the local authorities a few hours before the time for the arrests is set.” Otherwise plans for the raids were to be kept secret. The aliens were to be held incommunicado, and the agents were urged to secure “confessions” as quickly as possible.

The all-out raid went off on schedule in thirty-three cities in twenty-three states. Palmer’s men were joined by local police, and in a few instances, though Palmer had earlier refused their help, by volunteer members of patriotic societies like the National Security League. By midnight of January 2 they had collected well over 3,000 suspects from the eastern industrial states, and from California, Washington, and Oregon in the West. The true number will never be known, for the records of that evening are hopelessly confused and in some areas nonexistent. All 3,000 mimeographed warrants were used—the names in many instances being added after the arrests were made—and an estimated 2,000 other suspects were picked up and held for some time without being charged.

Whatever the number, the results were spectacular. Editorial pages swiftly echoed the praises of public officials, and Palmer’s reputation was at an all-time high. The effect of the raids, said the New York Times , should be “far-reaching and beneficial.” Even the Washington Post , which had called the November arrests “a serious mistake,” urged that the deportation of the new suspects take place as speedily as possible. “There is no time to waste,” it said, “on hairsplitting over infringement of liberty.” The Philadelphia Inquirer ran a jovial headline: ALL ABOARD FOR THE NEXT SOVIET ARK.

It was not, however, to be all that easy. After the initial enthusiasm had died down, and as complaints of wanton disregard of the aliens’ civil rights found their way into print, a number of people began to question whether Palmer had not done more harm than good. The National Council of Churches started an investigation of the events of January 2. So did the Department of Labor. In Detroit a group of businessmen that included dime-store magnate S. S. Kresge looked into the raids that had taken place in that vicinity. Elsewhere other organizations did the same.

Their combined evidence revealed some shocking particulars. One man in Newark had been apprehended simply because—as the arresting officer put it—he “looked like a radical.” Boston agents with drawn pistols had broken into the bedroom of a sleeping woman at 6 A.M. and dragged her off to headquarters without a warrant, only to find that she was an American citizen with no Communist connections. Attracted by the commotion on East Fifteenth Street, where the Russian People’s House had again been raided, a New Yorker questioned a policeman about what was going on and shortly found himself on his way to jail. Police in Detroit arrested every diner in one foreign restaurant, and jailed an entire orchestra. Philadelphia agents booked a choral society en masse, and in Hartford, Connecticut, sympathetic aliens who were inquiring about some imprisoned friends were themselves held as suspects for nearly a week. Of 142 persons arrested in Buffalo, thirty-one turned out to be cases of “mistaken identity.” In Detroit, where nearly eight hundred were arrested, less than four hundred warrants were served; four hundred and fifty warrants arrived to cover the other suspects two weeks after the raids had taken place.

Treatment of the aliens after the roundups was in many cases harsh. Four hundred men rounded up in New England were jammed into an underheated and overcrowded prison on Deer Island in Boston Harbor; there, in the next few weeks, one of them went insane, another jumped to his death from the fifth floor of the main cell block, and several others attempted suicide. When they were finally released, as most of them were, many were ill and a number showed signs of beatings. In Detroit, eight hundred suspects were lodged in a corridor of the United States Post Office building, without exterior ventilation, beds, or blankets. No food was distributed for twenty-four hours, and there was one toilet for the entire group. After two days of questioning, 340 of them were released, but over a hundred were imprisoned for more than a week in a detention cell 24 by 30 feet in the basement of the Municipal Building, where they lived on coffee and biscuits.