The Great Red Scare


But the investigating committees discovered more than just dramatic instances of physical mistreatment. Twelve nationally known lawyers, including the Harvard Law School’s Felix Frankfurter, Roscoe Pound, and Zechariah Chafee, Jr., issued at the end of May “A Report on the Illegal Practices of the United States Department of Justice.” It was a sweeping indictment, solidly supported by evidence, of Palmer and his raids.

The real danger to the country, the lawyers wrote, lay not in the possibility of Red revolution, but in Palmer’s obvious misuse of federal power. The Department of Justice, they said, had ignored due process of law in favor of “illegal acts,” “wholesale arrests,” and “wanton violence.” Although the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution protects against arrest without prior warrant, Palmer’s men had obtained only 3,000 writs for the more than 5,000 aliens eventually detained. Most of the warrants were defective, in any case; either they lacked substantiating proof, or they were unsworn and unsigned. All too frequently, they were unserved as well. “Instead of showing me a warrant,” one suspect complained, “they showed me a gun.” In the majority of cases, the federal agents carried no search warrants, either.

The twelve lawyers charged in their report that the raiders had violated the Fifth Amendment by making use of illegally obtained or hearsay evidence, or by resorting to dubious or fraudulent proof. At least two of the accused, for example, were held to be radicals on the grounds that they had been photographed reading Russian-language newspapers. Tickets to Socialist and Communist social functions, magazine subscription lists, post cards and letters from avowed Communists, and group photographs were introduced by the agents as acceptable evidence that suspected aliens belonged to revolutionary organizations. A New Jersey man was held because agents found plans for “an infernal machine” in his home; the mysterious drawings turned out to be blueprints for a phonograph. One agent turned in a stack of mock rifles from a dramatic society’s prop room, but these and three .22 caliber target pistols were the only firearms Palmer’s men found in any of the raids.

The lawyers’ report went on to cite violations of the Sixth and Eighth Amendments. In many cases, counsel had been denied; no witnesses had been produced; interpreters had not been provided though few of the prisoners spoke fluent English; confessions had been obtained under the “third degree”; and bail had often been set at an excessively high figure.


Palmer at first refused to concede that any of this was true. But as the evidence mounted, he finally admitted that “some” illegal acts might have taken place. “Trying to protect the community against moral rats,” he declared some time afterward, “you sometimes get to thinking more of your trap’s effectiveness than of its lawful construction.” Hearing this, Louis Post ruefully noted that whatever Palmer might think, “the traps had been wretchedly put together.” Judge George W. Anderson of the district court in Boston added, “A mob is a mob, whether made up of government officials acting under the instructions of the Justice Department, or of criminals and loafers.”

By the spring of 1920, Palmer’s anti-Red crusade was beginning to fall apart. In March, Abercrombie left the Department of Labor, and Post took his place. He immediately cancelled 2,000 of the original warrants as defective, and with the assistance of federal judges like Anderson, expedited hearings for those prisoners who remained in custody. Although Palmer had predicted that 2,720 aliens from the January raids would be deported, in the end only 556 were. In all, more than 4,000 suspects were released.

Shattered, the Attorney General urged Congress to impeach Post as a Communist sympathizer whose failure to press for convictions had let many dangerous radicals go free. After a month-long hearing, Post was found innocent and returned to his duties. Two months later, in June, Palmer himself was called before the House to answer charges that he had misused his office. The hearings ended inconclusively, but the charges were revived by the Senate Judiciary Committee the following year.

In a stormy committee session that began in January, 1921, Palmer stubbornly defended what his men had done. “I apologize for nothing,” he told the committee. “I glory in it. I point with pride and enthusiasm to the results of that work.… [If my agents] were a little rough and unkind, or short and curt, with these alien agitators … I think it might well be overlooked in the general good to the country which has come from it.”

By the time Palmer made his final statements on the raids, he was finished politically. He had flatly predicted a Communist uprising in May, 1920, and again on the Fourth of July. At first the press took him seriously, but when nothing happened the papers took to greeting his remarks with derision instead of alarm. For many people that summer, the Fighting Quaker had become a Don Quixote attacking an enemy that did not exist.