The Great Red Scare

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But he made one last, bold effort. In February, 1920, he had announced his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination, and when the convention opened in San Francisco late in June he had considerable support from the party regulars who remembered his long years of faithful service and who had benefited from his use of patronage when it was his to give. Others in the party, however, gravely doubted his ability to win, especially in the cities. It was clear to all that he had now lost the labor vote (one union magazine accused him of having used “the mailed fist of the autocratic tyrant”), and his own failure to define his stand on the League and on Prohibition worked against him. When the balloting began on July 2, he held the lead over his closest rival, William G. McAdoo, Wilson’s Secretary of the Treasury and son-in-law, but he failed to get a majority. Thirty-seven ballots later, Palmer conceded the nomination, released the delegates who still supported him, and retired as the convention nominated Ohio’s governor, James M. Cox.

His presidential dreams were over, and so was the Red Scare. Had the raids of January not fallen into disrepute by June, Palmer might have gone on to win in San Francisco. As it was, he returned to Washington a beaten man, and when he left the Cabinet in the spring of 1921, his departure was almost unnoticed by the papers that only a year before had bannered his name in their headlines. With the advent of the new administration, the Senate committee that was still investigating Palmer’s work ended its deliberations; when its report was finally published two years later, no one much cared that the committee had passed no judgments but had merely offered a transcript of the testimony it had heard.

By then a general calm had settled on the nation and the world. Europe was rebuilding. Lenin had pulled back from his program of immediate world revolution and was turning his Russian people toward the quasi-capitalism of the New Economic Policy. The American economy was slowly coming back to normal, and management and labor had achieved a temporary peace. The press, which had done much to keep the public alerted to the activities of the domestic Reds, had found other topics to pursue.

There were still to be anti-Communist crusades in the years ahead, and the anti-alien sentiments that had led to the Palmer raids in the first place found expression in restrictive immigration laws and in the public uproar during the Sacco-Vanzetti trial. But most Americans were content to feel that the crisis had passed, if indeed there had been a crisis at all. In 1924 J. Edgar Hoover moved on to become the first (and thus far, only) director of the F.B.I, an I periodically issued warnings that a Red threat was abroad in the land, but he never again resorted to the slap-dash techniques that he and his associates had developed in the days of the G.I.D.

In 1922 Palmer suffered the first of several heart attacks and retired from the political scene. A decade later, in an act that some have construed as making amends, he returned briefly to draft a Democratic program of moderate reform that served as one basis for F.D.R.’s New Deal campaign. Four years later, A. Mitchell Palmer was dead.

His old associates in government gathered for his funeral and paid homage for the progressive role he had played in his congressional days. But the nation as a whole remembered him only as the man they had goaded into a series of discredited raids that struck at the heart of American freedom. Perhaps that is the way it should be. For if Palmer at times displayed the best that was in the American tradition, in 1920 he very nearly gave it all away in succumbing to the hysteria of the great Red Scare.