Updated: Apr 27, 2020
This text comes from our book, Lands of Hope and Promise: A History of North America.
Dread of the German “Hun” conquering the world gave way, after the World War, to fear of Russian Bolshevism and its stated aim to spark a worldwide proletarian revolution. Some, like A. Mitchell Palmer, whom Wilson appointed attorney general in June 1919, thought Bolshevism threatened the United States with unrest and revolution. In 1920, Palmer described the state of things as he saw them in 1919:
"Like a prairie-fire, the blaze of revolution was sweeping over every American institution of law and order a year ago. It was eating its way into the homes of the American workmen, its sharp tongues of revolutionary heat were licking the altars of the churches, leaping into the belfry of the school bell, crawling into the sacred corners of American homes, seeking to replace marriage vows with libertine laws, burning up the foundations of society."
This account perhaps did not seem so exaggerated to men whose imaginations had been stirred up by war and war propaganda and who, in the summer of 1919, had experienced a good deal of social conflict. The movement of blacks from the South to the factories and cities of the North during the war had already caused a good deal of social unrest. White workers feared that black competition would affect their wages. A riot between blacks and whites in East St. Louis in 1917 left 47 dead and hundreds wounded. Another race riot in Washington, D.C. in July of 1919 was so violent that thousands of troops had to be called in to quell it. The same month, 36 died in a three-day riot in Chicago. The same year, racial tensions made themselves felt in New York, Omaha, and in the South.
In Seattle, a strike of 35,000 shipyard workers in January 1919 turned into a general strike a month later when 60,000 workers in other trades joined the shipyard workers. Since the strike was falsely laid to the charge of the Industrial Workers of the World, the peaceful strikers were accused of being Reds and of fomenting revolution. When Seattle mayor Ole Hanson threatened to call out police and federal troops to battle the “revolutionary” strikers, union leaders on February 10 called off the strike. Because of Seattle, subsequent strikes would be ascribed to revolutionary “Reds.”
But it was probably the bombings in June 1919 that spurred the anti-Red campaign. On June 2, bombs went off in eight U.S cities, including Washington, D.C. This last bombing destroyed part of Attorney General Palmer’s house and gave him a cause. No one was certain who planted the bombs, but since anarchists received the blame, Palmer commenced a campaign against them, and communists and radicals in general. His agents raided communist, socialist, IWW, and other leftist headquarters, and broke into union halls, arresting suspected Red revolutionaries. Palmer’s primary targets were foreigners, who, since they were not American citizens, could be deported. Alexander Berkman and “The Girl,” Emma Goldman, both Russian émigrés, were deported to the Soviet Union for their “Red” activism.
The Red Scare spread across the country. Congress in 1919 had refused to sit the duly-elected Socialist Party representative from Wisconsin. New York state expelled five Socialist members from the state legislature. A clothes salesman, Joseph Yenowsky, was sentenced to six months in jail because he was accused of calling the Bolshevik revolutionary, Vladimir Lenin, “the most brainiest man in the world.”
The Red Scare influenced the court trial of two Italian anarchists, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested for the murder of Alessandro Berardelli in Braintree, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston, on April 15, 1920. The evidence against Sacco rested on the testimony of ballistics experts that the bullet found in Berardelli’s body was “consistent with being fired from [Sacco’s] pistol,” but the evidence against Vanzetti was purely circumstantial. Despite this, the jury found both men guilty of murder, and the judge sentenced them to death.
A series of appeals on the part of Sacco and Vanzetti’s lawyers to spare them from the electric chair were unsuccessful, and both were executed at midnight of August 23, 1927. As the guard secured him to the electric chair, Nicola Sacco cried out in Italian, “long live anarchy!” Then, more quietly, and in English, “Farewell my wife and child and all my friends.” Bartolomeo Vanzetti, having entered the death chamber, said: “I wish to say to you that I am innocent. I have never done a crime, some sins, but never any crime. I thank you for everything you have done for me. I am innocent of all crime, not only this one, but of all, all. I am an innocent man.” As the guards prepared him for execution, Vanzetti said, “I now wish to forgive some people for what they are doing to me.”
By the time Sacco and Vanzetti were executed, Attorney General Palmer was a distant memory. Under Secretary William Wilson and his assistant, Louis Post, the United States Labor Department began to grant fair hearings to aliens arrested by Palmer. Almost one-half of those seized by Palmer’s men in a great raid in January 1920 were released. When Palmer demanded that Post be fired, the latter defended himself before Congress. Even his greatest critics could not accuse Post of any impropriety.
Palmer finally did himself in by issuing a series of warnings that the Reds would launch a revolution to overthrow the United States government on May 1, 1920. The National Guard was called out, the New York Police Department was put on special 24-hour duty to meet the Red threat. But May 1 came and went, and no revolution materialized. Palmer’s reputation was ruined and the Red Scare dissipated with the coming of the Harding administration in 1921.
A "Red" Song by Joe Hill
The Swedish-American, Joe Hill (Joel Emmanuel Hägglund, 1879-1915), was an IWW member and a songwriter, known for his “revolutionary” ballads. “The Preacher and the Slave” is among the most famous of his songs, a parody on the old Protestant hymn, “In the Sweet By and By.”