First Red Scare

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The First Red Scare was a period during the early 20th-century history of the United States marked by a widespread fear of Bolshevism and anarchism. At its height in 1919–1920, concerns over the effects of radical political agitation in American society and the alleged spread of communism and anarchism in the American labor movement fueled a general sense of paranoia.

The Scare had its origins in the hyper-nationalism of World War I. At the war’s end, following the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, American authorities saw the threat of revolution in the actions of organized labor, including such disparate cases as the Seattle General Strike and the Boston Police Strike and then in the bomb campaign directed by anarchist groups at political and business leaders. Fueled by labor unrest and the anarchist bombings, and then spurred on by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer’s attempt to suppress radical organizations, it was characterized by exaggerated rhetoric, illegal search and seizures, unwarranted arrests and detentions, and the deportation of several hundred suspected radicals and anarchists.

Bolshevism and the threat of revolution became the general explanation for challenges to the social order, even such unrelated events as incidents of interracial violence. Fear of radicalism was used to excuse the suppression of such simple expressions of free speech as the display of certain flags and banners. The Red Scare effectively ended in the middle of 1920, after Attorney General Palmer forecast a massive radical uprising on May Day and the day passed without incident.


The First Red Scare’s origins lie in the subversive actions (both real and imagined) of foreign and leftist elements in the United States, especially militant followers of Luigi Galleani, and in the attempts of the U.S. government to quell protest and gain favorable public views of America’s entering World War I. In 1917, President Woodrow Wilson established the Committee on Public Information to circulate and distribute anti-German and pro-Allied propaganda and other news. To add to the effectiveness of the Committee, the Bureau of Investigation (the name for the Federal Bureau of Investigation until 1935) disrupted the work of German-American, union, and leftist organizations through the use of raids, arrests, agents provocateurs, and legal prosecution. Revolutionary and pacifist groups, such as the Socialist Party of America and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW; its members are known as Wobblies), strongly opposed the war. Many leaders of these groups, most notably Eugene V. Debs, were prosecuted for giving speeches urging resistance to the draft. Members of the Ghadar Party were also put on trial in the Hindu German Conspiracy Trial.

The effort was also helped by the United States Congress, with the passing of the Espionage Act in 1917 and its sister act the Sedition Act of 1918. The Espionage Act made it a crime to interfere with the operation or success of the military, and the Sedition Act forbade Americans to use “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” about the United States government, flag, or armed forces of the United States during war.[1]

After the war officially ended, the government investigations abated for a few months but did not cease. They soon resumed in the context of the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Russian Civil War, and the Red Terror. To some Americans, this was a time of uncertainty and fear over the prospects of an anarchist, socialist or communist revolution in the United States.

May Day 1919

The American labor movement had been celebrating its May Day holiday since the 1890s and had seen none of the violence associated with the day’s events in Europe.[42] On May 1, 1919, the left mounted especially large demonstrations, and violence greeted the normally peaceful parades in Boston, New York, and Cleveland. In Boston, police tried to stop a march that lacked a permit. In the ensuing melee both sides fought for possession of the Socialists’ red flags. One policeman was stabbed and died. William Sidis was arrested. Later a mob attacked the Socialist headquarters. Police arrested 114, all from the Socialist side. Each side’s newspapers provided uncritical support to their own the next day.[42] In New York, soldiers in uniform burned printed materials at the Russian People’s House and forced immigrants to sing the Star-Spangled Banner.[43]

Cleveland, Ohio saw the worst violence. Leftists protesting the imprisonment of Eugene V. Debs and promoting the campaign of Charles Ruthenberg, the Socialist candidate for mayor, planned to march through the center of the city. A group of Victory Loan workers, a nationalist organization whose members sold war bonds and thought themselves still at war against all forms of anti-Americanism, tried to block some of the marchers and a melee ensued. A mob ransacked Ruthenberg’s headquarters. Mounted police, army trucks, and tanks restored order. Two people died, forty were injured, and 116 arrested. Local newspapers noted that only 8 of those arrested were born in the United States. The city government immediately passed laws to restrict parades and the display of red flags.[44]

With few dissents, newspapers blamed the May Day marchers for provoking the nationalists’ response. The Salt Lake City Tribune did not think anyone had a right to march. It said: “Free speech has been carried to the point where it is an unrestrained menace.”[45] A few, however, thought the marches were harmless and that the marchers’ enthusiasm would die down on its own if they were left unmolested.[46]

Coal Strike of 1919

The United Mine Workers under John L. Lewis announced a strike for November 1, 1919.[70] They had agreed to a wage agreement to run until the end of World War I and now sought to capture some of their industry’s wartime gains. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer invoked the Lever Act,[71] a wartime measure that made it a crime to interfere with the production or transportation of necessities. The law, meant to punish hoarding and profiteering, had never been used against a union. Certain of united political backing and almost universal public support, Palmer obtained an injunction on October 31[72] and 400,000 coal workers struck the next day.[73] He claimed the President authorized the action, following a meeting with the severely ill President in the presence of his doctor.[74] Palmer also asserted that the entire Cabinet had backed his request for an injunction. That infuriated Secretary of Labor Wilson who had opposed Palmer’s plan and supported Gompers’ view of the President’s promises when the Act was under consideration. The rift between the Attorney General and the Secretary of Labor was never healed, which had consequences the next year when Palmer’s attempts to deport radicals were frustrated by the Department of Labor.[75]

Samuel Gompers, President of the American Federation of Labor, protested that President Wilson and members of his Cabinet had provided assurances when the Act was passed that it would not be used to prevent strikes by labor unions. He provided detailed accounts of his negotiations with representatives of the administration, especially Secretary of Labor William B. Wilson. He also argued that the end of hostilities, even in the absence of a signed treaty, should have invalidated any attempts to enforce the Act’s provisions.[76] Nevertheless, he attempted to mediate between Palmer and Lewis, but after several days called the injunction “so autocratic as to stagger the human mind.”[77] The coal operators smeared the strikers with charges that Lenin and Trotsky had ordered the strike and were financing it, and some of the press echoed that language.[78] Others used words like “insurrection” and “Bolshevik revolution.”[78] Eventually Lewis, facing criminal charges and sensitive to the propaganda campaign, withdrew his strike call, though many strikers ignored his action.[79] As the strike dragged on into its third week, coal supplies were running low and public sentiment was calling for ever stronger government action. Final agreement came on December 10.[80]

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Used in December 1920 for the deportation of 249 socialists and anarchists to soviet russia.


On December 21, the Buford, a ship the press nicknamed the “Soviet Ark,” left New York harbor with 249 deportees. Of those, 199 had been detained in the November Palmer Raids, with 184 of them deported because of their membership in the Union of Russian Workers, an anarchist group that was a primary target of the November raids. Others on board, including the well-known radical leaders Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, had not been taken in the Palmer Raids. Goldman had been convicted in 1893 of “inciting to riot” and arrested on many other occasions. Berkman had served 14 years in prison for the attempted murder of industrialist Henry Clay Frick in 1892. Both were convicted in 1917 of interfering with military recruitment.[84] Some of the 249 were leftists or anarchists or at least fell within the legal definition of anarchist because they “believed that no government would be better for human society than any kind of government.”[85] In beliefs they ranged from violent revolutionaries to pacifist advocates of non-resistance. Others belonged to radical organizations but disclaimed knowledge of the organization’s political aims and had joined to take advantage of educational programs and social opportunities.[86]

The U.S. War Department used the Buford as a transport ship in the Spanish-America War and in World War I and loaned it to the Department of Labor in 1919 for the deportation mission.[87] A “strong detachment of marines” numbering 58 enlisted men and four officers made the journey and pistols were distributed to the crew.[88][89] Its final destination was unknown as it sailed under sealed orders. Even the captain only learned his final destination while in Kiel harbor for repairs, since the State Department found it difficult to make arrangements to land in Latvia. Finland, though chosen, was not an obvious choice, since Finland and Russia were at war.[90]

The notoriety of Goldman and Berkman as convicted anti-war agitators allowed the press and public to imagine that all the deportees had similar backgrounds. The New York Times called them all “Russian Reds.”[91] Most of the press approved enthusiastically. The Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote: “It is hoped and expected that other vessels, larger, more commodious, carrying similar cargoes, will follow in her wake.”[92] The New York Evening Mail said: “Just as the sailing of the Ark that Noah built was a pledge for the preservation of the human race, so the sailing of the Ark of the Soviet is a pledge for the preservation of America.”[93] Goldman later wrote a book about her experiences after being deported to Russia, called My Disillusionment in Russia.


  1. ^ Laws of the United States, Espionage Act of 1917 (Act of June 15, 1917), ch. 30, title I, §3, 40 Stat. 219,amended by Act of May 16, 1918, ch. 75, 40 Stat. 553-54, reenacted by Act of Mar. 3, 1921, ch. 136, 41 Stat. 1359, (codified at 18 U.S.C. §2388); Laws of the United States, Sedition Act of 1918, (1918 Amendments to §3 of The Espionage Act of 1917), Act of May 16, 1918, ch. 75, 40 Stat. 553-54, (repealed by Act of Mar. 3, 1921, ch. 136, 41 Stat. 1359)
  2. ^ Murray, 58-60; Brecher, 121
  3. ^ Hagedorn, 87; Brecher, 122-4
  4. ^ Brecher, 124-5
  5. ^ Murray, 60-1
  6. ^ Murray, 60-2
  7. ^ a b Murray, 63
  8. ^ Brecher, 126-7
  9. ^ Brecher, 127-8; Murray, 64
  10. ^ Murray, 65
  11. ^ Murray 65
  12. ^ Foner, 75
  13. ^ Foner, 75-6
  14. ^ Brecher, 128
  15. ^ Murray, 65-6; Hagedorn, 180
  16. ^ Foner, 77n; Noggle, 102-3; Ole Hanson, Americanism versus Bolshevism (Garden City, NY, 1920), Americanism versus Bolshevism, accessed April 11, 2011
  17. ^ New York Times: “Senators Tell What Bolshevism in America Means,” June 15, 1919. Retrieved February 7, 2010.
  18. ^ United States Congress, Bolshevik Propaganda, 6; Hagedorn, 55; Murray, 94; New York Times: “Senate Orders Reds Here Investigated,” February 5, 1919. Retrieved February 2, 2010.
  19. ^ Hagedorn, 54, 58
  20. ^ United States Congress, Bolshevik Propaganda, 12-4; Powers, 20
  21. ^ United States Congress, Bolshevik Propaganda, 14; Lowenthal, 49
  22. ^ United States Congress, Bolshevik Propaganda, 19, 29
  23. ^ United States Congress, Bolshevik Propaganda, 14-8
  24. ^ a b United States Congress, Bolshevik Propaganda, 34
  25. ^ United States Congress, Bolshevik Propaganda, 475
  26. ^ Murray, 97
  27. ^ New York Times: “Bolshevism Bared by R.E. Simmons,” February 18, 1919. Retrieved February 7, 2010.
  28. ^ Murray, 98
  29. ^ “Send Death Bombs to 36 U.S. Leaders” Chicago Tribune, May 1, 1919
  30. ^ The Galleanists were radical anarchists and devotees of Luigi Galleani who advocated ‘direct action’, i.e. bombing and assassination, against capitalists and representatives of the government.
  31. ^ Avrich, Paul, Sacco and Vanzetti: The Anarchist Background, Princeton University Press (1991), pp. 147: The inclusion of R.W. Finch, a low-ranking BOI agent who had been assigned to question and investigate the Galleanist movement and had questioned other Galleanists about movements of its members, dispelled any doubt on the identity of the bombers.
  32. ^ Avrich, Paul, Sacco and Vanzetti: The Anarchist Background, Princeton University Press (1991), p. 142
  33. ^ Avrich, Paul, Sacco and Vanzetti: The Anarchist Background, p. 141
  34. ^ a b Plotter Here Hid Trail Skillfully; His Victim Was A Night Watchman, The New York Times, 4 June 1919
  35. ^ a b Wreck Judge Nott’s Home, The New York Times, 3 June 1919
  36. ^ 20 Pounds of Dynamite In Bomb Used in New York,, The Washington Post, June 4, 1919
  37. ^ Avrich, Paul, Anarchist Voices: An Oral History of Anarchism in America (AK Press, 2005) ISBN 1-904859-27-5, ISBN 978-1-904859-27-7, p. 496
  38. ^ Avrich, p. 153
  39. ^ Avrich, 149
  40. ^ Avrich, Paul, Sacco and Vanzetti: The Anarchist Background, Princeton University Press (1991), pp. 168-183
  41. ^ Avrich, Paul, Anarchist Voices: An Oral History of Anarchism in America (AK Press, 2005) ISBN 1-904859-27-5, ISBN 978-1-904859-27-7, pp. 132, 501
  42. ^ a b Murray, 74
  43. ^ Hagedorn, 185-6; Murray, 75
  44. ^ Hagedorn, 185-6; Murray 75-5
  45. ^ Hagedorn, 185-6
  46. ^ Murray, 77
  47. ^ a b New York Times: “For Action on Race Riot Peril,” October 5, 1919, accessed January 20, 2010. This newspaper article includes several paragraphs of editorial analysis followed by Dr. Haynes’ report, “summarized at several points.”
  48. ^ Walter C. Rucker, James N. Upton. Encyclopedia of American Race Riots. Volume 1. 2007, page 92-3
  49. ^ Rucker, Walter C. and Upton, James N. Encyclopedia of American Race Riots (2007), 554
  50. ^ Ackerman, 60-2
  51. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica: “Chicago Race Riot of 1919”. Retrieved January 24, 2010.
  52. ^ New York Times: “Reds Try to Stir Negroes to Revolt,” July 28, 1919. Retrieved January 28, 2010.
  53. ^ New York Times: “Reds are Working among Negroes,” October 19, 1919. Retrieved January 28, 2010.
  54. ^ Foner, 93; Slater 243
  55. ^ Hagedorn, 351-3
  56. ^ Foner, 96
  57. ^ Murray, 126
  58. ^ Murray, 129; Foner, 96-7
  59. ^ Pietrusza, 99
  60. ^ Hagedorn, 351-2
  61. ^ Murray, 130
  62. ^ Foner, 97
  63. ^ Murray, 132
  64. ^ Pietrusza, 100; Foner, 100. See also New York Times: “Bay State Governor Firm,” September 15, 1919. Retrieved February 5, 1919.
  65. ^ Brody, 233-44
  66. ^ Rayback, 287; Brody, 244-253; Dubofsky and Dulles, 220
  67. ^ Rayback, 287; Dubofsky and Dulles, 220-21; Brody, 254-55
  68. ^ New York Times: “Bill Provides Penal Colony in Philippines for Anarchists,” October 25, 1919. Retrieved January 31, 2010.
  69. ^ Brody, 258-62
  70. ^ Coben, 176-8
  71. ^ Lever Food Control Act. Retrieved January 26, 2010.
  72. ^ New York Times: “Palmer to Enforce Law,” November 1, 1919. Retrieved January 26, 2010.
  73. ^ Coben, 178-9
  74. ^ Coben, 178-9. On the President’s role, see also Kenneth D. Ackerman, Young J. Edgar: Hoover, the Red Scare, and the Assault on Civil Liberties (NY: Carroll & Graf, 2007), 100
  75. ^ Josephus Daniels, The Wilson Era: Years of War and After, 1917-1923 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1946), 546-7
  76. ^ New York Times: “Gompers Repeats Injunction Charge,” November 23, 1919. Retrieved March 11, 2010.
  77. ^ Coben, 179-80
  78. ^ a b Murray, 155
  79. ^ Coben, 181
  80. ^ Coben, 181-3; New York Times: “Miners Finally Agree,” December 11, 1919. Retrieved January 26, 2010.
  81. ^ Pietruszka, 146-7
  82. ^ Pietruszka, 146
  83. ^ Coben, 176
  84. ^ Post, 12-6, 19-20
  85. ^ Post, 14-6
  86. ^ McCormick, 158-63; Jerome Davis, The Russian Immigrant (NY: Macmillan, 1922), 114ff., 164ff.; Kate Holladay Claghorn, The Immigrant’s Day in Court (NY: Harper & Brothers, 1923), 367, 371-3. Louis Freeland Post details the case of Peter Bianky, who was fully aware of and committed to the revolutionary principles of the Union of Russian Workers, but as for most of that organization’s members among the deportees Post thought it “a reasonable probability that they were totally ignorant of the objectionable clauses” in the organization’s statements that provided the legal basis for deporting them. Post, 22-4.
  87. ^ Post, 3
  88. ^ New York Times: “‘Ark’ with 300 Reds Sails Early Today for Unnamed Port,” December 21, 1919. Retrieved February 1, 2010.
  89. ^ Post, 4
  90. ^ Post, 3, 10-1
  91. ^ New York Times: “Hundreds of Reds on Soviet ‘Ark’ Sail Soon for Europe,” December 13, 1919. Retrieved February 1, 2010.
  92. ^ Murray, 208-9
  93. ^ Murray, 208