Red Scare

views updated


President Woodrow Wilson's World War I pledge to make the world safe for democracy was severely compromised on the home front by the red scare of 1919–1920. With its xenophobia, attacks on labor, radical witch hunts, and insistence on one hundred percent Americanism, the red scare had deep roots in the American past, but it also triggered a growing American paranoia about an increasingly dangerous and chaotic world.

world war i and the bolshevik revolution

Many factors precipitated this first red scare: World War I had called for a peremptory patriotism that brooked no dissent. Former journalist George Creel, who headed President Wilson's committee on public safety, reinforced this demand for total loyalty, and the 1918 Sedition Act made it a crime to criticize by speech or in writing the government or the Constitution. Also significant was the successful Russian Revolution, and its leaders' subsequent withdrawal of Russia from World War I and their exporting of Marxist ideology westward. In addition, Americans' increasing disillusionment with President Wilson's peace proceedings also bred a suspicion, if not hostility, toward any kind of internationalism.

The emergence of two domestic Communist parties in 1919 alarmed many Americans. Although their combined membership totaled only 70,000, or less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the total population, their impact was considerably greater than their numbers, especially after Communists from around the world called for worldwide revolution at their meeting of the Third International. Some 500 radical periodicals were published within the United States, and although their circulation and readership were limited, some did advocate the violent overthrow of capitalism. Finally, there was a growing distrust of labor unions, which having held the line on wages during the war were now demanding higher wages, the right to organize, and safer working conditions. A series of strikes, followed by numerous unsolved bombings and general urban and racial unrest, helped convince the press, as well as many political figures and millions of everyday Americans, that revolution was imminent. On January 16, 1919, the New York Times published "The Red Menace," a poem which warned that Reds "running riot under freedom's name, seek to destroy what they cannot enjoy."

seattle, boston, centralia

The Seattle General Strike of February 1919 earned national notoriety for Seattle Mayor Ole Hanson, who insisted that the Industrial Workers of the World (better known as the IWW or Wobblies) were trying to use 35,000 shipyard strikers to overthrow democracy and set up a Bolshevik state. Similarly, the Boston Police Strike, which began on September 9, advanced the political career of Governor Calvin Coolidge when he announced, "There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, anytime." (Allen, Only Yesterday) In the fall of 1919, more than 400,000 coal miners struck against U.S. Steel. In every case, after corporate and political leaders and the press branded strikers as reds, the workers were forced to return to their jobs with no concessions.

Fueled by inflammatory reporting, the red scare quickly spread to other segments of the population. Superpatriotic organizations flourished, including the National Security League, the American Defense Society, and especially the American Legion, which was founded on May 8, 1919, to, among other things, foster and perpetuate one hundred percent Americanism. By the end of the year, the Legion claimed more than a million members. On Armistice Day, November 11, the Legion chapter in Centralia, Washington, sacked the local IWW headquarters in what became known as the Centralia Massacre. When the Wobblies defended themselves, four Legionnaires were killed. Among the Wobblies arrested was Wesley Everest, who was summarily lynched.

bombings and the palmer raids

A rash of unsolved bombings further fanned the flames of intolerance and rage. On April 28, a bomb targeted Ole Hanson, and another the next day injured the housekeeper of U.S. Senator Thomas W. Hartwick. On April 30, an alert New York City postal employee discovered sixteen bombs being held for insufficient postage. On June 2, eight bombs went off almost simultaneously in eight different cities, including one that exploded on Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer's front porch.

On November 7, 1919, the attorney general launched the first of his so-called Palmer Raids against foreign radicals. This first raid led to the arrest of Emma Goldman, dubbed the Anarchist Queen by the press, and 248 other foreign-born radicals, all of whom were deported aboard the Buford, or the Red Ark, as it was referred to in the press.

Other raids followed in January 1920, with more than 6,000 arrests in over thirty American cities. Those arrested were often held without specific charges or legal counsel, and most were guilty of little more than having been born in foreign lands. Nevertheless, Palmer announced to a gullible public, "Out of the sly and crafty eyes of many of them leap cupidity, cruelty, insanity, and crime; from their lopsided faces, sloping brows, and misshapen features may be recognized the unmistakable criminal type." (Murray, Red Scare)


The red scare abated in 1920 almost as quickly as it had begun. The spread of Bolshevism in Europe had slowed down, and many domestic radicals had given up their fight or gone underground. Palmer, who clearly had presidential ambitions, overstepped his authority and frightened growing numbers of prominent political, legal, and intellectual figures. The American public had also become tired of crusades, even against Bolsheviks, especially after they realized that the threat had been wildly exaggerated. Presidential candidate Warren G. Harding summed up changing popular sentiment when he called for the country to return to normalcy.

Nevertheless, exploiting the nativist sentiment that had been unleashed by the red scare, the Ku Klux Klan greatly increased its membership by turning its attention to immigrants, especially Catholics and Jews. By 1924, the Klan had become such a powerful political force that its resolution to burn a cross at the Democratic National Convention was only narrowly defeated.

The red scare may have burned itself out, but its long term effects were profound. Organized labor was badly damaged when employers seized the opportunity to introduce the open shop, now called the American Plan, which forbid mandatory union membership. Social and economic reformers were thoroughly discredited, and the xenophobia of the era contributed to the anti-immigration laws of the 1920s. The sacrifice of civil liberties in the name of national security also had long-term repercussions, especially in times of war. Above all, the red scare showed how tenuous was Americans' appreciation and understanding of their own democracy and its constitutional ideals.


Allen, Frederick Lewis. Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1931.

Coben, Stanley. A Study in Nativism: The American Red Scare of 1919–20. New York: Irvington, 1991.

Feuerlicht, Roberta Strauss. America's Reign of Terror: World War I, the Red Scare, and the Palmer Raids. New York: Random House, 1971.

Gengarelly, W. Anthony. Distinguished Dissenters and Opposition to the 1919–1920 Red Scare. New York: Edwin Mellen, 1996.

Murray, Robert K. Red Scare: A Study in National Hysteria, 1919–1920. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1955.

Schmidt, Regin. Red Scare: FBI and the Origins of Anti-Communism in the United States. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2000.

Lewis H. Carlson

See also:American Legion; Americanization; Dissent, World War I and World War II; Civil Liberties, World War I; Labor, World War I.