The Red Scare of the early 1920s would not be the last. During this time, post-WWI America felt vulnerable and turned its fear on a perceived leftist or ‘Red’ threat. This lesson will help you to develop an understanding of the Red Scare of the 1920s.
From War to Peace
While the decade of the 1920s is remembered as ‘roaring,’ with the rise of big business, jazz and urban culture, it did not start off that way. The decade opened to a prelude of fear, anxiety and suspicion.President Woodrow Wilson returned to the U.S. in 1919 from peace talks in France following the Great War only to see his dream of a ‘peace without victory’ dashed at Versailles and his 14 points ignored. He was in ill health, and suffered a stroke upon his return.
And, although the president made a remarkable recovery, the last thing the nation needed at the anxious start of a new decade was an incapacitated leader.To make matters worse, the American economy was in transition from wartime to peacetime. War contracts were cancelled, leaving workers and businessmen to cope with this transition. In addition, the Armed Forces began to discharge soldiers, all of whom were now looking for jobs. This was paralleled by a massive flu epidemic.
The Spanish Flu spread across the globe in 1918, killing over 22 million people, twice as many as died in World War I. In the U.S. alone there were over 600,000 deaths blamed on the flu. It got so bad citizens could be fined for sneezing without a handkerchief, phone booths were locked and public facilities, such as dance halls, were closed.
Americans felt vulnerable. With the business slump that followed the war, labor unrest worsened. Prices went up after the war and disillusioned workers, free from the constraints of war, were more willing to strike. In 1919, some four million workers went out on strike. Some won their demands, but the general mood in America towards labor unions turned hostile. Foreign ideas were thought to be at the heart of the unrest in America. The mayor of Seattle blamed a strike there on ‘Bolshevik influence.
‘ Moves by large labor organizations to stage strikes brought accusations of radicalism, communism and socialism, all of which were viewed as anti-American.In addition to economic slump, flu epidemics and strikes, racial tension erupted into violence at the beginning of the 1920s. 1919 saw a series of race riots in the North and South. In Longview, Texas, a white mob went through a black neighborhood searching for a man accused of having an affair with a white woman.
Shops were burned. In Washington DC, reports that a white woman was attacked by a black man aroused white mobs, and for four days whites and blacks did battle until soldiers restored order. These were but preliminaries to the Chicago riot in the summer of 1919, in which 38 people died and over 500 people were injured.
The American public responded to all of this with fear. Many blamed all of the unrest in America on foreign ideas of communism and radicalism. Many feared that America was ripe for the same type of revolution Russia had experienced at the start of World War I.
Wartime hysteria, which had seen a fear and mistrust of Germans, easily became an attack against the left, or Reds.The Red Scare that hit America at the start of the roaring 1920s would not be the last. Many fears about leftist radicals were dormant until concerns became real. In April of 1919, the U.S.
Post Office intercepted some 40 bombs addressed to prominent Americans. However, some got through. One of particular note was the letter bomb that reached the home of Attorney General, A.
Mitchell Palmer. This was enough for the U.S. government to take action.
The Justice Department began an operation to deport radical aliens, and Palmer set up a new division of the Justice Department, initially called the Intelligence Division, later the FBI. A young J. Edgar Hoover was put in charge and he began collecting files on known and suspected radicals. A series of raids, coined ‘Palmer Raids,’ began.
Agents moved in on places such as the Union of Russian Workers, deporting some 249 people. Those in custody were deported on the transport ship Buford, nicknamed the ‘Soviet Ark.’ The ship left New York for Finland, and all on board, a collection of anarchists and criminals, were shipped out without a court hearing. At the beginning of 1920, police rounded up some 5,000 suspects, most taken without warrants. The New York legislature went so far as to expel five duly elected Socialist Party members.For a time, Palmer and his roundups received popular approval, but just as Palmer continued to warn of a great ‘Red Menace,’ the scare, like other fads and alarms, passed.
Palmer’s raids and the actions of the government seemed to swing the pendulum too far in an effort to protect America from some perceived internal threat. In addition, bombings tapered off and communist revolutions in Europe died out. Even when a bomb went off on Wall Street in early 1920, killing some 38 people, Americans were ready to see it as the work of a small handful of radicals, rather than a piece of Palmer’s perceived radical plot to destroy America.
Although it was short-lived, the first Red Scare did leave a legacy.
It stigmatized labor unions, leading to the anti-union open shop campaign. It also led to the establishment of strict restrictions on immigration. It demonstrated that even with a nation’s commitment to rule of law and due process, fear could motivate panic and affect all levels of American society. For many Americans the chief effect of the Great War, and its disordered aftermath, was the serious disillusionment that pervaded American thought in the postwar decades.
Completing this lesson should enable you to:
- Discuss the causes of the unease many Americans felt after World War I
- Outline the issues with labor unions and racial tension during this time period
- Examine the Red Scare, including the government response and how it faded