Palmer Raids, November 1919 to January 1920
A wave of hysteria swept over the United States in the aftermath of the First World War. Leftist thinking radicals, often called anarchists, were demanding fair wages, shorter workdays, and a 40-hour work week in a rapidly industrializing nation. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, any anti-capitalism talk automatically meant support for a communist state. Speaking against capitalism and speaking for workers’ rights was seen as anti-American.
President Woodrow Wilson, an avowed segregationist, professed that many Germans, Italians, and Irish were pouring into the country, becoming hyphenated Americans, and spreading ideas of anti-capitalism and workers’ rights. To the President, and many other Americans, these immigrants had to be silenced. Many believed that life in the United States was very good. Factories were working at full capacity, unemployment was low, and war overseas had ended. No one wanted a small group of foreigners to cause ripples in what seemed a well-oiled economic machine.
Categorized as anarchists and bad people were university professors that taught about communism and assigned Karl Marx’s Das Capital. Labor organizers were thought to be the most dangerous. If they were successful in unionizing workers, capitalism would come crashing down in a dramatic economic collapse. Organizations that formed with the sole purpose of fighting for anti-lynching laws or to assist southern blacks in their migration to cities like St. Louis, Chicago and Detroit were targeted. Women who opened settlement houses in ethnic neighborhoods for the purpose of assisting immigrants in their acclimation to America were targets. Essentially, anyone who was not a part of the status quo could be a violent and dangerous anarchist.
The Attorney General, A. Mitchell Palmer, used the Department of Justice to conduct raids. Those suspected of spreading anti-capitalist views underwent covert surveillance. Telephones were tapped and letters were intercepted and read. Officers with the Department of Justice went undercover and hung out in ethnic saloons hoping to hear plans about bombing governmental offices, organizing unions, or planning mass protests. Unfortunately, the white officers of the Department of Justice stood out like sore thumbs in the ethnic saloons. If men were there to speak about anarchists’ plots in their native tongues, they did not do it when strangers were around.
Raids were conducted at all hours. Sometimes men were dragged out of their beds in the middle of the night, never to return home to their wives or families. Arrested suspects were interrogated for hours. Sometimes they were deported and other times the authorities found out they had a case of mistaken identity and had arrested the wrong person. In ethnically mixed neighborhoods, if one neighbor did not like another, they would call the local police and state they suspected their foreign-born neighbor of being an anarchist. This would prompt an arrest. Even a local group of vegetarians meeting at a settlement house were not safe.
Attorney General Palmer told the US House Appropriations Committee that he and his office would be able to rid the country of all anarchists in one swoop if his budget was dramatically increased. The Committee increased the budget but at a much lower level than what Palmer requested. On the second anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution, November 7, 1919, a series of violent and well-publicized raids happened in 12 cities against the Union of Russian Workers. Palmer, the Department of Justice, the newly formed Bureau of Investigation (changed to the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1935) with J. Edgar Hoover as its leader, and local police officers cast a wide net and began arresting people. Some were just passers-by, people in the wrong place at the wrong time. Others were American citizens that had no ties to Russia. Still, others were teachers working in the same space as those who were targeted. The number of people arrested exceeded the number of arrest warrants.
Newspapers reported extensively on the Palmer Raids in a favorable light. The sentiment spreading over the country was to prevent a Russian-type revolution at all costs. If that meant arresting and deporting people without probable cause or an arrest warrant, most people were okay with that. Publications with a leftist view condemned the ongoing raids stating that they were illegal and in direct violation of the very ideals for which Americans stood. For many, the leftist papers and their readers were the problems. The raids continued into the new year.
After the raids began a prominent US Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania resigned. In his letter of resignation, he stated that by arresting those expressing their political thought Palmer was doing more harm than good. Suppressing radical thought would push movements underground where governmental authorities could not infiltrate the organizations and then would have no way to stop any potential revolution. The Attorney-General replied to the resignation as rubbish and stated that radical thinkers were an epidemic that had to be crushed regardless of liberties.
The Palmer Raids met an untimely end. While the popular press and most Americans supported the raids and mass arrests, it was the lack of credible information gathered that forced their halt. Arresting individuals suspected of anarchism was one thing. Obtaining information about people prepared to commit crimes against their government was another. Without credible information, the raids proved to be of no value.
Palmer ran for the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party in 1920. He lost and his political aspirations were over. Many Americans began to experience economic success. Wages were high and consumer products were inexpensive and plentiful. Even Prohibition did not dampen the glee felt in most parts of the country.